You could argue that songs in the Maltese language are already setting themselves out for a limited (and very small) audience of people who can truly understand and relate to the lyrics. You could also argue that artists in Malta’s alternative music scene are setting themselves out for an even more limited portion of that already small audience.
Even with all those limitations, however, there are bands that not only do their best to stand out, but manage to do so in the most magical of ways. If you’ve been meaning to discover what’s brewing in the Maltese underground, there’s no better place to start than with a band called Brodu. Especially considering they’ve just released what’s easily the most important Maltese album of the year, Tfejt.
What’s so special about a band named after broth?
Brodu debuted in 2012, and they form part of the first wave in a recent resurgence of the Maltese language in local songs. Of course, bands like behemoths Brikkuni have been expertly pulling it off for over 10 years now, but it was acts like Brodu and fellow alternative favourites Plato’s Dream Machine who seemed to instil a newfound love for songs sung in Maltese over the first half of this past decade. As is normally the case, in fact, the mainstream quickly followed suit, with bands like The Travellers, and even later Bernie and Pod, to name just two, finding success on local airwaves with songs exclusively in Maltese.
What’s Tfejt and why have I never heard about it?
When the band released the 13-track album Tfejt earlier last month, the critical acclaim it received was quick and intense, with many people announcing it as their instant favourite. Brikkuni’s very own frontman-turned-persona Mario Vella himself, who has penned some of the most popular songs in Maltese of the last couple of years, had said, “I had the opportunity to listen to Tfejt a couple of weeks ago and I can say without any hesitation that it’s the best collection of Maltese songs that have ever been written yet.”
The main obstacle that bands like Brodu face, of course, is the scene which birthed them. At its strongest, the scene is only composed of a couple of hundred people, and with most of them being musicians, the whole thing quickly gets a little tricky. Members of the scene have frequently expressed their worry at dwindling attendances to gigs and exhibitions, and the situation seems to be only getting worse. The biggest shame of it all, of course, is that while the local mainstream and alternative scenes seem to be locked in a perpetual tug-of-war of “it’s not me, it’s you”, the musicians within both spheres are drastically upping their game… but only one of them is getting the exposure it deserves.
Brodu definitely didn’t want this fact to get in the way of Tfejt though, and gave it their all during their album launch on the 8th of July. The night was as magical as the songs on the album themselves. The band teamed up with Late Interactive, the stage lighting power duo of Maltese artists Andrew Schembri and Toni Gialanzé who have been busy AF over this last year. Taking to the intimate space of Spazju Kreattiv at Valletta’s St. James Cavalier, Brodu played their new songs to an audience that surrounded them on every side, with very low lighting provided by small lamps which were synchronised to every minor, emotional detail of their latest tracks. There was many an excited whisper exchanged in the audience before the music started, but by the time it stopped, everyone went back home in a stunned silence.
With all this hype surrounding Brodu, what’s their secret?
It’s actually not what, but who.
By definition, Brodu are a five-piece band. First of all, you’ve got the core musicians who have been there since the very beginning; Andrew on guitars, Samuel on keyboards and backing vocals, and Fredrick on bass. As of this year, after ex-member Vanni emigrated to Australia, Chris Mallia, who’s been active in the scene with other bands like Cable35 and later Beesqueeze, joined the band’s ranks on drums.
But yes, that makes it four members, and yes, we are leaving the best for last.
At the heart of every successful band is one member who ends up embracing everything you love about their music, and Brodu are definitely no exception. The band’s frontman also happens to be where it all started, and it’s with a guy called Mark Abela. Within the scene and with everyone who speaks to him for more than a couple of minutes, however, Mark is hardly ever called by his real name. Instead, it’s Iz-Zizza, an old nickname which has definitely stuck over the years.
You can speak to anyone who’s watched Brodu perform at least once, and they’ll all tell you the same thing about Zizza. The guy’s charm is infectious, and it’s his purely genuine character and honest quips in between songs which have audiences asking for more. Of course, charisma can only get you so far, but Zizza’s lyrics and singing more than cover him on every side. By day a postman and by night the frontman of one of the country’s most exciting alternative bands, Zizza is as much of a celebrity as you can get in such a small community of artists and musicians.
Without taking away from the merits of the other band members—who are all extremely talented and instrumental in bringing the songs to life—it’s undeniable that, for many fans, Zizza is Brodu. During any given gig, you can experience the frontman going from looking all sombre and tense as he belts out a passionate number, to cheerfully explaining a couple of seconds later, “Sorry; they told me that if we don’t speak too much in between songs, we look more professional. Like Radiohead.”
Fine, but what’s so special about Tfejt?
Tfejt has more of everything which had made people fall in love with Brodu in the first place, so it also happens to be the best place to start if you want to get a quick idea of what they’re all about. The topics covered in the tracks are varied and get insanely deep, from questioning one’s faith in the album’s title track, to a song literally called Kanzunetta Biex Timla (as Zizza sings, “kanzunetta flok pirmla”). It’s one emotional rollercoaster which Zizza himself had described as “sad and hopeless” in an interview on Times of Malta. He even admitted to having recently lost his faith while writing the songs, saying he chose Tfejt as the name because “it’s just that; giving up, resigning, losing all hope, not caring anymore. Tfejt is switching off the light.”
Don’t worry though; Zizza’s down-to-earth charm isn’t going anywhere soon on this new record. One of the tracks, aptly named Ħamiem, is literally just a recording of a conversation between him and his grandfather about the old man’s pigeons, a short but genuine number which quickly takes a turn to the adorable when Zizza turns round to “Nanna Teresa” to ask about his grandparents’ courting days. On the back of the CD case, there’s even a quick note to remind you that the person behind all of this does not take himself too seriously, and what you see really is what you get; “Antoine Cassar ikkoreġa il-maġġoranza tal-lirika. Fej’ hemm xi żbalji, tort tiegħi.”
The standout musical moments on Tfejt are many and frequent. From Sekwestrin‘s eerie outro to the unconventional and striking notes on Is-Sengħa tal-Imħabba, this is clearly a band which has slowly but beautifully evolved sonically over the last couple of years. The album also throws in a couple of curveballs like on Għandi l-Għatx, where Zizza sings the notorious “Kull filgħodu inqum imdamdam qisni biċċa xiħ marid, naqbad żobbi u nfaqqalhom ħalli nneħħilu s-sadid”, in a context which we’ve never heard before. The infamous verse is referred to in the album’s credits, although Zizza genuinely apologises for not being able to find the original source of the song (it doesn’t seem like anyone knows). Tracks like Il-Ġorf and the closing Miegħek Immur, on the other hand, give way for Zizza’s disarming voice and lyrics to properly shine, and might leave you stunned if you’re not properly prepared for them.
In the run up to Tfejt’s July launch, the band took to social media and released three music videos in one week, amassing nearly 10,000 views in total. Their third release, Għandi l-Għatx, was shared on the eve of their album launch, and quickly became a new favourite alongside the band’s older classics. The music video, which was the brainchild of the band’s Samuel, also bears some resemblances to the band’s poignant 2014 Iċ-Ċimiterju‘s in certain moments, which had Chris Mallia (yes, the new drummer), behind the camera.
The other two music videos, Erġajt Waqajt f’Koma and Kanzunetta Biex Timla, had Zizza’s concept (brought to life by local videographers Imitosis) and the work of bassist Frederick respectively.
Wait, Iċ-Ċimiterju? That name rings a bell…
Tfejt is actually Brodu’s second release.
Back in 2014, Brodu released their debut album, Ħabullabullojb. The album was a 14-track success, but one song stuck out well above the rest… and well beyond the small scene the band formed a part of. The song, Iċ-Ċimiterju, is a heartbreakingly beautiful acoustic number about death and loss dedicated to Darren Gatt, a friend of the band who had died a couple of years before when he was only 25 years old. The rest of the album had other hauntingly beautiful moments and even features three songs which had originally been written by Darren, but Iċ-Ċimiterju was the track that resonated with everyone who heard it and instantly fell in love with it.
In fact, as it stands, Iċ-Ċimiterju (and its very apt music video) has amassed over 33,000 views on YouTube. To put that number’s significance into perspective, the average popular Maltese alternative song is lucky to get one or two thousand views, so we’re talking fully-fledged viral levels here. Much like Brikkuni before them, Brodu managed to win the hearts of thousands beyond the alternative scene… and they managed to do it with virtually zero airtime on Maltese radio stations (save for a few important nighttime exceptions like XFM’s Steve Meli and Radio 101’s Michael Bugeja).
This week, Brodu’s Tfejt appeared in full on the band’s Bandcamp page, rekindling the flame of interest of the people who had attended that fateful night in July… and attracting everyone else who hadn’t made it. Brodu are also selling copies of their album as a special vinyl version from some of the coolest shops around the island.
Malta’s alternative music scene might look like an impenetrable fortress not worth your time, but now more than ever, it’s anything but. And if you’d like to take that first leap into discovering what awaits underneath the mainstream surface, Brodu is as good as an introduction as you can currently get.
Photos from the ‘Tfejt’ launch by Nic Mifsud