It would be easy to look at Jamala’s stunning victory in Stockholm 2016 as a celebration of minority languages. The song ‘1944’ had a haunting Crimean Tatar chorus which added a layer of beauty to her performance that lead it to creep over the victory line.
However we all know that underneath, the song’s English lyrics were cold, harsh, and effective. The media storm about the political finger wagging throughout the piece captured people’s interest far more than the delicate native tongue of her uprooted family.
English dominated the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final in a way it never had before. The French and Italian songs had their main hooks in the English language and even traditionally conservative Spain brought ‘Say Yay’ without any splash of corazón or contigo thrown into the English melody. The only entry without any English of the 26 songs was the Austrian entry, where Zoe’s ‘Loin d’ici’ was performed in a language that was natural for her if not relevant to Austria. Other than the UK and Malta, every other song in the 26 used a language that’s not official to their country.
Few would have thought Malta would be the country at the epicentre of language identity in the Eurovision Song Contest. By selecting ‘Kewkba’ into the Maltese selection that debate has surfaced across the sunshine island.
The History Of An Identity
The Maltese language has origins starting in the 12th century and is unique for its roots in Arabic, despite using the Latin script. Arabic words were fused by loan additions from Sicilian, Italian and British vocabularies as various groups came to Malta for work or to rule its strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite pressures from all three the Maltese language survived throughout foreign rule. Indeed today the language is still used as the mother tongue of 94 percent of Maltese people. That statistic may sound staggering to a Eurovision Song Contest fan. No Eurovision entry has been in Maltese since 1972, despite 27 attempts in the meantime. More staggering is that no song written in Maltese has been performed in the Maltese National Final since 1993. Even then the entries were submitted with an English version to head to the international festival, relegating the native language to second place in the pecking order.
While a handful of songs over time since have been submitted in Maltese, none have made it past the first round. The reputation of the Maltese language in the Song Contest is so low that, according to Maltese broadcaster PBS, a song in Maltese ‘hasn’t been submitted for years’ before ‘Kewkba’ showed up.
To find out more about why this has happened I spoke to Ray Fabri, the President of the National Council for the Maltese Language. In his role he works to promote the use of Maltese more across the island. Much of the focus is to demonstrate the use of Maltese as a written language by providing signage for hospitals and airports. Maltese’s problem is that although it is a spoken language by the vast majority of citizens, almost all would instinctively switch to English for anything written, even to family members. Writing in Maltese is a particular challenge with colloquial speech often dropping in non-native English and Italian-isms as well as the lack of a computerised spell checker to help.
One would expect the growing globalisation and the widespread use of English would be weakening Maltese further. This isn’t just pop culture, but also practicality. University exams for example often need to be in English to accommodate many foreign students, and in reality a population of less than 500,000 cannot produce enough material in different topics to match demand.
Fabri though believes his work with the Maltese language is in the midst of a ‘mini-revival’, and much of this increase is from young people. While most languages are struggling for momentum Maltese is packed with it. ‘Language is an important part of our identity’ as Ray says, and certainly the Eurovision stage would suggest that their use of English now defines Malta less. Back in the 90s, Malta’s most successful period in the Song Contest, Malta was unique for singing in English, as one of three countries with that privilege before the language rule was lifted. Malta is no longer special for using the modern lingua franca, and young people can only use Maltese to create an identity instead.
A New Philosophy For The Old Broadcaster
During 2016 a wave of change came in at Maltese broadcaster PBS. Anton Attard, a stalwart for many editions of Malta’s National Final and the Junior Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, stepped down for the role to be given to John Bundy. The direction of change in running the Eurovision selection is markedly clear. The new production to select a song for Kyiv will be a one-shot 16 song competition. No more will there be drama such as changing the song as the artist approaches March’s deadline, as we witnessed when ‘Chameleon’ was ditched in 2016.
The most notable change for this edition though is that Malta’s infamous expert jury is no more. In recent years Malta more than anybody has held the least democratic National Final, with over 80% of the votes cast made by invited jury members in the audience rather than viewers at home. A rationale behind this lop-sided weighting arguably to decrease the bloc voting within Malta, a country dominated by a few families and towns where local support can get an act far (I’m sure we’ve all noticed how many Vellas and Borgs there are lurking around).
The 100 percent televote is a drastic change in PBS’ philosophy. Commenting on this, a PBS spokesperson commented that as a ‘festival of the public, the public should choose the song that represents the country’.
The added twist is that not only was ‘Kewkba’ submitted to the selection process, but it qualified, with PBS saying there their selection jury only ‘selected by the song submitted’ – meaning there was no quota for the language diversity akin to many other countries. The song is there on merit and suddenly became the centrepiece for an island nation where national identity and language solidarity are the hot topics of the day.
The person in the middle of this revolution is the rather innoculous looking artist Janice Mangion.
Taking A Risk With Your Music
The importance of sending a song in Maltese is not something Mangion misses the importance of, recognising that her ‘native language is not given the exposure and importance it deserves’, and that ‘as a country we should be proud of our heritage and open to the idea of sharing our language.’
Malta may have its’ own competitions in the Maltese language, but no musical showcase in Malta is bigger than the Eurovision Song Contest platform. The chance to export music outside of the Malta’s rocky shoreline doesn’t happen often, and the Song Contest each year provides such a big carrot to many Maltese artists that it it’s not surprise the island is Eurovision bonkers.
However to dare to submit a song in Maltese to PBS in Maltese was not an obvious move for Janice, and admitted she ‘needed some convincing’ from the composer and lyricist of the song to make what she called a ‘risk’.
The risk is part of that identity problem. On one side Malta is incredibly proud of their language and the Song Contest may be seen as the ultimate way to present it. However on the other hand the language has previously been to Eurovision twice…and finished last twice. Those first two years of Maltese Eurovision Mangion believes may have scarred the nation from taking those risks, and to ‘change this perception’ is one reason Mangion is entering this year.
Her story here sounds familiar to another recent National Finalist from the opposite side of the continent. In Finland’s Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu only one of the ten songs in the Grand Final was in Finnish, ‘Helppo Elämä’ by Lauri Yrjölä.
Speaking to me in Helsinki, Yrjölä complained that ‘Finnish people seem to have some sort of grudge against the past, as Finnish language songs haven’t really done that well.’ Similarly to Mangion, much of the positive response to his track has come from abroad. His ‘bold dream to take over the world singing in Finnish with this international sound’ though will need to wait, after only finishing 8th in Finland’s selection. The leaderboard shows his theory was spot on correct however, with ‘Helppo Elämä’ finishing joint 5th with the international juries, but 9th with the Finnish population televoting.
Eurovision, Language and a Rollercoaster Maltese Selection
Recent Eurovision Song Contest themes such as Building Bridges and Come Together have been held up previously for their not-so-subtle correlation to the political divisions that have troubled Europe over recent years. It is unsurprising that this year’s slogan Celebrate Diversity has sparked off the same discussions about the place of the Song Contest in a modern Europe. As Executive Supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest Jon Ola Sand has commented, this theme lets us ‘celebrate both our common ground and our unique differences’. Few differences can be as common between Europe as the languages we speak.
Malta would not be alone with selecting a song in their unique language this year either, already a Belarussian jury overturned a 5th place televote for Naviband to send their Belarussian ditty to Kyiv, and more are expected in the coming weeks. Perhaps as nationalist movements grows an ugly head across Europe it is up to the Contest to show the positive side of national identity. The identity and culture of different people is diversity, and can have no bigger platform to celebrate itself than the world’s biggest entertainment show.
Whether Malta selects Janice Mangion to represent their country is a different matter, and with previous Eurovision artists and established artists in the line up it’s no given thing. The interesting thing about this year’s Maltese selection is the return to 100 percent televoting, and with the Maltese language on a resurgence the momentum is certainly there for a surprise. The interest is high as Janice’s song is currently the most viewed of all the uploads from the 16 entries. Regardless of whether it wins or not, Ray Fabri has already admitted that its inclusion in the National Final has generated ‘interest and curiosity’ for the language. Inside the island once again those discussions and debates have started once again, and beyond Malta’s shores the Maltese language has been heard by thousands of Song Contest fans. It could be millions in May.
Whatever songs go to Kyiv, they always come with their country stamped alongside their song title. Language doesn’t need to define the identity of a song; the performer being proud of their work and where they come from is always enough. Nevertheless we all know of the times when the Contest can empower minorities to shine a spectacle on their existence and raise their issues in ways politics and National Councils can never achieve. There is no reason the Eurovison Song Contest cannot help make a language gain the recognition it deserves in the same way.