Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Artists in Mauritania are thought to contain a secret knowledge. In this way, I suppose there’s a certain mysticism in how they work. Although an artist’s particular artwork may vary, the knowledge of how to make it is passed down from generation to generation. 

Much of their art is handicraft work: pottery, weaving and textiles, carvings and such. There are also ample examples of rock wall drawings and paintings from the ancient days. Like most other African art traditions, most of their art wasn’t simply for art’s sake: it served a purpose. Some of their art was for practical purposes (tools, utensils, and other home wares, or even their architectural styles), but others were for religious purposes (like the iconic African masks or other sculptures). Mauritania has a blend of cultures—West African coming from the south and Berber traditions from the north—so particular artistic styles may be different in various parts of the country, depending on the ethnic background of the people. 

As the Arabs spread Islam into Mauritania, their art reflected this change as well. Islam strictly forbids the depiction of people and other living creatures in their art, so wall coverings and other building designs uses geometric and floral patterns, often based on mathematics. One common place for this type of decoration is around doorways. Not only is it beautiful, but many times, these intricately carved additions and archwork in buildings are also utilized to draw the wind in order to cool down buildings during the heat of the day as well as add stability to the structure. 

Stories and important historical events have been passed down from generation to generation orally for hundreds of generations. It was mostly in the form of epic poetry, religious poetry, storytelling, and riddles and puzzles. For this reason, there isn’t a strong written literary tradition in Mauritania. To compound these matters for Mauritanian writers, the country has a low adult literacy rate, ranging from 52-58%; the rates are significantly higher for males than females. That being said, the books that are published in Mauritania tend to be written in Arabic, French, or any of the other indigenous languages spoken in the country, but they’re only able to be read by roughly a little more than half the country.
Mauritanian storyteller Yahya Rajel
However, that’s not to say there wasn’t anything written down until the French got there. Clearly, as we learned with Mali, there were African scholars all over, sharing information and writing it down. Both public and private libraries in Mauritania are full of manuscripts and scrolls with historical information dating back thousands of years. The ancient city of Chinguetti, now crumbling away with only about 4000 people, is home to some of the oldest Koranic texts in the world. 

One modern author is Mohamed Bouya Ould Bamba, a Mauritanian author who was a Fulbright scholar at Kent State University. He did vow to publish one novel a summer, translate it into English, and offer it as a free download (there’s apparently a lack of Mauritanian literature that has been translated into English). His first book, Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language, was published in 2011. (For a synopsis, check out one of my favorite blogs by clicking here.)  

Other writers from Mauritania include Ahmad ibn al-Amin al-Shinqiti (one of the most famous authors from this country), Ahmed Baba Miské (politician, ambassador to the US, UN representative, writer), Moussa Diagana (mainly writes in French), Ibn Razqa (poet and scholar, often thought of as the Father of Mauritanian Poets), Moussa Ould Ebnou (one of the country’s greatest novelists, published books in both French and Arabic), and Youssouf Gueye (wrote in French, died in prison because he opposed the government). 

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, June 26, 2016


Carved out of the deserts of northwestern Africa lies the country of Mauritania. Not quite as well known as some of its neighbors, Internet searches for this country often pull up hits for the Mauritius islands off the western coast of Madagascar. A divided country, this is one of those countries I’m pretty sure everything I learn about it is new. 

The country is named after the Berber kingdom of almost the same name, Mauretania, which was in power from about the 3rd century BC to the 7th century and located pretty much in the area of present day northern Morocco. 

Mauritania is surrounded by the territory of Western Sahara to the northwest, Algeria to the northeast, Mali to the east and south, Senegal to the southwest, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west.  The country is made of flat, arid plains and plateaus and is mostly desert or semi-desert; it has a hot, arid climate. 

The earliest peoples, the Bafour, were nomadic and agriculturist peoples. The Bafour along with other Berber peoples claimed to be Yemeni in their origins. DNA tests have proven some ties between the two peoples but some scholars have remained skeptics. Mauritania once used to control the lands of Senegal as well, and France stepped in and slowly stating amassing lands that were part of Mauritania (and some from Senegal), later becoming part of French West Africa in 1920. Under French rule, the capital was moved from Saint-Louis to its current capital of Nouakchott. Although the French prohibited slavery under their rule, after the country gained its independence in 1960, it was different. The southern tribes moved in from Senegal and became clerks and administrators due to their knowledge of French and French customs. The northern tribes were denied that power and were subjugated and suppressed by the French military, upsetting the balance of power previously established in their country. Today, Mauritania has a problem with modern-day slavery even though technically slavery is outlawed on the books. The struggle between the French and Arab influences on Mauritania has caused tensions in the country since its independence. Massive droughts during the early 1970s didn’t help any, and these tensions escalated to a border war between Mauritania and Senegal in 1989.  Starting in the mid-1970s, Mauritania and Morocco also had a land dispute regarding the territory known as Western Sahara. While Mauritania has stepped back in the deal, the UN is still waiting for a decision to be made about whether the territory will gain statehood or not. (And I thought I was indecisive and put things off.) Unfortunately, there have been several coups and human rights violations in Mauritania in recent history. 
The capital and largest city by far is Nouakchott. This coastal city is home to about 958,400 people. The name is a French spelling based on the Berber words Nawaksut, meaning “place of the winds.” Although it’s located on the coast, the climate is hot and dry; it only averages about 3.7” of rainfall a year. The city is home to the federal government as well as the center for commerce, culture, and higher education. Because of rapid growth in the city as nomadic peoples are settling in and around the city, the city is now faced with the growing problems of not having enough fresh water and the problem with ever-growing slums. 

The story of Mauritania’s economic problems is not unique. In fact, many African countries suffer the same dilemma. Mauritania has a ton of natural resources, mainly in iron ore. But demand in the type of ore it produces has declined. It also depends on agriculture and subsistence farming, which is also subject to massive droughts, and their fishing industry is becoming overfished in many areas. Oil was discovered in 2001, and since then, two oil fields have been discovered, but the environment in which these oil fields are in make extraction a difficult (and expensive) process. 

By far, pretty much everyone in Mauritania is Muslim, with the majority being Sunni. The Sufi brotherhood has also had an impact in the country and neighboring countries as well. There are a small number of Roman Catholics in Nouakchott. Religion is very important in Mauritania; it’s one of the few countries in the world where atheism is punishable by death. (And I thought atheists were hated here in the US.) 

Although Arabic is the official language, and French is still used in the media and among the educated peoples, there are many other languages spoken in Mauritania. The most widely spoken indigenous languages used in the country include Hassaniya, Pulaar, Imraguen, Serer, Soninke, and Wolof.

There are a few surprising things about Mauritania I learned: 1) Scenes from The Fifth Element that were supposed to depict Egypt were actually filmed in Mauritania, 2) it’s famous for its strange geological sculpture called the Eye of Africa (also known as the Richat Structure or Eye of the Sahara), a gigantic area of deep erosion in a bullseye-shape that is about 30 miles wide—so large it can be seen from space more or less, 3) they also have nice beaches; incidentally, the Bay of Nouadhibou has one of the largest ship graveyards in the world with over 300 wrecks! The great thing is that many of these wrecks have created artificial reefs and boosted the fish populations, which helps with the local fishing industry. It’s a win-win more or less, in a sort of make-the-best-of-your-situation kind of way.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Well, summer is finally here. The kids are out of school, and the temperatures have been in the 90s for the past few days. While I’ve been enjoying sleeping in, I also had two job interviews: one for a position I didn’t necessarily want and turned down, and one for a position I very much would like to have. I’ll find out more this week. So, we’ll see. But today is also Father’s Day, so while my husband went to a car show today (the graphics he painted on his friend’s car won “Best Graphics”), I spent my afternoon cooking up food from the Marshall Islands.

This was the best part of the meal. Definitely a recipe worth repeating.
The first thing I started with was the Crab and Potato Cakes. I started with browning five strips of bacon, setting it off to the side to pat the extra oil off. Then I broke it up into a large bowl, adding in a 14-oz can of salmon (all of the cheaper cans of imitation crab was sold out, and I couldn’t afford to spend nearly $10 for some crab—and salmon made a nice substitution), some diced onion, diced green pepper, and minced garlic. After this, I added in some boiled and diced potatoes, green onions, mustard (I went with ground mustard instead of prepared), and some salt and pepper. Then I stirred in some mayonnaise, some coconut, and some breadcrumbs before putting it in the fridge to chill for a couple of hours. When it was time to cook, I formed it into patties, dipping it into beaten eggs, then flour, then the eggs again, then breadcrumbs, and then frying it in a little oil until it was browned on both sides. I thought these were quite tasty. They reminded me a little of the salmon patties my mom used to make when I was a kid. I thought it was excellent with the salmon, but I definitely want to try this again with the crab. I bet it would be good with a little sriracha mayo perhaps.

This needs a little work. Unless you're a fan of diabetic shock. Then by all mean, go ahead, have my piece.
Then I made what is considered one of the more iconic dishes of the Marshall Islands: Macadamia Nut Pie. It’s strange because macadamia nuts aren’t necessarily native to the Marshall Islands (but rather nearby Australia), but this pie became quite popular. I cheated big time with this pie because I didn’t make my own pie crust, which sort of defeats the whole idea of “making my own breads/pastries/cakes/pies from scratch.” So, forgive me—I used a frozen ready-to-bake pie crust. I let it thaw and then pressed in a little bit of coconut flakes into the crust. Then in a bowl, I poured in 4 eggs, a cup of light corn syrup, ½ c of sugar, 1 ½ tsp of vanilla extract, and a ¼ tsp of salt and mixed well. Then I folded in 1 ½ c of macadamia nuts (I crushed mine up a little bit). After I had everything mixed together, I poured it into my pie crust. I put this into a 350ºF oven for 15 minutes, then turned it down to 325ºF for another 30 minutes. It looked brown on top, so I took it out. I let it sit for probably a good 45-60 minutes before I attempted to cut it. I figured it was like a pecan pie and needed time to set up. I mixed some cream of coconut into some whipped cream and spread it on top. But when I cut into it, it was still quite liquid in the center. And it was way too sweet. I took two bites, and my stomach hurt from the sweetness. Even my 10-year-old daughter who typically has a stronger stomach for sweet foods thought it was too sweet. Perhaps the sugar and/or corn syrup could’ve been reduced. It was just too much. Otherwise, I liked the flavor of the nuts, though.

Not bad. I think my potatoes were a little old, and sometimes I could taste it, which gave me the feeling I was poisoning myself and my family.
Lastly, I made Sweet Potatoes & Fried Bananas. It sounds like a strange combination, but it really wasn’t that bad. I boiled some diced sweet potatoes and drained it. In a skillet, I fried some bananas in some coconut oil. After the bananas start to turn a little brown, I added in the sweet potatoes and let them sauté together for a minute. I did add in a pinch of salt toward the end, which seemed to bring out the salty-sweetness of the dish. The kids barely touched this, but I thought it was kind of good. 

Overall, this was pretty good. The salmon patties were seriously awesome.
I learned a lot about the Marshall Islands. Some things were really cool (stick charts), some not so cool (climate change impacts, military weapons testing). But I suppose that’s true about all countries. This was one of those countries that I had trouble finding a lot of information about simply because it is kind of small. The information that I did find was somewhat just repeated across the Internet. But as the week progressed, I got a few comments that so-and-so was stationed there or someone they knew had visited the islands before. The photos I’ve seen probably don’t even do it justice. Perhaps one day I’ll visit. But I better do it soon before they disappear beneath the ocean.

Up next: Mauritania

Saturday, June 18, 2016


Music has played an important part of Marshallese culture for centuries. Each island had its own set of songs, but one type of music that generally bound them all was a type of chant called roro. These chants were essentially sung to provide guidance and were sung for a variety of situations such as navigation and when a mother was going through labor. The lyrics varied by island, but the style was the more or less the same. 

Although drums and other percussion instruments may not be as common on other Micronesian islands, drumming is an important part of Marshallese music. One type of drum that is especially used is an hourglass-shaped drum with a head only on one side. They also utilized different kinds of flutes and conch shells as well, not to mention simple clapping and knee/body slapping. Ukulele music is especially popular in the islands. Music of the Marshall Islands is very much vocal-based, like other Micronesian, Melanesian, and Polynesian traditions. As Europeans visited the islands, they introduced certain instruments like guitars as well as European musical forms and religious music. 

The Marshallese also love dancing. One dance called the beet has its basis in early Spanish dances. In the beet dance, men and women stand in parallel lines and do a side-step, which creates a difficult, complex rhythm to the dance steps. The Jobwa perform a type of stick dance that is only performed for special occasions.  

Bands today often utilize these ancient roro chants and other indigenous musical styles; they merged them with more modern instruments and traditions. There weren’t many bands I came across, but I did find a few on YouTube. One I came across is called Iroij Lablab Amata.Kabua. Their sound from the one song I heard is upbeat with a definite “island” sound to it. A few others I found in this quasi-reggae, quasi-pop, quasi-traditional category include Kili Excess, Alson Morris, Shirleyann Loeak, and Lamaran. 

Another band I came across is called Lastevo. The one song I came across was kind of an electropop style song. I kind of liked it. They also listen to other popular bands that hail from other nearby Pacific Island countries.

Up next: the food

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Long before modern maps, the islanders of the Marshall Islands would map out the ocean swells and islands using sticks and shells. These stick charts as they’re called use to sticks and fibers to map out the major swells in the ocean and the shells mark where the islands are located that caused changes in directions. This was used as a way for the islanders to navigate their way to other islands. What you end up with is almost a modern, Frank Lloyd Wright-esque frame of sticks tied at various angles and curves. Some can be small and other can be quite large. It’s rather fascinating. 

Much of their art is tied to handicrafts and especially woven arts. Popular items include baskets, mats, purses, hats, fans, and wall hangings. Each of these are made from natural materials found on the island, including coconut fibers, pandanas leaves, and shells. 

Locals also develop an array of products using coconut, from detergents to hand creams. Coconut is very good for your skin and hair and is environmentally safe. Not to mention quite plentiful on the islands. 

Another part of their culture, especially before the arrival of the Europeans, was tattooing. Both males and females were tattooed, although the designs and body parts that were tattooed vary slightly between the sexes. Different designs signified different family clans and ranks within the family. The Marshallese also stretched out their ear lobes, some as large as three inches. Sounds like they were punk before punk was punk. 

The early Marshall Islanders told their stories orally. Most of these stories were legends and stories used to explain their world around them, but some stories also told of historical events. Today, many of these oral traditions have been retold and written down. 

The Marshall Islands have also served as the setting for many European writers, some who either lived there for a while or had visited the islands. No doubt these islands had a lasting impression on them. A few notable writers who have written about the Marshall Islands or used it as their setting are Jane Downing, George Lewis “Louis” Becke, Rudolph von Scheven, and Ernest George Moll. 

There isn’t a large canon of literature from the islands. Although Marshallese is the official language, and certainly used in the language of government documents and so forth, most of the books I’ve seen mentioned are written in English. However, if you’re interested in folktales, one book to read is called Marshall Islands Legends and Stories by Daniel A Kelin II. This book contains 50 stories collected from the local storytellers.

Up next: music and dance

Sunday, June 12, 2016


I have long criticized how US History classes taught history in the United States. The main complaint is that there is a lot of focus on the American Revolution and the Civil War, which are important no doubt. We should study those events, and to be fair, I do remember studying other battles and historical happenings as well. But as I got older, I started learning more about things in our history we either skimmed past or never talked about at all. And the Marshall Islands are one. 
The islands are named after John Marshall, a British explorer and captain of the Scarborough, which visited many of the islands in the South Pacific in 1788. The people who actually live there call their island Jolet Jen Anij, or Gifts From God.  

The Marshall Islands are located in the South Pacific, north of Nauru and east of the Federated States of Micronesia. These islands are roughly halfway between the Hawaiian Islands and Papua New Guinea, although it’s probably a little closer to Papua New Guinea. The climate here is hot and humid with a definite rainy season and a dry season. The problem the Marshall Islands face is two-fold: for a country that is surrounded by water, they need water. Too often, the islands are faced with drought and don’t receive enough freshwater through rainfall. The other side of this is that because of climate change, rising sea levels are threatening the existence of the islands and atolls, much like what Kiribati and the Maldives are going through. 

Much of the earliest records have been lost to history. Alonso de Salazar, a Spanish explorer, was the first European to spot the islands in 1526. A few years later, another Spanish explorer, Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón, visited more of the islands and gave them all Spanish names. However, like what happened with Christopher Columbus, the indigenous peoples had no immunity to the nasty European diseases they brought with them. A couple hundred years later, the British arrived under the guidance of John Charles Marshall and Thomas Gilbert (the namesake of the Gilbert Islands, now part of Kiribati). It wasn’t until a Russian explorer and a French explorer came through a few decades later and named them after Marshall. The Spanish naturally fought to maintain control of the islands, and sovereignty was granted to them, but they quickly sold them off to the Germans as a protectorate. The Germans took control of many other nearby island groups during this time. During WWI, the Japanese took control of many of the islands as a means of taking over German territories. By the beginning of WWII, the Japanese had established schools and airbases, preparing for the onset of war. In 1944, the US captured and occupied the islands. From the end of the war to the late 1950s, the US tested 67 nuclear weapons near the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The US compensated the Marshallese nearly $759 million over the period of about 40 years. In 1986, the Marshall Islands finally gained its independence and were officially known as the Republic of the Marshall Islands (or RMI). Since 2008, the Marshall Islands have strongly pushed for climate change talks and have struggled with the effects of this, namely in rising sea levels and drought.  

The largest city in the Marshall Islands, Majuro, serves as its capital with only a little less than 28,000 people (half of the country’s population). The Majuro Atoll consists of several smaller islands, which includes the large communities of Laura and Djarrit. The largest industry here is the service industry. There are a few K-12 schools as well as a couple of colleges/universities. There is some air service between the islands and other countries, and the Majuro Atoll acts as a major port for the area. Because it’s only 10 ft above sea level, it lacks the infrastructure necessary for any large development. 

Because of their environment, it doesn’t lend well for agriculture or natural resources. However, they do have some small commercial farms for coconuts, melons, breadfruit, and tomatoes. They also depend on the service industry as well, mostly in processing fish, some handicrafts, and processing coconuts for copra (the meat) that is used partly for coconut oil. There is some research and experimentation on trying to use coconut oil for energy use, while working to make wind and solar energy readily available and more reliable. Otherwise, the country depends heavily on foreign aid because its imports are greater than its exports; it also utilizes the US dollar as its currency. 

Like other countries who were once governed by European countries, the majority religion is Christianity. There are several denominations present in the islands, the largest being the United Church of Christ. However, Baha’i and Islam are also represented here as well; the first Muslim mosque was built in 2012. 

The vast majority of the people here are of Micronesian descent with a little Japanese mixed in perhaps. Because of their history with the British and the US, English is often spoken and understood, although their official language is Marshallese (locally known as Ebon). There are 34 atolls in the Marshall Islands, and they’re divided into the western atolls (called Ralik) and the eastern atolls (called Ratak). Marshallese has two dialects divided on these same lines. Marshallese is written using Roman letters, although diacritical marks are used on some letters. 

The atolls of the Marshall Islands average about 7 ft above sea level, and one atoll, the Kwajalein Atoll, is the largest coral atoll in the world. There are over 1100 smaller islands and islets that are uninhabited. Although some of the islands’ existence is threatened by rising sea levels, one island in particular no longer exists thanks to the US. The island of Elugelab was blown up in 1952 when US Armed Forces tested a hydrogen bomb on the island. In fact, many of those islands are still uninhabitable due to high amounts of radiation still on the islands, some 60 years later. It’s hard to believe we convinced them this was ok to blow an entire island off the map and poison their people. But, you know. The best we can do is learn about their culture to better understand the people whose islands we took over for a while.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, June 5, 2016


Well, I thought I’d be able to snatch up a job really quickly, but that didn’t pan out how I imagined. I don’t get it, and I never do. However, I am working on starting a new business venture doing what I was doing before, except instead of writing a newsletter about commercial real estate, I’ll be writing about education, something a little closer to my heart. It just takes a little time to get started, I think. Hopefully by the time school starts back up, we’ll be fully ready to go. The kids start summer break this week, and I’m definitely ready for that. 

I snacked on these while I was waiting for everything to cook. I struggled to save some for everyone else.
What I’m also ready for is this Maltese meal I’ve picked out. The first thing I made was Pastizzi, which is like ricotta-stuffed puff pastry. I started out mixing 10-11oz of ricotta cheese, 3-4 Tbsp of grated parmesan cheese, 2 eggs, and parsley to taste (you can also add in anything else, like spinach if you wanted) until everything was mixed well. I bought some puff pastry sheets from the store and rolled it out, cutting out circles that are about 9 cm wide. I used a biscuit cutter, which made it kind of easy. I put a little bit of the ricotta mix in the inside of each circle, egg washed the edges, and folded it in half, squeezing the edges together, and egg washed them again. The recipe calls for a “medium to hot oven,” so I just set it for 375ºF. I laid each pastry on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and put them in the oven for about 20-23 minutes. I didn’t get the egg wash put on some of them very well, and a few of them opened up a bit. But the flavor was good. I almost felt like I cheated with this one because I bought my own puff pastry sheets instead of making it. But puff pastry takes a while to make (if you want to make it right), and sometimes store-bought stuff helps. It certainly saves time. They were flakey, cheesy, and went very well with my meal.  

Surprisingly good. The recipe called for one can of tuna, and I ended up using two packets since one wasn't enough.
Next, I made a Maltese Tuna Pasta Salad. I boiled some tri-color rotini pasta until it was al dente and cooled it, putting it in a bowl. In the same bowl, I mixed in two packets of tuna, some diced red bell pepper, some diced onion, some capers, some chopped cherry tomatoes, sliced black olives, some salt and pepper, and a pinch of dried mint leaves. Then I sprinkled the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I was supposed to add in a little fresh-squeezed lemon juice, but I forgot. I mixed this up and put it in the refrigerator to chill. Everyone really liked this except my son who has all of a sudden decided he doesn’t like cold pasta. I think it could’ve used a little more balsamic vinegar, but my husband told me it was fine. 

I was glad this turned out really well. It was quite tasty and will make a good lunch for tomorrow.
My main dish for today is Bragjoli, which is like a beef roll-up. I bought four cubed steaks from Aldi and beat them until they were flattened out. In a small bowl, I mixed in some chopped bacon, some chopped hardboiled egg, parsley, salt and pepper, and some bread crumbs. With a spoon, I spread some of this mixture onto the flattened cubed steaks and rolled them up, securing them with toothpicks. When each of them was rolled up, I fried them slightly in olive oil to help seal them, even though it didn’t work all that great. I moved them to the outer edges of the skillet, and I added in some chopped onions in the hot olive oil before adding in some basil, some oregano, a little garlic powder, a little tomato paste and diced tomatoes and let it simmer together for a few minutes. Spooning the tomato mixture on top of the beef and adding in some water to cover halfway, I let it simmer for 20 minutes. Then I added in the peas and let it simmer for another 45 minutes or so. This had a good flavor. The tomatoes thickened up toward the end, and the meat surprisingly wasn’t too tough. The egg and bacon on the inside wasn’t quite as pronounced as I thought it was going to be, but when you did get a piece of bacon, it was really good. 

Another big surprise. I was worried how the anise would taste with the potatoes, but it turned out pretty good. Who knew?
To go with this, I made Maltese-style potatoes, or Patata il-Forn. I peeled and chopped up some potatoes and put them in a casserole dish that I greased with butter. I sprinkled in a little olive oil and stirred to coat. Then I seasoned the potatoes with salt and pepper. True Maltese-style potatoes are seasoned with fennel seed, but my husband absolutely hates fennel seed, so I read that a good substitution is anise seed (another one is caraway seeds), both of which I have. So, I used ground anise seed and mixed it throughout really well. I baked these for nearly 45 minutes in a 400ºF oven, until they were crunchy on the outside, but soft on the inside. These were really good. I used small golden potatoes and kept the skins on. They were quite soft, and not so much crunchy on the crunchy side, but that’s ok. I kept the anise seed light, and I think it was better. 

Overall, this was an excellent meal. Definitely recipes to repeat.
I thought this meal was really good. And I certainly learned a lot about this country, besides where it is. But the thing that fascinated me the most is their language. I knew absolutely nothing about it before hand. As a cross between Italian and Arabic, I can somewhat hear the influences of both languages when I listen to it spoken. Granted, I have no idea what they’re saying, but I can hear the sounds. (I studied some Italian diction in college as a requirement for being a voice principal music major.) But I think it’s interesting. I never know what I’ll learn about when I come across these countries. Maybe that’s why I keep doing this.

Up next: Marshall Islands


The most well-known style of traditional music in Malta is called Ghana. No, not like the African country. It’s actually written with a horizontal line through the top half of the H. And the ‘Gh’ is silent, so it’s pronounced “AH-nuh.” Now that you’ve thoroughly wrapped your head around the word itself, what is it? 

Well, there’s two types: formal and informal. Both types are essentially the singing of rhyming verses. But let’s start with formal ghana where there are three sub-categories. Bormliza, named after the city of Bormla where it was popular, is characterized by male singers singing as high as they can in a soprano register without breaking into falsetto. It’s seldom practiced now. Ghana tal-Fatt is a more of a ballad: recounting stories, folktales, or legends. It can either be sad or humorous. Spiritu pront is a style originating from informal song duels. In these duels, the singer has to know a wide range of socio-political topics as well a keen command of the Maltese language. The singers in these duels, which last about an hour, must respond in a rhyming poetic style, and the singers are accompanied by three guitarists.

Informal ghana uses both men and women performers and often utilized day-to-day scenarios, such as peasant life and farming. This informal style of music was a form of gossip among women as they did their housework, but it was also just a way to pass the time while working. This style of singing and housework went hand-in-hand. 

The cuqlajta is a percussion instrument. It’s closely related to a ratchet or clapper. Another instrument is known as the ilqarn, which is essentially made of a horn. These horns had a variety of functions. The bedbut, zummara, and the flejguta are types of flutes or wooden whistles. They also played the tanbur, a type of tambourine, and the iz-zaqq, a type of bagpipe played here made from the skins of animals. 

Outside of various functions, the Maltese make quite a big to-do over the carnival festival. Introduced by the Italians during the 1500s, carnival quickly made its way as one of the most important holidays in Malta. Typically, the festivities last during the week before Ash Wednesday and include late-night parties, masked balls, parades with elaborate floats, marching bands, competitions in a variety of categories (fancy dress, grotesque masks, music, etc.), people dressing in costumes, and a number of other events. It’s also a time for music and dance. One dance that is danced during this time is the parata. The parata is based on a light-hearted war reenactment of when the Knights were victorious over the Turks in 1565. A court dance known as the il-Maltija is also performed during carnival time. 

As small as the country is, there have been quite a few musicians to come from Malta. Not to mention the number of Eurovision Song Contest winners and high-ranking participants from Malta. I came across a lot of Maltese musicians on Spotify. They have quite a few indie rock bands, like Beangrowers, Chasing Pandora, and Stalko.

Rock and alternative rocks I listened to include Bitterside, Insurgence, NoSnow/NoAlps, Red Electrick, and Winter Moods.

I even found a couple of metal bands. Abysmal Torment and Beheaded were both the type of metal bands that are really intense with a lot of screaming. 

I came across several pop and dance/electronica artists such as Fabrizio Faniello (more of a pop singer), Jo Micali, Miss Roberta, and Tenishia. 

There were several musicians I came across that didn’t really fall into one of the categories above. Some of them played more of a traditional sound like Kantilena and ManuTapu. Renzo Spiteri makes music based on pitched percussion instruments; some of it almost sounds gong-like. He utilizes other instruments as well, like flutes, but it almost gives it an East Asian or Southeast Asian sound, like something you might hear in a Buddhist temple or something at times. It was very relaxing. Although Roger Scannura was born in Malta, he has studied, performed, and recorded Spanish flamenco guitar since the early 1990s. He has a song called “Marissa” which is my daughter’s name (minus one S). 

Up next: the food

Wednesday, June 1, 2016


Much of Malta’s art is highly connected to the art of Sicily and Italy. The earliest temples of the Neolithic period incorporated intricate bas relief designs and mainly consisted of spirals and nature designs. Of course, they were extremely influenced by Roman art. Not only did architectural styles make their way as far as cathedrals are concerned, but frescos and decorative mosaic floor tiles as well. 

The artist Caravaggio stayed in Malta for over a year and completed at least seven paintings while he was there. He also inspired a number of Maltese artists during his stay as well. The Baroque period and the Rococo period brought along a renewed push in painting and sculpture in Malta. Each art period had its own characteristics; the Neo-classical movement promoted religious themes while the Romantic period saw a push toward nationalism. 

During the 1920s, the National School of Art was built and established by Parliament. After WWII, modern art movements from throughout Europe and other areas of the world began to make its way into Malta, and they were studied and emulated. 

Some famous artists from Malta include Antonio Sciortino (sculptor), Melchiorre Cafà (sculptor), Amedeo Preziosi (painter), Giuseppe Calì (painter), Francesco Maltese (painter), Antoine Camilleri (painter, stamp designer, teacher), and Emvin Cremona (stamp designer, painter).

The Lords Prayer in Maltese
The vast majority of literature from Malta is written in the Maltese language. The earliest works were in the form of poetry and typically were either praise aimed for royalty or religiously themed. The Lords Prayer and catechistic texts were commonly read during the 1700s, and they were also translated into Italian, the other language used in Malta.
Mikiel Anton Vassalli
One patriot named Mikiel Anton Vassalli, who wrote in the Romantic style, introduced a new identity in writing, a nationalism if you will. The first Maltese newspaper wasn’t published until 1839. Although poetry has been used for many centuries, the first true epic poem written in Maltese wasn’t written until Giovanni Antonio Vassallo did so in 1842. Twenty years later, the first history book was published, and the first novel a year after that. As far as the novel goes, Malta still modeled much of its literary styles after Italian traditions, but quickly developed their own voice. 

Before the 20th century, there was a major social distinction between the use of Italian and Maltese. Italian was the language of literature, government, trade, and high culture, whereas Maltese was the vernacular, what the people used as everyday language. A shift began during the 1800s with a push toward a national identity and Maltese began to make its way into other aspects of society. 

Several writers have emerged from Malta, such as Pietru Caxaro (poet, philosopher), Ruzar Briffa (poet), Marjanu Vella (writer, poet), Anton Buttigieg (poet), Dun Karm Psaila (poet), Ray Buttigieg (poet, composer), Pierre J. Mejlak (short story writer), Francis Ebejer (novelist, dramatist), Immanuel Mifsud (poet, novelist), Joe Friggieri (poet, philosopher), Oliver Friggieri (poet, novelist, philosopher), and Carlo Gimach (poet, architect).

Up next: music and dance