Using ICT in Music Education – Maltese traditional instruments

The ċuqlajta
The ċuqlajta is an instrument which on the Maltese Islands has very strong associations with Holy Week. Iċ-ċuqlajta encompasses a large number of different shapes and sizes of clappers and ratchets which produce their sound in different ways. Most are made totally of wood, but a few are made of wood and metal or even out of Arundo donax reeds. One particular type of clapper has existed in Malta since Roman times and can still be seen in folk bands particularly in Gozo (an island of the Maltese archipelago).
This interesting instrument replaces the church bells on this sombre day. If a particular village has this type of clapper installed in the belfry of the church, then it can be heard from all across the village! The sound that it produces is constant and unmistakable.
It can be played by the regular bell ringer of the church or by volunteers who take turns to play the instrument to keep the sound continuous. It can also be automated.
The size, shape and sound of these fascinating instruments differ with each village.
An old Maltese tradition, the wooden clapper is still in use in some villages to this day. Well known ċuqlajti are those that are found in Zejtun, Zebbug, Gudja, Balzan, Birkirkara and Qormi.
It is believed that this old Maltese custom was adopted as far back as the Middle Ages!


Another early, natural instrument is the horn, il-qarn or il-qrajna. Horns have long had protective properties on the Maltese Islands and for this reason were often placed over farmhouse doors to protect the inhabitants from the ‘evil eye’ of strangers arriving at the house. Cattle horns were also used as sound instruments when blown through a reed or reed and pipe (hornpipe). Horns were particularly associated with Carnival, suggesting a previous connection with spring ritual.


Simple whistles are commonly made out of corn or wheat stems and the Arundo donax reeds (Maltese qasab). These are known as il-bedbut, pl il-bdiebet. They were often made and used by children and then unceremoniously discarded. The bedbut, a down-cut single reed is made from the Arundo donax plant and is also used as part of other more complex instruments.

Another very simple folk instrument is the mirliton or kazoo known in Malta as iż-żummara. This is made out of a section of Arundo donax reed into which a hole is drilled and on one end of which grease-proof paper is tied with string. One then hums a melody into the hole thus producing a rough raspy sound. It is listed in the first dictionary of the Knights as a trumbettina di paglia that children used to play with – originally it wasn’t an instrument and probably was used alone as a whistle. In fact, it has the sound of a whistle until it starts to be played, then it has an Arabic sound, which makes sense due to our heritage. We see many examples of it across the Mediterranean from Turkey and Greece through North Africa: in Calabria it is called zummaretta; in Morocco it is called mizmar and it has a horn, while in Egypt they have a double version.”

Malta’s folk flute is known as il-flejguta. This is made out of a length of Arundo donax reed and is constructed on the principle of the penny whistle and recorder. It has a varying number of fingerholes.

It- tanbur

The Maltese tambourine is known as it-tanbur in Malta and it-tamburlin in Gozo. It usually accompanies the bagpipe and other more recent instruments such as the accordion. The tanbur is made up of a round wooden brightly-coloured frame with a membrane tightly stretched on one side of it. It is known to have been of varying sizes, the largest reaching a diameter of about 60cm. It frequently has metal discs and pellet bells attached.


The Maltese bagpipe, known as iż-żaqq, is particularly important because it is not exactly like any other bagpipe. However, there are certain similarities, most strikingly with the Greek tsambouna. The Maltese żaqq is made out of the skin of an animal – generally of prematurely-born calf, but also of goat. The complete skin is used including all four legs and tail. The chanter (is-saqqafa) is made up of two adjacent pipes, one with five fingerholes (left) and another with one (right). The chanter terminates with one large cattle horn.


The friction drum is known in Malta as ir-rabbaba or iż-żafżafa. This instrument, which is still in use today over Carnival, is made out of a container (tin, pottery or wood), animal skin and a long Arundo donax reed (qasba) which is attached to the skin. This instrument carries fertility associations and was previously mostly reserved for Carnival festivities.
Wieħed mill-istrumenti tradizzjonali tal-Maltin huwa magħruf bħala r-rabbaba jew iż-żafżafa. L-istrument huwa magħmul minn reċipjent li jista’ jkun xi qasrija tal-fuħħar, jew xi landa taż-żebgħa, ġilda ta’ annimal u qasba. Id-daqqaq jogħrok il-qasba b’idejh imxarrba jew b’xi sponza. Illum ir-rabbaba għadha tindaqq fil-karnival ma’ strumenti oħra bħall-organett, il-kitarra, il-kastanjoli u t-tnabar.


The lira is a string, bowed instrument which has maintained its basic physical properties across history. The main characteristics are: three strings; tuning pegs fitted perpendicularly to the head; absence of a fingerboards or frets; mobile bridge and sound post; generally fretted with the back of the nails; held vertically on the knee or between the legs; the body is carved out of the block of wood with a wooden soundboard; in most cases the tuning is IV – I – V. There is a red line connecting the instrument all the way from Dalmatia on the Adriatic Sea to Locride in Calabria, to the Thracian community in northern Greece up to the Sufi classical music of Turnkey.

One of the most important references to the lira in Malta is by Giovanni Pietro Agius de Soldanis (1712-1770) published in his “Damma tal Kliem Kartaginis mscerred fel from tal Maltin u Ghaucin“, c. 1759, (National Library, Valletta). Giovanni Pietro Agius de Soldanis states that the lira is a musical instrument introduced to Malta by the Greeks in the beginning of the 18th Century and which was very popular amongst young country folk in Malta and Gozo.

Soldanis states that the lira is a musical instrument introduced to alta by the Greek in the beginning of the 18th century and which was very popular amongst young country folk in Malta and Gozo.

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