L-Imnarja: What Goes On During This Celebration Of Maltese Folklore
by Karl Azzopardi
* cover photo showing a typical agricultural display at L-Imnarja in Buskett Gardens, via Hello Malta Gozo
Whether you are a local or a tourist looking to experience Malta in its most honest and authentic form, l-Imnarja or Mnarja, is a celebration that you cannot miss. Rightfully dubbed the most Maltese of Maltese holidays, l-Imnarja highlights Malta's agricultural roots and age-old traditions.
This public holiday has a long history of festivities dedicated to the rejuvenation and cultivation of Maltese folklore, coupled with exhibitions and competitions that showcase our land's abundance. L-Imnarja is celebrated on the 29th of June, though festivities start on the evening of the 28th and go on through the night.
Here's what you should expect from a typical Mnarja celebration.
Off To The Races
Much like other public holidays, we waste no time when it comes to celebrations, opening l-Imnarja festivities with music, parades and most importantly the Mnarja horse races the evening before the official public holiday.
These historic races take place along the aptly named Triq it-Tigrijia (Race Course Street) below Saqqajja Hill in Rabat. Hundreds of horseriders usually take part to show off the power of their trusty steed and races are typically divided into three categories — bareback, serkin (harness) and trot.
The Mnarja races are then followed by a parade through Malta's rich countryside from Rabat to Buskett Gardens where the rest of the evening activities take place. Here, numerous stages and stalls would have already been set up to welcome the parade. Most notable among them are the food stalls selling traditional Maltese food or special Mnarja editions of their products such as bigilla pastizzi. However, the best seller is always our beloved national dish — rabbit stew.
During the time of the Knights of St John, Buskett served as a hunting ground for wild rabbits. However, common people were banned from hunting or eating rabbits, except on the day of l-Imnarja. Eating rabbits thus became an act of rebellion and an important part of the Maltese identity. So, it is with good reason that rabbit stew is served and consumed in abundance on the eve of l-Imnarja, in those same hunting grounds we were once unjustly denied.
Agricultural Exhibitions & Competitions
Aside from food stalls serving fresh Maltese dishes, you will also find stands packed with local products like honey and olive oil, as well as a variety of fruit and vegetables. It is a time for farmers to rightfully boast about the product of their hard work by displaying their finest produce on the numerous stands that decorate the entrance to Buskett.
They are an ode to Malta's agricultural roots and its fertile land which has sustained our civilisation for thousands of years. From onions and turnips the size of footballs to watermelons and pumpkins as heavy as boulders, there's no denying the richness of Maltese soil and the mastery of our farmers. These displays are usually accompanied by exhibitions of traditional agricultural machinery and tools that were or are still used to cultivate the land. You will even find animal breeders showcasing their most prized livestock including rabbits, cows and fancy poultry.
These exhibitions typically start on the eve of l-Imnarja and last throughout the next day as well. However, you should expect even more animals on the day of l-Imnarja as this is when the much sought-after animal competitions take place. From the early hours of the morning, Buskett Gardens is packed with herds of well-groomed cows, sheep, goats, equines and even hunting dogs waiting to be examined by the judges for their respective competitions. The end of the Mnarja is marked by the announcement of the winners and the dissemination of prizes.
But before we close it all off we have to talk about the folk performances and traditional games that play out throughout both days of the festival.
A Taste Of Malta's Folklore
As the parade reaches the end of its course, people dressed in folkloristic wear take to the stage to welcome visitors with traditional Maltese songs and dances. A whole programme of performances is prepared, showcasing the diverse and rich musical traditions of our island that last through both the eve and day of l-Imnarja.
One of the musical Maltese traditions you will get to experience is our beloved 'ghana' — slow songs, typically humorous in nature, sung to rhythmic guitar music which come in a variety of styles starting with 'ghana spirtu pront'. This form of ghana is like a folkloristic rap battle — it is completely improvised and takes the shape of a discussion on a certain topic between two 'ghannejja' who have to follow a rigid syllabic structure. Alternatively, 'ghana tal-banju' refers to traditional songs that are known by heart, having been used for centuries by locals during work. Another style is 'ghana tal-kelma' where the ghannejja are given a series of words which have to be included in the song. Finally, 'ghana tal-fatt' which is a more thought-provoking type of song prepared beforehand and tells stories that vary from historical occurrences or contemporary topics.
There is also the 'makkjetti' which takes a more theatrical and humorous approach to ghana. They typically involve a pre-written short story that is acted out with ghana weaved into the performance, somewhat like a short musical. The masterful guitarists controlling the strict tempo of ghana also get a chance to let loose and show off their skills with instrumental performances known as 'prejjem'. This is an improvised guitar tradition where the musicians are given the stage to perform a piece of their own work or freestyle on the spot. And that's not all! You will also get to experience the sounds of traditional Maltese instruments such as 'iz-zafzafa', 'it-tumbur' and 'iz-zaqq' which looks like a bagpipe but is actually the carcass of a headless goat.
Aside from musical performances, you will also get to experience Maltese traditional dance. This usually involves dance groups dressed in typical village attire of times gone by, twirling and swirling to melodic folkloristic tunes both alone and with partners. And to top this celebration of Maltese folklore, traditional games are also organised for all to enjoy, together with stalls for traditional crafts such as stonework, weaving, filigree, lace, pottery, tiles and wicker among others.
L-Imnarja is not only a celebration of our national heritage but also an educational experience that keeps our age-old traditions alive from one generation to the next.