The following article is an overview of the career of Maltese composer, arranger, and conductor Paul Abela. The main source of information are two interviews with Mr Abela, conducted by Bas Tukker in November and December 2018. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Paul Abela's Eurovision involvement (part 4).
All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2018
- Short Eurovision record
- Eurovision Song Contest
- Other artists about Paul Abela
- Eurovision involvement year by year
- Sources & links
Though the child of two Maltese parents, Paul Abela was born in Detroit, USA. Right after World War II, his father, like so many inhabitants of the Mediterranean island, moved to America to find a job. “Because there was not much work in Malta at that time”, Paul Abela comments. “He stayed in Detroit for twelve years, first working in the Ford factories and later for a pharmaceutical company. In 1957, when I was three years old, the family moved back to Malta. We settled down in the town of Mosta, where dad opened a grocer’s shop. After his long stay in America, he spoke fluent English, which served him well as he had a lot of British customers who lived in the UK army base nearby. Neither my father nor my mother were into music, but one of my uncles was a drummer – and a good crooner as well. He emigrated to Canada and was a music professional there for twenty-five years. Looking up to him, I wanted to learn to play the drums as well, but that never came about… I was sent to accordion lessons instead. I was not given much choice; especially my grandmother was quite stern, forcing me to study seriously. I was not very keen on these lessons. Sometimes, I ran away while they were still going on… I preferred to play football with friends. In fact, one of them was Ray Agius, who was a couple of years older and grew up in the same street in Mosta; we often played football against each other!”
Finally, at thirteen years of age, Paul gave up the dreaded accordion and switched to the piano. That same year, 1967, he joined a band, the New Cuorey, which performed at the Mellieħa Bay Hotel during the summer season. “… and that was the end of the piano lessons as well!”, Paul admits. “I bought a Yamaha organ which was the instrument I played in the band. To play our tunes, my music theory knowledge was sufficient… I mean, I had learned how to read music properly. I taught myself to play the organ, the sound of which was very popular at that time thanks to bands such as Procol Harum. We played covers and our own songs, which were mostly in folk-pop style."
Managing to make a living as one of the few music professionals in Malta in those years, Paul stayed with the New Cuorey quartet for eleven years, between 1967 and 1978, performing at the Mellieħa Bay Hotel each summer. Besides, they also released several single records in English – to sell to hotel visitors – as well as in Maltese to serve the local market. Over the years, the New Cuorey had several number one records in Malta, including ‘Bħal daż-żmien konna flimkien’ (1973) and ‘L-aħħar bidwi f'wied il-għasel’ (1976), both of which Paul co-wrote with Mosta-based lyricist Alfred C. Sant; each of these two songs have become part of Malta’s collective memory – and later on, the last-mentioned title was even recorded in an Italian cover version by Claudio Baglioni. Sant and Abela also teamed up for the 1975 Malta Song for Europe competition, in which they came second with ‘Live For Tomorrow’, a ballad interpreted by Mary Spiteri.
Keen to broaden his knowledge of music, Paul followed private lessons in composition and orchestration with Charles Camilleri in 1972-73. “Maestro Camilleri mainly was a classical composer,” Paul comments, “but he wrote some folk songs as well, of which he did an album with Mary Rose Mallia. Earlier on, Camilleri had played with my uncle in Canada, so there was a connection with my family. Being my first teacher of music theory, he really influenced me. Meanwhile, I also started getting into jazz. In Mosta, there was a jazz drummer called Charles Gatt, or ‘City’ Gatt as his nickname was. He had a jazz group with which he played at hotels and clubs across the island. For his band, he was always on the look-out for young talent. Ray Agius played the organ with him for some time, but when he left, Charles asked me as his replacement. At Charles’ instigation, I listened to jazz records – and I was hooked from the beginning. Chick Corea possibly was my favourite; but then there were also Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans. On two or three occasions, Charles and I made a short trip to London to find inspiration at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. In those years, Charles was my closest friend.”
After a holiday with Charles Gatt in Canada and the USA, the two friends decided to take the leap and enter the reputed Berklee College of Music in Boston. In 1978, they settled down in Massachusetts. Whereas Gatt stayed for one year, Abela completed the full three-year jazz course. “That was because, as an American citizen, I could apply for a grant,” Paul explains. “Finishing the full course would have cost me a fortune without a US passport, whereas now I was eligible for financial aid. Studying in Boston was a big adventure – in these days without Internet or mobile phones, I stayed in touch with Malta by telegram and the odd phone call; it was lonely at times, but it was the best adventure of my life as well. To me, studying in Berklee wasn’t even about standing a better chance to succeed as a musician in the long term, but simply about broadening my outlook and immersing myself in music totally.”
In Boston, Paul studied composition (with Michael Gibbs), orchestration, jazz harmonies, film scoring and contemporary music. “There were also big band projects in various styles,” Paul adds. “I tried to widen the spectrum as far as possible. Conducting was part of the curriculum as well; though ‘Berklee’ is essentially about jazz, we used to also cover classical and contemporary music. There were great teachers from all over the world, with vast experience, and we were taught things which would take years to find out by yourself. The music education I was given in Boston offered me the possibilities to use a more varied vocabulary of music later onwards, when working on a musical, a pop song or a film score. Thanks to Berklee, musically speaking, I now had a whole set of tools to my disposal; the more tools you have, the better it is for your outlook on music. It doesn’t mean you have to use these tools all the time, but at least there is the option open to you to go for a different solution.”
“At that time, rock opera was a popular genre of theatre,” Abela comments, “and foreign productions such as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were appreciated in Malta as well. Song styles in ‘Ġensna’ cover different genres of music, from funk to ballads, from rock to contemporary. Musical taste is inevitably influenced by one’s environment – and I had grown to love all these genres during my time in Boston. Ray Mahoney did a great job at adapting the Maltese language to rock opera. As there weren’t any multitrack recording studios in Malta yet, I insisted on having the backing tracks recorded in a proper studio in Catania. Meanwhile, Joe Galea managed to get all famous local singers on board… Bayzo, Mary Rose Mallia, Renato, Catherine Vigar and Joe Cutajar. Another member of the cast, Paul Giordimaina, managed his breakthrough in ‘Ġensna’."
Since ‘Ġensna’ was first performed in 1981, Paul Abela has been involved in several other original Maltese musical productions for which he wrote the music himself, such as ‘Bastilja’, ‘Ali Baba’, ‘Taħt tliet saltniet’ and ‘1565’. Besides, he was the producer and conductor of a long list of Maltese versions of Broadway and West End stage shows.
After the success of ‘Ġensna’, Paul Abela and a friend, producer Joe Baldacchino, put together the necessary money to open Malta’s first multitrack recording facility, Smash Studios. Virtually all Maltese pop and rock singers recorded at the studios at one time or another. Especially when the annual International Festival of Maltese Song, Malta’s main song festival in the 1980s, was approaching, Abela spent long days in the recording studio.
Also as a composer of festival songs, Paul Abela soon became one of the forces to reckon with in Malta, winning first prize in the International Festival of Maltese Song on four occasions in total, twice during the heyday of the festival in the 1980s with Bayzo (1982: ‘Muzika, muzika’) and Joe Cutajar (1984: ‘Messagg’ ta-sliem’), and two more times later onwards with Catherine Vigar (1997: ‘Min jaf għaliex’) and Olivia Lewis (2013: ‘Hawn mill-ġdid’).
From the 1980s onwards, Paul Abela’s compositions were regularly chosen to represent Malta abroad, not only in the Eurovision Song Contest, but also in other festivals, such as the Sopot Festival (Poland), the Lyre of Bratislava Song Festival (Czechoslovakia), the Megahit Mediterranean Song Contest in Antalya (Turkey) and the Budva Mediterranean Festival (Montenegro). Although hard to believe for someone who took part in festivals at home and abroad dozens of times, Abela claims not being particularly fond of song festivals.
Apart from his studio work, Paul Abela occasionally played the piano in hotels and clubs in the 1980s, often working in a duo with the singer Georgina, who became his wife in 1986. A third source of income was his work as a teacher of music theory, piano, and improvisation at the Johann Strauss School of Music in Valletta, later renamed the Malta School of Music. Abela taught at this state-run music school for over twenty years (1985-2008).
In the early 1990s, Paul Abela left Smash Studios, preferring to continue independently from his own home studio. In 2001 and 2003, he co-composed two albums for Maltese pop singer Fabrizio Faniello, ‘While I’m Dreamin’ and ‘When We Dance’, both of which were released internationally on the German CAP-Sounds label. Abela also wrote orchestrations for songs by Ronan Keating and Gigi D’Alessio for a concert with Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja and the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Moreover, he has written jingles, signature tunes and background music for television series such as ‘Angli’. In 2008, he scored an animation film about the Knights of Malta, called The Diary.
In 2014, Paul Abela became one of two resident conductors of the PBS Orchestra, which has meanwhile been renamed the Malta Concert Orchestra (MCO). “It is a part-time orchestra,” Abela explains, “and it includes some of the country’s best instrumentalists. The number of players depends on what we need for a certain concert or show, but it usually consists of thirty to forty elements. I share the conducting job with Joe Brown. We play any genre that is not classical music, ranging from Christmas songs to Maltese folk. Especially in the summer months, we do a lot of theme concerts – with Maltese songs, Italian hits, musical repertoire, golden oldies… you name it. The orchestra also accompanies the annual L-Għanja tal-Poplu song festival.”
Until today, Paul Abela has been composing and arranging pop songs, conducting the Malta Concert Orchestra, whilst continuing to work on local Maltese musical productions. “Since my return to Malta in 1981, work has continued coming my way steadily,” he comments. “Recently, in 2017, working with David Borg, I produced the closing concert for the Malta EU presidency; one year later, when Valletta was the European Capital of Culture, I wrote the music to a short film which was projected on the walls of the Castille Palace. There are some things which I have stopped doing: teaching and playing in hotels, to begin with. Still, I hardly take time off."
“Alfred always had a passion for writing lyrics,” Abela recalls, “… and for taking part in song festivals! Like Ray and I, he grew up in Mosta, but he was a couple of years older than us. He was always looking for young musicians with whom he could form a songwriting team. So he approached Ray, who is slightly older than I am; and later he came to me. “Why don’t you start writing songs?,” he asked… and so I wrote something, a little ballad, to which Alfred added the lyrics. Our song was called ‘Live For Tomorrow’ and we submitted it to the Malta Song Festival Committee to be admitted to the 1975 Eurovision selection. I wasn’t a keen Eurovision follower in the 1970s, but when our song passed to the final, it was a nice feeling. It was interpreted by Mary Spiteri and came second behind Renato. I was only 21 at that time! My first composition coming second… it was something which made up my courage to continue as a composer. The success of ‘Live For Tomorrow’ and several other songs which I wrote for the New Cuorey were a big factor in my decision in 1978 to go to America to study music at the Berklee College of Music.”
Mainly due to political circumstances, with successive Maltese Ministers of Culture indicating their disapproval of the country’s continued participation in the Eurovision Song Contest, the island republic stayed away from the festival for sixteen years. Towards the end of the 1980s, however, as Maltese politics drifted towards a more pro-European stance, the country applied to be re-admitted to the Eurovision family. As contest regulations stated that the maximum number of participating countries was twenty-two, Malta had to wait until 1991, when the Netherlands withdrew from participating in the contest in Rome as it coincided with the country’s Second World War Remembrance Day – thus leaving one open spot, which Malta was happy to fill. Malta’s return was a personal victory for the head of Malta’s Song Festival Committee, Gaetano Abela.
“Gaetano had been campaigning for years,” Paul explains about the man who shared the same surname, but is not related to him in any way. “He was not a professional musician, but a man who was passionate about song festivals – and passionate about anything he undertook in life; Gaetano was an impulsive and fiery character. As an entrepreneur, his speciality was management, which is why he chaired the committee. Having said that, he could never have succeeded without the government’s support. The decision was cheered by Maltese musicians. At that time, there was no Internet, no Facebook, no nothing… Malta was far more isolated than it is nowadays – and opportunities to showcase Maltese culture abroad were scarce. For any songwriter or vocalist, Eurovision was a huge opportunity.”
Abela only has the best of memories of working with Paul Giordimaina. “We had a wonderful time, even before arriving in Rome… already while in Milan and Florence, where Georgina and Paul rehearsed the choreography. We made the trip from Milan to Florence by car with an Italian manager who took care of Malta’s Eurovision entry. It was a wonderful time! Paul Giordimaina’s jovial character was the main cause why none of us felt any pressure once we arrived in Rome for the Eurovision Song Contest – the second reason being that we didn’t know what to expect. In previous years, we hadn’t been following Eurovision, as Malta wasn’t in it. Of course, we were committed to doing as best we could. For Georgina, a special dress was ordered from a tailor in Rome, which we collected a couple of days before the broadcast. Not much was left to chance.”
Paul also took the opportunity to sit in at the rehearsals of performers from other participating countries. Asked who impressed him most, he does not miss a beat, “That girl from Portugal! (Dulce Pontes – BT) Her voice was great, but, unfortunately, probably due to being overexcited, she didn’t sing too well in the concert itself. At that time, she lacked the experience, but I wasn’t surprised when she made an international career some years later. She is considered the queen of fado nowadays.”
In the festival final, Paul Giordimaina and Georgina gave a strong performance of ‘Could It Be’. To the surprise of many international followers of the festival, Malta did very well in the voting, scoring over 100 points and obtaining a sixth place.
“The composition was signed by my wife Georgina,” Paul comments. “In those years, she regularly tried her hand at songwriting… and the initial idea of ‘Little Child’ was hers. I helped her, though, especially in the harmonies, so it was in fact a co-composition, but I gave full credits to her. Again, the lyrics were done by Raymond Mahoney. We had no idea we had just created a winning formula. Without a performer, it is hard to tell if a song is going to be successful or not. It was composed at the piano and there was no talk yet of Mary Spiteri performing it. When submitting the piano demo to the selection committee, we added a note stating that we believed this song would be good for a female vocalist. There was little point in thinking who to give it to before the selection committee chose it for the Maltese heats. Singers usually didn’t commit themselves to specific songs either. Once it had passed the committee, we decided to offer it to Mary – and we were delighted when she accepted. Mary was one of the biggest stars of the island.”
Despite some stiff opposition from the likes of Renato, Mike Spiteri, Moira Stafrace, and good-old Enzo Gusman, Mary Spiteri and ‘Little Child’ won the ticket to Malmö. As a matter of course, Paul Abela himself had done the lush orchestration for the song. Again, a professional recording was done in Italy with Vince Tempera.
Although tension rose, Abela managed to enjoy the favourable circumstances under which he could work in Malmö. “First of all, Mary Spiteri was an experienced artist who knew how to deliver the song. In each rehearsal, she sang excellently. Furthermore, the orchestra was perfect. They had rehearsed the arrangement properly by the time we arrived. We knew we had a good song and a good singer – and in front of the orchestra, I was sure of what I was doing too. So, in spite of some inner nerves, I had my mind at rest that everything was going well. The main thing was to deliver a good performance – and then you have to leave it up to others to determine the result.”
Endowed with a rather withdrawn personality, Paul Abela did not devote too much time to socializing with delegates from other countries – unlike Eurovision annuals such as Noel Kelehan and Ronnie Hazlehurst. “I do remember these two guys,” Paul comments. “They were good friends of Gaetano Abela, who invited the both of them over as judges in the Malta Eurovision selection at some point, but I didn’t get involved with them. Ronnie and Noel were people with a long experience. They knew what to expect… they were also older than me. They enjoyed the social part of the Eurovision Song Contest, but going out drinking beer has never been a favourite pastime of mine. While Gaetano took care of maintaining relationships with the other countries, we focused on the performance. It is not as nowadays, where the composer goes to Eurovision without anything to do – after all, there was an orchestra to conduct and the sound mix to take care of. It could be nerve-wrecking and hard, but it was more satisfying for a musician to be part of than nowadays.”
In the end, the international juries conferred 123 votes upon ‘Little child’; the Maltese entry finished third behind winner Linda Martin (Ireland) and Michael Ball (UK). “… and we were happy with the result,” Abela comments. “Of course, we were hoping to win, but taking part two years in a row, finishing sixth and then third was more than I could have hoped for. Speaking honestly, I feel we deserved to win more than Linda Martin, but Eurovision is all about context. It is impossible to explain why a certain song does well at a given moment – either it makes an impact or it doesn’t. There is a lot of luck involved as well. To my mind, one of the factors why ‘Little Child’ stood out from other entries were the thoughtful lyrics by Ray Mahoney. They fitted this type of melody and this singer wonderfully well. Furthermore, ‘Little Child’ is a title that grabs the attention. I can’t say if it’s the best song I ever wrote – every song has its own quality – but it certainly was one of the most successful ones.”
In following years, Paul Abela continued taking part in the Maltese pre-selection as a songwriter – often with several entries in the running. “At one point, I had five entries in the final, usually songs in very different styles. The competition often was between me and Ray Agius. Together, we sometimes were responsible for half of the songs in the final. Year after year, it was more or less either him or me. We were the big fish in the small pond which was the Maltese music industry in those years – and the two of us were time and again competing for the right to represent Malta… but always in a friendly way! As I usually submitted a lot of songs for Eurovision, I worked with several different lyricists, though mostly with Ray Mahoney and Alfred Sant. Later on, others came to the fore as well and I formed songwriting duos with Philip Vella, Joe Julian Farrugia… and of course with my wife Georgina.”
Meanwhile, the contract with Italian producer-arranger Vince Tempera having expired, the Malta Song Festival Committee had found a new production company, CAP-Sounds, based in the vicinity of Frankfurt, Germany. ‘In A Woman’s Heart’ was the first in a long line of Maltese entries to be recorded at the CAP-Sounds studio. Abela: “We, the songwriters, never got involved in choosing the studio, which was entirely up to the festival committee. As it turned out, the Germans had a different kind of approach as compared to Vince Tempera, as they relied solely on electronics without the use of classical instruments. For ‘In A Woman’s Heart’, it worked well, because it was the type of song that didn’t require many orchestral elements. I was quite happy with the way they did it. Their studio arrangers (Jürgen Blömke and Michael Buchner – BT) changed the song quite a bit – instead of the funky approach I had chosen for the Maltese final, they created a more straightforward pop arrangement. I liked their version and decided to stick to that version when making the orchestral transcription for the festival in Oslo. At that time, I never thought about using a backing track – I don’t even think I was aware it was allowed.”
In the festival final in Oslo’s Spektrum Hall, Paul Abela conducted his own composition. The backing vocalists were Paul’s wife Georgina and two Norwegian girls. Asked about his memories of Oslo, Paul instantly replies, “Mainly that it was very cold! The temperature was the biggest worry for us, especially as Miriam Christine caught a cold. Generally speaking, she was a bit pressured. Being so young, it is hard to make certain decisions about clothing and choreography. I never got involved in these issues. Unfortunately, she was still ill on the Saturday of the broadcast, but she came up with a good performance.”
Asked about the Norwegian organisation, the staging, and the orchestra, Abela has nothing but praise. There was just one nuisance – the Norwegian broadcaster’s decision to leave out the traditional presentation of the respective conductor before each song.
In the voting, Malta scored 68 points and a shared tenth position on the scoreboard. “It came as a bit of a disappointment,” Abela admits, “all the more so as we had come sixth and third in our two previous participations in Rome and Malmö. Already while the rehearsals were going on, it was obvious to me that our song wasn’t making such an impact as we had been hoping. Other entries were drawing more attention. Anyway, that’s life. I don’t regret giving the song to Miriam Christine. It was a young-ish sort of song which fitted her well, and she did a good job. It was a good experience for her. With hindsight, finishing tenth wasn’t that bad, considering how Malta has been faring in Eurovision in more recent years.”
In all following four editions of the Malta Eurovision selection programme, Paul Abela finished second, with Catherine Vigar (‘The Call’ – 1997), Fabrizio Faniello (‘More Than Just a Game’ – 1998), Lawrence Gray (‘The Right Time’ – 1999) and again Fabrizio Faniello (‘Change of Heart’ – 2000). Finally, in 2001, he managed a new win with his composition ‘Another Summer Night’, interpreted by Fabrizio Faniello (lyrics: Georgina Abela), making him one of the few conductors in the Eurovision Song Contest to have been involved in the contest after the involvement of the orchestra in the competition was discontinued in 1998.
“Fabrizio Faniello was very young when I first met him," Abela recalls. "When he first did the Malta Song for Europe, he was only sixteen years old. Fabrizio didn’t know about the Eurovision Song Contest that much. Moreover, his English pronunciation required improvement, since his father is Italian and he had quite a strong accent. I wrote songs in different styles for him. By the time he did ‘Another Summer Night’, Fabrizio had some experience as a performer; you could say he was ready for Eurovision. I composed the song with an international mindset, specifically with Fabrizio in mind. My goal was to give him a summer pop song that could do well internationally on radio and in the charts in the months following the Eurovision Song Contest.”
While another up-tempo entry, ‘Everybody’ by Padar & Benton from Estonia, was crowned as the winner, ‘Another Summer Night’ had to settle for a ninth position with 48 votes. “Obviously, we were expecting to do a bit better," Abela admits. "My plans to turn it into a summer hit were dashed as well. Unless you are in the top three, a Eurovision song gets forgotten afterwards. Maybe this was a type of song that was more radio friendly than suited for a big stage such as the Eurovision Song Contest. It received quite a bit of airplay internationally. To my surprise, it was picked up in Sweden by a local pop group who recorded it in Swedish (Barbados with ‘I mörkret här med dig’ – BT). The album on which it was included sold platinum! For Fabrizio’s career, ‘Another Summer Night’ was quite important. It was a huge hit on Malta and the album which we recorded with him in Germany afterwards, did well too.”
In the following years, Paul Abela’s interest in the Eurovision Song Contest gradually waned, though he co-wrote several more entries for the Malta Song for Europe competition, including ‘Starlight’ for the crossover ensemble Trilogy, which finished second (incidentally Paul Abela’s sixth second place in a Eurovision pre-selection) in 2007.
“That was the last time I felt strongly about a song I had submitted,” says Abela. “At that time, crossover was relatively new – and it is a genre which could have done well in Eurovision. Honestly, though, I am not that keen to compete anymore. Nowadays, a lot of production is involved for each song, which takes huge amounts of time which I don’t have. Another factor is all these foreign composers dropping their songs in the Maltese pre-selections. I wouldn’t ban their involvement altogether, but there should be a system which obliges each entry to have at least one Maltese songwriter. This would allow more space to local music industry. Nowadays, in the Internet era, it is easy to team up with people from overseas. Someone comes up with a melody, someone else writes the bridge, number three adds the arrangement… and everybody wants to put his name on it. Such an exchange of ideas can actually be quite fruitful.”
According to Paul Abela, does the Eurovision Song Contest have a future? “Yes, I think so. Today, there are lots of music competitions on television… X Factor, The Voice, and so on. Eurovision adds the element of rooting for one’s own country. It is obviously successful, as more and more countries are keen to take part – even Australia is in it now. Personally, I long for the times when there was an orchestra. Of course, it was a matter of expenses, but losing it wasn’t an inevitable development; in the San Remo Festival, there is still an orchestra in place – and none of the artists are complaining. It is not a matter of modern or old-fashioned, but television producers prefer using the money on the stage and on the show element. With an orchestra, there is more focus on the song… the music and the lyrics, which I feel is the way it should be. The way the contest is being organised nowadays, rhythmic songs naturally have an advantage over melodies. As I am first and foremost a melodic writer, I regret this situation, but in pop music, there are cycles. Today, there are songs in the charts with just two notes repeating themselves over and over. No doubt, there will be a time when melody will be making a comeback.”
Concluding, Abela states that “Eurovision has been a big part of my career. Back in the days when there was nothing else in Malta to look forward to, there was the Eurovision Song Contest. All people involved in the local music industry used to do their best. We spent a lot of energy on it. The Maltese final was the highlight of the year. These days, however, there are things which to me are more important. Nowadays, a huge part of my energy is devoted to theatre productions, mainly musicals. I still watch the Eurovision Song Contest, but that’s about it. I don’t regret having taken part – quite the opposite, because we always scored quite well and even came close to winning it with Mary Spiteri.”
- Bas Tukker interviewed Paul Abela twice, in November and December 2018
- A newspaper article about Mro. Abela’s rock opera, “Ġensna, a nation’s music”, in: Times of Malta, March 21st, 2009
- Photos courtesy of Paul Abela & Ferry van der Zant
- Thanks to Tin Španja for uploading the videos of Paul Abela's 1991, 1992, and 1996 Eurovision participations.