The following article is an overview of the career of Maltese composer Ray Agius. The main source of information is an interview with Mr Agius, conducted by Bas Tukker in January 2018. The article below is subdivided into two main parts; a general career overview (part 3) and a part dedicated to Ray Agius' Eurovision involvement (part 4).
All material below: © Bas Tukker / 2018
- Short Eurovision record
- Eurovision Song Contest
- Other artists about Ray Agius
- Eurovision involvement year by year
- Sources & links
Apart from taking private lessons with Sister Benjamina, young Ray also became a member of the music school’s accordion band, led by maestro Victor Zammit. The formation performed across Malta, even making various appearances on national television. While pursuing his secondary education at the Archbishop’s Seminary, Ray continued studying the piano. At the age of sixteen, at a concert held by the Malta Cultural Institute, Ray gave his first piano recital, playing the works of several classical composers.
Simultaneously, he kept on studying harmony and music theory, being taught by two of the greatest Maltese modern classical composers, Carmelo Pace and Charles Camilleri. “Sister Benjamina prepared me for my performing diploma whilst maestro Carmelo Pace coached me to obtain a licentiate diploma in music theory and harmony from examiners of the London College of Music, which I did in 1969. My ambition was never to rely on music as my full-time job as that was quite elusive for anyone in Malta. Though I considered going to university, I applied for a job at a bank – and I was happy about the prospect of earning my own decent living. I continued to work in banking for over twenty years, eventually as a manager.”
In 1969, at the youth centre in Mosta, Ray met Alfred C. Sant for the first time. “This centre was a meeting place for Mosta’s local youth. Alfred and I discovered we shared a passion for pop music. I remember there was an old piano in the concert hall and when it was free, Alfred used to bring his acoustic guitar and we spent hours having fun improvising on various pop tunes and standard numbers. We listened to all pop charts of the moment and song festivals: Eurovision as well as the San Remo Contest. Whilst talking about these well regarded events, Alfred told me about the Malta Song Festival and how he dreamt of participating in it as a songwriter. Though I was not convinced about my talents as a composer of popular music, we agreed we should give it a try. When I sat down at the piano to write the music, the melody came more or less naturally to me.”
‘Ninsew li kien (While My Broken Heart Complains)’, Ray Agius’ first-ever composition, was admitted to the 1969 Malta Song Festival and, being performed by Gina Spiteri and Gorg Agius, attained a fourth place. This proved to be a hearty encouragement for the budding songwriting duo. Meanwhile, beside his daytime job, Ray Agius started playing the piano in dance halls and at wedding ceremonies with the group of Reno Spiteri. In 1970, he was invited to join the band Supernova, composed of Joe Arnaud, Tony Almerigo and Charles ‘City’ Gatt, to play at the Preluna Hotel in Sliema. This gig came by chance as the original British pianist, John Porter, had difficulty renewing his work permit.
“Looking for a replacement, Charles thought of me. I was not so keen playing jazz, especially with such seasoned musicians, but Charles said that he and the other band members would see me through… which is what they did. The most important thing for them was that I knew how to sight-read music. After all, they had written arrangements. The guys of the band gave me advice about which jazz records to listen to for inspiration. Though I studied classical music, I got hooked on jazz. It offered me interesting new horizons! I stayed with Charles’ band for two seasons, but even after that time, occasionally I kept on jamming with the islands’ ardent jazz guys. I even bought myself a Fender Rhodes piano, because I was so attracted to the sound of that instrument. Instead of Debussy and Ravel, I started listening to Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, and Herbert Hancock.… and later on also to Weather Report, Chicago, and Blood, Sweat & Tears. All of this music influenced me profoundly.”
For some seven years, Ray Agius continued playing in different venues across Malta with leading musicians like Val Valente and Sammy Murgo. As a pianist, he played in orchestras which accompanied song festivals, and in 1974, he was the keyboard and piano player in the live orchestra for Malta’s first-ever rock opera, ‘Dream’, staged at the Manoel Theatre in Valletta. In 1978, Agius accompanied world-renowned jazz trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff at a one-off concert in Malta. As his schedule of working in the bank during daytime and playing at night in hotels, whilst at the same time having to maintain a family life, was extremely demanding, Agius scaled down his freelance music activities towards the end of the 1970s, though continuing to pick an occasional gig here and there.
“Maltese songwriters always dreamt of participating in international festivals," Agius explains, "as opportunities at home were so limited. Mary Rose and I went to Japan together. The festival was held at the Budhokan Hall with a capacity of more than ten thousand people. At the first rehearsal, the local conductor asked me if I wanted to conduct the song myself. It was an opportunity I could not refuse, though it was not an easy decision. I was only twenty years old and I had never conducted an orchestra before… but I guess there’s always a first time! The orchestration for ‘Id-dinja taghna’ had been done by maestro Anthony Chircop, but I knew the score almost by heart. We did not win, but it was an unforgettable experience. One of the other songwriters was Michel Legrand and even Björn and Benny of ABBA were there as participants, though they were still unknown at that time.”
Having had his first taste of international festivals, Agius was keen to try again. In 1974, he managed to have a song of his, ‘Got to have you beside me’, performed by Enzo Gusman, admitted to the Castlebar Festival in Ireland, where it placed second. More high-profile were his four participations as a songwriter in the Viña del Mar Song Festival between 1975 and 1979, on all four occasions with singer Enzo Gusman; especially ‘Sing Your Song, Country Boy’ (1976) and ‘Adios, amore mio’ (1978) were extremely popular with the Chilean audience. The former song was actually the winning entry of the Malta Song Festival and due to represent Malta at the Eurovision Song Contest in The Hague, but that year the island republic withdrew its participation. Undeterred, Ray Agius decided to submit his composition for the Chilean festival instead.
In 1978, Malta was among the favourites to win the Viña del Mar Festival with ‘Adios amore mio’, a romantic medium tempo ballad with a Latin feel. It was voted as the press favourite and Enzo Gusman was chosen as the festival’s best singer. In the end however, overall victory was a bridge too far. Ray Agius himself did not attend this edition of the festival.
Back in Malta, Ray Agius and Alfred C. Sant wrote for many different local artists, most notably perhaps Joe Cutajar, Malta’s answer to Frank Sinatra. In 1977, Cutajar released an album of twelve songs all written by Agius and Sant. Three years later, the songwriting duo embarked on another, slightly outlandish recording project: the album ‘Sail Away Jamahiriya’, sponsored by The Voice of Friendship and Solidarity, a Libyan radio station based on Malta. The LP was recorded at Rome’s Mammouth Studio.
In the following years, Agius composed and arranged three more albums for the Libyans – ‘Freedom Diary’, recorded in Rome (1981), ‘Fight To Victory’, and ’Rahiba Tawriha’, both of which were recorded in Catania in 1982. A couple of years later, in Malta, Agius and Sant embarked on another Libya-sponsored recording project, ‘The Struggle’, a rock opera focusing on the themes of colonisation, oppression, and the fight for freedom. In the end, due to a change in directorship at The Voice of Friendship and Solidarity radio station, the plan to have the play staged never materialised – though all compositions were released in Malta on a triple album (1985).
Meanwhile, Ray Agius and Alfred C. Sant continued taking part in song festivals, most notably the International Festival of Maltese Song, first held in 1981, replacing the now defunct Malta Song Festival. Between 1981 and 1989, Agius and Sant wrote four winning entries for Renato & Marisa (twice), Bayzo, and Mike Spiteri. For his winning performance of Agius’ composition ‘Kompjuter’ in 1985, Mike Spiteri was backed up by his band Mirage, constituting the first time ever a rock-band emerged triumphant at a Maltese song festival. Moreover, Agius was awarded with the prize for best orchestration three times consecutively, a significant source of pride to him as the jury members were the members of the orchestra accompanying the festival.
Keen to increase his musical knowledge, Agius followed a course of contemporary composition with maestro Paolo Grech in 1990-91. “It was inspirational learning from Grech, one of Malta’s prolific contemporary music composers who also conducted one of the BBC orchestras when he lived in England. During this period, I composed various pieces in that style for piano solo, piano and flute, violin and violincello. ‘Daydreams’, a piece in 3 movements for piano solo, was performed at a concert held at the Malta School of Music in 1991. At around the same time, I quit the bank. After twenty-two years, I decided I had enough and joined my family business, first in a toy shop and later in my father’s pharmacy. This allowed me to devote more time to composing.”
Beside dozens of compositions for the Maltese heats of the Eurovision Song Contest, to which the Mediterranean republic returned as a participant in 1991, Ray Agius competed in other Maltese song festivals as well in the 1990s, winning the Festival Kanzunetta Indipendenza on two occasions; in 1997 with Tarcisio Barbara and in 1998 with Claudette Pace. Agius also penned two more winning entries for the International Festival of Maltese Song for Lawrence Gray (1998) and Fabrizio Faniello (1999). Moreover, with singer Miriam Christine Borg, he won the Malta International TV Song Contest in 1999. In 1993, when Malta organised the Small Nationals Games, a local competition was organised to determine the official tournament song, which Sant and Agius won with ‘Getting together’, appropriately performed as a duet by Moira Stafrace and Mike Spiteri.
As one of Malta’s most successful composers in the 1990s – the decade in which he represented his country twice as a songwriter at the Eurovision Song Contest – it comes as no surprise that Ray Agius recorded several albums with some of Malta’s most prolific local artists as well, amongst which three with Mike Spiteri, one with Debbie Scerri, and one with Mary Spiteri. At the 1995 and 1997 Malta Music Awards, he won the prize for best composer.
Internationally, Agius managed to participate in an impressive number of song festivals as well in the 1990s and 2000s, first of all winning the Commonwealth Song Competition in 1990 with ‘A House With Many Rooms’ for Manolito & Olivia; as well as picking up first prize in the Cavan International Song Festival in Ireland that same year with ‘Our Little World Of Yesterday’ for Renato & Marisa. In 1997 and 1998, he won a total of three first prizes in different categories at the South-Pacific Song Contest in Gold Coast (Australia) with his compositions for Mary Spiteri, Debbie Scerri, and Mike Spiteri. Besides, songs of his also represented Malta at contests in Pamukkale (Turkey), Almaty (Kazakhstan), Los Angeles (USA), Cairo (Egypt), and Braşov (Romania), picking up several jury awards for best arrangement and best composer in these competitions. For his perseverance as a songwriter in international song festivals, Ray Agius received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2001 Megahit Mediterranean Song Contest in Antalya, Turkey.
Continuing his successful run at the Festival Kanzunetta Indipendenza, Ray Agius wrote five more winning entries in this festival between 2002 and 2016 for Lawrence Gray, Claudia Faniello, Amber, Mike Spiteri, and Dario Bezzina. The new millennium, however, brought new challenges as well; it was not until relatively late in his career that Agius was given the opportunity to write music for television. In 2005, he composed the soundtrack to the TV series L-agenzija.
Later on, collaborating with script writers Michael Vella Haber and Evelyn Saliba La Rosa, Agius wrote the title songs for two more TVM series, Emilya (2009) and Zafira (2012). Between 2011 and 2013, much of Ray Agius’ time was consumed by his work on D.R.E.A.M.S., a high school musical drama for local television.
Looking back on his career in music Agius says, "Of course I would have liked being a fulltime songwriter but it is very hard to live on music only. Given that I am from Malta, where opportunities are scarce, I have had my fair share of festivals abroad – and I enjoyed taking part in them immensely. I would say there is not much reason to complain!”
EUROVISION SONG CONTEST
Ray Agius composed and conducted two Maltese Eurovision Song Contest entries in the 1990s, but he was very much part of the country’s first era of Eurovision participation in the first half of the 1970s as well. In 1972, when the young republic participated in the international festival for the second time, he and Alfred C. Sant co-write three songs which took part in the pre-selection, the Malta Song Festival, of which ‘Ghasfur tac-comb’, performed by Helen Micallef, placed third.
After two bitter placings in the 1971 and 1972 Eurovision Song Contests, Malta did not take part for two editions until trying again in 1975 with Renato Micallef and ‘Singing This Song’, which placed twelfth. The following year, a new edition of the Malta Song Festival was organised and, after the respectable result the previous year, it was generally expected that the winner would take part in that year’s international Eurovision final in The Hague as well. That year, Enzo Gusman won the festival with ‘Sing Your Song, Country Boy’ (or ‘Tifkiriet tagħna it-tnejn’ in Maltese), a lively country pop tune penned by none other than Ray Agius and Alfred C. Sant.
It was not until 1991, after an absence of sixteen years, that Malta returned as a participant in the Eurovision Song Contest. Each year since, a local pre-selection has been held, in which Ray Agius and Alfred C. Sant became avid competitors. Between 1991 and 1993, the songwriting duo had six songs in the running, and though they achieved good placings, victory eluded them. They especially tried hard with Mike Spiteri, who took part in all three editions with a song by Agius and Sant. In 1994, they again submitted a title for Mike Spiteri, ‘Fejn thobb il-qalb (Another Night, Another Heartache)’, but it did not even make it to the final night. Though the song became a radio hit and a top favourite with the Maltese public, Agius was left somewhat frustrated.
Later, as in previous years, a professional recording of the winning Malta Song for Europe entry was done in Italy – in this case a studio in Rimini with arranger Vince Tempera. Tempera, a household name in Italian showbiz, had been Malta’s conductor at the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm. In the early 1990s, the Malta Song Festival Board turned to him several times for recording the Maltese Eurovision entry.
To Ray Agius, it was clear from the start he wanted to conduct ‘Keep me in mind’ in the Eurovision final himself. “The festival organisers in Malta had to work on a shoestring budget and, at a first meeting after we won the Malta Song for Europe festival, we were told they were only willing to pay for the expenses of the singer and the conductor. At that time, the songwriters were looked upon as extras and were not invited for the trip. It was at that point that I insisted on conducting my own composition, something I wanted to do anyway. To the credit of the committee, they accepted my decision right away. Alfred came to Dublin as well, but unfortunately, he had to pay everything from his own pocket. Our delegation was very small and consisted of a handful of people only. Maestro Tempera was part of the delegation too. He had been involved in Maltese Eurovision campaigns in previous years, and, after having overseen the recording of ‘Keep Me In mind’ in Italy, came along as a music consultant.”
The Malta Song Festival Board decided to hire four Irish background vocalists to be on stage with Mike Spiteri instead of bringing along backing singers from Malta. “I was not against it,” Agius comments. “I was told three of them had been part of one of the winning Irish teams (with Niamh Kavanagh in 1993 – BT). They were professional backing vocalists. We rehearsed with them for two or three days before the real rehearsals with the orchestra in the Point Theatre started. In the first run-through with the orchestra, there were some sound problems, which are normal in such big shows, but in the end I was happy with the way it sounded. The orchestra musicians were top-notch. As a result, I was confident we would give a worthy performance on the big night. There was a good response from journalists when they saw Mike in rehearsals. Amongst others, we were interviewed by the BBC, who had high hopes for our song. In the years before, Malta had usually not received good marks from the UK jury, but we received seven points and I was really proud of that.”
Though Ray Agius had taken part as a composer in song festivals in Castlebar and Cavan – winning the 1990 Cavan Song Festival with Renato & Marisa –, he had never been to Ireland before. “These were smaller festivals,” Agius explains. “The participating vocalist was accompanied usually by just a member of the Malta Song Festival board. Coming to Ireland in 1995 was a great experience. I liked the atmosphere: the friendliness of the people, the green countryside, and most of all, the Guinness – fantastic! The organisation of the contest was simply perfect. There was a sightseeing trip to the countryside, which was really nice. We also went to some of the parties organised by other delegations. The Maltese party was organised in Lillie’s Bordello, a pub in the heart of Dublin. We had a good time, I must say.”
In the 1995 Eurovision Song Contest, Malta had the benefit of a good draw, performing second-last in the sequence of all the twenty-three participating countries. Did Agius expect to do really well in the voting, perhaps even to win?
In the end, ‘Keep Me In Mind’ earned 76 votes, finishing tenth. “And I was really happy with that,” Agius laughs. “For Mike, Alfred, and me, it was an excellent result. ‘Keep Me In Mind’ maybe is not the single-most strongest song I ever composed, but it is certainly up there amongst my personal favourites. Perhaps we had a slight advantage to be allowed to sing in English, but I guess the main reason was that song suited Mike so well. On the Eurovision stage, Mike had the power, the adrenaline, and the confidence; it was such a powerful performance! Moreover, he stayed true to himself. He wore clothes he had bought in a Dublin shop the day before the dress rehearsals; and they were credible and suited his style. Finishing tenth was a perfect end to the very positive experience we had had in Ireland. I look back on it with pride.”
What about the singer, Debbie Scerri? “She took part in Song for Europe the previous year and I liked her voice. To me, it seemed an interesting idea to write her an ethnic song, because I felt it would suit her style. ‘Let Me Fly’ was written with her in mind. In the end, all five songs were admitted to the final! It was some sort of revenge after not having any song in the previous year’s selection. It also meant I had to go looking for other singers, because three of the five songs were recorded as a demo by Mary Spiteri, while the rules stipulated she could only sing one. Apart from Mary, for whom I chose a ballad, ‘Lovers Play With Words’, and Debbie, my entries were performed by Alexander Schembri, Claudette Pace, and Tarcisio Barbara. Thanks to a change in the rules, each songwriting team could now choose its own conductor, and therefore I conducted all five songs myself, something which had not been allowed yet in 1995. It was a tricky situation, because I was kind of competing with myself. The Mary Spiteri ballad was a strong contender. There was the risk of points being divided amongst the five songs, resulting in someone else walking away as the winner.”
In the final score, all of Agius’ five entries finished with the first ten; Mary Spiteri came third, but it was Debbie Scerri who was chosen to represent Malta in the international song festival in Dublin. Agius, commenting, “The jury probably picked Debbie because of the style of the composition. Since the festival was held in Ireland, it seemed compatible to have an ethnic song. I had consciously added folkish elements in the arrangement; most notably the harp part. Meanwhile, the organizing committee in Malta had an agreement with a German studio, CAP-Sounds in Frankfurt, so that is where we went to record the song. They also took care of the promotion of the song. The recorded version is quite good, though only the guitar and harp parts were recorded live; otherwise it was all electronics. It was obvious it would sound differently when performed in the Eurovision final in Dublin with a live orchestra.
In 1997, for the first time, it was allowed to bring a backing track with pre-recorded instruments and sounds without the obligation of miming these on stage. “In fact, the organising committee in Malta asked me if I wanted to use the orchestra at all. There was already the understanding that the orchestra would be taken away from the Eurovision Song Contest in one or two years’ time and, therefore, there was already the option to use just a backing tape, but I would have none of it. If there is the opportunity to use an orchestra, what is the point of playback? Obviously, live is riskier than playback, but the feeling with an orchestra is totally different from performing on stage with a karaoke track behind. It's simply impossible to reproduce the enthusiasm of a live orchestra performance.”
“In fact,” Agius further explains, “in Dublin with Debbie Scerri, our performance was entirely live. In Malta, beside the festival orchestra, I had three supporting musicians: Renzo Spiteri, a percussionist, guitarist Philip Vella, and an Italian harp player working for the Malta Theatre Orchestra at that time, Donata Mattei. Though it took some convincing on my part, the Malta Song Festival board finally agreed to take them to Dublin for the good of the song. At some point during rehearsals, though, one member of the Maltese delegation told me how he had heard the instruments on stage could not be played live. This was a pity… what was the point of taking three accomplished musicians to Ireland if all they were allowed to do was miming their parts? Luckily, it turned out later that same day there had been a misunderstanding of some sort. We did not have to use a backing track after all.”
During the broadcast, a minor incident which went unnoticed with television audiences occurred prior to the performance of the Maltese entry. Though the festival was held in the same hall as in 1995, the orchestra was much farther away from the stage. This had allowed producers to use a crane camera which could move all around the stage where the singers performed.
For the international festival final, Debbie Scerri wore a purple-and-blue gown suggested to her by Maltese fashion designers, a dress which raised some eyebrows amongst followers – so much so that she was proclaimed the ‘winner’ of the so-called Barbara Dex Award for worst-dressed artist in the contest. Nevertheless, the Maltese entry did well in the voting, finishing ninth with a total of 66 points. In spite of doing one place better than in 1995, Ray Agius was not completely satisfied this time around.
“There were times when I was slightly disappointed about the results,” Agius admits. “All three songs which finished second were beaten by compositions which failed to impress in the Eurovision contest. My worst experience of these three was with Lawrence Gray in 2003. Lawrence was a clear favourite both with fellow singers and the general public. The expectations were really high. It was his time to go to Eurovision. Strangely enough in the final night, two out of the seven members of the jury gave him extremely low points and Lawrence had to settle for second place. It came as a surprise to everyone. When the results were announced, there was unrest amongst the audience and many left the venue before the programme was over.”
At one point, foreign songwriters were admitted into the Malta Song for Europe competition. Avid international competitors such as Marc Paelinck (Belgium), Jonas Gladnikoff (Sweden), and the ubiquitous Ralph Siegel (Germany) had multiple entries in the Maltese pre-selection.
In spite of all that, Agius still follows Eurovision closely – and there is room for some optimism. “The winners from Ukraine in 2016 and Portugal in 2017 were compositions I really liked. Finally songs which are musically interesting are coming to the fore again. Salvador Sobral’s entry… that is what I call songwriting. No gimmicks whatsoever; just the combination of a good composition and a good interpreter – and that was all that was needed to win the hearts of all the audiences in Europe. If Eurovision continues developing in that direction, who knows, I might try again."
No other vocalist has performed more compositions by Ray Agius than Mike Spiteri. Looking back on their mutual experiences, Spiteri comments, “It was of great satisfaction to team up with Ray and Alfred, two of the island's renowned songwriters. This happened at a time when I was at my peak in the rock scene featuring with bands in another type of music. The collaboration with this duo at the time launched me in the festival scene, eventually leading to my participation in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1995, with ‘Keep Me In Mind’. Most of the songs they wrote for me have been amongst the most popular tunes in Malta, as can be noted by the hits on the general media. Apart from being music enthusiasts and collaborators, I consider Ray and Alfred as being the best of friends.” (2018)
SOURCES & LINKS