Track By Track: A Lily – Saru l-Qamar

5 Minute Read

Crafting a musical tapestry by pairing vintage Maltese home recordings with contemporary compositions A Lily’s Saru l-Qamar is an album brimming with nostalgic ambiance, fostering a rich cross-generational conversation.

A Lily (as you may well know from his Bytes outings) is the musical alias of Phantom Limb founder James Vella.  Recent album, “Saru l-Qamar” is a blend of archival Maltese home recordings and new music drawing inspiration from the old Arabic roots of the Maltese language and Vella’s ambient inclinations. Delving into the intimate stories shared through decades-old tape recordings, Vella skillfully intertwines them with his own arrangements, creating a oneiric journey through time and memory. Supported by the Malta Arts Council the album is a testament to Vella’s dedication to preserving his cultural heritage through music.

Out via his own Phantom Label it’s a deeply personal and highly accomplished LP from the producer so we asked James to break down the album track by track for us… Order the LP Here



1. Żeżina Ddoqq is-Sħab
The base recording for this track was a strange and genuinely moving song from an undated tape. The woman in the recording reveals that she lost her love to something beyond her control, perhaps adulthood or maybe even to wrongdoing. She sings “mindu rabbejtli l-mustaċċi kemm sirtli mqareb. U naqbadhomlok, naqtagħhomlok, u nbigħhomlok”: “since you grew a moustache you became naughty, so I’ll grab it, cut it, and sell it.” The title translates to “Żeżina performs the clouds”. Żeżina is the name of the woman, credited only as such on the tape, and the Maltese word ddoqq relates to performing musical instruments. I liked the implication that, in order to tell us the true meaning of her song, she needs to employ the heavenly.


2. Kemm Nixtieq Li Qed
Kemm Nixtieq Li Qed” translates in English to “how much I wish it were so”. While working with the recordings, I found this to be a remarkably common sentiment – usually in the form of “kemm nixtieq li qiegħed Malta”: “how much I wish I was in Malta”. The phrase itself is imbued with sadness, but in this recording that sadness becomes so real, so tangible: in many cases (including my own family’s), those that left Malta in that period left in search of more stable political prospects that allowed them to live and work freely. Many were torn away from their home, their friends, their lives. I wanted to express this sadness in my arrangement of the recording, and I wanted to honour the experiences of the speaker on the tape. Not much of his tape has survived the decades since its recording, but even these snatches of audible dialogue reveal a deep lament. My arrangement – as with the rest of the album – is for hardware synthesis, focussing on gentle beatless rhythms and a melody line that floats in a reverberous space to reflect the passage of time.


3. Flimkien Ngħaddu Mill-Bieb
I returned to Żeżina’s recordings for this track. The way her voice rises and wanes with total sincerity was such a beautiful expression to arrange around. The title translates to “together we pass through the gate”, a reference to the total sacrifice and surrender Żeżina describes in her own song. “Li kienet l-imħabba toqtol u għalik kieku hawn ili maqtula u mindu qalbi lilek ħabbet”: “If love killed, I would have been dead a long time for you, since my heart loved you.” The main melodic lines from my composition were built on the Arturia MicroFreak, on a slightly weird and buggy patch I spent ages making.


4. Ħajti Kollha, Qalbi
The first single from the record was heightened considerably by the beautiful videography of project collaborator Nicholas Bonello. Nick used my family’s own home videos – shot by Nannu in the 50’s and early 60’s – and created something magical from it. The key line in this recording was “n-nifs tiegħek jhennili ħajti kollha”: “Your breath brings joy to my entire life”. Breath is an interesting and important concept in Maltese language and culture. One of the ways we refer to ourselves is “nnifsi”, which translates into English as “my breath” (interestingly, another way is to say “ruħi”: “my soul”). I didn’t do much editing to the tape here – it was beautiful on its own. I just shifted the timing and pitch a little, and created my arrangement around it.



5. Nitolbu Lil Dawk Li Lejlu
This piece is built around its pedal point – the unchanging drone chord (performed on a Korg synth) that only wavers minutely in pitch throughout the track. There’s also a snippet of a rejected take, resampled into a single pluck and treated with a long, even delay so it echoes on a slow pulse. It reminds me of a ticking clock, which helped inspire the title. The word “lejlu” does not translate well into English, but it’s something like “to pass through the night”, but it also has implications of becoming the night or being the night. In full, “we pray to those who pass through the night”. The base recording was taken from the same tape as Kemm Nixtieq Li Qed, its singer struggling through the haze of time and tape degradation to make his voice heard, as if he is becoming the night.


6. Tħallinix
This song was very important to the project. The singer in the recording is expressing so much anguish that my contribution as arranger fell into place almost in real time. I started with the piano line that makes up the final coda of the track as a kind of response to her words and melodies, playing along with her, and only moved to hardware synths after I had recorded an entire song with the piano. Eventually, as the structure and body of the track came together, I shifted the piano to the end, after the tape had finished, to better reflect her words and the title of the song: “Don’t leave me”. The piano remains after she has gone, so she was not left.



7. Erba’ Aħwa
“Four Brothers”. I wrote this song about the families that left (or had to leave) Malta during the period of political upheaval during Prime Minister Dominic Mintoff’s highly contentious premiership. Many families were split over this time, with younger generations (especially those with academic interests) moving away from their home in search of different futures. It was not uncommon for the sons and daughters of a single family to move to different parts of the world. My own family now has branches in the US, UK, and Australia. So the song is about four brothers moving to different countries, and the anguish and grief that must have been felt by their parents and elders, their friends and community. Actually, the voice in the recording is addressing his daughter (“aw, binti”), but I split his voice into four separate lines to reflect four brothers.


8. Sirna l-Qamar
While I was listening to the archival tapes, I stumbled across my favourite – Żeżina – humming to herself, perhaps not aware the tape was still running, or maybe just filling time to keep it running. These few moments came after a long stretch of silence, which makes me believe the former. Her melody is punctuated with little giggles, leaving us with a curious picture of what was happening in her life. She sounds contented, but who can really tell for sure. I treated this recording with the same depth of arrangement as the lyrical recordings, because there is something very lyrical about her wordless hums. I’m certain she is telling us something, certain she is somewhere above us looking down with a knowing enjoyment that even her humdrum daydreams can help tell her story and keep her with us.


9. Issa, Kuljum, Għal Dejjem Żgħażagħ
This track title could have two meanings, not in its translation but in its interpretation. In English it comes out as “now, every day, forever young”. There is a sadness here, reflecting loss and mourning. This is not unintentional. A lot of the archival recordings reflect grief. Grief is something that needs to come out; it is no surprise that these people needed to tell their stories to a tape, perhaps a better listener than another person could be. I wanted my arrangement to acknowledge these heartrending stories, and I wrote it in a sad place myself. However, another interpretation of the title is that the elderly remain young, however old they are in earth years. At the end of the track (and album) I switch to the final moments of a tape by another favourite – Manwel, likely an old man – and his recording from a social gathering, singing playful, bawdy and perhaps drunken folk songs to a happily contributory audience, with young and old voices audible in the room.