Paul Abela

Born: March 1st, 1954, Detroit, Michigan (United States)
Nationality: American (1954-1985) / British (1954-1964) / Maltese (1964-)

Eurovision record
One of Malta’s most prolific songwriters and producers, Paul Abela composed and arranged countless songs for the Malta Song for Europe competition. He managed to reach the international festival final four times, landing on a spot with the first ten on all of these occasions. He composed, arranged, and conducted Malta’s 1991 and 1996 entries ‘Could it be’ (Georgina and Paul) and ‘In a woman’s a heart’ (Miriam Christine). Moreover, in 1992, he conducted the Eurovision orchestra for Mary Spiteri for her rendition of ‘Little child’, composed by Paul’s wife Georgina. Finally, in 2001, three years after the last Eurovision edition with a live orchestra in place, Paul and Georgina Abela co-wrote ‘Another summer night’, with which Fabrizio Faniello represented Malta at the festival final in Copenhagen.

Biography
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. Playing in the New Cuorey was really something. We were paid good money – at least, when compared to what other thirteen or fourteen year olds had in their pockets! During the summer season, I used to put up my tent on the beach for three months, spending the daytime near the seaside; and then go work with the band in the hotel in the evenings. Occasionally, we were joined by foreign singers who did cabaret shows for the tourists. It was a huge adventure. Predictably, my achievements at school did not exactly flourish, although I kept up schooling and went into tertiary education. In wintertime, school was OK, because there wasn’t much to do anyway, but from April onwards, when the tourist season started, I simply stayed away from school to play with the New Cuorey.”

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.

Malta’s number one 1970s pop group, the New Cuorey; standing, from left to right: Paul Abela, Sammy Bartolo, Joe S. Grech and Joe Bartolo. Seated in front of them is Sammy’s sister, who occasionally joined the band as a singer and guitarist

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 Ronny 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.”

Paul’s graduation day at Berklee College of Music (1981)

Thanks to his dual citizenship, Abela could have chosen to stay in America upon graduating from Berklee in 1981, but he preferred returning to Malta. “I missed Malta a lot”, Abela explains. “It was amazing, because there wasn’t much happening on the island at that time, but I missed the way of life, which, back then, was really laid-back. Additionally, in America, as a musician who has just graduated, you are a small fish in a huge ocean, while in Malta I probably was the highest educated light entertainment musician of the country. Upon my return, I joined a friend from Berklee to play in jazz bands in Milan and Florence for three months… because when I returned to Malta, I missed the jazz scene which I had become used to in Boston. I couldn’t help myself! After three months in Italy, finally and slowly, I calmed down to settle in Malta.”

Back on home soil, Paul Abela did not have to go looking for work – quite the opposite, it was offered to him almost immediately. In 1981, producer Joe Galea suggested to him to team up with lyricist Raymond Mahoney on writing a rock opera centring around the milestones in Maltese history. Originally intended as a small venture, the project turned into the biggest music production the island had ever witnessed, in terms of cast (150 actors and singers) and budget. Until today, ‘Ġensna’ (Maltese for: ‘Our nation’) is the single-most successful musical production in Maltese history.

“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’. I remember the opening night. Nobody knew what to expect. After the first night, everybody was impressed. The result was different from anything that had been created in Malta before. In the end, we did thirty-five performances for a sell-out crowd of 1,000 each time at the Valletta Conference Centre as well as an encore at the Megalithic temple of Ħaġar Qim. Without sounding presumptuous, I feel ‘Ġensna’ changed Maltese music culture. Before, the most popular genre on the island had always been folk, but this rock opera showed our language could just as well be used in contemporary styles. Many of the songs from ‘Ġensna’ are still popular today – and the musical has seen several re-enactments.”

The mastermind duo behind Malta’s first rock opera, ‘Ġensna’: Raymond Mahoney and Paul Abela (1981)

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. Abela: “As a musical director, I must have done over thirty musicals by now. In terms of theatre, Malta abides by the English traditions – and therefore genres such as musical and pantomime are popular. I have been doing five pantomime productions a year every Christmas since the second half of the 1990s. For the musicals I composed myself, I worked with some of Malta’s finest poets, first of all Raymond Mahoney, but also Joe Friggieri. Mostly, the subject was a historic event; ‘1565’ was about the Great Siege of Malta, whilst ‘Bastilja’ was inspired by the start of the French Revolution. These productions involved writing lots of song material, generally some twenty-five to thirty for one musical. Luckily, I tend to be a quick writer, especially when there is a hard deadline. Sometimes, I can write a song in five to ten minutes. Inventing a melody has always come easy to me – the fact that I was taught improvisation at Berklee is a big factor in this. I composed the twenty-seven songs in ‘Ġensna’ in two weeks! Usually, the production process which comes after all material has been written takes far longer. Getting the arrangements right, one by one – that is hard work.”

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: “I started in at eight in the morning and stay there until midnight. For the International Festival of Maltese Song, I used to record all the songs with all the singers myself – sixteen to twenty pieces. Except in the case of the material composed by songwriters who scored their own songs, such as Ray Agius, I wrote all arrangements myself. This festival was done with a live orchestra. When I came back from America, I started out by playing the piano in the festival orchestra, but, later on, I became one of the conductors as well. Mostly, the participating songs were subdivided amongst two conductors – with Joseph Sammut or Anthony Chircop usually being my colleague.”

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’). Abela: “When I came back from America, there weren’t many songwriters around. When the International Festival of Maltese Song was organised for the first time, there were only a few serious composers to compete with. The scene was mostly dominated by Sammy Galea, Ray Agius, and myself. In the early years of the festival, back in the 1980s, foreign singers were invited to sing their version of the same song in their own language; ‘Muzika, muzika’ was interpreted by Ben Cramer from the Netherlands. That was one of the most attractive aspects of the festival for me as a songwriter. Some of the songs that took part in that festival are still popular today… titles as ‘Fjura fil-kantina’, ‘Muzika muzika’, ‘Fejn tħobb il-qalb’ and ‘L-ghannej’ spring to mind.”

On stage with fellow-maestro Joseph Sammut at an edition of the International Festival of Maltese Song, mid-1980s

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: “The sense of competition is something I have never quite liked. I prefer concerts or musicals, situations in which everyone works together towards the same goal. Back in the old days, the attraction of taking part in festivals was working with a big orchestra. In the 1980s, the entries in the International Festival of Maltese Song which scored best, were assigned to representing Malta abroad. That is how I did Sopot with Bayzo, and Bratislava with Paul Giordimaina. The most exotic festival I did, however, was with Georgina in North Korea! The North Koreans did a friendship festival with singers from all over the world. They probably wanted to promote their own political system, but it was not political for us. We were invited by the Maltese embassy to come over to Pyongyang. Georgina sang and I accompanied her on the piano.”

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). “The fact that it was a government school meant I had to give up my American passport, because dual citizenship was not available back then. Teaching doesn’t come natural to me and some aspects of it I did not enjoy much, but, in Malta, in order to make a living as a professional musician, you have to do many different things. It wasn’t all bad: I enjoyed teaching improvisation, especially to the good students – those who made tangible progress every week. At the music school, I founded a twenty-piece big band of students, some of whom have gone on to become established musicians in Malta.”

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’.

Conducting the Malta Concert Orchestra (2017)

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. The last couple of years, I have slowed down a bit and allowed my son Ryan to take over here and there. Ryan is a bass guitarist; he studied Music Studies at the University of Malta. He is a singer as well, but he prefers not to take centre-stage. In 2018, he did his first conducting job. It was a staging of ‘Phantom of the Opera’, which I intended to conduct myself. When the rehearsals with the orchestra got started, however, I noticed that my mind wasn’t there. It was such a big production and there were so many things to take into account! Now, my son had already led the rehearsals with the choir – and he knew the music by heart. So I suggested to him conducting the forty-five piece orchestra, allowing me to withdraw to the control desk. It was a big experience for Ryan and it turned out just fine. I intend to continue working at my own pace… as long as people keep calling me for their projects, I see no reason to say no!”

Seated at the piano – with son Ryan playing bass in the background

Paul Abela in the Eurovision Song Contest
Prior to becoming an annual participant to the Eurovision Song Contest from 1991 onwards, Malta took part in the festival on three occasions in the 1970s: having finished dead-last two times in a row in 1971 and 1972 with a song in the Maltese language, the island republic took a pause before returning to the competition one more time in 1975, scoring a twelfth place amongst nineteen participants with Renato Micallef and ‘Singing this song’. The 1975 Malta Song Festival, in which Renato was chosen as Malta’s representative, hailed Paul Abela’s debut as a composer. Though he had created some material for the pop band he was in at that time, the New Cuorey, he never considered composing songs for other artists, until Alfred C. Sant encouraged him to give it a try. Some years before, Sant had also been the driving force behind Ray Agius’ first songwriting creation.

“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 twenty-one 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.

Paul at the piano with Alfred Sant, his friend and lyricist for ‘Live for tomorrow’ (±1975)

“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.”

For the Malta Song for Europe selection programme, Paul submitted ‘Could it be’, an intricate ballad he wrote in cooperation with lyricist Raymond Mahoney. Abela: “Raymond is a very reserved person who used to work as a bank manager, but his lyrics – especially his lyrics in Maltese – are fantastic. He is a real poet. By the time we did ‘Could it be’, I had worked with him many times: we wrote the rock opera ‘Ġensna’ as well as several other stage shows and many Maltese songs. For our musicals, I sometimes wrote music to lyrics which Raymond had come up with, but for a festival song, in which the storyline is not that important, I preferred writing the melody first and giving it to the lyricist once I was happy about the melody. I composed ‘Could it be’ in ten minutes. From the start, it was written with Eurovision in mind. In 1989, I had done a musical about the French Revolution, ‘Bastilja’, in which my wife Georgina had some parts which she sang together with Paul Giordimaina. It had struck me how well their voices blended together. That is what gave me the initial idea to write a duet for Eurovision for them. Moreover, mixed duos did well in the charts in those years (for example Linda Ronstadt & Aaron Neville with ‘Don’t know much’, 1990 – BT).”

In 1991, the selection committee in Malta picked twenty-four songs in total for two semis, from which half progressed to compete in the final, held in Valletta’s Mediterranean Conference Centre or March 23rd. Each song was performed both in Maltese (for which ‘Could it be’ became ‘Sejjaħ u ssibni’) and in English. Only after ‘Could it be’ had been picked for the semi-final, Paul Giordimaina and Georgina became involved. “In those years,” Abela explains, “the selection committee picked songs based on the sheet music with music and lyrics; and a piano demo. Prior to that, singers didn’t commit themselves to songs, though, in this case, Georgina and Paul obviously knew about ‘Could it be’. From the first rehearsal of the pre-selection in Valletta, we were the favourites to win. At least, that was what everybody was telling us – and, attending the rehearsals of the other competitors, I became more and more confident we could actually do it. When we really did win, it didn’t come as a surprise.”

Paul Abela at the piano rehearsing for the ‘Bastilja’ musical with his three star singers, Bayzo, Paul Giordimaina and Georgina (1989)

After their victory, Paul Giordimaina, Georgina, and Paul Abela headed for Italy to prepare for the international contest. In the Fonit Cetra Studios in Milan, they recorded ‘Could it be’, helped along by Italian arranger Vince Tempera, the man who, in 1975, had conducted Malta’s last entry in the Eurovision Song Contest. “That was because the Malta Song Festival Committee believed we needed someone with international experience,” Paul comments. “As we had been out of the contest for such a long time, there was a fear we were out of touch. They wanted an experienced guy. Tempera had worked with some of Italy’s most successful pop acts and conducted in the San Remo Festival many times, so I was quite happy that he became involved. He did the arrangement, but apart from some details he left it as I had written it for the selection programme in Valletta. The modifications were done with my consent and he did a good job on the recording. Maestro Tempera was with us in Rome for the contest itself as our musical advisor. He was in the auditorium during rehearsals, but there was never any discussion about Tempera conducting the orchestra instead of me. By that time, I had done quite a bit of conducting in Malta; in the International Festival of Maltese Song, for example. Technically, I was taught all requirements during my student days in Berklee, so all in all I was pretty established.”

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 Firenze 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.”

The 1991 Eurovision Song Contest was held in the Cinecittà Studios, in the southern outskirts of Rome. As the Eurofestival does not have much of a reputation in Italy, there was hardly any local interest in the competition; Italian broadcaster RAI did not seem to take the broadcast too seriously either. “The stage wasn’t ready until the dress rehearsal,” Abela recalls, laughingly. “The venue was not a theatre, but some sort of large hangar. There was no festive atmosphere at all. The Italian crew was there… and some foreign press, and that was it. Also in terms of schedules, the organisation was lax. Timetables were rather approximate, but being Maltese, that didn’t really bother us. Our mentality is not that different from the Italians; I mean, we were sort of used to being laid-back about things as well. It was only in subsequent years, when I participated in Eurovisions held in Scandinavia, that I discovered how disciplined and organised people in other parts of the world can be, especially in Northern Europe.”

Winning the Malta Song Festival – and thereby the right to represent Malta in the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Could it be’, from left to right: Raymond Mahoney (lyricist), Paul Giordimaina (vocalist), Paul Abela (composer, arranger), Georgina Abela (vocalist), Gaetano Abela (head of Malta’s Song Festival Committee) and Dr Michael Frendo (Minister of Culture)

Even the RAI Orchestra of maestro Bruno Canfora did not seem fully committed to the job. Abela: “Though it is true that their attitude left some room for improvement, I was impressed being given the opportunity to work with the orchestra which I had watched on television accompanying the San Remo Festival. Like most people from Malta, I speak Italian, so the communication with the musicians posed no problems. I was touched when the players reacted well to my song. In the first rehearsal, after having played it for the first time, all of them stood up and clapped. They didn’t expect a harmonically complex song like that from Malta! We appreciated that a lot. In rehearsals, observing the other entries, we had a slight feeling we might be able to finish with the first ten, but we were not familiar with the voting system and had no idea how the rest of Europe would appreciate our song.”

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. Dulce 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. Abela: “All week, I had kept my calm, also for the performance, but when the voting approached, I became really nervous. It was a pleasant surprise when votes from so many countries came our way. We were all very happy with that. Back home, people felt we had done the country proud. A large crowd was awaiting us at the airport when we returned home. After the disappointing results of Malta in the contest in the 1970s, any score with the first fifteen would have been OK – but coming sixth was a big step forward.”

Press conference in Rome at the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest, from left to right: Paul Abela, Paul Giordimaina, Georgina Abela, an Italian interpreter and Malta’s head of delegation Gaetano Abela

Now that Malta had made such a successful return to the Eurovision Song Contest, the governing body of the festival, the European Broadcasting Union, decided to extend the maximum number of countries taking part in the festival to twenty-three, allowing the Netherlands and Malta both back as participants for the 1992 contest, due to be held in Malmö (Sweden). Malta’s representative in that year’s contest was Mary Spiteri, who performed the ballad ‘Little child’. Like the year before, Paul Abela conducted the Eurovision orchestra, though the composition officially was not his.

“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. Abela: “This time around, he didn’t change any element in the song; he simply left my arrangement intact. We weren’t that much aware of it before travelling to Sweden, but in Malmö we sensed from the first rehearsals onwards we were among the favourites to win. Journalists attended our rehearsals in throngs, while some of the other entrants were more or less neglected. That’s how it usually works in a song festival! By the time of the first dress rehearsal, the auditorium was full of people – and everybody we spoke to said we had a good chance. According to all observers, it was between us, Michael Ball from the UK and Linda Martin from Ireland. The feeling was completely different than the year before. In Rome, we had been happy just to take part. This time around, there was more pressure on our shoulders. Could we actually pull it off and win?”

Paul with Georgina and Mary Spiteri in the recording studio in Florence, Italy, for the recording of ‘Little child’; standing next to Paul is Italian producer Carlo D’Apruzzo – with a sound engineer at the back

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, until today, going out drinking beer has not been my cup of tea. While Gaetano took care of maintaining relationships with the other countries, we concentrated 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. Abela: “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.”

In the 1996 Malta Eurovision final, Paul Abela was involved with no fewer than four songs, performed by Alex Schembri, Marita, Miriam Christine Borg, and the duo Renato and Marthese Tanti. To Abela’s own surprise, Miriam Christine walked away with the ticket to that year’s international Eurovision Song Contest final in Oslo with her rendition of ‘In a woman’s heart’ (lyrics: Alfred C. Sant). “Our hopes were pinned on Alex Schembri,” Paul admits, “but he came third. We didn’t expect to win with ‘In a woman’s heart’, because Malta usually chose ballads – following the pattern of Irish ballads which won the contest a couple of times in the 1990s. ‘In a woman’s heart’ was an up-tempo song and I wrote a funky arrangement to it. I didn’t have Miriam Christine in mind when writing it. Georgina recorded the demo and it was obviously a song intended for a female vocalist. It was a bit of a gamble to give it to Miriam Christine, who was only eighteen years old at that time – a girl who used to compete in local children’s festivals. She had never previously performed a song by me, but I decided to give her the opportunity. The song was completely different from our two previous entries, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t happy winning the competition!”

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.”

Single release of ‘In a woman’s heart’

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: “It was a stupid idea about winning time. With five seconds per song, they only won about two minutes at most, whilst being unfair to the conductors. The Swedish conductor (Anders Berglund – BT) and I were the first to notice. We decided to call a meeting of the conductors of all countries and file an official protest. Thereupon, Norwegian television backed down. We were all presented on screen in accordance with Eurovision tradition, but all the same… the writing was on the wall.”

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.”

Miriam Christine Borg on stage during rehearsals in Oslo

Independent from the result, the 1996 Eurovision was the least enjoyable of Abela’s four festival participations. At the time, he had more pressing things on his mind: “About a month before the Oslo contest, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer – and she didn’t have long to live. My first impulse was that I didn’t want to go to Norway; I spoke to Gaetano Abela, our delegation leader, who was really supportive: whichever decision I took, he was OK with it. They would’ve had to go looking for a conductor replacing me, but the question never really arose, because then I told my mother about it and she insisted that I should go! She really took the decision on my behalf… and that was the end of the discussion. Luckily, I was back in Malta when she passed away, which was only about two weeks after my return.”

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.

Paul Abela: “Fabrizio Faniello was very young when I first met him. 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.”

Fabrizio Faniello surrounded by his Danish backing singers at the 2001 Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen

After winning the Maltese heats, Abela accompanied Fabrizio Faniello to the international festival final, held in the giant Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, packed with nearly 40,000 Eurovision enthusiasts on the big night. “There was a great atmosphere,” Abela comments, “like a giant party! We felt ‘Another summer night’ benefited from that, as it was a happy dance tune. Without the orchestra being there, I obviously had less to do than in previous editions – quite a pity, as this song could have worked with a live orchestra. During rehearsals, our delegation was unhappy about the camera shots. We passed our comments to the Danish production team, who, unfortunately, didn’t cooperate at all. Our suggestions were brushed aside and they insisted on doing the shots they liked. There was little we could do. Nevertheless, we had hopes of doing well in the voting. Fabrizio obviously did very well with the girls. In Denmark, he had a lot of female fans!”

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 a mere 48 votes. Abela: “Obviously, we were expecting to do a bit better. 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.”

In the recording studio with former Eurovision participant William Mangion (2019)

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.”

Other artists on Paul Abela
Paul Giordimaina co-interpreted Abela’s composition ‘Could it be’ on the Eurovision stage in Rome, 1991, but teamed up with him on countless other occasions: “Paul Abela has been one of the most important songwriters in shaping my musical career. Starting from the ever-popular rock opera ‘Ġensna’ in the early 1980s, Paul always believed in collaborating with me for important musical landmarks, such as the contest in Rome with Georgina. Having worked with him on numerous projects over the years, I have always found him an unpretentious musician, yet at the same time a true professional who assisted me in bringing out my very best on stage. With him and Georgina, I toured abroad in Canada, Turkey, and Slovakia, where we recorded some of his work with a live orchestra. Apart from his involvement as a composer, Paul also is a very able jazz pianist; as jazz is close to both of our hearts, we still like talking about this genre. Working with Paul always brings new experiences. I want to thank him for sharing some great musical moments together.” (2018)

Close-up (2014)

Links & sources
  • 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 and Olivier Vanhoutte.
  • Thanks due to Edwin van Gorp for putting the article and photos online.

  

Songs conducted
1991: Could it be
1992: Little child
1996: In a woman's heart