Ray AgiusBorn: January 31st, 1952, Mosta (Malta)
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. Agius: “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 fulltime 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. Agius: “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 fourth placing. 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.
In 1972, Agius and his lyricist Alfred C. Sant wrote the single ‘L-ewwel tfajla li habbejt’ for rock band Malta Bums – a huge hit success and a leap into the unknown at the same time, as it constituted one of the earliest examples of a rock song in the Maltese language. In those years, the Agius/Sant songwriting duo became regulars at song festivals in Malta, participating in several editions of the Golden Cross International Children’s Music Festival, the Malta Folk Song Contest, and of course the Malta Song Festival. In 1972, besides placing third in the Malta Song Festival, they had their first taste of an international song contest at the prestigious Yamaha World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo, Japan, with their song ‘Id-dinja taghna (Our world)’, performed by Mary Rose Mallia.
Agius: “Maltese songwriters always dreamt of participating in international festivals 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 first mentioned 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.
Agius: “For Viña del Mar, any composer from across the globe could submit a song and I was lucky to be admitted four times. The Chilean organisation paid for the flights and accommodation of the singer and one songwriter. In 1975 and 1976, I accompanied Enzo in Viña del Mar. Being there for the first time I was not aware that I could have conducted the orchestra, which was already scheduled under the resident conductor. A year later, I conducted my composition ‘Sing your song, country boy’. These were the days of the Pinochet dictatorship; there was a curfew and tanks were in the streets. The festival itself was fantastic, though. It was held in Quinta Vergara, a huge open air venue in a forest, with about thirty five thousand spectators attending. These people were so crazy about the festival! High-profile artists participated or gave a guest performance… Riccardo Cocciante, Julio Iglesias, Matia Bazar, to name just a few. For the Pinochet regime, the festival obviously was a means of propaganda – a method of letting the Chileans forget about their plight for a while. Nevertheless, I would say it was the best festival in which I participated. The atmosphere was simply unbeatable.”
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. “After having visited two times myself, it was only fair that Alfred (Sant – BT) would get the opportunity to attend this time. According to Alfred, Enzo, knowing the audience loved his song, gave a fantastic performance in the final night. He also told me about an impresario who worked for CBS, who wanted to publish our song. He mentioned singers he could offer our song to, the likes of which were Matt Monro, Al Martino, or Andy Williams. Alfred was stunned and felt this was too good to be true, so he suggested getting my approval before signing anything. Eventually this impresario sent us a publisher’s contract which we never returned back signed. With hindsight, it was a stupid thing to do, because, the year after, I was back in Viña del Mar myself… and there was this guy storming up to Enzo to ask why he had never received any answer from Malta regarding the contract. Enzo told him I was the songwriter of ‘Adios amore mio’. It was obvious this guy had been serious about our song all along. He asked me if the song was as yet unpublished, but I told him that we had assigned it to another publisher. This was a golden opportunity for me and Alfred, but we threw it away – unlucky, but that is the way things go sometimes!”
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. Agius: “The project was commissioned by this Libyan radio station, the idea behind it being to promote to a wider audience the ideology of Gadaffi’s ‘Green Book’ through popular music. It had to be a professional production and the managing director promised we could record our songs with a live orchestra if needed. Alfred and I made it clear to him that such a project could not be done in Malta. “No problem”, he said, “you will get your fifty-piece-orchestra and we will record it in a professional studio in Rome”. It was a golden opportunity for us. For years, we had dreamt about going to a professional studio to record our material. This obviously was an opportunity which we could not let pass us by.”
With Alfred C. Sant, Agius wrote all songs for the album. An all-star ensemble of Maltese singers was hired to sing the material: Bayzo, Joe Cutajar, and Mary Rose Mallia. Once Agius had finished his composing work, Alfred encouraged Ray to do the musical arrangements as he believed in his abilities. “At the time, I thought Alfred was joking”, Agius admits. “I had never written orchestrations, but, as so often, he convinced me to do it. I bought some text books about arranging and orchestration and put pen to paper. When I finished the orchestrations, I was really anxious to hear the final result with the orchestra. In Rome’s Mammouth Studios, the resident conductor of the studio was impressed by the arrangements. “This sounds like New York!”, he said. He was astonished when being explained these were the first-ever arrangements I had written.”
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 colonization, 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).
Agius, commenting: “It is regrettable the rock opera was never performed in public, but I am proud of the album which was released. I would describe the music as pop rock, slightly theatrical and occasionally with a jazzy feeling. We recorded it in Malta at Smash Studio. Its owner had specifically brought in state of the art modern recording equipment from abroad, something which I had insisted on. It was recorded on a 24-track machine, something innovative at the time locally. I chose a very strong cast of Maltese singers, one of which was Mike Spiteri. Knowing that I was searching for rock singers, the studio owner told me about Mike, whom I had never heard of before. At the time, he was lead singer of a band playing in clubs and hotels in Tunisia and Denmark. Listening to one or two tracks he had done with rock bands, I instantly fell for his voice and contacted him. Mike was interested in our project. It was the first time we worked together – and it was the start of our friendship.”
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.
Internationally, Sant and Agius had their fair share of festival successes as well. With Enzo Gusman, who had immigrated to Canada, they took part in two Canadian festivals, placing first in the 1980 ‘Compose a Tune for Broadcast Contest’ and second in the 1983 ‘Italian-Canadian Song & Talent Festival’ as well as in the ‘Canada Talent Song Festival’ that same year. Besides, the songwriting duo penned the song ‘Xemx, imħabba, bahar, sliem’, with which Mary Rose Mallia won the Bizerte Festival in Tunisia in 1983, and achieved honourable positions with compositions for Enzo Gusman in the Cavan International Song Festival (Ireland: 1983) and for Mike Spiteri in the Bratislavska Lyra Festival (Czechoslovakia: 1987). Agius: “Unfortunately, I could not go to any of these foreign festivals myself. It would have been far too costly and of course there always was my daytime job! I would have loved to go to the Bratislava festival, especially as I did the orchestration for the sixty-piece orchestra which I could have conducted. In that festival, Mike Spiteri placed fifth. In Bizerte, Mary Rose won the festival, but she was also voted best singer. There happened to be an impresario present there who signed her for performances in Germany, where she worked for a considerable number of years as a professional singer.”
Keen to increase his musical knowledge, Agius followed a course of contemporary composition with maestro Paolo Grech in 1990/91. Agius: “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.
Agius, commenting: “One of my successful tunes in those years is without a doubt ‘Sa l-ahhar’, with which Fabrizio Faniello won the International Festival of Maltese Song in ’99. In fact, it has become one of our island’s most requested songs of all times. That one tune really boosted his career. In English, it translates as ‘Until the end’ and people still love it, requesting it both at funerals and weddings… what a coincidence! Years later, ‘Sa l-ahhar’ was picked up by a German producer and recorded as a cover version by a German pop group, Bella Vista.”
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’. “That series was written by my wife”, Agius explains. “It was the second teleseries for which she wrote the script. For such work you need a different approach when compared to writing a pop song for a specific vocalist; in the case of television, it is all about enhancing the TV experience for audiences, even though most people would not take notice of the music and sound effects.”
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: “It ran for two whole years, every week. It was quite demanding because, for each broadcast, I had to compose two or more new songs on lyrics I was handed, and then record them with singers many of whom did not have much experience. Obviously, they needed a lot of coaching, but finally the series had a strong following in Malta. In fact, in 2013, cast artists from ‘D.R.E.A.M.S.’ were chosen to perform the opening sequences of Malta Song for Europe, our local Eurovision pre-selection.”
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!” Ray and his wife Margaret, a former schoolteacher, actress, and TV host, have two children: Greta, a lawyer by profession and Rudi, who is a Ph.D. graduate from University College London. Having inherited his father’s passion for music, he composes and produces his own music whilst also performing as a DJ both in Malta and abroad under the pseudonym of ‘Jupiter Jax’.
Ray Agius in the Eurovision Song Contest
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. “We really thought we were going to Eurovision”, Agius recalls. “The English version was orchestrated by a British arranger, Olly Blackett, and the Malta Song Festival board paid for the expenses of having it recorded in London and released on Bull’s Eye Records in preparation for Eurovision. When everything seemed to be coming up roses, a strange decision left everyone dumbfounded. Somehow Malta’s participation was withdrawn. It was said that considering the expenses and fees involved it was not feasible for Malta to keep participating in the contest. Gaetano Abela (1940-2018 – BT), the chairman of the Song Festival Board, was ready with the necessary sponsors to cover all expenses, but the decision of the Malta Broadcasting Authority was not reversed. Maybe there was some conflict between the broadcaster and the Malta Song Festival Board, but I never got to the bottom of it.”
Had ‘Sing your song, country boy’ been allowed to take part in that year’s Eurovision final in the Netherlands, would Agius have conducted the song himself? “I do not know. I suspect Joseph Sammut would have been chosen, as he was the conductor of the Malta Song Festival that year as well. As a matter of fact, I was the pianist in his festival orchestra that year! Later that same year, I led the orchestra in Chile for ‘Sing your song, country boy’ in the Viña del Mar Song Festival myself. The fact that the song was admitted to Viña del Mar made up partly for the disappointment of being denied the opportunity to do Eurovision… at least, for me. Enzo was more devastated than I was. He had already won the Malta Song Festival in 1974 with a song he had written himself (‘Paċi fid-dinja’ / ‘Peace to the world’ – BT), only to see Malta withdraw in that year as well. Funnily enough, in 1995, when I represented Malta with Mike Spiteri and ‘Keep me in mind’ at Eurovision in Dublin, Enzo was there as a commentator for TVM. I exchanged one or two jokes with him about how he finally managed to get to Eurovision, and Enzo, being the great character that he is, was really good-humoured about it.”
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.
“I was so disappointed about the Maltese Eurovision heats that I wanted to give up and not participate anymore, but it was Mike who kept on insisting to give the festival a last chance. Deciding to have one more go, I composed another song for him for the 1995 Malta Song for Europe. That song was ‘Keep me in mind’. As usual, I wrote the music first before giving it to Alfred. I prefer it that way – creating the melody that I want, and then perhaps adapt one or two things at Alfred’s request. We have always had a marvellous working relationship, in part because he is a musician as well. He is one of the few lyricists I know who actually reads music. I used to just give him the music sheet, he played it at home on his guitar, and then added the lyrics – which is how it should be! Mike really believed in the song from the moment he heard the demo version. ‘Keep me in mind’ was written in a style which suited his powerful voice. I remember how he said he was hoping so much that he would win this time – and, luckily, this time he really did win!”
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. Agius: “Though, at a meeting in Malta, I had given Tempera carte blanche to do with my original festival orchestration whatever he wanted, he actually made only very slight alterations, claiming he felt it was good as it was. I am really happy with the recording we did in Italy. The rhythm and brass sections were recorded live. There was a very good drummer by the name of Lele Melotti. He used to gig with Zucchero and Vasco Rossi. The studio owner told us we were lucky to get this guy for our session.”
To Ray Agius, it was clear from the start he wanted to conduct ‘Keep me in mind’ in the Eurovision final himself: “The festival organizers 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 as well and, after having overseen the recording of ‘Keep me in mind’ in Italy, came along as a music consultant.”
The Malta Song Festival Board had 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 tops. 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 ’95 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? “Well, you never can tell what happens in any competition, but I was hoping for a top ten placing. For Malta to ever win the Eurovision Song Contest is somewhat hard considering the big budgets some countries can afford for promotion. Back then, it was not uncommon that there was a lot of lobbying for votes between countries. Of course our delegation leader Gaetano Abela did his utmost. It was largely due to his efforts and pressure with local authorities that Malta returned to the contest in the early 1990’s. When budgets were tight, he also forked out some extra money from his own pocket. All of this proves just how dedicated he was to the Eurovision Song Contest. He really had the festival at heart.”
In the end, ‘Keep me in mind’ earned seventy-six 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 adrenalin, and the confidence; it was such a powerful performance! Moreover, he had stayed true to himself. He wore clothes he had bought in a Dublin shop the day before the dress rehearsals, but 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.”
Two years later, when the Eurovision Song Contest final was again held in Dublin, a composition by Ray Agius was chosen as the winner of the Maltese pre-selection once more: ‘Let me fly’, an ethnically inspired melody performed by Debbie Scerri. This time, Agius had not only taken care of the music and arrangement, he had also written the lyrics himself: “It was the first time I wrote a song all on my own. The thing was, after the 1996 Malta Song for Europe, in which none of our songs had been admitted, I was doubly motivated to do well. Apart from ‘Let me fly’, I submitted four other entries. When these four pieces were ready, I wanted to do one more… an ethnically inspired song. The ethnic style was successful in Eurovision in the 1990s, so it seemed a good idea to give it a try. When I wrote the melody, I immediately had high hopes for it. Then I asked Alfred to do the lyrics, but he felt there was no need for more entries, since we had already prepared four songs for submission. I felt so confident, however, that I decided to write the words myself. Playing the melody at the piano, somehow, the lyrics followed naturally. From that moment on, I wrote quite some song lyrics by myself, though the main successes were all with Alfred.”
What about the singer, Debbie Scerri? Agius: “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. Agius: “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 is 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. Ray Agius: “The start of our performance required some coordination. Philip Vella, the guitarist, had to start at exactly the same moment as the orchestra. He had to carefully watch my hand movements while I was counting in the orchestra. During rehearsals, there were no problems, but in the concert itself there was a split second of delay, because the crane camera came exactly between Philip and me when I was about to count in the orchestra, meaning we could not see each other. Unbelievable! I had to wait, because Philip had to be able to see me. Luckily, it was just a second or two before the camera moved away – and in the end, nobody noticed a thing.”
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: “During rehearsals, people were saying we were among the favourites, though I never honestly believed we could win. The feedback from the delegation and the press was that we could achieve a fifth or sixth placing. Nonetheless, with a more convincing performance, who knows how much better we could have done? Unfortunately in the final night, the singer was not at her best. Certainly this could have had an effect on the result. It was a pity, as in the heats in Malta, Debbie had been very confident on stage, doing a great performance. Looking back, though, a ninth place is a fair result and nothing to be ashamed of!”
“Overall, I enjoyed the experience for a second time in Dublin”, Agius concludes. “My wife accompanied me once again. Back then, she worked as a broadcaster. She came to Ireland to do interviews with participants for her programme on a Maltese radio station. One of the singers she interviewed was Katrina who competed for the UK. To me and many others, Katrina & the Waves were the obvious favourites from the start. ‘Love shine a light’ was a good song for Eurovision.”
The participation in the 1997 contest with ‘Let me fly’ is not the end of Ray Agius’ Eurovision history. Between 1998 and 2012, he took part as a songwriter in the Maltese Eurovision pre-selection programme with no fewer than twenty-one entries, working with Alfred C. Sant and several other lyricists, including Alfred’s son Godwin, as well as with some of Malta’s most high-profile singers, including the likes of Claudette Pace, Miriam Christine, Ira Losco, Claudia Faniello, and Amber. On three occasions, a song composed by Agius finished second: in 2003 with Lawrence Gray (‘Why not’, lyrics: Ray Agius), in 2006 with Olivia Lewis (‘Spare a moment’, lyrics: Godwin Sant), and lastly in 2008 with Claudia Faniello (‘Caravaggio’, lyrics: Godwin Sant).
“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. Agius: “I recall one year (2005 – BT) when Siegel had five songs in the running. I am not afraid of competing with foreign composers, with whom I have competed in similar festival abroad for decades, but it is not an ideal situation to admit them into our Song for Europe. In Malta, with very few opportunities for songwriters, the Song for Europe competition is a potentially important showcase. By admitting foreigners to submit songs as well, the opportunities for local songwriters have become even more limited. Nowadays, a number of seasoned Maltese composers have lost interest in the Eurovision Song Contest. I mean, in the 2018 selection in Malta, about two thirds of the entries in the finals were penned by foreign songwriters. The setup of the competition has changed so much that I have not been feeling like taking part in recent years. Nowadays, it is more about the singer than the song; the composer and author are hardly given any credit. Moreover, the choice of entries is leaving a lot of unanswered questions among those who participate, making it slightly different from the way things used to be.’
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. Looking back, I enjoyed taking part a lot. I would not say it was the absolute highlight in my career, because the Viña del Mar Song Festival in Chile was perhaps an even bigger occasion than Eurovision – and moreover those four festival participations in Chile, in my younger years, were maybe more of a thrill. Conducting the orchestra in Viña del Mar was an unforgettable experience. Having said that, hardly anyone in Malta has ever heard of the Festival Internacional de la Canción de Viña del Mar, while, on the other hand, the Eurovision Song Contest enjoys a great following. Representing your country in Eurovision really means something; and I am proud I had the opportunity to be up there twice as a composer and conductor.”
Other artists on Ray Agius
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)