Charles Busuttil: Restoring Malta’s Music Patrimony

Charles Busuttil’s workshop is in many senses like that of any other serial tinkerer.  The old bicycles on the wall, the upturned little boat, the assortment of old furniture neatly placed in a corner and the workbenches ringed with a variety of tools all point towards a man who, like so many others in Malta, loves to restore and fix things.  However, whereas the centrepiece of such a workshop would normally be a vintage car, the centrepiece of Charles’ workshop couldn’t be more different.

Instead of an antique vehicle, laying on a stand to the side of the workshop’s passageway is a string contrabass.  This isn’t simply any instrument however, Charles says me as he sets onto adjusting one of the instrument’s three strings; it was made in 1858 in Rabat by a certain Joseph Tonna, and it is such a rare and high quality instrument that it’s extremely difficult to put a value on.  It’s not the only string instrument in the workshop too; everywhere you look there are old guitars, lutes, banjos and even violins hanging from hooks on shelves.

This is because Charles Busuttil is a restorer of musical instruments and has been such ever since 1992.  He got into the hobby somewhat out of necessity, he explains to me, as since he had changed his course at University he lost the right to a stipend and as a result needed something to do as a small source of income.  Since he was already in the music scene, he ended up fixing up his friends’ guitars and the hobby slowly grew from there.  The motivation for it is in many senses down to Charles’ father, Felix.

Charles explains how his father was an engineer by trade who lectured on the subject, and was the type of person who used to make everything himself, pointing to a spray compressor made from a water geyser, the power-brake of a wartime truck, a washing machine spin dryer and the back of a school chair which Charles still uses today, 30 years after it was made.

A lot of Charles’ childhood was spent in the workshop with his father, and this do-it-yourself attitude rubbed off on him so much that today he teaches his two young boys to work by that same attitude; that if something needs to be fixed, they are more than capable of fixing it themselves.

The support of his father throughout the years was essential for Charles.  They both studied courses related to restoration; the tools and clamps that Charles uses today to put violins back together are his father’s creation, and they worked together on various projects such as the reproduction of a Maltese guitar totally from scratch.  Felix passed away four years ago, but it’s very clear that his spirit stills lives on in his son.

Restoring musical instruments is a painstakingly slow process, and that is partly due to the state that the instruments are in when they arrive at Charles workshop.  Indeed the condition of these instruments upon arrival is not particularly good; one old Bohemian violin that Charles brings out from a plastic bag is in fact more reminiscent of a set of Meccano than of a centuries old classical instrument.  And yet, Charles manages to give these instruments a new lease of life and bring them back to near-pristine, working condition.

The process to get to that point is arduous however.  The first step is generally putting the jigsaw puzzle together, starting with the face of the violin.  Where the pieces are separate, they are ‘stitched’ together with thin pieces of wood against the grain to restore them back together.  The most important part of the violin is however the majiera.  A violin will have a number of majieri corresponding with the number of sections on the instrument, and these small curved pieces of wood are essentially the pieces that give strength to the violin.  Charles uses a set of clamps that his father custom made for this very purpose of joining the violin pieces.  The neck is also restored separately and put back into place, before everything is prepared to be varnished and polished with prolonged periods of drying in between.  Incidentally, the prolonged drying periods explains the number of violins hanging from the shelves too.

On paper, this all seems to be a fairly simple process.  In practice however, it’s a long and tedious process.  In fact, a violin like the one Charles shows us on his workbench would take him around a year and a half to completely restore.

The restoration of the contrabass sitting in the passageway however has taken much longer than that; Charles explains that this is a project that has taken him the best part of four years to complete.  It’s taken him that long because it was an exhaustive process.  He shows us pictures of the contrabass in its un-restored state, saying how if you merely touch the wood, your hand would go through it.  The pictures are a far cry of what the instrument looks like today; and astonishingly he then says that we’re looking at is all the original bird’s eye maple wood.

Its pristine external look hides an interior that is an intricate jigsaw puzzle of stitched wood and supporting pieces.  The attention to detail that has been afforded to this instrument is second to none; from the ivory tuning pegs, to each metal detail and even the strings made of real guts which Charles imported from India specifically for this instrument.

This attention is well justified however, as it is unique.  Its maker, Joseph Tonna, was extremely well respected in his field, and it is rumoured that some of his instruments were actually sold in Italy.  In fact, Charles says he wouldn’t be at all surprised if the rumours turned out to be true because the quality of Tonna’s instruments is excellent.  It’s a special instrument; so much so that Charles finds it difficult to put a value on it, both because of its quality and because he isn’t aware of any other one like it in Malta.

It’s also interesting because it’s a three string instrument, which is because in the Renaissance period operas such as those of Vivaldi that needed an instrument that could give a certain element of power that went beyond what the viola and cello, which were the traditionally preferred instrument in this regard, could offer.

Indeed the double bass is regarded as a descendant of the violin; a member of the viol family originating in the 15th century in Europe.  It began as a Viola da Gamba, resembling a large violin and played between the knees like a cello.  This developed into the three string double bass in the 19th century, Tonna’s work being an example of this development.

In the 1900s when jazz started to come into fashion and the contrabass started being played with the fingers as opposed to with the bow.  The nature of jazz required lower notes than before, and so the three-string contrabass developed into a four-string double bass which also had a different shape.  What happened was therefore was that around the world, three string double bass’ were modified to become four-string instruments, Charles explains as he points across the workshop to an example of what he is explaining.  Nowadays most orchestras even haven five double basses. This makes the example sitting in front of us in the workshop all the more valuable; both in a monetary sense and in a historical sense.

This instrument is one of the pieces that is going to be on display in an exhibition in March 2019 staged by the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti in Mdina which will bring together Maltese musical instruments, and instruments that are tied to Malta or Maltese people in some way or form. The contrabass is one of these items; but it’s not the only item that’s come out of Charles’ workshop that will be on exhibition.

He disappears into the back of the workshop and comes out with two cases in hand which he lays onto the workbench.  He opens them to reveal a banjo mandolin and a flat back mandolin, both of which belonged to the Maltese author Mikiel Spiteri, better known as Kilin.  These instruments are different to each other; the mandolin is a bit bigger and made of wood, whilst the banjo mandarin has a more circular body and has a top made of metal, and although they are played in the same manner, they have different sounds.  The instruments are part of Charles’ own collection and he has restored them so that they are once again in pristine condition.

Music was an important part of Kilin’s life, and both these instruments are mentioned in his books, Charles explains.  He says that Kilin owned these two, a small tamburlin and the famous Wenzu.  The name Wenzu, which is the Maltese shortened version of ‘Lawrence’, is prominent in Kilin’s books; in fact his book Kif Ghidtlek Wenz won the literary award for non-fiction prose in 2002 whilst the well-known Tlikki Tlikki ma’ Wenzu, which it is said was Kilin’s favourite out of all the works he wrote, was published in 2001.  Charles explains the origin of Wenzu; it’s not a person, or animal – it’s a radio, specifically a German radio brand called Lorenz, which he used to take on walks with him into the countryside.

It’s important to note that each instrument that Charles restored is in such a condition that it can be played.  That is something that he emphasises on; musical instruments are made to be played and not to be showpieces in a cupboard or on the wall, he explains.

Charles concludes with an appeal.  Malta as an island has seen more foreign influence than most; it has been a passageway for different races, nationalities and cultures.  As a result the musical patrimony that this country has per capita is enormous when compared with others.

However it is under threat; with houses becoming smaller, people having to make choices on space and antiques going out of fashion, a lot of old instruments are being thrown into the dump.  Charles’ final appeal is for us to retain these instruments and save them, for “if we don’t have a sense of conscience, this patrimony will be lost”.


Kindly reproduced from The Malta Independent, 21st August 2018.


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