Sunny Aquilina: The Death of a Giant

In  less than a month’s time, the city of Cospicua will be celebrating one of its most revered moments of the year, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. If there was a man at this city, who can be called the singer of the Immaculate Conception, this was Saviour Aquilina. Everyone knew him as Sunny. Therefore, it was a great shock to hear that a few weeks before this event, Sunny Aquilina departed the world of the living.

Sunny Aquilina was an unpretentious person but this does not demean the fact that he was a man of great talent. He was an educator by profession. He took his teaching profession as a true vocation.  He was a great teacher and worked a lot with his students. All this good work is very difficult to be forgotten. Facebook was full of messages from ex-students of his, writing about how instrumental Sunny was for their career. This aspect in Aquilina’s character remained with him till the end. As a historian, I have no problem to state that he will be remembered till time immemorial.

More importantly, he was a true son of Bormla. He never betrayed his city. Perhaps, in today’s post-truth world, the word “betrayal” sounds a cliché. But when many in the media sought to make a pun of Cospicua, he had no difficulty to use his mastery of Maltese to praise its glories. For him, the Immaculate Conception and Bormla are one and the same thing. For Sunny there is no Bormla without the Immaculate Conception. This city cannot exist without Her.

I came to know Sunny during the time that I was doing my Ph.D on Cospicua. I used to love talking to him. He lived his childhood at the shadow of the parish church. As a clergy boy, he was introduced to music and used to be filled with awe by the sound of the church’s magnificent Morelli’s organ. In those days, the organ had to be played manually. There was no electricity to run the organ bellows. They were pulled up and down by altar boys. Sunny was one of those who loved to pull up and down the levers of the bellows. As a result of these mechanics, he could hear the magnificent notes going out of the organ’s pipes.

He learnt music at St. George’s band Club. For many years, he was also a band player with this club. In itself, this is an attestation of the good work that band clubs are doing in music. Without doubt, the Band of Saint George is Bormla’s musical hub. For Sunny, it became his second home. He was an institution at this club. Still he remained humble and refused honours, including that of taking over the post of the club’s president.

For a number of years, he served as the chairman of Bormla’s Pastoral Council. It was through this position that I came to know him well. He had always words of encouragement for my work. In truth, he had always word of encouragement for everybody, in particular for all those who worked for the benefit of his hometown. He was a man truly filled with love. This explains why he was respected by everybody in Cospicua, irrespective of one’s political allegiance or colour.

I used to love hearing him telling me stories about his days at the Lyceum or those related to the story of Cospicua. He knew many anecdotes about Dom Mintoff’s life, in particular those related to the time when Mintoff served as  club president.

I still remember Sunny talking to me about his days at the Lyceum and explaining to me why this school was extremely instrumental for him to learn good Maltese. The Maltese classes helped him to hone his skill in writing Maltese poems.

Yet he shied away from the academia.  At the same time, I have no problem to state that academia snubbed him. The ivory tower of Tal-Qroqq does not hold the exclusivity of Malta’s “cultural’ establishment. His demise is a proof of what I am stating. He had never been to University, but still, he succeeded in becoming a cultural institution in Malta. Universities have the tendency today to create cultural elites. Aquilina was the antithesis of all this. As the Latin poet Horace once said, “poeta nascitur” or one is born a poet. This definitely holds for Aquilina.

While in Bormla, Aquilina is remembered for his lyrics in praise of Bormla and the Immaculate Conception, in Malta he is remembered for his lyrics that accompanied some of Malta’s most important song festivals. One of his songs nearly clinched  the first place in the Eurovision. It was only due to the internal dynamics, related to voting mechanics that stopped Malta from getting the first place.

In a highly conservative city, where the festa traditions are of utmost importance, his writings were powerful enough to infringe the bulwark of conservativeness. His hymn “Omm Beltna” is today the most popular song in Bormla. If the people of Bormla today refer to their city by this title, this  should all be credited to Sunny Aquilina. He gave the Virgin Mary a new title: the mother of the city of Bormla. This shows the grip that he had on the Maltese Language. This song even superseded older hymns written by other Maltese giants such as those of Ludovico Mifsud Tommasi.

Without doubt, Bormla has lost one of its cultural pillars, who cannot be replaced so easily. It has lost a gentleman and an exemplary person. As a father, he was totally dedicated to his family. Getting older meant that he started to enjoy the beauty of being a grandfather.

Farewell my friend. The immaterial heritage that you have left behind you will remain forever part of Bormla’s cultural heritage. The people of Cospicua in particular should thank Sunny for all that he has done for the benefit of their town. He led by example.  I wish to close this short communication and memory of this giant by reproducing the refrain of the above-mentioned lyric, “Omm beltna”.

Int Omm il-Belt Cospicua

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