Basque Fact of the Week: Txalaparta

One of the primary ways in which Basques express their culture is through music, and a revival of folk instruments has been, pardon the pun, instrumental in developing a unique sound. Possibly one of the most unique and thus identifiable instruments is the txalaparta. In its simplest form, the txalaparta is simply a set of wooden planks (maybe only one) that are supported by either baskets, chairs, or boxes and are pounded with wooden mallets. Percussive music is made by where the plank is hit, with different notes resonating depending on location. Typically, the txalaparta is played by two players.

Image from Youtube (you can hear these guys play here.)
  • Other variants of the txalaparta include the toberak, kirikoketa, ttinbilin-ttanbalan and ote-jotzea. These often arise from work. The kirikoketa, for example, is played at the fiesta celebrating the making of the cider, using the hammers and mallets used to smash the apples to hit the boards. Similarly, the ttinbilin-ttanbalan celebrates the placing of the center beam in a new house, using the chisels and hammers to make the music.
  • The txalaparta itself is related to cider making. In many cider houses around Donostia, when they were done making the cider, they would place the txalaparta outside and begin playing it. They often used the boards used to press the apples. This alerted the surrounding villages to the party. The villagers would come, where they would be “jumping, shouting, drinking cider, and playing and listening to the txalaparta until dawn” (Ramón Goikoetxea).
  • The toberak replace the wooden mallets and planks with metal rods and bars. These may have started, again, as a work task, taking the pipes from the forge and hitting them with hammers to knock soot loose, cleaning them. In modern txalaparta playing, in addition to metal and wood, glass and stone are sometimes used, all in combination.
  • There are typically two players, called ttakuna, tukutuna or bia (the two) and herrena (lame), urguna (lame), pikatzailea or bata (the one). They have different roles. One is responsible for creating the rhythm and the other dismantles that order, creating tension. They constantly speed up until it isn’t possible to maintain the tension any longer. While the rules for playing the txalaparta are strict, they also allow the players, through phrasing and rhythmic combinations, tone, intensity and tempo changes, to play with great freedom to develop their creativity and to improvise.

Primary source: Beltrán Argiñena, Juan Mari. Txalaparta. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: Basque has Mixed with Several Languages

Pidgins are languages that arise when two other languages come in contact. They are simplified languages to ease communication between two people that have otherwise very different languages, often to facilitate trade. As such, they are always second languages (never the mother-tongue of anyone). Given the extensive and often commercial travel of Basques, it is not surprising that several pidgins developed over time that involved Euskara, the Basque language. These pidgins developed in both Europe and the Americas.

A family of Basque Romani at the beginning of the 20th century (from Auñamendi Entziklopedia).
  • In their journeys ever westward in the search for new fishing and whale hunting grounds, the Basques stopped at Iceland, for the first time around 1600. There is an infamous episode, in 1615, where a number of Basque sailors, after stealing some dried fish from a local merchant, were massacred — the last massacre to occur in Icelandic history. This so-called “Slaying of the Spaniards” led to a law that said all Basques should be killed on sight, a law that was only formally repealed in 2015.
  • During their interactions, the Basques developed a pidgin with the Icelanders. This pidgin included a number of colorful phrases, including the phrase “Sickutta Samaria” which Dr. Viola Giulia Miglio has concluded means “go shag a horse.” A more complete bibliography specifically on the Basque-Icelandic pidgin can be found at Euskosare. I first heard about these pidgins a number a years ago when I encountered the work of Peter Bakker.
  • The Basques also developed pidgins with Native Americans, particularly the Algonquin peoples. The Basques and the Mi’kmaq people had a long history and, as might be expected, there was some intermarrying between the peoples. In fact, “Basque” is a somewhat common surname among the Mi’kmaq people. Some of the words from this contact actually made it into the Mi’kmaq language, including the Mi’kmaq words “atlei”, from the Basque “atorra (shirt)”, “elegewit” from “errege (king)”, and “Plansia” from “Prantzia (France).”
  • Not exactly a pidgin, per se (though one can imagine it started out as one), the Romani who came to the Basque Country by 1435 developed their own language, now known as Erromintxela. This language essentially combines the vocabulary of the Romani with the grammar of Euskara. As noted by AboutBasqueCountry, not a whole lot has been documented about this language.

Basque Fact of the Week: Juan de Oñate, the First Governor of New Mexico, was Basque

We are all familiar with the wave of Basque migration that brought sheepherders to the American West, and rightfully so given the close connection many of us have with those immigrants. However, the American Southwest is literally littered with Basque names from centuries earlier, when Basques were a large part of the conquistadors that swept through the Americas in the name of Spain. In fact, the state now called New Mexico was first settled and governed by the son of a Basque conquistador. Juan de Oñate was the son of Cristóbal de Oñate, who was born in Gipuzkoa. Juan founded the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico and was the province’s first governor from 1598-1610. He was later exiled from the region because of his use of excessive force.

Statue of Juan de Oñate in Alcalde, New Mexico. Image from Wikipedia.
  • Juan’s dad, Cristóbal de Oñate, is known for founding the modern city of Guadalajara in Mexico. He is also credited for founding several other cities in Mexico during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, including Compostela, Tepic, and Zacatecas. During the conquest of Zacatecas, silver mines were discovered that made him and his partners some of the richest people in New Spain. In contrast to many conquistadors, it seems that Cristóbal had a relatively benign disposition, offering “meals to the needy on a daily basis throughout his entire life, and is said to have turned over the proceeds from his encomiendas to improve native villages.” (source: Wikipedia)
  • Cristóbal was a descendant of the House of Haro, a powerful family that was deep in Spanish politics. Because of their support of the policies of Alfonso VI of Castile, Íñigo López became the first Lord of Bizkaia in around 1040. It was during his time as Lord of Bizkaia that the fueros were originally granted to the province, in 1051 by the king García Sánchez III of Navarre.
  • Juan himself is most infamous for his actions during the Acoma War. As his soldiers were trying to wrest supplies from the people of Acoma Pueblo, supplies the Acomas needed for the winter, 11 soldiers were killed. In retaliation, Juan ordered the pueblo destroyed. In what has become known as the Acoma Massacre, his forces killed between 800-1000 Acoma died. Those who survived were placed on trial. All Acoma older than 12 years old were enslaved for 20 years and all men older than 25 years old (a total of 24 men) had a foot amputated.
  • After several expeditions, including one where he tried to find Quivira, the fabled city of gold, Juan returned to New Mexico. He was summoned to Mexico City where he was tried and convicted of, amongst other things, extreme cruelty to both natives and colonists. He was banished from New Mexico for life. He eventually returned to Spain where he lived the rest of his days.
  • Juan is still a controversial figure. While some celebrate him for his role in establishing what is now the state of New Mexico and many of the cities within it, he is also vilified for his treatment of, in particular, the Acoma. In 1998, a statue in his honor was erected in Alcalde, New Mexico, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his arrival. One of his feet was cutoff in protest by an unknown group.

Primary source: Wikipedia.

Remembering my Dad: Sheepherder’s Bread, the way the Sheepherder intended (sort of)

My dad would have turned 75 today. To celebrate his birthday, I thought I’d repost this blog about making bread the sheepherder’s way. Happy birthday dad! I miss you!

As I mentioned earlier, seemingly once I left home for school, my dad began making his own jamon and chorizo. Another tradition my dad has revived recently is making sheepherder’s bread.  Actually, the whole gang in Homedale has gotten back to their roots, so to speak, and they hold competitions for the best bread. It gets pretty intense, with guys speculating about whether this loaf will turn out or not. My dad is no exception. He treated us to the full experience over break.

Out in the hills, he would dig a pit in which to bake the bread.  At his home, however, he has a permanent pit, lined with a big concrete pipe. Most of the time, it’s covered with a board and it’s only rarely that the lid comes off and he makes a loaf, mostly because it does take some effort. He’s collected a large pile of sagebrush from the hills that he slowly is chipping away at.

I’ve had a recipe for sheepherder’s bread on my site for some time now, and from what I’ve been told and experienced from my wife’s own hand, it makes a very good loaf.  But dad’s (txitxi to my daughter) recipe is slightly different:

Txitxi Bread for a #10 Dutch Oven

1.5 packets active dry yeast
    (he uses Red Star)
1 quart + "a bit" lukewarm water
1 heaping Tbsp + 1/4 tsp sugar

Combine and let yeast proof.

Add 3/4 tsp salt and all
purpose flour until you reach
desired consistency.
Knead until smooth.

Let rise until doubled in bulk,
twice. Put in greased dutch oven
(preferably with bacon grease)
and let rise until lid is pushed up.

If baking in oven, 350 degrees
Fahrenheit for approximately 60 minutes.
Keep covered with lid or tented with foil.

However, if you want to be authentic, you’ve got to cook it in the pit.

First, we burned quite a bit of the sagebrush, just to get some ashes to use later.  These we dug out and let cool. We then burned another batch. These were for the hot ashes, the ones to cook the bread. Once the sagebrush had burned down such that we had maybe 5 inches of hot coals, we lowered the Dutch oven into the pit. This is where the cool ashes come in.  We covered the Dutch oven with cool ashes to act as an insulating blanket and to keep the heat in.  We further covered it with a little dirt. This seems to be the trickiest part: you want enough insulation to keep the heat in but not so much that you smother the fire. Dad said that you should be able to just barely feel the heat coming off when putting your hand near the top.

A critical step is to make sure the handle of the Dutch oven is up when you start burying it, as otherwise you won’t have anything to grab when you pull it out.

We left our bread in the pit for something on the order of 1 and a half hours. It was getting late and we needed to eat dinner, so we pulled it out, maybe a little early. The center wasn’t quite cooked.  Dad threw it in the conventional oven for a while longer to eat the next day. He claimed we had smothered the fire, put too much ash on top. In any case, the bread looked great and, the next day, the bread tasted great too.

While we were burning all of that sagebrush and the wind picked up some embers and blew them around, I asked dad if he ever had a fire get away from him in the hills. He said once, a fire started to get away, but he was able to put it out, so nothing really happened.  But he had a tale of another sheepherder who did have one get completely out of control. It burned quite a few acres, getting big enough that a fire crew had to be called in to put it out.  I don’t know how much it ended up burning or exactly where this was, but dad said that this sheepherder somehow became part of the fire crew, helped put it out, and got paid to do it!

This is a very simple recipe, with only 5 ingredients. I imagine it was important for a young sheepherder, cooking in a strange environment with limited ingredients while also trying to herd sheep, to keep things as simple as possible. I’m not sure how much these guys would have cooked back in the old country, but I imagine it was very little. I also imagine that the bread isn’t too sensitive to how it’s cooked as things aren’t precisely controlled in this process.  But, it sure does produce some very tasty bread!

Basque Fact of the Week: Euskadi is a “Strong Innovator”

Historically, the Basque Country’s economy has focused on agrarian and industrial activities, the later mostly centered on steel and shipbuilding. However, the government of Euskadi — or the Basque Autonomous Community comprised of Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Araba — has invested heavily on modernization, with significant expenditures on research and development, particularly by business — of all Autonomous Communities in Spain, Euskadi invests the greatest percentage of its gross domestic product into R&D. The Basque Country has the highest per capita income in Spain and is one of the regions of Europe with the highest numbers of tertiary, or post-high school, degrees. Its success is based on the decision to invest in industry, not tourism.

Image from the European Commission.
  • Euskadi is growing in scientific leadership. According to Ikerbasque, the Basque Foundation for Science, Euskadi published more than 6000 scientific papers in 2017, a 50% increase over the last 6 years. This is 6.5% of the total scientific productivity of Spain, when Euskadi has 4.7% of the population.
  • Science investment in Euskadi is driven by the so-called Plan de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Euskadi 2020. This plan emphasizes three strategic priorities — energy, advanced manufacturing, and bio-sciences and health — along with four areas of opportunity — agri-food industry; territorial planning and urban regeneration; leisure, entertainment, and culture; and ecosystems.
  • One feature of the Basque commitment to scientific R&D is their network of Cooperative Research Centers. Centers focused on Biomaterials, Biosciences, Energy, and Nanoscience are spread throughout Euskadi. These centers were created by the Basque Government to “create an effective framework of cooperation in strategic research areas, strengthen interdisciplinary basic and applied worldclass research in those areas and provide technology transfer to the industrial environment” (from the NanoGUNE website). 
  • Not everything is smelling like roses. Euskadi’s rankings have fallen over the last year. This is maybe reflected by the drop in R&D expenditures in recent years. Drops in government investment were at least partially offset by increases in private spending. And Euskadi is relatively weak in non-R&D innovation and patent applications.
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