The new millennium in Basque music -- a decade of delights
by David Cox
October 21, 2009
David Cox lives in Ontario, Canada and has a special interest in Basque culture, particularly music, a passion shared by his entire family. He has contributed articles and reviews to several internet publications, and is trying to learn Euskara.
Many people in the English-speaking world have a one-sided view of the Basque Country, a view which ignores its vibrant and expressive culture.
In popular music, Basques continue to create in every idiom, fusing popular styles with their own traditions.
Euskal Musika, (Basque-language pop, rock and folk) has flourished for four decades, but the past 10 years have seen a musical and lyrical maturing. With the end of the era dominated by Negu Gorriak, Hertzainak and Itoiz, Basque music searched for a new touchstone identity and came up with a multitude of them.
Lately, rock bands like Berri Txarrak, Gatibu and Ken Zazpi have flourished, folk has diversified fusing Basque traditional music with world roots, while metal-oriented arena rockers such as Su Ta Gar, Idi Bihotz and others remain immensely popular. Fermin Muguruza continued to incorporate international sounds into Basque rock. Others doing rock, metal, and related genres include Betagarri, Kuraia, Kauta, Des-Kontrol, Kerobia, Sorkun and Zea Mays just to name a few.
In folk, Kepa Junkera brought Bulgarian and Albanian choirs and Malagasy performers, French-Canadians and others to a Basque setting. Oskorri recorded with local choirs and bands, and focussed on the Pub Ibiltaria series, an annual set of (so far 13) popular concerts featuring traditional Basque songs, with public participation. They also promoted a children's CD, Doktor Doremi eta Benedizebra. Oreka TX also travelled the world looking for new sounds.
In the folksinger/songwriter category, Mikel Markez's "Zure Begiek" is a well-liked and important tune recently re-released to go with his strong body of work over the past decade, and Mikel Urdangarin has also been both prolific and popular. Benito Lertxundi and the late Mikel Laboa continued to record (Laboa passed away in late 2008) and grow as artists. Anje Duhalde's distinguished career continues.
Trikitixa (Basque accordion music) has maintained its following. I think of trikitixa as the "country music" of Basque Country. From Orio's Gozategi and Oiartzun's Alaitz eta Maider, popular at the outset of this decade; this music has also seen significant contributions from Imuntzo eta Beloki of the Urola valley, and Kupela Taldea. Another group, Trikizio, combines trikitixa and ska, often performing well known Basque songs in Catalan -- and vice versa.
In children's music, Pirritx, Porrotx eta Marimotots (founded 20 years ago as Takolo, Pirrutx eta Porrotx) is making some of the world's most flavourful children's music. Oskorri's contributions were mentioned. And Txirri, Mirri eta Txirribiton continue to be popular, as well.
A number of collections and retrospectives were released. Among my favourite anthologies: one commemorating the poet Lauaxeta, a collaboration of Basque artists visiting New York, and a political protest CD called 18/98 Auzolanean. Retrospectives of note included those of Itoiz, Negu Gorriak, Lourdes Iriondo, and many more.
Basque music is as diverse and as creative as any musical tradition in the world today.
But I've just scratched the surface. Here are my favourites, tell me yours!
The top ten:
Here are some of the most important Basque CDs of this millennium -- selected from the hundreds of Basque-language recordings I have heard, from this decade. They combine musical excellence with the qualities of timelessness, timeliness, popularity, and critical acclaim:
Maren (Kepa Junkera): Junkera, the Bilbao-based accordionist, stunningly re-invents the trikitixa (Basque accordion). Here he assembles an all-star Basque and international cast for an unforgettable set of songs about the Urdaibai area of Bizkaia. Beautiful singing by Anton Latxa, Maria del Mar Bonet and a host of others in a multitude of languages. Definitely one of the most innovative recordings anywhere.
Maite Zaitut (Pirritx eta Porrotx) Who would have thought a crossover from children's music, including traditional instruments, would be a pub favourite, and even translated into Catalan. This album has many gems -- even comes complete with an amazing Etxahun Iruri cover (Ieup Xiberoa!). It also features members of Tapia eta Leturia, Oreka TX, Zea Mays, Selektah Kolektiboa and others.
Nomadak TX (Oreka TX)
What Maren is to the accordion, Nomadak TX, is to the ancient txalaparta. Harkaitz Martinez de San Vicente and Igor Otxoa, the txalaparta duo, work with nomad musicians from all over the world, for a brilliant disc and film, a masterpiece of the world music genre and a major improvement on the duo's first disc. The disc is opened and closed by works featuring Mikel Laboa, the founder of the musical feast that is Basque music today.
Desertore (Oskorri) A departure for the band, but not a radical one; strong songwriting, solid musicianship and great rhythms. More flavour and colour than the previous CD Viscayatik...Bizkaiara, but with the same rootsy Basque feel. A stunning exhibition of lyric-writing by a selection of great bertsolaris.
Xoriek 17 (Mikel Laboa) This is the master's last original CD, a landmark, with new and old material, including musical tributes to James Joyce, Billie Holiday and others. A fitting coda, that includes a recitation by Bernardo Atxaga.
Itsas Ulu Zolia (Benito Lertxundi) The Basque "Leonard Cohen" proves he still has it with a simple, clear and Celtic-tinged record. His version of "Kantuz" will stand the test of time, and several other tracks stand out. Improves with each listening and may be the best-crafted record by this veteran to-date, one which will win him new followers.
Hamar T'erdietan (Ruper Ordorika) A special live recording by this emblematic Basque artist. Great songwriting and delivery. "Martin Larralde" and "Zaindu Maite Duzun Hori" are special tracks. Ruper hits the right notes with his veteran band -- a moody masterpiece.
Gelditu Denbora (Ken Zazpi), the Gernika-based group's unplugged disc, featuring new versions of their earliest works. Includes Ilargia, perhaps the most popular song of the decade, also Zenbat Min, Bidean, and Zapalduen Olerkia in acoustic settings.
Disko Infernu (Gatibu) Another Gernika band steps up to be noticed with great vocals by the charismatic Alex Sardui. Several classics including Doniene and Ifer Haizien Semie, all sung in their Bizkaian dialect, with txalaparta and alboka included, and the participation of Robe Iniesta.
Libre (Berri Txarrak) Perhaps one of the best, heaviest rock albums I have ever heard with unrelenting music and lyrics. There's a great duet with U.S. rocker Tim McIlwrath of Rise Against.
Gauaren Helduan (Imuntzo eta Beloki) More life and variety than on previous efforts; still the best traditional trikitixa around.
Jo Ta Ke (Su ta Gar) is a great double-live arena rock/metal disc.
Here are a couple of blasts from the late 90s that cast a big shadow over the present decade:
Gernika -- Zuzenean 2 (Mikel Laboa) This one starts off the new millennium -- and also served as the soundtrack for the Julio Medem film La Pelota Vasca; the most powerful work ever by Laboa, the arch-Druid of Basque music.
Ura (Oskorri) Beautifully produced, with the participation of a wide array of world musicians; the txalaparta, the alboka and trikitixa are front and centre.
Lastly, here are some of my favourite Basque music links...