If you haven’t ever heard the txalaparta, you are missing out. Originally an instrument of communication, the txalaparta has become a central part of modern Basque folk music.
The txalaparta is a set of planks, often about 5, that two people play together. As such, it is billed as the only instrument in the world that is meant to be played simultaneously by two people. Originally, it was only one plank and was used to communicate between valleys. Rhythms were beat out that alerted neighboring valleys of weddings, deaths, and that the batch of sagardoa — hard cider — was ready. However, by the mid-1900s, it was nearly lost, with only a few rural folk playing the instrument. It was then that it was rediscovered by Basque folk musicians, who embraced it and made it a central part of Basque folk music.
Oreka TX is one of the leading groups promoting the txalaparta, pushing it as a musical instrument both in form and style (as they noted, the TX is for txalaparta, not Texas!). The group — Harkaitz Martinez de San Vicente, Mikel Ugarte, Iñigo Eguia, Mixel Ducau, and Ander Sierra — came to New Mexico to perform at Globalquerque! in September and made a stop in Santa Fe to play for New Mexico Euskal Etxea. And both performances were wonderful experiences.
Their current performance centers around their video, Nomadak TX, in which they traveled the world to encounter other cultures, using the txalaparta as a bridge to those cultures. They highlight four destinations — Finland, Mongolia, Egypt, and India — and in each they make a txalaparta from local materials. This is particularly interesting in Finland as they make one out of ice. In each case, they interact with local musicians who have their own local instruments and essentially jam. The txalaparta is more than an instrument, it is a connector to those cultures.
The performance at Globalquerque! involved showing clips from the video with the local musicians essentially prerecorded and the txalaparta duo — Harkaitz and Mikel — performing live on top. Mixel played the alboka — another traditional Basque instrument — and other wind instruments such as the clarinet. Iñigo accompanied on drums. It was an awesome show, with the mallets used by Harkaitz and Mikel flying through the air. They used txalapartas of both wood and metal for different pieces and really got what was a full crowd going. I’m biased, of course, attracted to all things Basque, but I really think the txalaparta is one of the most visually dynamic instruments I’ve seen. And it is amazing in its simplicity, what these guys can make these wooden planks do.
In Santa Fe, things were a little lower key, with the group performing a few pieces and then us showing the video of Nomadak TX. They ended with a little bit of hands-on with the txalaparta for those in attendance.
That evening, we took the group to a local Santa Fe establishment, the Cowgirl, with its Old West feel, and had a very nice chat about the txalaparta, Basque folkmusic, and their travels. One thing I hadn’t realized was that the txalaparta is specifically an instrument of Gipuzkoa. In other parts of the Basque Country, they didn’t seem to have txalapartas exactly. In Nafarroa, they played an instrument called the kirikoketa, which is related, in that two musicians hit a plank with mallets, but now they stand over the plank and the mallets are body-length. In Bizkaia, coming out of the long history that province has with iron and steel, they play instead the tobera, which is an iron rod that is hit much like a txalaparta, again with two players.
All of the group members were great to talk to, very willing to share their experiences and knowledge, and very down to earth. I guess that make sense, considering their travels.
If you have the chance to see these guys live, it is well worth it. I highly recommend it.