Basque Fact of the Week: The Flute and Drum, the Basque One-Person Band

Song and dance are an integral part of Basque culture. It seems that, whenever you get more than a few Basques together, they spontaneously break out in song and dance. At large dinners, whole rooms can bust out into song. At fiestas, small groups dance in the street. And where there is song and dance, you need music. The one-man or one-woman band – the txuntxunero or txistulari – comprised of the flute and drum fits the bill nicely.

Bilbao País Vasco Euskadi 23-08-2013 Txistularis in the Plaza Nueva durante la Aste Nagusia 2013 © FOTÓGRAFO: MITXI. From bilbaoturismo.net.
  • The txuntxunero, or more commonly called the txistulari today, arose somewhere in Europe sometime in the 13th century — there are a number of images depicting musicians playing the flute and the drum at the same time. For example, in the Basque Country, there are depictions of what we would call a txistulari in the monasteries of la Asunción de Tuesta and La Oliva. It’s not until the 15th century, however, that we find written references to these musicians in the Basque Country — people such as Réonart de Ufon, in the service of Carlos III in 1413 and Johan Romei, Johan de la Mota and Pedro Julián, who were in the service of Carlos, Prince of Viana.
  • The txuntxunero played so-called “música alta,” or loud music, intended for open air and meant to be heard, to be a herald or lead a procession. However, the most important role of the Basque musician was to lead dancing. The combined rhythm and melody of the txistu and drum provide the perfect soundtrack to dancing. However, the Church viewed dancing, with its lustful movements, as diabolical and musicians were excommunicated and even depicted as devils. Indeed, during the Basque witch trials, the only woman txuntxundera documented before the 20th century was accused of witchcraft and one man, Miguel de Xubiri, was executed in 1575.
  • In the 16th century, the solo nature of the txistulari resulted in their gradual decline, as ensemble groups became more popular. However, in the Basque Country, the txistu and drum are about the only instruments used to accompany dance. Further, it is about this time that cities and villages start to hire these musicians. By the 18th century, dances became regulated — handkerchiefs had to be held to prevent hands from touching, dances had to end by sunset, they had to be held at a specified place — and the hiring of musicians by the cities themselves was part of this effort. The txuntxundero also had very specific duties, such as announcing dawn on holidays and accompanying authorities in processions and parades.
  • It’s also about this time that the txistu started becoming more than a popular instrument, it became more “cultured.” Emphasis was placed more on the flute than the drum, eventually leading to these musicians being called txistularis rather than txuntxunderos. New melodies were written. The txistu evolved, became tunable so it could be played in groups. And txistu virtuosos arose, musicians such as Vicente Ibarguren and Baltasar Manteli.
  • However, in the 19th century, the txistu was considered old fashioned and again fell out of favor. The final abolishment of the fueros led to a new movement to maintain old Basque customs, and the txistu was no exception. It became one of the central elements in Basque cultural renaissance but also a political football, used by different sides to promote their agenda. One editorial said that “Before reason, the sounds of the txistu reach the heart.”
  • The Spanish Civil War, as it did to so many aspects of Basque culture, halted this renaissance in the txistu. In some cases, military governors, associating the txistu with Basque nationalism, confiscated all txistus. However, since then, new avenues for the txistu have arisen. Whole orchestras filled with txistus were created, elevating it to new heights. But, new competition, in the form of rock and pop music, also led to the txistu filling a niche and folkloric space in Basque music. Even so, the txistulari and txuntxundero today are as technically accomplished as ever, and there are numerous events promoting the musical form.

Primary source: Sánchez Ekiza, Karlos. Txuntxunero. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2020. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/txuntxunero/ar-133269/

One thought on “Basque Fact of the Week: The Flute and Drum, the Basque One-Person Band”

  1. Greetings,
    Nice, but what is most interesting about the Txistu is that it would produce only one note, one sound–the other sounds were form by the palate or the teeth, thus it required skills by the performer. Now that the txistu had been modified–adding chromatic scales, it can be incorporated in an orchestra.
    The Txistu is very much like the chiflo in Aragon and it is still played today for religious ceremony with the tambor de cuerdas. El siglo X, what is called Viejo Aragon today , was called Aragon and was under el Reino de Pamplona.
    I see a lot of red to be corrected but I am too lazy to go back. I am writing as I think and you all speak Spanish.
    Have a great Easter.
    Monique

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