Archive for the ‘Basque Music’ category

Willis Drummond: Zugzwang

February 25, 2020

Zugzwang is the new release from Basque band Willis Drummond. It’s the sixth album from the trio who have been in Okinawa for live shows this past week including a date at the Sakurazaka Asylum 2020 festival in Naha.

Electric guitar-based rock has always had a big following in the Basque Country (it’s not all trikitixa and literary songwriters) and Willis Drummond are one of the leaders of this movement. Unlike many of the musicians who are from the Spanish side, the three members – Felix Buff, Jurgi Ekiza, and Xan Bidegain – are all French Basques based in Bayonne.

On this album they sing in the Basque language on a collection of ten original songs. Their speedy and melodic hard rock is showcased throughout, but they also find time and space to vary things with a bit of light and shade. The outstanding ‘Lehentasuna’ (The Priority) is a good introduction to what they do and, like most of their work, has a strong undercurrent of social and political comment.

Although the electric guitar, bass, and drums format is used relentlessly and will most of all satisfy fans of hard and heavy rock, there is also some acoustic guitar, and they are joined by lap steel guitar, trombone, and organ on ‘Bigarren aukera’ (Second Chance).

Willis Drummond on stage at Sakurazaka Asylum, Naha. (Photo: John Potter)

Fortunately, the lyrics of all these songs are translated into French, Spanish, and English in the CD booklet. The title track directly references Catalunya and France and contains the lines (in English translation):

“If we play, we lose. Even if we don’t play, we’re playing. Zugzwang. We are worn out. Forced into a bad move. And when change is offered…when change is initiated…you, authorities, disqualify us.” It goes on: “Real change is the kind that comes with unpredictable consequences. We don’t want to play your game no more.”

Willis Drummond’s set went down very well last Saturday at Sakurazaka Asylum. The band quickly showed an affinity with Okinawa with a message of support for the struggle against the Henoko base and mentioned their own fight for rights within Spain and France. Following their two dates in Okinawa they travel to Australia this week to play in Sydney (27th) and Adelaide (28th). Full details and more on their website below.

Zugzwang is released by Tabula Rasa Records and Like Literally.

www.willisdrummond.net

Mikel Urdangarin: Hotza da NY is Cold

January 17, 2020

Basque singer Mikel Urdangarin is already known in Okinawa after spending several weeks here in 2018 giving concerts and collaborating with Okinawan musicians. His stay on the island was also documented in the film Margolaria which focused on his career of more than two decades as an important singer-songwriter in his homeland and elsewhere.

Hotza da NY is Cold came out last month and is a live recording of a concert he performed in the Basque Country. It’s very different because the bulk of the songs are his interpretations of compositions by Leonard Cohen. The album is released on vinyl in a limited edition with the ten Cohen songs on the record and the entire concert on CD.

I was very pleased to be asked by Mikel to write something for the record sleeve and so instead of reviewing it here can do no better than reprint below what I wrote:

“When Mikel Urdangarin came to Okinawa last year for solo concerts and immersion in the local music there was another unexpected discovery. This was our mutual love for the songs of Leonard Cohen. I had no idea that Mikel also had such a strong affinity with Cohen’s work. Initially, I had some misgivings about what seemed like another tribute to the great Canadian singer, songwriter and poet, as there have already been so many. And this by an artist who is not a native English speaker and normally sings in the Basque language. However, as soon as the music plays and Mikel sings, any fears are quickly dispelled.

The ten Cohen compositions here are a mixture of familiar favourites and some newer ones. Surprisingly perhaps, it’s the relatively recent songs such as ‘Come Healing’ and ‘Show Me the Place’ that are most rewarding for this listener. Meanwhile, the European atmosphere always present in Cohen’s writing is gloriously pervasive on ‘Take This Waltz’. There are classics too and none more so than the much covered ‘Hallelujah’ which even Cohen began to think should be given a rest. It might have been a step too far but the song suits Mikel’s emotive vocal style like a glove. It’s another highlight among many.

So, what we have is a double win – a set of great songs from Leonard Cohen, master songwriter of our times, sung by a great Basque singer, Mikel Urdangarin.”

The record also comes with a print of its cover painting by Alain Urrutia and with notes by Basque novelist and poet Harkaitz Cano.

Hotza da NY is Cold is released by Zart.

www.zart.eus

Three Basque Releases

December 18, 2019

As we near the end of 2019 there are still some new Basque music releases to cover so here is a round-up of three very different albums that have recently arrived in Okinawa.

First up is the release of an album simply entitled Txalaparta. This is an anthology of tracks by Artze Anaiak (Artze brothers). It’s a special album that pays homage to the work of Josean Artze who died last year and his brother Jesus who died in 2002.

The txalaparta is a uniquely traditional Basque wooden percussive instrument. It’s usually played in unison by two players. The Artze brothers made great efforts to revive an interest in txalaparta and it is now commonly listened to again and has been popularised further by the likes of Oreka TX. This album shows off the txalaparta on its own with recordings made between 1966 and 1975.

Zuberoako kantariak subtitled in French Les Chanteurs de la Soule is an attractively produced 80-page hardback book containing two CD compilations. More attention is generally paid to the Spanish side of the Basque Country but there is also a long tradition of Basque songs in France. These focus on the small province of Zuberoa (Soule in French). The book contains the original Basque lyrics of all 34 songs here, almost all of them sung unaccompanied by different singers.

Several of the performers are dead now and the only familiar names to this listener are Pier-Paul Berzaitz and Jean-Mixel Bedaxagar. But there are some younger vocalists too such as the vibrant women’s groups Tehenta and Amaren Alabak.

The illustrated book contains explanations of all the songs and singers as well as introductory essays in both Basque and French. It’s not recommended to listen to all of this in one sitting but it’s an important historical release showcasing the Northern Basque songs from the people of Zuberoa.

Finally, Eñaut Elorrieta is the lead singer of the Gernika pop-rock band Ken Zazpi who have been one of the most commercially successful bands singing in the Basque language with a large following extending beyond their own region into Catalonia. Elorrieta’s new solo album Irteera argiak (Exit Lights) is an immaculately produced and played set of nine songs. The singer plays acoustic guitar together with a small band of musicians including electric guitar, bass, drums, violin and theremin.

It’s all very much in the style of the literary Basque singer-songwriter movement. All compositions are written or co-written by Elorrieta and there are two with lyrics by well-known literary names. ‘Hariak’ (Threads) is by exiled poet Joseba Sarrionandia, and ‘Ezbeharra’ (Misfortune) has words by novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga. Also, of great interest is the song ‘Inesa Gaxen’ which tells the story of the 17th century woman of the title who was accused, tortured and imprisoned for witchcraft.

It is especially welcome that Eñaut Elorrieta’s album comes also with Spanish, French and English translations of all the song lyrics in its CD booklet.

All three albums are released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

Ruper Ordorika: Kafe Antzokian

December 13, 2019

Singer, songwriter and guitarist Ruper Ordorika has long been established as one of the most important figures in the modern history of popular music from the Basque Country. Ever since his debut in 1980 he has been at the forefront of a cultural awakening in Euskal Herria with his original use of poetry within pop and rock settings.

Kafe Antzokian is the title of his new album and it’s also the name of the popular venue in Bilbao where this live performance was recorded last year. He is accompanied by a small band of four musicians playing guitars, bass, drums, violin and mandolin.

As the warm tones of the first song ‘Egia Da’ (It’s True) begin we know we’re not just in safe hands but in for a real treat. The song is one of three here from his superb 2014 album Lurrea Etzanda. The shortest song ‘Ahots Urrunak’ (Distant Voices) is from a subsequent album and is also one of the concert’s highlights.

Most of the selections are his own and there is one with words by the iconic exiled poet Joseba Sarrionandia. Midway through the concert there’s a break from the more familiar Ordorika compositions with the introduction of the folk song ‘Zazpi Nobio’ which at once exudes its Basqueness and at the same time slips perfectly into the set.

Something seems to have happened to Ruper Ordorika in these later years of his career. Over the past six years he has released some of his very best work. There has been an album of covers of his favourite songs by other writers; two albums of new songs with different bands; the completely solo Bakarka (which won the prize for best album in Basque at the Spanish Independent Music Awards last year); and now this live album to consolidate his formidable reputation.

Kafe Antzokian is released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

www.ruperordorika.com

Agurtzane eta Ion Elustondo: Bizirik dauden eskuak

June 26, 2019

This is the new album from Basque trikitixa duo Agurtzane eta Ion Elustondo. Their previous album four years ago, simply titled Elustondo, was also reviewed here. But first a useful definition: “The word trikitixa can be a generic term, applied to a kind of dance, a style of music or the instrument. But, nowadays, the term is almost always used to refer to this last meaning: the Basque diatonic accordion.”

The Elustondo pair are sister and brother. Agurtzane is one of the most important Basque musicians and she is also the president of Trikitixa Elkartea –an association that finds opportunities for young players and offers a wealth of information about the world of trikitixa, its festivals and albums. (The trikitixa definition above is from their website). Her brother Ion sings and plays panderoa (tambourine) the instrument most often played alongside trikitixa.

Agurtzane Elustondo learned the instrument when she was a child from the legendary master Laja who died recently at the age of 74. The album’s title can be translated as ‘Hands that remain alive’ and is intended as a tribute to all the forerunners who helped create such a vibrant people’s music in the Basque Country. They believe that “each time we play the keys of the accordion, their hands move together with ours”.

The album contains 16 tracks divided equally between songs sung by Ion Elustondo and tunes that include a good deal of irrintziak: the loud joyous yelling which plays a similar role to hayashi in Okinawan music. For this, and on some of the songs, they are joined by a small number of collaborators. Ten of the compositions are by Martin Aginalde, a veteran musician and influential figure for all younger players.

Some of the songs have traditional melodies and it was a surprise to find the familiar tune of ‘Bagoaz’ corresponding to the 1920s American gospel song ‘I’ll Fly Away’. It shows how universal the links in roots music can be. The final track ‘Adio amets’ also has a traditional tune and this time it’s arranged in a Latin American style by Agurtzane.

It’s familiar nowadays to hear trikitixa mixed up with many other styles, from triki-pop to hip-hop. Most recently it has been achieved very effectively by the bands Esne Beltza and Huntza. But it comes as a very refreshing experience to listen to this album of straightforward music and song played so lovingly by two of the best musicians around. It’s an advance on their previous album and can be highly recommended to anyone with even the slightest interest in Basque roots music.

Bizirik dauden eskuak is released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

http://trikitixa.eus/

Joseba Sarrionandia – Gure Oroitzapenak

April 25, 2019

Joseba Sarrionandia is a special name in the Basque Country. The prolific poet writes in Euskara, the Basque language, and has achieved iconic status in his homeland despite being exiled from there for a long time.

In 1980 he was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for his alleged connections with the Basque separatist group ETA but subsequently, in 1985, he staged a sensational escape by hiding in the loudspeaker of the Basque singer Imanol who had come to the prison to give a concert. He has been a fugitive ever since fleeing to various countries and using different names and passports but has now been settled for many years in Cuba.

As mentioned before on this blog, there is a strong connection between singers and poets and between music and literature in the Basque lands. Many of Sarrionandia’s poems have been set to music and turned into songs by a variety of artists. In fact, there have been about 150 songs recorded with lyrics by the poet since another iconic Basque singer Ruper Ordorika began the trend in 1983.

Gure Oroitzapenak (Our Memories) is an ambitious project involving the collection of poems and music which has taken three years to complete. It is now available as a hardback book of 127 pages published by Elkar. The book comes with two CDs containing a total of 32 songs, each by a different singer or band, and well over two hours of music.

The songs on the CDs are by musicians from different genres and generations,  The recordings chosen include those by famous Basque names such as Mikel Laboa, Ruper Ordorika, Oskorri, and Imanol, as well as Iker Goenaga, Ken Zazpi, Fermin Muguruza, the triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider, and a fine track by Gontzal Mendibil. But there are also many new recordings especially created for this project by significant contemporary artists. Among these are songs by Mikel Urdangarin, Rafa Rueda, Zea Mays, and Libe.

The poems cover a wide range of topics but the recurring themes, not surprisingly, are prison and exile and the meaning of freedom. In addition to the lyrics of all the songs the book contains twelve poems by Sarrionandia that were the subject of a collective film by twelve different directors. The film was presented at the San Sebastian Film Festival last September. The book also has some illustrations and a detailed list of all the recordings of songs made with Sarrionandia’s lyrics from 1983 to the present.

The book is published entirely in the Basque language but it’s fitting here to conclude with two very brief examples to give a tiny flavour of Sarrionandia’s poetry in English translation. The poem ‘Errua’ (Blame) was recorded by the band Gose in 2014 and is included on CD2. It begins:

When we were children we witnessed the return of / persons destroyed by the old war, / prison and exile, who passed by in the rain / bearing all the blame of an entire people

Its repeating verse is:

Do not take from me the blame, my blame / nor this ancient blame of our people. / Because without blame I have nothing / It would be as if I had done nothing.

The poet explains that errua (blame) is: “A shackled word, in truth, but allow me to use it, as it is all that is left me. Our people have no rights, because they are culpable, according to those who deny them, for having fought for those rights.”

The opening song on CD2 is ‘Martin Larralde’ a moving live recording from 2008 sung by Ruper Ordorika. As it begins, Sarrionandia’s words evoke images of the lost homeland:

Green fields, whitewashed houses and red-tiled roofs, / a gendarmerie car / picks its way slowly through a flock of sheep. / Prayers in the church / and in the home, the age-old imprecations softly rising / like smoke in winter.

Joseba Sarrionandia’s legacy will be of great importance and Gure Oroitzapenak is a fitting tribute to his poetry in words and music.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus

Ruper Ordorika: Bakarka

April 17, 2019

This latest album from Basque singer, guitarist and songwriter Ruper Ordorika was released at the end of last year and has already been acclaimed in his homeland and beyond. Last month Bakarka (Alone) won the annual Etxepare Award for Best Album in Basque at MIN, the Spanish Independent Music Awards.

As its title suggests, this is an album that finds the singer alone in the studio with just his guitar and voice, and the twelve tracks are a mix of new and older songs from his long career. All the music was composed by Ordorika but three songs have lyrics by novelist and poet Bernardo Atxaga while two others have words by the iconic exiled Basque poet Joseba Sarrionandia.

The appearance of these names is no surprise as there is a strong tradition of literature running through many popular songs in the Basque Country and Ordorika’s connection with literary groups in the past has always been a feature of his own writing and performances. The album booklet contains both French and Spanish translations of the Basque lyrics but unfortunately there are none in English.

This hardly matters when listening to the results as he seems to have found a new lease of life in the past few years and Bakarka is no exception. With just a few brush strokes he seems able to paint an evocative musical picture that touches the emotions in all kinds of ways. The deep distinctive vocals are complemented throughout by subtle guitar work. This creates a warmth on songs such as ‘Mundua biltzen duen bihartzuna’ (Echoing the world) while ‘Fas fatum’ is built around a repetitive guitar figure that is quite hypnotic.

It’s a reflective set that exudes a quiet passion. The lyrics (translated to English) for Ordorika’s song ‘Edertasunaz mintzo’ begin like this:

We used to speak of beauty,
of the unattainable things,
hidden in those bars
at dusk.
But time flies,
and beauty goes away with it.
We did what we could,
leaving life till later.

The singer goes on to speak of freedom and of life and their cost as time passes. There are many pleasures in listening to this other side of one of the Basque Country’s most important singers who is just as much at home on his own as he is with an electric guitar and a band. His last three albums have all been of the highest quality and this is right up there with them.

Bakarka is released by Elkar.

www.elkarargitaletxea.eus