Archive for the ‘Basque Music’ category

Olatz Salvador and the Basques

November 4, 2022

It’s been a while since the roots music of the Basques was featured here. The steady arrival of new releases for review from Euskal Herria (Basque Country) dried up somewhat following the retirement last year of my good friend, record producer and coordinator Anjel Valdes.

It’s four years since our Basque-Ryukyu project brought Mikel Urdangarin to Okinawa for concerts and collaborations. This year Mikel has been on a 25th anniversary world tour to celebrate his career as a professional musician. Unfortunately, pandemic restrictions prevented the inclusion of Okinawa in the schedule.

But, of course, the music carries on and more recently I was impressed with a new album from master singer-songwriter Ruper Ordorika. His Amour eta toujours successfully adds a dash of Cuban music to his songs. Earlier this year there was also Hitzekin Jolasean a fine solo debut by Esti Markez whose album with her father was previously reviewed here.

Now that many Okinawan live music venues have reopened there is news of another Basque music live event coming next month. Donostia-San Sebastian singer and songwriter Olatz Salvador (pictured above) will begin her tour with a date in Okinawa before moving on to Japan where she plays several different venues.

Olatz Salvador is a popular and highly regarded musician who has been active for more than a decade, first as a member of the band Skakeitan and more recently as a solo artist. Her debut solo recording arrived in 2018. A second album Aho uhal was released last year, and this video features one of its songs:

She performs with her own band in Okinawa at Koza Crossover Café 614 on Wednesday 7th December starting at 20:00. Also on the bill are Okinawan band Shaolong To The Sky, and DJs Txako and Sima. Advance tickets are 3,000 yen. The evening is presented by 614 and Japonicus under the banner ‘Fight for Rights: Special Edition in Okinawa’.

Lastly, if you missed it and would like more Basque music – including some of the artists mentioned here – you can listen to over an hour of it on my K.O.L. Radio Mix from last year:


Music from the Basque Country Mix

March 12, 2021

The latest of my music mixes is here and can be listened to now on K.O.L. Radio’s online channel. For this one, I’ve put together a playlist of music from Euskal Herria (Basque Country). It samples some of the various musical styles and introduces the most well-known singers and musicians.

All the songs are sung in the Basque language – Euskara – possibly the oldest language in Europe and, it seems, unrelated to any other language. There is a mix of trikitixa, triki-pop, singer-songwriters, one or two rock bands, and a dash of the old txalaparta wooden percussion instrument.  

Among the artists I’ve chosen are famed trikitixa player Kepa Junkera, as well as triki-pop duo Alaitz eta Maider and band Huntza. The most important singer-songwriters are represented by Mikel Laboa, Benito Lertxundi, Ruper Ordorika and Mikel Urdangarin. And it all begins with the first Basque music I ever listened to by Maixa ta Ixiar.

The most recent tracks are those by Mikel Urdangarin and by father and daughter duo Esti eta Mikel Markez. Both are from albums released just a few months ago. By contrast, the Oskorri track, with a vocal by renowned singer Mikel Laboa, is from the band’s 25th anniversary concert in 1996.

The show is online here:

The playlist order with artist names and song titles is below.

Maixa ta Ixiar ‘Espartzinarena’

Ken Zazpi ‘Gaueko argiak’

Kepa Junkera ‘Madagaskar’

Kirmen Uribe ft. Mikel Urdangarin ‘Sausalitora bidean’

Izaki Gardenak ‘Horma eta haizea’

Benito Lertxundi ‘Baldorba’

Alaitz eta Maider ‘Amets bat’

Oreka TX ‘Keinuka Ilargiari’

Fermin Muguruza ‘Eguraldi lainotsua hiriburuan’

Agurtzane eta Ion Elustondo ‘Bidetxurretik’

Ruper Ordorika ‘Itzala’

Oskorri with Mikel Laboa ‘Aita Semeak’

Beñat Igerabide ‘Helduen Mozorroa’

Korrontzi ‘Joxek Andreari’

Esti eta Mikel Markez ‘Oroitzapenek Esnatu Naute’

Willis Drummond ‘Lehentasuna’

Mikel Urdangarin ‘Hiru Ahizpatik Bigarrena’

Huntza ‘Aldapan gora’

For more information and reviews, please have a look at the Basque Music category of this blog.

Special thanks to my friend Anjel Valdes who first awakened my interest in Basque music and culture. He also produced some of the albums from which these tracks were sourced. My interview with him is in the Features Archive.

Esti eta Mikel Markez: Azal Berritzen

January 28, 2021

Azal Berritzen is the new album by Basque singers Esti and Mikel Markez. For many years, Mikel Markez has been active in his homeland as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, and has released many recordings. For this album he forms a duo with his daughter Esti who is a rising singer and musician in her own right.

The pair created ten new songs for the album, and the credits are shared equally with five by Esti and five by Mikel. The two also participate in each other’s songs as singers and musicians. While they created all the music, many of the lyrics are by other writers such as the iconic Basque poet in exile Joseba Sarrionandia.

Esti and Mikel’s vocals and guitar are complemented by musicians Arkaitz Miner (violin, mandolin, guitar) and Julen Alonso (trikitixa, accordion, piano). They performed first as a quartet while arrangements for the songs were evolving, and bass and drums are now added to some tracks. The recordings were made in Gipuzkoa with mixing and mastering at Elkar studio in Donostia-San Sebastian.  

Among other collaborators is the writer Toti Martinez de Lezea who recites a poem of his on the last track ‘Miloika bider’. The tradition of literary songwriting goes back to the 1960s and the Ez dok Amairu collective of singers, poets, bersolaris, dancers, and musicians who got together to revitalise Basque arts and culture. This album is one of the heirs to that movement.   

In no way does this mean the results are pretentious or overly serious. The songs on Azal Berritzen, all sung in Euskara (the Basque language), flow together with a verve and passion that is easily accessible throughout and can be appreciated on an emotional level even without understanding the language.

One big reason for the success is the talented Esti Markez whose strong, clear vocals threaten to run away with the show. Two of her songs in particular stand out. They are ‘Ez da bizitza’ (It’s Not Life) and ‘Oroitzapenek esnate naute’ (Memories Woke Me Up). She announces her arrival here and it will be interesting to see how this young singer develops.

Azal Berritzen is out now and is released independently by Esti eta Mikel Markez.

Mikel Urdangarin: Izurdeen Lekua

December 30, 2020

Just over a year ago I reviewed the new release of a live album by Mikel Urdangarin featuring songs by Leonard Cohen. Now the Basque singer-songwriter is back with a new album of original songs entitled Izurdeen Lekua (The Dolphins’ Place).

A lot has happened since he was in Okinawa two years ago for concerts in what became the Basque Ryukyu Project. Sadly, apart from the successful production of the feature film Margolaria that focused on his life and career, not much of what’s happened since then has been good, with the global pandemic dominating this year’s news, and, before that, a personal loss in Mikel’s own life.

This is reflected strongly in the new set of songs in which, as well as the expectedly powerful vocals, there is an added emphasis on piano, unusually played here by Urdangarin himself as well as by Koldo Uriarte who also produced the album. Talented backing singer Alison Keable also joins to share vocals on the song ‘Ura dakarzut’ (I’m Bringing You Water).

Many songs begin slowly and quietly with vocal and piano then build to an emotional crescendo. Typical of this are the title track and the song that immediately follows it, ‘Enaz beldur’ (I’m Not Afraid). The song’s last line (in English translation) “I will sing it in your ear so that only you will hear” is key to the intimate theme of the album. The longest track ‘Hiru ahizpatatik bigarrena’ (The Second of Three Sisters) is another crucial song that addresses the loss of loved ones and is especially moving.  

The music video for the title track ‘Izurdeen lekua’

The overlapping literary tradition of songwriters and poets has a lengthy history in the Basque Country. While all the songs here are sung in the Euskara language there are both English and Spanish translations of the lyrics on the official Mikel Urdangarin website (see below). These are worth seeking out and reveal a facility with words that could also be read as poetry.

But, even without knowing the literal meanings from just listening to the songs, it’s a mark of the singer’s superlative artistry and technique that his voice and music can affect the listener on a direct emotional level without the need for any resort to translation. 

For all the lyricism that has gone before, the album’s final track is the calmly melodic ‘Agurra’ with piano and a wordless vocal sung almost as a kind of prayer to bring this fine album to its conclusion.

Izurdeen Lekua is released by Zart.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.