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The strict classification of Basque music remains a controversial issue, complicated in part by the growing diversification of such music, but by and large it may be argued that it is made in the Basque Country, that it reflects traits related to that society/tradition, and that it is devised by people from the Basque Country.

Traditional music

Basque traditional music is a product of the region's historic development and its geographical location between the Cantabrian mountain rangemarker, the Ebro river and the Pyreneesmarker. Because this area is open to the wider world, for example through international pilgrimage on the Way of St Jamesmarker, many feel that it should not be considered as having evolved in isolation.


Folk instruments widespread in Europe ceased to be used in some places at some point of history and only remained in specific areas, where they took hold and adopted features and a character associated with the region, e.g. the three-hole pipe or tabor pipe in widespread use in Europe ultimately resulted in two specific instruments in the Basque Country: the txistu and the xirula. Accordingly, different instruments may have evolved out of one, such as Navarresemarker dulzaina and Souletin txanbela, with slight differences between them.

Most of the instruments that have been taken up in rural and folk circles do not go back more that six centuries, some having been introduced as late as the XIXth century, such as trikitixa or txistu, as we know it today (at any rate, the latter results from a long evolution). Most Basque instruments originated outside the Basque Country and became popular in the territory at some stage (but the txalaparta is not one of these).

Some traditional Basque instruments are the following:
  • Alboka, a difficult double clarinet played in a circular breathing technique similar to that used for the Sardinian launeddas.
  • Txalaparta, a wooden xylophone-like percussion instrument for two players.
  • Kirikoketa, a wooden percussion device akin to the txalaparta associated with the cider making process.
  • Toberak, a percussion instrument made of horizontal metal bars.
  • Txistu, a local pipe.
  • Drum, called danbolin, and usually accompanying the txistu.
  • Atabal, a double sided flat drum played together with aerophones.
  • Xirula, a three-hole flute, shorter and more high-pitched than txistu.
  • Ttun-ttun, a vertical stringed drum played usually together with the xirula.
  • Trikitixa or eskusoinua, a lively diatonic button accordion.
  • Tambourine, usually played together with the trikitixa.
  • Dulzaina, a Navarre based pipe belonging to the shawm family.
  • Blowing horn, an instrument made of ox horn.

Singing tradition

The Basque people are especially given to singing. The Basque language, unlike Romance languages, has persisted with the oral tradition, and its literature was first recorded in writing in the XVIth century. There are ballads dating from the XVth century that have been passed from parents to children by word of mouth, e.g. Ozaze Jaurgainian from Soule, which relates events six centuries ago and has come down to us in different versions (the best known was popularized by Benito Lertxundi), or Alostorrea, from Biscay. These ballads were crafted and spread by minstrels or bertsolaris, were kept in popular memory, and were transmitted in the so-called kopla zaharrak, sets of poems with a characteristic rhythmic pattern that could be sung: this is similar to traditional practices elsewhere in Europe. So, for example, the first work of literature in Basque, the Linguæ Vasconum Primitiæ (1545) by Bernard Etxepare, despite its long verses shaped deceptively in metres resembling those used in Romance poetry, follow an internal rhythmic pattern similar to a kopla, so they can be popularly sung. Even today, it is not unusual to see groups of people marching around a town at some local festival singing and asking the neighbours for an offering of food, drink or money, while the most famous celebrations in the entire Basque Country are those on Christmas Eve (Olentzero) and the Saint Agatha's Eve, with singers dressing up in traditional costumes.

It follows that traditional singing is closely related to bertsolaris, improvising bards, who even nowadays hold an important status in Basque culture. They voice the people's concerns by means of a formal tradition coming from the people (tunes, linguistic devices), and act as their spokespersons. A considerable corpus of traditional songs was gathered by Resurrección María de Azkue and Aita Donostia, two religious scholars interested in Basque folk culture, at the turn of the XXth century; and also later on, in Cancionero popular vasco (1918) and Euskal Eres-Sorta. Cancionero Vasco (1922), to mention but a few works. In the present day, the group Hiru Truku (comprising the celebrated musicians Joseba Tapia, Ruper Ordorika and Bixente Martinez) has chosen several ancient songs from all over the Basque Country, updated the music brilliantly and released them in a number of albums. Another current long-standing and renowned group who elaborate on traditional songs is Oskorri: the group set about singing traditional songs in public performances previously supplying the attendants with a repertoire bill including the lyrics and encouraging them to sing along. The group has launched a couple of albums so far and performed on various tours to public acclaim, becoming especially popular with middle-aged parents.

A key figure bridging the old singing tradition of Soule and the folk song revival of the XXth century should be noted here, Pierre Bordazaharre (1907-1979), aka Etxahun Iruri. A xirula player and singer, he collected old songs and fashioned new ones, which eventually caught on and spread, take for instance, Agur Xiberoa. He also contributed to new pastoral plays in the Soule tradition, reshaping the latter and adding new topics.

There is also a tradition of choral music all over the Basque Country. Church choirs were set up in some towns to meet the religious musical needs. Yet at the turn of the XXth century some ensembles became established outside the ecclesiastical context, e.g. the Sociedad Coral de Bilbao (est. 1886), Orfeón Donostiarra (est. 1897) or the Coral Santa Cecilia from Donostiamarker (est. 1928). Later on, other ensembles were formed, such as Oldarra Abesbatza from Biarritzmarker (est. 1947), made up of men and sometimes putting on performances as an ochote (see below), or the reputed Coral Andra Mari from Errenteriamarker, established in 1966, featuring Basque folk music and Aita Donostia's several scores. Nowadays many minor choral ensembles, largely offering the Basque folk repertoire, dot the Basque territory. Interestingly, in Bayonnemarker and Donostiamarker a cheerful informal initiative has grown popular with amateurs in the late 2000s, who meet once a month and go bar hopping around the streets of the respective Old Quarters while singing traditional songs.

Another Basque choral phenomenon is represented by the so-called ochotes, which became popular in the 1930s in the Bilbaomarker region: eight men with deep voices, with a marked taste for local and folk subjects, singing in Spanish and in Basque (perhaps from summer ecclesiastic seminaries, or thriving on the warm atmosphere of the bars after their work shift was over). Eventually a branch of this genre evolved out into bilbainadas (up to the 1960s, nowadays much in decay).


The Basque Country has been home to various notable composers, writing mainly in the XXth century. Much in step with the artistic trends of the first half of the century (painting,...), some of them developed a liking for Basque customs, manners and subjects.
  • Juan de Anchieta (1462 - 1523): Composer of the Renaissance hailing from the area of Azpeitiamarker
  • Santiago de Herdoiza (Durangomarker, c. 1700)
  • Juan Crisostomo Arriaga (Bilbaomarker, 1806 - Parismarker, 1826)
  • Jose Maria Usandizaga (Donostiamarker/San Sebastian, 1887-1915): He is considered along with J. Guridi the father of Basque opera. He drew up orchestral and chamber pieces, like the celebrated Cuarteto de cuerda en Sol, Op. 31, shifting to elaborate zarzuela as well as opera works at the end of his life (Mendi-Mendiyan, 1910: Las Golondrinas, 1914). He had his increasingly successful career cut short by an early death.
  • Jesus Guridi (Vitoria-Gasteizmarker, 1881 - Madrid, 1961): Himself a friend of Usandizaga, whom he met in Paris while attending the Schola Cantorummarker, he was appointed manager of Bilbaomarker 's Sociedad Coral choir in 1912. Influenced by Wagner and musicians of the Late Romanticism, he found inspiration and phrases for his compositions in Basque folklore. His rich musical education enabled him to deal with different types of music, e.g. zarzuela, opera, compositions for choir as well as religious pieces for organ. Some renown works include El caserío (1926), Diez melodías vascas (1940), La meiga (1929), Seis canciones castellanas (1939) and Sinfonía pirenaica (1945).
  • Nemesio Otaño (Azkoitiamarker, 1880 - San Sebastianmarker, 1956 ): Composer, organist and musicologist. One of the most important figures in twentieth century spanish music history. Director of the Royal Conservatory of Madrid between 1939 and 1956. Among his most known works is 'Saint Ignatius March' ('Marcha de San Ignacio'), the saint patron of Biscay and Guipuscoa. In 1894 studied in the Colegio Preceptoría de Baliarrain, in which he composed two of his first Letanías and a Zortziko for piano; he was then only fourteen years old, but already played the organ in the school Parish. In 1896 he entered the Society of Jesus and began his ecclesiastical studies along with the music classes. In 1911 he founded the Schola Cantorum at Comillas: his performances with them of plainsong and polyphony were highly influential. His works range from popular sacred songs (e.g. Estrella hermosa, Anima Christi, Baldako) to large-scale choral pieces.
  • Pablo Sorozabal (Donostiamarker/San Sebastian, 1897 - Madridmarker, 1988)
  • Maurice Ravel (Ziburumarker, 1875 - Parismarker, 1937): Basque born French composer and arranger.
  • Carmelo Bernaola
  • Francisco Escudero
  • Sebastian Iradier (Lanciegomarker, 1809 - Vitoria-Gasteizmarker, 1865)

Basque musical revival

In the wake of the Civil War (1936-1937 in the Basque territory), headway made in culture in the pre-war period came to a halt: fear and harsh repression ensued, hunger became an overriding concern and former cultural figures died or ran for their lives to exile... a barren panorama remained. As an individual singing figure of the 40s, 50s and 60s, Luis Mariano (born in Irun, moving in his 20s to Bordeauxmarker) and his powerful tenor voice should be highlighted, who jumps to the Spanish and international musical arena with lighthearted songs in Spanish and French (Basque language is occasionally employed). When the hardest post-war years are gone by, young generations set about putting together duos and small musical groups in Gipuzkoamarker and Biscay that gradually take to singing original tunes in Basque in the 60s, eg Urretxindorrak, Enarak, Soroak, Estitxu (born to fleeing parents near Bayonne)..., trying to benefit from the regime's increasing liberalization, despite major obstacles that still prevent from or hamper cultural activity associated to anything Basque. Cultural and political awareness, social rebelliousness and an urge for action crops up in newer generations that results in a new left leaning Basque nationalist movement.

Some people from the southern Basque Country fled the territory to Iparralde and sought refuge. They left their imprint in the traditional Basque society from Iparralde, contributing to giving rise to cultural and political awareness. In this respect, Mixel Labeguerie should be noted, who worked and lived in Kanbomarker, its mayor for more than a decade (1965-1980), Councillor General of the department and a founder of Basque nationalist movement Enbata (he walked out later). He had a musical education, soaked up the new European musical trends, eg Brassens, folk music from England and France, and released an album in 1961 with songs that struck a chord, such as Gu gira Euskadiko, Primaderako liliak, etc. He was to have influence on the new artistic Basque group Ez dok amairu put together in 1965, largely made up of folk singer-songwriters concerned with Basque culture: Benito Lertxundi, Mikel Laboa (popular song Hegoak ebaki banizkio), Xabier Lete, Lourdes Iriondo, etc. Lourdes Iriondo took to singing accompanied on a guitar for the first time in Basque music, a fact that came in for much criticism on the grounds that the instrument was alien to the own culture. Ez dok amairu broke up in 1972 and its members took up separate paths that eventually have confirmed some of them as acclaimed and key folk Basque singers up to the 2000s. Along the lines of singer-songwriter style, in a context of social and political unrest, it is worth mentioning Guk, Larralde eta Etxamendi or the beloved duo Pantxoa eta Peio from Iparralde, who provide the musical background for the 70's period of struggle, repression and turmoil. Especially in the provinces of Alavamarker and Navarremarker, Enrike Zelaia (Altsasumarker) and Gorka Knörr struck a chord with a more folkloric and nuanced approach.

Meanwhile, new and more urban style musical ensembles and groups spring up in the 70s performing first to other's songs of the time at summer local festivities. Yet they gradually develop their own repertoire fashioned in line with the Basque revival and activism (special focus on the lyrics) and ongoing Western musical trends, eg folk (Gwendal for one), progressive rock (Pink Floyd,...). As regards choral bands, Mocedades from Bilbaomarker should be highlighted, founded in 1967 initially by Amaya Uranga and two sisters; they soon gain public notability by ranking second at the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest. That very year in the same city the prolific Oskorri band (see above) gets together featuring folk music, launching first album in 1976, where they pay homage to poet Gabriel Aresti, while in Iparralde Michel Ducau and Anje Duhalde join and put together the first Basque rock band: the celebrated and politically engaged Errobi, releasing album Errobi (1975) to critic and public acclaim; Bizi bizian ensued. The group disbands (not definitely) in 1979. Beginning from the middle 60s, Imanol Larzabal leads a solo career as a singer/songwriter, featuring a deep voice as well as socially committed and poetic subjects, with the collaboration of domestic and foreign poets and singers. He goes through a short period in prison, and comes back from exile in 1977. Friend of his and son of emigrant Souletin parents, Niko Etxart comes back to the Basque Country from Paris with brand-new ideas about music in 1972, so turning into a forerunner of Basque rock music (Euskal Rock&Roll released in 1979) alongside Errobi, while especially in the traditional Iparralde some lash out at his looks, manners and music. He alternately performs onstage in "verbenas" (dancing music in local festivities) with the band Minxoriak up to the late 80s. In the area of Mutrikumarker, Itoiz, a milestone in Basque folk-pop music, is established in 1978, with Juan Carlos Perez as its central figure, releasing that very year the critically acclaimed album Itoiz, which contains such poignant tracks as Hilzori, Lau teilatu etc. Akin ensemble Haizea delivers a couple of good LPs in this period.

Rock band Zamara's live performance
Up to that point, Basque music bands from the Spanish Basque Country resorted to labels from Spain to record and release their works. Yet at the end of the 70s and notably early in the 80s new regional labels arise (Xoxoa, Soñua...), providing a springboard for small bands that previously found it difficult to see their works published. At the same time, a whole network of youth squats, the gaztetxes, spring up all over the Basque Country, so furnishing small bands with premises to rehearse and a venue to stage concerts, in a way that a younger disaffected and unruly generation stemming from urban sprawls and towns can find an outlet to voice its protest along the lines of a punk outlook ("do it yourself"). 1984 is the year for the outbreak of punk rock or so-called Rock Radical Vasco.
popular bands jumping into the rock panorama of the time are Zarama and Eskorbuto from Santurtzimarker, Barricada and whimsical Tijuana in Blue from Pamplonamarker, La Polla Records from Agurainmarker, Kortatu and Baldin Bada from Irunmarker, Hertzainak, Cicatriz and Potato from Vitoria-Gasteizmarker, Jotakie, RIP, Naste Borraste, MCD, BAP, Zer Bizio, Delirium Tremens, etc. Most of the times Spanish language is used, sometimes Basque, while other times bands are bilingual. This new musical trend clashes with the previous singer-songwriter tradition (generation gap), so much more that both are linked to different degrees to the leftist and Basque nationalist movement. Meanwhile, Itoiz continued its low-profile musical path switching to pop in the accomplished album Musikaz blai (three more LP albums followed), featuring internationally acclaimed songs like To Alice, As Noites da Radio Lisboa or the catchy Marea gora.

Other bands of the late 80s stick to a different path, gentle and even naïf, using Spanish-language lyrics and along the lines of a pop tradition, take for instance, Duncan Dhu (with leading figure Mikel Erentxun), 21 Japonesas or Sanchis y Jocano, bands from the area of Donostiamarker. Duncan Dhu especially attains big levels of popularity on the Spanish and international pop panorama, giving rise to a tradition in ensuing years that was to be called Donosti Sound (Le Mans, La Oreja de Van Gogh,...).

Current popular music

In 1990, Basque-language public radio station Euskadi Gaztea is born, intending to target the youth in a young, dynamic and informal manner, besides adding information, dealing with subjects Basque young people may be interested in and encouraging Basque groups. Basque music definitely opens its mind to trends all over the world. The flagship Basque rock band Kortatu breaks up in 1988 (live album Azken guda dantza), and soon after brothers Muguruza put together project Negu Gorriak. They show off a different outlook compared to previous band Kortatu: the new group sings entirely in Basque, their approach is more hedonistic and show a taste for rap, an attitude displayed in a video clip (Radio Rahim) that conjures up American hip-hop manners. Punk style falls much in decay, while reggae as well as hardcore take over, eg Anestesia, Etsaiak, Sociedad Alkoholika, Su Ta Gar (heavy), etc. M-ak launches its best album Barkatu ama to critical acclaim, featuring styles ranging from hardcore to gentle tracks.
Skalariak in a 2006 concert
Early in the 90s, younger generations take up folk again, finding a public that is eager to listen to milder tunes in Basque, eg Sorotan Bele, Mikel Markez, etc. Trikitixa schools finally bear fruit in the 90s: the novelties brought about by Tapia eta Leturia and Kepa Junkera confirm them as folk references in the Basque Country and abroad, following that novel trikitixa duos try new ways, sometimes setting up bands by adding bass guitar and drums to the set pair of diatonic button accordion and tambourine, eg Maixa eta Ixiar, Alaitz eta Maider, Gozategi. They usually offer a cheerful repertoire, with Gozategi's song Nirekin (Emoixtaxux muxutxuek...) hitting the summer charts in 2000 beyond language boundaries.

Rock group Hertzainak disbands in 1993, while its members follow their own projects. Controversial singer Gari starts up a solo and very personal career with some accomplished songs, while Josu Zabala collaborates with other singers and group projects of some bertsolaris, eg original brass band Karidadeko Benta (first album 2003). Power pop band Urtz, formed in 1988, deals with personal stories that slightly differ from the still prevailing protest topics and harsh language of the late 80s, besides featuring an unprecedented chorus line that delivers some charming, upbeat and catchy songs; the band breaks up in the early 2000s. In step with the hardcore tradition, the band Berri Txarrak from Lekunberrimarker gets together in 1994, releasing various albums (latest album Jaio. Musika. Hil -2005-) and touring on Europe, where they come in for good reviews and gradually get a reputation that earns them performances and collaborations with important figures of indie rock all over the world. Frontman Gorka Arbizu puts together sideline band Peiremans, playing power pop. The band PiLT (Mungiamarker), who shows a taste for metal and hard sounds (Clawfinger, Soundgarden), jumps into spotlight in 1995 after winning the bootleg contest "Gaztea Sariak" granted by radio station Euskadi Gaztea, while the definite hit comes in 1996 with single Hil da jainkoa, earning them widespread recognition. Likewise heavy metal band Latzen comes to public prominence after winning with popular ballad Laztana the 1997 edition of "Gaztea Sariak".

The bands Skalariak (1994) and Betagarri (1992) take over the ska tradition, offering boogie inciting and swinging live concerts. In step with other multicultural experiences, such as Fermin Muguruza from Negu Gorriak or festive Joxe Ripiau to highlight but a few, in 2003 members of Etsaiak put together Pin pan pun band, a group with good connections in Latin America, releasing in 2005 the DVD Kuba-Mexiko Rock Tour 04, which bears witness to their experience and live powerful concerts. Etsaiak joins together again in 2008 (launches album Apurtu arte). The band from Zarautzmarker Delorean does electronic&rock with enthralling and trance raising live performances. Other rock bands on the rise in 2008: Surfing Kaos (Donostia), We Are Standard (Getxomarker), Kaotiko (Agurainmarker), The Uskis (Elantxobemarker), Atom Rhumba (Bilbaomarker), Ken 7 (Gernikamarker), Capsula (Bilbaomarker)...

Doctor Deseo was set up in Bilbaomarker in 1986, releasing thereafter various albums during a period that spans more than 20 years. They deal with everyday and personal subjects in a rather poetic manner. Fito y los Fitipaldis (Bilbao) was formed in 1998 by Platero y Tú's frontman Fito Cabrales, comprising a variety of styles ranging soul, blues, swing, flamenco, tex-mex or Hawaiian guitars. The project starts out with A puerta cerrada (40,000 items sold so far) and grows steadily in popularity, the latest hit song being Rojitas las orejas.
La Oreja de Van Gogh live
Donostiamarker, youths from university gather together in the mid 90s to rehearse; yet they are in need of a singer for the band, so they fix up a casting meeting with Amaia Montero that results in the creation of La Oreja de Van Gogh, who after launching album Dile al sol takes off boosted by Amaia's mighty voice and catchy soft tunes trimmed with beautiful arrangements. New hit songs and albums follow. Ainhoa Cantalapiedra (born 1980) wins at the beginning of the 2000s musical TV contest Operación Triunfo.
The singer-songwriter approach that waned in the late 80s shows presently a sound condition in the Basque panorama, with some very outstanding figures, like poignant Anari, renowned for her intense, heartbreaking voice and songs, who is now taking off (live recording Anari Kafe Antzokian Zuzenean released in 2008). Other singer-songwriters include Petti, from Beramarker (Navarremarker), with four albums published up to 2008, or the bertsolari Mikel Urdangarin, featuring somewhat melancholic songs often accompanied on string and brass instruments. Following the folk and singer-songwriter tradition, Jabier Muguruza (born 1960) takes up a solo career in 1994 after quitting other projects (Les Mecaniciens,...); he sets about composing and performing intimate, mild songs with strong brooding and literary lyrics. Meanwhile, some renown figures of Basque folk music keep on performing and creating, eg Benito Lertxundi, Mikel Laboa (passed away in December 2008) or Oskorri (fresh album Banda band in 2007, about to celebrate the ensemble's 35 anniversary). In Iparralde, the festive band Sustraia has attained great popularity after 15 years on the road, while the death (January 2009) of charismatic frontman Patrick Mixelena, aka Mixu, makes the group's future uncertain; the group Bidaia, ie the couple Mixel Ducau and Caroline Phillips', offers gentle and elaborate folk music, while percussionist Benat Achiary (born 1947) provides an experimental approach, often featuring improvised passages in his performances (several albums released in the 90s). Amaia Zubiria (born 1947 in Zubieta -Gipuzkoamarker-), who has occasionally collaborated with him, holds a long and prolific career in the Basque song panorama: she came to the spotlight with progressive-folk group Haizea, having published some solo albums since, featuring a very pure mezzo-soprano voice. Her latest work is the album Nabil (2008).


  • of "Lili bat ikhusi dut", a Basque-American folk song from the Library of Congress' California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties Collection; performed by Francisco and Matias Etcheverry on September 11, 1940 in Fresno, California
  • A footage of Saint Agatha's Eve


  1. Site in Basque and Spanish
  2. Site in Basque and Spanish
  3. Site in Spanish
  4. Site in Basque
  5. Site in Spanish
  6. Site in Basque
  7. Site in Spanish
  8. Site in Spanish

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