Esne Beltza,
(Baga Biga, 2010)

If you have ever wondered what happens when you meld ska, funk, rock, Latin sounds, Basque trikitixa and hip-hop, Esne Beltza (Black Milk) answers the question on its landmark disc entitled Noa (I'm going).

With a contemporary production quality and a commitment on issues both global and local, EB engages not only with American black music (the U.S., Jamaica) but also Latin American, Arabic and Senegalese sounds.

In this, Esne Beltza is like a number of European groups of the past few decades who stress both local loyalties/languages and international bonds -- including Massilia Sound System (Provence), Obrint Pas (Valencia/Catalan) and Dr. Drer & CRC Posse (Sardinia), all of whom use Jamaican music as a jumping-off point. Like those artists, Esne Beltza uses scratches, rock instruments, local roots sounds (trikitixa) and a brass section, plus featured guests from Bolivia, Mexico, Italy, Lebanon, Japan, Senegal, Cuba and Jamaica.

On Noa, Basque meets up with, and even shares the stage with, English, Spanish, Arabic and Italian, but Basque is the prime medium which conveys the message. Led by vocalist/accordionist Xabi Solano, formerly of Etzakit and a longtime associate of Fermin Muguruza, the band has ventured into powerful new territory. But drummer-percussionist Iban Zugarramurdi, formerly of the Basque metal colossus Su Ta Gar, adds a powerful new element on this disc. Teamed with Aitor Zabaleta on bass, they form a vibrant rhythm section.

The everchanging rhythms on Noa take us from triki to rock; from ska to hip-hop, and from Donosti to Mexico, Beirut and beyond, in search of freedom for people and peoples everywhere. Moreover, there are enough great hooks on Noa to snare the casual listener. Particularly on "Gogoak," the lively Basque-Italian tune that is the most immediately hummable on the disc.

First up on the disc is "Hommes et Femmes de Couleur (Men & Women of Colour)," a powerful celebration of the new patterns of immigration to the Basque Country and solidarity with the Senegalese immigrants who are picking up the Basque language, while making music happen in new ways.

On "Lurraren (Of the Earth)," with its poetic but ominous tri-lingual lyrics, we hear what could be a warning to immigrants that the welcome in Europe is not always as expected; perhaps also an environmental commentary: "The fire of the wind / the water of the earth / our paradise / what happened to it?" The ending explains it: "Everybody's longing for peace." Next up is a ska "Hona Bostekoa (Give Me a High Five)" for the survival of Basque speech in Pasaia, a somewhat Hispanicized port town.

Guest artist, Jamaican singer Cinderella, croons in patois on "Love My Land," which leads seamlessly into "Napar Erreinua." Here Basque poet Gabriel Aresti (Nire Aitaren Etxea) meets up with Martin Luther King Jr. (I Have a Dream) and the defenders of Amaiur and Roncesvalles-Orreaga, symbolizing Basque resistance against outsiders from Charlemagne and Ferdinand-Isabella, through to the present.

Each song has its own flavour, but "Sonidero" (roughly: "Dreamer" or "Dream Warrior'') stands out with its Cumbia-like accordion, as a paean to the freedom-seeking peoples. "Hogei (20 years)" is another hymn to freedom and a tribute to Jon Anza, a Basque activist and former prisoner who disappeared in 2009, turning up dead a year later in Toulouse. Similarly, on the title song, "Noa" someone (an immigrant, or perhaps a Basque) appears to be being chased by the police but "there is no escape from Liberty Avenue."

On "Freedom" and "Sortzen," Basque rocker Gorka Urbizu (Berri Txarrak) and Oreka TX join in. "Break-Rut" is a two-minute Arabic rap, of unknown meaning to this listener.

Zugarramurdi's insistent percussion and Solano's energetic vocal and accordion are among the key elements throughout, but the brass section makes a key contribution. Throughout, contemporary modes such as scratches and sampling are used to positive effect in enhancing the music and the message. Paxkal Etxepare and Xabi Solano win praise as master engineers of sound.

This is highly recommended for a wide variety of listeners.

music review by
David Cox

21 September 2013

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