Kepa Junkera,
(EMI Spain, 2001)

I had never heard of Kepa Junkera until a recent visit to the Basque Country of Spain. Apparently, however, I'm one of the last to notice this master of the Basque diatonic accordion, the trikitixa.

Junkera makes original and inspired music, with echoes of just about every genre, from every continent. Most of the singing is in Euskera, the ancient Basque language that is related to no other living tongue and is spoken by about a million people worldwide. So forgive me if I rely on the artist's notes to describe what the songs are about. He calls it "a sea voyage, from the Black Sea, to the Adriatic, from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean, to the Canary Islands, and back to Urdaibai on the Bay of Biscay."

Kepa is from Bilbao, the largest city in Euskadi, an autonomous Basque region within Spain. His music, like his native city, has one foot in the ancient musical heritage of Basqueland and one foot in the broader international community. Maren is the follow-up to a highly successful effort called Bilbao 00:00 hr. (Bilbao zero hour), on which he's assisted by folk-oriented musicians from around the globe, including La Bottine Souriante from Quebec. Kepa, born in 1965, now has about a dozen recordings, from Basque folk roots to jazz to classical, and has recorded with the big names of world music.

Trying to make sense of Maren, I gave way to my 2-year-old daughter. Here's how she describes the music: "It's bouncy, it's catchy and it's up-and-down." Actually, the highest praise from Bronwen is that she wants to hear "the Basque music" again and again, particularly "Mata Culebra," a song that (to my ear anyway) sounds like a Cuban-influenced polka and is one of two tracks with lyrics in Castilian Spanish. My favorites include "Bok Espok," the Scandinavian pop-influenced track that opens the album, "Mundaka" and the Indian-influenced "Oliene."

His band (Angel Unzu, Blas Fernandez, Harkaitz Martinez, Igor Otxoa and Venezuelean artist Julio Andrade) and such guests such as Hevia (electronic bagpipe), Gilles Chabenat (hurdy-gurdy), Ibon Koteron (alboka) and Maria del Mar Bonet enhance the proceedings, but what weaves the whole project together and makes it work is the accordion, the triki.

This is an eclectic mix. Does it all work together? I believe it does.

The melodies and percussive rhythms on Maren stick around all day and so the CD usually finds its way back into the player on the commute home. It begins with great energy over the first three tracks and then the music relaxes and becomes more exploratory. Many of the songs resonate with the landscape of the Basque Country, places like Urdaibai and Mundaka that are known for their natural beauty. At times, the post-industrial landscapes of Bilbao and the province of Bizkaia also loom in the background and give this music an urban appeal.

Maren sounds contemporary without altogether leaving the folk idiom, and without sounding too crafted or produced. While I can't say it works for me 100 percent of the time (and the diatonic accordion may not be everyone's favorite lead instrument), it's fun listening to musicians that often sound like they are at a great big Bilbao kitchen party. I look forward to hearing more from this versatile and surprising artist.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 30 November 2002