various artists,
The Spanish Recordings - Basque Country: Navarre
(Rounder, 2004)

This stop on the Alan Lomax express brings us the recordings from Basque country made by Lomax in 1952. As is typical of many another fine Rounder production, the liner notes are copious, well-conceived and executed, and they detail not only a brief history of music in the native Euskara tongue of the Basque people, but deal likewise with both traditional musical structures and the unique repertory of instruments heard on this recording.

In addition to the mainstay txistu (3-holed recorder), we hear both the toberak (a metallic suspension xylophone) and the trikitixa (a diatonic accordion) as well as the exotic albolka (a double-barrelled flute whose horns come from native cattle) and the strident dulzaina, a flute which fairly bleats out its melodies.

The extensive set opens with the lengthy "Baile de la Era," a march that goes through several changes, driven chiefly by snare drum and dulzainas. There follow a series of vocal country songs, including a trio of shucking songs presented by a quartet of strong a cappella female voices. Juanita Azpiroz next presents the solo lullaby "Sleep, Baby," followed by the mixed vocal rendering of the religious song "Jesus Our Beloved Lord" and the curious religious love song "If Our Lord Had Made Us."

There follows the extraordinary Diana (prelude), the "Diana de San Fermin," a piece used to open the fiesta of Saint Fermin, featuring massed dulzainas to startling effect. Briefly, we hear the street chant "Blind Lottery Ticket Seller's Cry," and then move into the three-song Calandria set, featuring songs of love, determination and the everyday world "Bringing Goods Down From the Mountain." Next we move into a set of plaintive love songs, the best of which is "Farewell My Love," simple in its vocal/guitar presentation.

A dantzas (dances) set follows, featuring both a young man's shuffle dance and a wedding banquet dance, the txistu-propelled "Baztango-Yoyak." The drinking lament "There's No Wine Left in the Bottle" is next, and it is only natural that the bragging "Last Night with My Head High" and the (modestly) contrite "Hey, Hey Maria" should close out the set, though curiously buried in the midst of this tale of excess is the wonderful love duet "In April," marvelously essayed by Jose and Maria Fagoaga, quite the nicest work on the disc.

Further along, we get the rapid-fire cumulative song, "We've Seen the Butcher," and the nonsensical lullaby "A Planet" is another highlight of the set, something it has in common with the joyous "From the Church to the Convent," punctuated with a closing round of irrintzi (ullulation). The 16th-century dance suite "Otsagiko Dantzak" carried the set nearly to a close; it is presented as a medley, though that form is alien to the usual presentation of these dances. Closing things out is the "Irrintzi," a chilling yet exuberant vocal extended ullulation.

If you are not used to the instrumentation, this music is challenging to western ears, but I encourage you to give the material time to work its magic on you. Those willing to do so will be surprised by the subtlety and nuance waiting for the patient listener. Lomax and company have given us yet another gift of music.

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 18 June 2005

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