Le Chant Basque
(Detour-Erato, 1997)

Europe's Basque Country lies mostly within the borders of Spain, but the southwest corner of France is also part of the Basque region. The three tiny provinces of Labourd, Basse Navarre and Soule are home to a small population, but a high percentage of the inhabitants still share the Basque language and culture.

The male-voice choir Oldarra hails from this area. This CD gives us 16 choral arrangements (opened and closed by solos on the traditional percussion instrument, txalaparta, an instrument made up of one or more thick wooden boards and played by two people) expressing the musical traditions of the Basques. There's something familiar, and yet, through it all, there is something in the tones and harmonies that is entirely unfamiliar to most Western ears.

Although the language is impenetrable to non-Basques, the lyrics are translated into both English and German and are given in the original Basque language, Euskera, as well, so we can develop a more thorough understanding of the songs.

The CD begins with the beautiful "Maitia Nun Zira (My Sweetheart, Where Are You)." It's a sound that transfixes the listener. "Agur Jaunak" has a sound you could take a warm bath in, as does the lullabye "Haurtxo Txiki." "Boga Boga" is a Basque standard about a sea voyage. Following are songs of love, lullabies, songs of nature, of longing for home, that express faith, of greeting and goodbye.

Oldarra was formed as a folk ensemble in Biarritz in 1936 and became a 40-voice male choir in 1963. (I was amazed to find in my father's collection a very different pre-'63 recording of Oldarra singing folksongs on 33-rpm vinyl!)

This recording defies categories -- it is folk in the truest sense, but appeals to world music or even classical listeners as well. Compared to Welsh male-voice choirs, the choice of material here is much less influenced by the outside -- (you won't find any Elvis or Lloyd Weber here, thank goodness!) -- just stirring 40-voice harmonies that speak for themselves of a time before the invasions of mass culture that have diluted so much of our music.

To listen to this CD, recorded in the Notre Dame church in Anglet, near Bayonne in the Northern Basque Country, is to experience Basque choral music in its purest form. This glimpse inside rural Basqueland is a genuine treat! Thank goodness for Detour-Erato doing this recording and doing it right. I only hope we don't have to wait another 40 years for another recording from these fine Basque musical ambassadors.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 15 February 2003

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