various artists,
Basques: Mysteres d'une tradition
(Wagram, 2000)

This double CD -- the subtitle means "mysteries of a tradition" -- promised to be an introduction to the folklore of Europe's oldest culture, the Basques, and their music. But, although the idea is a good one, the delivery is less than perfect.

There is plenty of music here but not all of it is the best quality. A good introductory CD might have had better notes, with lyrics in Basque, and translations or explanations in at least one major international language (in this case, French, as this CD was released primarily for the French speaking market). Sadly, this is not the case.

I'll start with the 48-page illustrated booklet. This includes far too many pages of ads for other recordings in the series (Bretagne, Acadie, Tsiganes) and provides too little explanation or introduction to the actual songs at hand. While it does provide a nice short introduction to the culture and people -- all available elsewhere -- with a few stunning photos of landscape and folklore, there is little on the groups or the songs.

Now to the music. It starts promisingly enough, a nice pop ballad called "Irrintzina" by Michel Etcheverry, a French Basque singer with a fine voice, evoking the landscape and the sea of his homeland. "Irrintzina" refers to the Basque call that sounds a little like a horse, a high, primitive "yi-yi-yi" that can be heard in the opening and closing bars of the song.

Next up, "Bakearen Urtxoa," by the family group Aritzak, is a beautiful folk song with haunting melody and fine male and female vocals sung a cappella. Then comes a lullaby by tenor Charles Ferre, "Haurtxo Seaskan," followed by a shepherd's haunting folk song, "Artzaintza," from Erramun Martikorena. This is a fine piece of music. It sounds like Martikorena is telling a story -- unfortunately there is no explanation. But, so far, so good.

The rest of Disc 1 is entirely listenable: mostly traditional folk material of various kinds, much as one would expect. "Gernikako Arbola (Tree of Gernika)" is the standout track. It's the unofficial national anthem of the Basque Country sung here by a male choir, Biez Bat. The tree of Gernika is the symbol of homeland and liberty for all Basques. When the bertsolari (troubadour) Iparraguirre wrote this in the 1800s, he was exiled from Spain.

It's too bad Disc 2 does not have the same level of quality. I almost never play it, and when I do I am invariably disappointed. It's an odd mix of Basque traditional dance, festival music and heavy metal. There are a few interesting pieces such as the festive tune (written by 19th-century bertsolari Etxahoun) "Les fetes de Mauleon," but without the context or translation all meaning is lost on outsiders. This is unfortunate, as there is so much good and distinctive Basque folk music out there that could have been included on this disc. Where are the venerable folk group Oskorri, singer Benito Lertxundi and accordionist Kepa Junkera? Where is the Bayonne choir Oldarra? What could account for these omissions?

Though a number of the songs do interest me, unfortunately this CD just is not worth the "double CD" price. There is plenty of great Basque music available -- the real mystery is why it's not here.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 24 May 2003