Monday, April 17, 2006

Radio Show on Basque Music: can we separate art from politics?

The following is an adapted version of script for the radio show "Who Do You Think You Are?" dedicated to Basque music. It includes a playlist and it is followed by some comments on the show itself.

Click here to listen to this show in MP3 format.

Many thanks to my Basque friends, without whom I could have not produced this show. They know who they are. Translation from the Basque in [].

An excellent source of information about Basque music can be found at Buber's Basque Page.

THEME: Basque music, art and politics

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Can we meaningfully separate our appreciation of art from the socio-political context within which it is created?

In simpler words, when we consider Basque music, can we really make an artistic judgement that is completely independent from the political values that have stimulated the production of this music? Do we listen to Basque radical rock ‘neutrally’? Are we moved at all by the evocations of struggle, war, violence, oppression? More generally, this question is also about the conditions of artistic production: is an artistic product, once completed, detached from the environs in which it was created?


The shadow of ETA seems to haunt pretty much any rational discussion about what’s goes on in the Basque countries. The arguments of the so-called Basque radicals get often discarded on the basis of their alleged support to ETA. Once you start delving a bit deeper into Basque reality, walking around the streets, talking to people over there, these black-and-white categories stop making sense. I haven’t met any ‘terrorist’ in the Basque, and yet, many of the people I came across had some family relatives or friends in prison, condemned for crimes related to terrorism. As soon as I started to ask for their stories, for the reasons why they were condemned, I discovered that for an act of vandalism (i.e. putting a few trash bins on fire), if you are Basque you could end up in prison for a few years. More often than not your ‘crime’ will be related to ETA, even though most likely you have no connections to the organisation and you never had thought to make any.

I do not intend here to make a call for the Basque cause or any other radical statement as such; as a matter of fact, as much as I personally support the wish of Basque people to have their own state, I can’t really do much. Rather, what I would like to point at is that, as a Basque in the Basque countries, it is not so difficult, given the special laws into place and the coercion of the police forces, to finish into the traps the so-called ‘machine of justice’. Simply showing up at demonstrations gives you high chances of passing the night in some police stations, in the hands of people who are not really known for their nice manners. If you do end in prison, the likelihood that you will be exposed to some acts of psychological and/or physical torture from the officers is rather high. Only few weeks ago (March 2006), two political prisoners were reported dead one day after the other; one apparently died of heart attack and the other killed himself. The ‘unfortunate’ coincidence for the Spanish authorities is that only 24 hours passed between the first and the second death.

Anyway, I did promise to myself not to end up in political denunciations, but I really struggle to understand how I could ever detour my personal commentary on Basque music from facts which are so compelling. Just another example of how, once political persecution and social injustice becomes part of the everyday reality of a people, it is pointless to try to separate the artistic from the political. These harsh facts impact on the subjectivities of many Basque people. They are part of their everyday life. The artists in this music selection live in this context. For them, politics is personal. In such a situation, their desire for expression cannot transcend this political dimension. What bands like Hertzainak or Negu Gorriak represent is much more than simply a musical movement: their songs sing the disappointments, the anger, the political aspirations and the wish for emancipation of entire generations of Basque youth, starting from the 1980s up to the present.


From the bits and pieces I have put together for this show, how would I answer the initial question? When I listen to this music, I can’t really isolate a purely aesthetic appreciation for the music from my own emotions, from my personal experiences in the Basque and my connection to the place. I listen to this music and I remember my two trips there. I remember the tanks on the streets of Bilbao, when Batasuna was banned. I remember the magic atmosphere of the Fiestas, so many young people in the streets, the music, the stalls. I recall my admiration for the people I have met there, for their incredible taste in matters of arts, architecture, food, pastimes.

One step further, the emotions of this music awake my social consciousness, some kind of romanticism about the suffering of people in many other parts of the world; I remember Swaziland somehow; I think of Southern Italy and the social problems there. The politics I am talking about here, however, is not an academic subject; it’s not an abstract discourse about power and political structures. It is something embedded in my personal experience of reality. It has to do with the fundamental human capacity for empathy.

As much as I tend to put on the mask of the skeptic when in the company of the so-called ‘radicals’, I believe, like many of my Basque friends, that the personal is political. I believe that one can’t find happiness when one is surrounded by other people’s sufferings. This is what this music reminds me of. It reminds of the existence of other people outside the four walls of my small room; it reminds me of reality.

MUSIC:Basque music - Hertzainak, Kortatu / Negu Gorriak, The Dirties, Oreka TX


While Hertzainak were extremely popular in the Basque, some say that their choice of singing in Basque has in fact limited the possibilities of reaching to a wider audience. Nevertheless, they did have a following in other countries, like Cuba and Germany. Hertzainak, which means ‘policemen’ in Basque, formed in the early eighties and were strongly inspired by the Police, the pop-rock band led by Sting. As time passed, they developed their own unique style, fusing pop-rock with soft touched sonorities borrowed from a number of different traditions. When the band dissolved in the mid-nineties, Gari, the lead singer, started a solo career.


Guantanamera – 4’44” (from the album ‘Mundu Berria Daramagu Bihotzean’ [We Have a New World in Our Hearts], 1991)

The song is a re-elaboration of the original Cuban song “Guantanamera”. The lyrics contain references to the abuses carried out by the U.S. government in the naval base of Guantanamo Bay. As a matter of fact, the Basque political aspirations for self-determination are not put forward in a vacuum; rather, the Basque have established strong ties with Latin America (which is still the preferred destination for ETA exiles) and insert their own claims within the wider discourse of international solidarity and of global struggle against imperialism. It is this wider breadth of Basque political claims that made it possible for the Basque to have a huge number of sympathisers in many parts of the world.

Aitormena [Confession] – 4’42” (from the album ‘Aitormena’, 1989)

This is the song that best represents the band’s musical evolution towards a brand of pop rock which is never superficial or forged as a shortcut for commercial success.

Larru Beltzak [Black Skin] – 4’44”


Kortatu was formed in the summer 1984. It was strongly inspired by the Clash and the spread of the punk wave throughout Europe. Just like their cousins Clash, Kortatu mixed ska, punk, classic rock, reggae and dub influences rather successfully.

What also reminds me of the Clash is the militant content of the lyrics. Fermin Muguruza, the lead singer and founder of Kortatu (later renamed Negu Gorriak), now pursuing a solo career, has often been criticised for being an apologist of ETA. The lyrics he wrote and sang for Kortatu and Negu Gorriak are often pointed at as proof of this. He denies that and has often called for a peaceful resolution of the never-declared war of the Spanish state against the Basque radicals.

Kortatu was renamed Negu Gorriak in 1989. With the same line-up, the band steadily moved towards hip-hop, hardcore and crossover. If Kortatu were close to the Clash, Negu Gorriak music reminisces Public Enemy. This is obviously an oversimplification, as Negu Gorriak production moves easily from rock to hip-hop and reggae, back to ska. Rather than a break with the past, Negu Gorriak is simply one of the possible evolutions of the Kortatu experimentations. Negu Gorriak dissolved in 1996. After this, the leader of the band Fermin Muguruza started a solo career; his works include a collaboration with Manu Chao.


Jaungoikoa Eta Lege Zarra [God and the Old Testament] – 3’32” (Kortatu, ‘The Frontline Compilation’, 1988)

Bertso-Hop – 3’38” (Negu Gorriak, ‘Negu Gorriak’, 1990)

That sort of recited chanting you hear in the song is taken from the tradition of Bertsolaritza. Originally, this was a kind of verbal fight between two contestants that took place in the streets; the contestants had to speak following complex poetical meters. Today, these contests happen in the form of a public performance, often comprising more than two people; the contestants are given a theme upon which they have to improvise a rhymed speech. It reminds me a bit of the MC battles and the whole phenomenon of freestyle. Just like in the MC battles, it is rather self-evident who wins the contest and the winner is usually almost anonymously acknowledged by the public and by the contestants themselves. In Francoist times, bertsolaritza became charged with strong political overtones, even though the references to current affairs was always in the form of allusions, to avoid censorship. Since then, politics has become a rather recurrent element of bertsolaritza contests. However, these duels are never really meant to be explicitly political; rather, the content of the lyrics is directed towards everyday life. Politics features in it only insofar as it is part of the everyday experiences of the Basque people.

Sarri, Sarri – 4’07” (Kortatu, ‘The Frontline Compilation’, 1988)

This song is dedicated to the mythical (and successful) escape from prison of Joseba Sarrionandia, Basque poet and writer involved with ETA, on 7th July 1985. 7th July is a national holiday, San Fermin, when the famous bull race in Pamplona takes place. Since then, for many Basque people the holiday has been connected to the escape of the famous writer Sarrionandia.

Denok Gara Malcolm X [We Are All Malcolm X] - 1’40” (Negu Gorriak, ‘Borreroak Baditu Milaka Aurpegi’ [Politicians Have Multiple Faces], 1993)

Hipokrisiari Stop! [Stop to Hypocrisy] – 2’17” (Negu Gorriak, ‘Borreroak Baditu Milaka Aurpegi’ [Politicians Have Multiple Faces], 1993)

A good example of the evolution of the early Kortatu ska/punk into the later Negu Gorriak hardcore/crossover.

Desmond Tutu - 2’46” (Kortatu, ‘The Frontline Compilation’, 1988)


Kortatu on the Wikipedia

Negu Gorriak on the Wikipedia

Fermin Muguruza’s official website; contains lyrics of Negu Gorriak and Kortatu songs translated in English


Album: ‘Borroka ‘n Rolla’ [Fight ‘n Roll] (2002)

They make an excellent blend of classic rock and soft metal; the electric guitars solos and the screamed vocals remind of the golden 70s, names like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin come to my mind. “The Dirties” are the new frontier of Basque revolution rock; they are from Durango, a small pretty Basque town near Bilbo.

They sing both in Basque and English; some say they will fill the vacuum left by Negu Gorriak and Hertzainak. In the wake of globalisation, mass cultures, and political scepticism, there are still lots of Basque youth who are as radical as the generations from the 70s and the 80s; they must be craving for new music too.


Rock N Roll (You Know I Need This Sound) – 3’11”

Ez Zara Ezer [You Are Nothing] – 2’42”


Official website


Album: ‘Quercus Endorphina’ (2001)

The misty sound of the txalaparta is the most distinctive feature of this Basque ensemble, Oreka Txalaparta (Oreka means balance). The txalaparta has been used as a communication device in Basque villages for millennia. During the Roman invasion, it was used to make rallying defensive calls. In the 1950s, it was almost extinct. It is in this period that it was revived by folklorists, who transformed it into a musical instrument. It consists of several thick planks of different woods, which are struck gently with two pairs of sticks by two performers who play in synchronicity.

Fusing traditional Basque sounds with world music and new age tunes, Oreka Txalaparta’s music is incredibly catchy and relaxing; Oreka’s compositions do not have a direction, a finite musical structure, with a beginning and end; they are rather focused on the experience of listening itself. Like in much traditional music across the world, Oreka’s tunes have a tendency towards transcendence and altered states of consciousness.


Keinuka Ilargiari [Praising the Moon] – 3’25”

Txalaparta Dantza [Txalaparta Dance] – 2’03”


Info about the Txalaparta

Review of a concert in Glasgow by Oreka TX


This time it was a real struggle to get to the end of the show. Whenever I would try to concentrate for a few seconds to prepare the links, there would be something to disrupt my attempts. The mouse froze a few minutes after the start and made it very difficult for me to manage the beds. I had to get in and out of the Outlook with the keyboard commands to check the email messages that were sent during the show. Half way through the show I had to leave the desk to open the door for the next show guests who arrived 25 minutes earlier than their scheduled slot. I had then to go back to open the door for the show presenter towards the end of the show. Besides these small incidents, when I listened to the show again I could hear the weariness. I needed a break from the Cambridge work routine and was about to leave for Italy the day after. Overall, not a bad show, but not the best either.


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