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.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Radio Show on Contemporary Avantgarde music: is the world of arts and creativity coming to an end?

“I have a kind of cultural map in my head, where I find similarities between different cultures. For example, domestic Japanese pop music sounds like Arabic music to me - the vocal intonation and vibrato, and in my mind Bali is next to New York. Maybe everyone has these geographies in their heads; this is the way I've been working.”
Ryuichi Sakamoto

“Tutte le machine al potere, gli uomini a pane ed acqua”
Franco Battiato

The following is an adapted version of script for the radio show "Who Do You Think You Are?" dedicated to contemporary avantgarde 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.

THEME: Post-modernism in music and beyond

QUESTION OF THE DAY: Is the world of arts and creativity coming to an end?

Has everything already being done? Is there hope that something radically new in music and in other artistic fields will come up, something as revolutionary as let’s say the rock experiments of the 60s and 70s? Does post-modernity mean that originality will never be achieved again? It’s a time of crisis. Deep crisis. Whether as social scientists or writers or musicians, we have lost our reference points, we don’t know why we are doing what we are doing anymore, we lack a sense of direction, a sense of purpose that could channel our creative energies.

This overwhelming sense of nothingness, of the ‘already done’ is growing to a level that does not seem to leave many options open: we either get stuck forever into this broken disc feeling of the ‘already heard and actually, it was better in the 70s’ (i.e. just keep on watching MTV crap) or we move towards something new, a new beginning. But maybe this is just an optimistic take. Maybe what is happening will keep on happening. Maybe something new will eventually grow from this mess, but only at the expenses of man and sociality, of life itself.

I look at Sakamoto, Eno, Battiato and many other contemporary musicians, writers, performers, intellectuals and what I see is implosion: atomised, lonely individuals locking themselves in their golden prisons to create, at the expenses of their own humanity.

This is how I see myself and my contemporaries at times: I pass my days in front of computer screens, writing, listening to music, browsing the internet, getting millions of information in one day, something that was never possible even just 20 years ago, and as the amount of information gets bigger and bigger, the degree of impersonality grows exponentially. What was once information about something, becomes now information for the sake of information, I have lost the external referent, I have flushed human reality down the toilet.

It is hard to maintain a sense of agency. I sit back and observe my own mind and consciousness grow beyond my control and my will. When I stop asking myself “why?”, I start wondering “who am I?”, “who is doing all this?”, “what is reality?”. This deep exploration into cosmology, however, is not driven by a sense of interconnectedness, a sense of sharing some important features with other beings, as it might have once been. It is caused by the very opposite condition: loneliness, estrangement, alienation, apathy, loss of self-and-other dimension. If the self is nothing but a web of connections, then these connections do not need to be ‘human beings’ anymore. In my own intricate post-modern kosmos, humans are replaced by machines, objects, abstract concepts, artificial images, internet pages, movies, books and CDs.


The music I have selected does not hide strong overtones of anguish for a world that seems to be approaching its end: in this particular instance, the end of music. Getting a taste of what these musical gurus are up to in the late 90s through the beginning of the millennium gives you an idea of the state of the art. Some critics would be ready to label this as lack of inspiration. I think there is a more complex story to be told. The fragmentation, the loss of ambition, the anaesthetic dreamy synth sound textures alternated with the paranoid distorted cacophonies, are the most sincere expression of what all that these artists are feeling at this time in history, and the music can only reflect this condition.

Post-modernity is then exemplified by the act of waiting. I look back, see how great all that was, I feel I have missed something, something might have changed irreparably within and outside myself. But I have not lost hope, not yet, maybe; and even if I did, it is only too rational to think that chaos evolves and as I sunk into chaos, I should be able to work my way up through it.

I can’t believe people will continue to accept this limbo of ideas, emotions and meanings. The emptiness that invades newspapers, tv broadcasts, academic publications, fiction books, concert halls, this lack of content, cannot be going on for very long. On the other hand, the emotional and intellectual desert I have discovered where I had least expected it does not make me hope for the best. But it could be that for some perverse effect taking place on the macro-structural level, something that only the so-called ‘post-modern theorists’ seem to understand, it is from the peripheries that new stuff will come up. Digging into less prestigious university communities, ghetto movements and third world city alleys, will produce better results in this search for art, for new art and new ideas. Or, maybe, just more despair. In either case, it is still worth leaving that laptop screen by itself sometime, forget about emails, BBC news and Wikipedia for a while, and go check out there, in the real world, what’s left of reality.

MUSIC: Contemporary Avantgarde Music – David Sylvian, David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Brian Eno, Franco Battiato


Album: “Dead Bees on a Cake” (1999)

“Dead Bees on a Cake” is a pleasant exploration of different musical genres, from the 80s Sylvian-style dark ballads, to light jazz, new age and world music. Nothing of the calibre of his vocal landmark “Secrets of the Beehive”, but surely gives us an idea of contemporary musical evolutions. David Sylvian’s voice remains a rather distinctive mark in the post-modern hyperreality: it evokes those endless and ever mutating landscapes of city life; also it renders well that feeling of suspension and resignation to the impenetrable complexity of the outside world.


Pollen Path – 3’25”

The post-punk reminiscences and the electro-percussions tones seem to anticipate the latest Nick Cave experimentation by a few years. David Sylvian lacks however the coherence and persistence of Nick Cave. This is just one of the examples of the uncultivated eclecticism of David Sylvian.

The Shining of Things – 3’10”

A classic ‘Sylvian-style’ ballad, reminiscent of the tracks in “Secrets of the Beehive” (1987). Beautiful sound arrangements by the friend Ryuichi Sakamoto.


David Sylvian from

David Sylvian on the Wikipedia


Album: “Earthlings” (1997)

The album was recorded right after the tour with Nine Inch Nails and the electro influences are evident. David Bowie, like a child never tired of new adventures, throws himself carelessly into the 90s mass phenomenon, rave music. Drum&bass, techno, jungle, mixed together with electric guitars, contemporary rock riffs, and a touch of the old Bowie-style new wave. I must say a rather successful mix and sure one that is appealing to the millions of people who would have never cared to check out “Space Oddity” (1969) or “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust” (1972).

A true chameleon, David Bowie’s avantgarde consists in nothing but masking himself under the fashion of the moment. Among the musicians in this selection, he is the one less troubled by the commoditisation of music; sometimes I think of David Bowie as the arty mirror of another ‘chameleon’ phenomenon, that of commercial change-your-clothes-as-the-money-flows Madonna. His ability to shift from one mask to another, from one character to the next, makes Bowie a post-modern artist: I wouldn’t be surprised if we will see him one day playing Bach or Beethoven with a huge motherflipping grand piano. Anything is possible, anything goes, life goes on, and David Bowie will keep on top of things, his latest video always there on MTV.


Little Wonder – 6’02”

Drum&bass, hints of electric rock, minimalist piano notes and dreamy vocals successfully blend together into a rather innovative electro-Bowie.

Telling Lies – 4’49”

The vocals here more markedly reminisce the 70s Bowie style. However, the similarities are counteracted by the radical move towards electric rock in the refrains. The minimalist techno background makes this a rather ‘soft’ track. Oblivion and suspension are the dominant feelings: this is Bowie’s ‘full immersion’ into the 90s music culture.


David Bowie on the Wikipedia

Interesting essay on the occult symbolism in David Bowie’s work; even if you are not so interested by the theme of the occult in itself, it is a very good analysis about David Bowie’s own philosophy and the way this is transposed in the music.


Album: “Chasm” (2004)

‘Chasm’ has been criticised by some as a rather incoherent album; critics have noted how it explores too many different themes without really delving in depth on any. I argue that this is exactly the point that Sakamoto is trying to make. Japanese composer Sakamoto is evidently abandoning any pretence to completeness. A broken self is what Sakamoto is trying to render here. And yet, it is not simply ‘chaos’: something more troubling is taking place, a continuous explosion and clash of sounds and experiences, the failure of producing coherence, resignation to schizophrenia and fragmentation. Sakamoto has put the basis for the future of music. Or for the end of it.


World Citizen – 6’03”

The vocals are performed by David Sylvian. The song is not just the nth softly spoken dark Sylvian-style ballad. The instrumental accompaniment is made of fragmented electronic tunes, with numerous breaks and reverbs as to capture and represent the chaotic nature of reality. It is as if in the background we hear the infinite possibilities that any piece of music offers to its composer. This is a truly post-modern song: “World Citizen” is not a thoughtless superficial hymn to globalisation, but rather the acknowledgement of an existential condition where concepts such as tradition, roots, locality have all lost meaning.


Biography, chronology, discography, filmography, links

Check out Chain Music, Sakamoto’s original musical project on the theme of the Iraq War.


Album: “Another Day on Earth” (2005)

After 20 years of silence (or better, of entirely instrumental ambient productions), Brian Eno is back with a vocal album. And yet, what the tracks in “Another Day on Earth” really mark is the break down of the classic dichotomy ambient Eno vs vocal Eno. “Another Day on Earth” is a journey through reminiscences of a past now gone that will never be recovered. As the vocals become gradually more functional to and absorbed by the synth sounds, the listener sinks into a deep black hole without end, slowly mutating his initial feeling of nostalgia into despair.


And Then So Clear – 5’49”

Brian eno’s voice is pitched an octave higher than the original. This produces an effect in between tragedy and grotesque.

This – 3’33”

In the song ‘This’, the fusion between ambient and pop vocals is achieved with brilliance and grace. It is a rather sad song. There is something in the voice that recalls the old Eno; this jump into the past is further reinforced by the dreamy synth sounds and the basic lyrical structure.


A website dedicated to the life and works of Brian Eno; check out the section ‘Contacting Eno’ for some interesting thoughts about audiences and music production from the master himself.

Brian Eno on the Wikipedia


Album: “Dieci Stratagemmi” (2004)

“Ten Stratagems” is the most apocalyptic album in this music selection. The loss of self, the existentialist incapacity of making sense of one’s own world, are complemented by political paranoias about dystopic world orders and global warfare. Battiato releases his own fears and frustrations by pushing the musical experimentation in to the extreme. He successfully manages to put together the classic Italian song tradition with electronica, contemporary classic music, traditional rock structures and world music. In this respect, he is the Italian avantgarde artist par excellence. The feeling of global ‘musical’ convergence is very strong, the feeling that he too could have been sitting anywhere writing these songs. And this is the reason why we can pass from Brian Eno, to Battiato, to David Sylvian without much cacophony or a sense of disconnect.


I’m That – 3’33”

Entirely in English, this song is a statement about Battiato’s reflections on the role and the nature of art. The basic message is well summarised by the following lyrics: “I’m neither Muslim nor Hindu nor Christian nor Buddhist, I am neither for the hammer neither for the sickle and even less for the tricolour flame, because I am a musician”.

Ermeneutica – 3’34”

In “Hermeneutics”, the essence of the late Battiato is distilled. On the one hand we have the philosophy, the spiritual search for order, a man, an artist who desperately seeks to understand a world turned schizoid. Political commentary (surrealist lyrics that refer to a president whose wish is to take over the world and ‘invent’ democracy everywhere) alternates itself with the existentialist search for truth and peace of mind (“and what is kosmos? What is the meaning of the word? History is bunk” sings Battiato in his own peculiar English). The fragmentation and the difficulty of making sense is reflected in a form that becomes ever more experimental.


Franco Battiato on the Wikipedia (in English)

Franco Battiato’s official website


In this radio show I have managed to talk about some of my most pressing concerns. The music fitted perfectly with the theme, and this contributed to the overall positive effect.

However, I have experienced in a very direct way what it means to go on air live and with a strict timetable. Towards the end, I have miscalculated how much time I had left and I got confused while reading the last link. Overall, it sounded fine when I re-listened to it, but I had to jump a few sentences which were rather important for the general message I wanted to convey. Considering that my final link is always the most important (it summarises the whole journey), I should really be careful with times in the next shows.

I have had some feedback from Florian. He did like the show and the music. However, he did notice that I could read more ‘freely’, with more intonation. I think that’s going to come with time and practice; also, given the limited time I can dedicate to the show weekly, it does take lots of effort to write the script and I cannot take too much care of the reciting bit. I am thinking about just rehearsing the script a few hours before I go on air from next time. I don’t know if I will always manage to do that. Many times, the hours before the show I am still in the process of writing the script.