The strict classification of Basque music remains a controversial issue, complicated in part by the growing diversification of such music, but by and large it may be argued that it is made in the Basque Country, that it reflects traits related to that society/tradition, and that it is devised by people from the Basque Country.
Basque traditional music is a product of the region's historic development and geographical location (namely, embedded between the Cantabrian mountain range, the Ebro river and the Pyrenees). As such, many feel that it should not be considered as having evolved in isolation. One example of the influence of the outside world is embodied in the historical functioning of the Way of St James as a flux of steady European cultural influence, up to the XVIIIth century.
Most of the instruments that have been taken on in rural and folk circles do not go back more that six centuries, some of them being introduced late in the XIXth century, like trikitixa or txistu, as we know it today (at any rate, the latter results from a long evolution). Most of Basque instruments originated out of the Basque Country and got popular at some stage of history in the territory. In this respect, txalaparta should be counted out on the grounds of its uncertain origin and unknown similar instruments on neighbouring areas.
Some traditional Basque instruments are the following:
The Basque people are especially keen on singing. The Basque language, as opposed to Romance languages, has strongly stuck to oral tradition, first coming to be put on paper for literature in the XVIth century. There are sung poems dating from the XVth century that have been passed over from parents to children by word of mouth for generations up to the XXth century, e.g. Ozaze Jaurgainian from Soule, which relates matters of six centuries ago and has come up to us developed in different versions (the best known version was popularized by Benito Lertxundi though), or Alostorrea, from Biscay. This sung poems were crafted and spread by bards or bertsolaris, held in popular memory and transmitted in the so-called kopla zaharrak, sets of poems with a characteristic rhythmic pattern that could be sung. So for example the first literature work in Basque, the Linguae Vasconum Primitiae (1545) by Bernard Etxepare, despite its long verses shaped deceptively in a long, Romance like metrics, follow an internal rhythmic pattern similar to a kopla, so they can be sung by people.
It follows that traditional singing is closely related to bertsolaris, improvising bards, who hold an important status in Basque culture still nowadays. They voice the people's concerns by means of a formal tradition coming from the people (tunes, linguistic devices), and act as their spokepersons. A considerable corpus of traditional songs was gathered by R.M. Azkue and Aita Donostia, two religious scholars interested in Basque folk culture, at the turn of the XXth century and later on, in Cancionero popular vasco (1918) and Euskal Eres-Sorta. Cancionero Vasco (1922) respectively to mention but a few works. In the present day, the grouping Hiru Truku (standing for celebrated musicians Joseba Tapia, Ruper Ordorika and Bixente Martinez) has chosen several old songs from all over the Basque Country, updated the music brilliantly and released them in a couple of albums. Another current long-standing, renowned group who elaborate on traditional songs is Oskorri: the group set about singing traditional songs in public performances previously supplying the attendants with a repertoire bill including the lyrics and encouraging them to sing along. The group has launched a couple of albums yet and performed on various Basque tours to public acclaim, becoming especially popular with middle-age parents.
A key figure bridging the old singing tradition of Soule and the folk song revival of the XXth century should be noted here, Pierre Bordazaharre (1907-1979), aka Etxahun Iruri. A xirula player and singer, he collected old songs and fashioned new ones, which eventually caught on and spread, take for instance, Agur Xiberoa. He also contributed to draw up new pieces of traditional theatre of Soule, the pastorals, reshaping it and adding for one new topics, ie Basque topics.
There is also a tradition of choral music all over the Basque Country. Given that vocal music was required for church ceremonies, a choir attached to church was set up in some towns so as to meet the religious musical needs. Yet at the turn of the XXth century some ensembles detach from their original haven and they come to take on an autonomous dynamics, e.g. the Sociedad Coral de Bilbao (est. 1886), Orfeón Donostiarra (est. 1897) or the Coral Santa Cecilia from Donostia (est. 1928). Later on, other ensembles ensued, such as Oldarra Abesbatza from Biarritz (est. 1947), made up of men and sometimes putting on performances as an ochote (see below), or the reputed Coral Andra Mari from Errenteria, established in 1966, featuring Basque folk music and Aita Donostia's several scores. Nowadays many minor choral ensembles largely offering Basque folk repertoire dot the Basque territory. Interestingly, in Bayonne and Donostia a cheerful informal initiative has grown popular with amateurs in the late 2000s, who meet once a month and go bar hopping around the streets of the respective Old Quarters while singing traditional songs.
Another Basque choral phenomenon is represented by the so-called ochotes, eight men with grave voices, which became popular in the 1930s in the area of Bilbao, with a marked taste for local and folk subjects, featuring songs sung in Spanish and Basque. The question remains unclear as to weather ochotes stem from summer ecclesiastic seminaries or thrived on the warm atmosphere of the bars after work shift was over. Eventually a branch of this genre evolved out into bilbainadas (up to the 1960s, nowadays much in decay).
The Basque Country is home to various notable composers who delivered work in the XXth century above all. Much in step with the artistic trends of the first half of the century (painting,...), some of them develop a liking for Basque customs, manners and subjects.
In the wake of the Civil War (1936-1937 in the Basque territory), headway made in culture in the pre-war period came to a halt: fear and harsh repression ensued, hunger became an overriding concern and former cultural figures died or ran for their lives to exile... a barren panorama remained. As an individual singing figure of the 40s, 50s and 60s, Luis Mariano (born in Irun, moving in his 20s to Bordeaux) and his powerful tenor voice should be highlighted, who jumps to the Spanish and international musical arena with lighthearted songs in Spanish and French (Basque language is occasionally employed). When the hardest post-war years are gone by, young generations set about putting together duos and small musical groups in Gipuzkoa and Biscay that gradually take to singing original tunes in Basque in the 60s, eg Urretxindorrak, Enarak, Soroak, Estitxu (born to fleeing parents near Bayonne)..., trying to benefit from the regime's increasing liberalization, despite major obstacles that still prevent from or hamper cultural activity associated to anything Basque. Cultural and political awareness, social rebelliousness and an urge for action crops up in newer generations that results in a new left leaning Basque nationalist movement.
Some people from the southern Basque Country fled the territory to Iparralde and sought refuge. They left their imprint in the traditional Basque society from Iparralde, contributing to giving rise to cultural and political awareness. In this respect, Mixel Labeguerie should be noted, who worked and lived in Kanbo, its mayor for more than a decade (1965-1980), Councillor General of the department and a founder of Basque nationalist movement Enbata (he walked out later). He had a musical education, soaked up the new European musical trends, eg Brassens, folk music from England and France, and released an album in 1961 with songs that struck a chord, such as Gu gira Euskadiko, Primaderako liliak, etc. He was to have influence on the new artistic Basque group Ez dok amairu put together in 1965, largely made up of folk singer-songwriters concerned with Basque culture: Benito Lertxundi, Mikel Laboa (popular song Hegoak ebaki banizkio), Xabier Lete, Lourdes Iriondo, etc. Lourdes Iriondo took to singing accompanied on a guitar for the first time in Basque music, a fact that came in for much criticism on the grounds that the instrument was alien to the own culture. Ez dok amairu broke up in 1972 and its members took up separate paths that eventually have confirmed some of them as acclaimed and key folk Basque singers up to the 2000s. Along the lines of singer-songwriter style, in a context of social and political unrest, it is worth mentioning Guk or the beloved duo Pantxoa eta Peio from Iparralde, who provide the musical background for the 70's period of struggle, repression and turmoil.
Meanwhile, new and more urban style musical ensembles and groups spring up in the 70s performing first to other's songs of the time at summer local festivities. Yet they gradually develop their own repertoire fashioned in line with the Basque revival and activism (special focus on the lyrics) and ongoing Western musical trends, eg folk (Gwendal for one), progressive rock (Pink Floyd,...). As regards choral bands, Mocedades from Bilbao should be highlighted, founded in 1967 initially by Amaya Uranga and two sisters; they soon gain public notability by ranking second at the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest. That very year in the same city the prolific Oskorri band (see above) gets together featuring folk music, launching first album in 1976, where they pay homage to poet Gabriel Aresti, while in Iparralde Michel Ducau and Anje Duhalde join and put together the first Basque rock band: the celebrated and politically engaged Errobi, releasing album Errobi (1975) to critic and public acclaim; Bizi bizian ensued. The group disbands (not definitely) in 1979. Beginning from the middle 60s, Imanol Larzabal leads a solo career as a singer/songwriter, featuring a deep voice as well as socially committed and poetic subjects, with the collaboration of domestic and foreign poets and singers. He goes through a short period in prison, and comes back from exile in 1977. Friend of his and son of emigrant Souletin parents, Niko Etxart comes back to the Basque Country from Paris with brand-new ideas about music in 1972, so turning into a forerunner of Basque rock music (Euskal Rock&Roll released in 1979) alongside Errobi, while especially in the traditional Iparralde some lash out at his looks, manners and music. He alternately performs onstage in "verbenas" (dancing music in local festivities) with the band Minxoriak up to the late 80s. In the area of Mutriku, Itoiz, a milestone in Basque folk-pop music, is established in 1978, with Juan Carlos Perez as its central figure, releasing that very year the critically acclaimed album Itoiz, which contains such poignant tracks as Hilzori, Lau teilatu etc. Akin ensemble Haizea delivers a couple of good LPs in this period.
Up to that point, Basque music bands from the Spanish Basque Country resorted to labels from Spain to record and release their works. Yet at the end of the 70s and notably early in the 80s new regional labels arise (Xoxoa, Soñua...), providing a springboard for small bands that previously found it difficult to see their works published. At the same time, a whole network of youth squats, the gaztetxes, spring up all over the Basque Country, so furnishing small bands with premises to rehearse and a venue to stage concerts, in a way that a younger disaffected and unruly generation stemming from urban sprawls and towns can find an outlet to voice its protest along the lines of a punk outlook ("do it yourself"). 1984 is the year for the outbreak of punk rock or so-called Rock Radical Vasco. Some popular bands jumping into the rock panorama of the time are Zarama and Eskorbuto from Santurtzi, Barricada and whimsical Tijuana in Blue from Pamplona, La Polla Records from Agurain, Kortatu and Baldin Bada from Irun, Hertzainak, Cicatriz and Potato from Vitoria-Gasteiz, Jotakie, RIP, Naste Borraste, MCD, BAP, Zer Bizio, Delirium Tremens, etc. Most of the times Spanish language is used, sometimes Basque, while other times bands are bilingual. This new musical trend clashes with the previous singer-songwriter tradition (generation gap), so much more that both are linked to different degrees to the leftist and Basque nationalist movement. Meanwhile, Itoiz continued its low-profile musical path switching to pop in the accomplished album Musikaz blai (three more LP albums followed), featuring internationally acclaimed songs like To Alice, As Noites da Radio Lisboa or the catchy Marea gora.
Other bands of the late 80s stick to a different path, gentle and even naïf, using Spanish-language lyrics and along the lines of a pop tradition, take for instance, Duncan Dhu (with leading figure Mikel Erentxun), 21 Japonesas or Sanchis y Jocano, bands from the area of Donostia. Duncan Dhu especially attains big levels of popularity on the Spanish and international pop panorama, giving rise to a tradition in ensuing years that was to be called Donosti Sound (Le Mans, La Oreja de Van Gogh,...).
In 1990, Basque-language public radio station Euskadi Gaztea is born, intending to target the youth in a young, dynamic and informal manner, besides adding information, dealing with subjects Basque young people may be interested in and encouraging Basque groups. Basque music definitely opens its mind to trends all over the world. The flagship Basque rock band Kortatu breaks up in 1988 (live album Azken guda dantza), and soon after brothers Muguruza put together project Negu Gorriak. They show off a different outlook compared to previous band Kortatu: the new group sings entirely in Basque, their approach is more hedonistic and show a taste for rap, an attitude displayed in a video clip (Radio Rahim) that conjures up American hip-hop manners. Punk style falls much in decay, while reggae as well as hardcore take over, eg Anestesia, Etsaiak, Sociedad Alkoholika, Su Ta Gar (heavy), etc. M-ak launches its best album Barkatu ama to critical acclaim, featuring styles ranging from hardcore to gentle tracks.
Early in the 90s, younger generations take up folk again, finding a public that is eager to listen to milder tunes in Basque, eg Sorotan Bele, Mikel Markez, etc. Trikitixa schools finally bear fruit in the 90s: the novelties brought about by Tapia eta Leturia and Kepa Junkera confirm them as folk references in the Basque Country and abroad, following that novel trikitixa duos try new ways, sometimes setting up bands by adding bass guitar and drums to the set pair of diatonic button accordion and tambourine, eg Maixa eta Ixiar, Alaitz eta Maider, Gozategi. They usually offer a cheerful repertoire, with Gozategi's song Nirekin (Emoixtaxux muxutxuek...) hitting the summer charts in 2000 beyond language boundaries. Rock group Hertzainak disbands in 1993, while its members follow their own projects. Controversial singer Gari starts up a solo and very personal career with some accomplished songs, while Josu Zabala collaborates with other singers and group projects of some bertsolaris, eg original brass band Karidadeko Benta (first album 2003). Power pop band Urtz, formed in 1988, deals with personal stories that slightly differ from the still prevailing protest topics and harsh language of the late 80s, besides featuring an unprecedented chorus line that delivers some charming, upbeat and catchy songs; the band breaks up in the early 2000s. In step with the hardcore tradition, the band Berri Txarrak from Lekunberri gets together in 1994, releasing various albums (latest album Jaio. Musika. Hil -2005-) and touring on Europe, where they come in for good reviews and gradually get a reputation that earns them performances and collaborations with important figures of indie rock all over the world. Frontman Gorka Arbizu puts together sideline band Peiremans, playing power pop. The band PiLT (Mungia), who shows a taste for metal and hard sounds (Clawfinger, Soundgarden), jumps into spotlight in 1995 after winning the bootleg contest "Gaztea Sariak" granted by radio station Euskadi Gaztea, while the definite hit comes in 1996 with single Hil da jainkoa, earning them widespread recognition. Likewise heavy metal band Latzen comes to public prominence after winning with popular ballad Laztana the 1997 edition of "Gaztea Sariak".
The bands Skalariak (1994) and Betagarri (1992) take over the ska tradition, offering boogie inciting and swinging live concerts. In step with other multicultural experiences, such as Fermin Muguruza from Negu Gorriak or festive Joxe Ripiau to highlight but a few, in 2003 members of Etsaiak put together Pin pan pun band, a group with good connections in Latin America, releasing in 2005 the DVD Kuba-Mexiko Rock Tour 04, which bears witness to their experience and live powerful concerts. Etsaiak joins together again in 2008 (launches album Apurtu arte). The band from Zarautz Delorean does electronic&rock with enthralling and trance raising live performances. Other rock bands on the rise in 2008: Surfing Kaos (Donostia), Standard (Getxo), Kaotiko (Agurain), The Uskis (Elantxobe), Atom Rhumba (Bilbao), Ken 7 (Gernika),...
Doctor Deseo was set up in Bilbao in 1986, releasing thereafter various albums during a period that spans more than 20 years. They deal with everyday and personal subjects in a rather poetic manner. Fito y los Fitipaldis (Bilbao) was formed in 1998 by Platero y Tú's frontman Fito Cabrales, comprising a variety of styles ranging soul, blues, swing, flamenco, tex-mex or hawaian guitars. The project starts out with A puerta cerrada (40,000 items sold so far) and grows steadily in popularity, the latest hit song being Rojitas las orejas. In Donostia, youths from university gather together in the mid 90s to rehearse; yet they are in need of a singer for the band, so they fix up a casting meeting with Amaia Montero that results in the creation of La Oreja de Van Gogh, who after launching album Dile al sol takes off boosted by Amaia's mighty voice and catchy soft tunes trimmed with beautiful arrangements. New hit songs and albums follow. Ainhoa Cantalapiedra (born 1980) wins at the beginning of the 2000s musical TV contest Operación Triunfo.
The singer-songwriter approach that waned in the late 80s shows presently a sound condition in the Basque panorama, with some very outstanding figures, like poignant Anari, renowned for her intense, heartbreaking voice and songs, who is now taking off (live recording Anari Kafe Antzokian Zuzenean released in 2008). Other singer-songwriters include Petti, from Bera (Navarre), with four albums published up to 2008, or the bertsolari Mikel Urdangarin, featuring somewhat melancholic songs often accompanied on string and brass instruments. Following the folk and singer-songwriter tradition, Jabier Muguruza (born 1960) takes up a solo career in 1994 after quitting other projects (Les Mecaniciens,...); he sets about composing and performing intimate, mild songs with strong brooding and literary lyrics. Meanwhile, some renown figures of Basque folk music keep on performing and creating, eg Benito Lertxundi, Mikel Laboa or Oskorri (fresh album Banda band in 2007, about to celebrate the ensemble's 35 anniversary). In Iparralde, the group Bidaia, ie the couple Mixel Ducau and Caroline Phillips', offers gentle and elaborate folk music, while percussionist Benat Achiary (born 1947) provides an experimental approach, often featuring improvised passages in his performances (several albums released in the 90s). Amaia Zubiria (born 1947 in Zubieta -Gipuzkoa-), who has occasionally collaborated with him, holds a long and prolific career in the Basque song panorama: she came to the spotlight with progressive-folk group Haizea, having published some solo albums since, featuring a very pure mezzo-soprano voice. Her latest work is the album Nabil (2008).