Over the last few weeks I’ve developed a little Basque thing. I have long been fascinated by these folks, but that has mostly been due to their creation of Mondragon, the world’s most advanced system of worker ownership (which I’ll be visiting next week.
Over the course of my semi-obsessive browsing of the internet, I discovered a new form of music – new to me anyway. It’s actually pretty old, dating back to the times when the Basques were NOT taken over by the Romans.
It has a fierce name – txalaparta – although not totally unpronounceable; “tx” is a single letter, similar to the “ch” (che) in Spanish, only more Basque. The instrument itself is nothing special – essentially a row of wooden planks laid across two supports and beaten with thick, vertical drumsticks. Sometimes the planks are made of stone, metal pipes, or even ice.
Originally the Basques would make cider with planks, and than bang on the planks to let everyone know when the cider was done and it was time for a little party. I suppose that different cider makers had different rhythms, and maybe tried to outdo each other. I found a short documentary with enough self-explanatory footage to still be useful for non Euskara speakers.
So what does this all have to do with cooperation?
Somewhere along the line, the txalaparta became a two-person instrument. Its play produces an amazing, baffling, and mainly improvised mix of competition and collaboration, in which the players change rhythms and move in and out of syncopation.
I discovered txalaparta through a group called Oreka, which released a movie caled Nomadak Tx (which has a gorgeous trailer, by the way). The duo traveled to Finland, Morocco, India and Mongolia, meeting with nomadic people and adding their sounds to the txalaparta. This is a rather interesting connection to me, because the Basques are deeply rooted to their land, having kept small farms in the same family for very long times. Here you have some of the least nomadic people on the planet roaming around to have jam sessions with nomads. making their traditional instruments out of local materials.
The most incredible txalapartariak (players) I’ve found are twin sisters, Sara and Maika Gomez, who performed as Ttukunak. Here is a clip with three of their performances.
Watch at least the first minute and I pretty much guarantee you’ll be hooked. Or just skip ahead to 2:35, when you can almost literally see sparks fly between them. Something sublime is going on with those two. Another great clip features their performance with Magic Marimbas (my favorite part here is the audience shot at 1:20 showing two middle-aged people totally rocking out with ecstatic grins on their faces). The dancer on the giant txalaparta is pretty cool too.
I’m starting to think that there is something different about those Basques.