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- Posted on Mar 17th 2009 3:30PM by Steve Hochman
Igor Otxoa and Harkaitz Martinez de San Vicente are Basque "togetherists." It's the nature of what they do under the musical name of Oreka Tx -- they play the txalaparta, one of the few instruments that require two people, as they show in this video clip. And this one. It's a traditional Basque thing, sort of a cross between a marimba and a picnic table, usually made with wooden or sometimes stone beams cut to play tuned notes when struck from above by the players with the ends of tapered dowels.
"It's the best and worst of the instrument to depend on another person," says Otxoa, speaking from his home in San Sebastian in the Spanish part of Basque country. "But since when you play the instrument, very different from other instruments, one of the nicest things is you get caught up in it and want to play more. You can feel how the relations is between two players."
But the pair wanted not to share it just between players but between cultures. Hence their project 'Nomadak Tx,' a new album and award-winning documentary film that chronicle trips they made to various locales to jam with the locals. In India, they collaborated with village singers and musicians, an Adivasi bard named Bagu spinning the story of the Oreka visit into improvised verses as the visitors played. In the Sahara, they set up with bemused Berbers (with one session in a refugee camp). In Central Asia, they settled in with the epic equine balladeers. And among the Sámi people in the Lapland region of north Sweden, they even made a txalaparta entirely of ... ice! Well, it was in the Ice Hotel, after all.
Back home, some of the field recordings were put in contexts reflecting the Oreka modern-traditional aesthetic, resulting in such true hybrids as 'Jai Adivasi,' drawn from sessions in an Indian village:
Oreka Tx, 'Jai Adivasi'
"The reason was we wanted to know about the reality of other nations, other people that were interesting for us, many of them in relation with the nomadic way of life," Otxoa says. "People from nations that are in very dramatic situations, identity is not respected -- like the Basque. Sahara people don't have that place. Lapland people live in different site but don't have their own country. Mongolia, the people will disappear because they cannot survive like a nation. We were interested in that. In a way like looking in a mirror with the Basque situation."
The very notion of preserving fading cultures is inherent in their musical legacy as well. "In the '60s, there were only two couples that still played it, from two different families, Zuaznabar and Goikoetxea," he says. "There were supposedly more from isolated areas, but it had nearly disappeared. Then there were another two brothers from other families that started to learn, and they started to teach other people."
Soon the txalaparta (often abbreviated as "tx") took hold as an instrument not just of music but of Basque culture and pride at a time when it was being squashed under the continued rule of Spain by fascist Gen. Francisco Franco.
"When they started recognizing the txalaparta toward the end of the '60s, it was the start of a cultural movement in Basque country against Franco," Otxoa says. "The txalaparta became a symbol of identity."
By the time Otxoa and Martinez took it up in 1997, while it still held that position, it was also being seen for its own musical values beyond the cultural and political statements it had come to embody. From the start of Oreka Tx, the goal was to explore the possibilities of the instrument in both traditional and nontraditional settings. And it proved remarkably adaptable.
"In these 12 years we have been playing it professionally, we have seen that on one side, it is percussion, so easy to fit with other styles and other instruments," Otxoa says. "And on the other side, it is melodic, too."
At first they brought other musicians to their home town to collaborate, releasing their first CD in 2001. Meanwhile, they were touring with a band to spread the ideas, but it wasn't fully satisfying.
"We realized we were like nomadic people, going from one place to another, just staying one night in a hotel to play a concert and then go to another place," he says. "Didn't have time to get to relate with people we were playing with, to know about their culture and realities."
As seen in the film, the way to address this was pretty simple, generally just with the two of them and cameraman/director Raúl de la Fuente arriving in the communities where they hoped to film: "When we made the ride to a little village, the first thing we did was play the txalaparta," Otxoa says. "It was our way of arriving places. The first thing we did was put up the instrument and play, and all the people came and would try it too and liked it. So that helped a lot for us to have a relation to the people."
It wasn't always smooth communication. "With some musicians in Morocco we didn't understand one another in a musical way. In India, too, very different concept for the music. But in personal ways we were very lucky -- didn't have any problems in all the trips."
And of course there were some surprises.
"I think we all agree, the three of us, that Mongolia was especially nice. Mongolia changed us -- a little or a lot, I don't know," he says. "Forty percent of the population there are nomads, but it was nice to arrive to a place and see people there continue their work and say, 'Feel at home, go inside.' They just have the minimum things they need to survive, so they don't have many traditional instruments. They have to carry the things they need to survive. A piano or a txalaparta is not good for that. So they developed the harmonic singing and the vocal techniques because they can carry it with them.
"In India was just the opposite. We were with the Adivasi people, the aborigines of India, who are not nomads. They have lived there many centuries and have hundreds of instruments."
The biggest surprise may have come after the trips. As they put all the segments together, it struck them that they could literally put them together with the song 'Lauhazka.' And that's exactly how the album opens and the film climaxes, with the sights and sounds of all the locations spliced into one glorious global celebration.
"It was not planned," Otxoa says. "That was made after all the things were recorded. We didn't expect to do that when recording, but it was very good. All the tunings of the singers and everything was the same! We changed one of the rhythms, but everything else is how we took it. It's what we wanted to express with the project."
The piece took on even more meaning to the pair, as it features a poem read by Mikel Laboa, considered the patriarch of the Basque folk music movement. Laboa, Otxoa explains, passed away a few months ago, another link with the culture's rich past gone, another reason for the project to keep going. And that it is doing as they take the music and the film around the world in a multimedia concert presentation.
"When we made the film and music, we didn't want to do something only for the Basque but which could be understood anywhere. We didn't know if we got it, but seeing how many festivals and other places we've taken it, for us it is the best that could happen."