A Brief History Of Post-Franco Basque Music

It was 1975 when Franco died. Spain had lived under 36 years of political and cultural oppression through a conservative, authoritarian and violent regime. Non-government trade unions and all political opponents as well as organisations of liberal democrats and Catalan or Basque separatists, were either suppressed or tightly controlled.

Franco’s Spanish nationalism, deeply rooted in Catholicism, promoted a unitary national identity by repressing Spain’s ethnic and folkloric diversity. Any music, artistic or cultural activities were subject to censorship and he nurtured the use of Castilian Spanish and suppressed other languages such as Catalan, Galician, and Basque. Spain had lived isolated from the rest of the world and it wasn’t until during the dictators last years as a leader that people started to foresee a change.

It comes as no surprise then that musicians during this period were eager to experiment. Jean Phocas, Amaia Zubiria, Pascal Gaigne, Angel Katarain and Kaki Arkarazo, are some of the people who sought this change — and then made it happen.

I spoke to musician Gabriel Fernandez Barrena about his experience of those years. Born in San Sebastian in 1958, Gabriel played double bass with Haizea, a folk/prog-rock 5 piece band fronted by Amaia Zubiria, that formed in the mid 70’s in Hondarribia, Spain. Under the influence of foreign outfits like Pentangle and Jethro Tull, bands like Haizea and Izukaitz broke all the pre-existing fashions in Basque music, exploring a more international and experimental forward-thinking sound which gained notable public success in the scene. 

Thinking back, Gabriel remembers, “we published the first Haizea album with popular folk songs that Txomin Artola brought to the studio and Amaia sang, the rest of us took inspiration from Pentangle and tried to play our instruments in a similar way. For the second album, ‘Hontz gaua’, we tried to emulate an “Akelarre” (Witches’ Sabbath, the place where witches hold their meetings) on the B side.

“Live performances would start with Peio Lizarralde dressed as a priest singing Gregoriand chants and slides of images projected in the back, then he would get rid of the robe and appear dressed as the devil running wild amongst the audience. Jon Zabaleta, illustrator and collaborator of the band, (also designer of the cover for Hegoa Records’ first reference Angel Katarain in 2021) acted also as a mime during the performances. Theatre, performance, music and improvisation all together was something no one had ever seen before in the Basque Country but we gained the approval of the public, it was great.”

Alongside a selection of tracks from artists who were trying to portray different music styles and backgrounds at the time —prog/folk-rock, new wave, spiritual jazz— I’ve put together a mix that showcases the sounds of my newly-launched label Hegoa Diskak, which will be a platform to promote often overlooked works of early and contemporary folk, leftfield and electronic experimental music artists from the region.

I hope both open a doorway for people to dig more and discover the interesting heritage of this small but proud community. 

We now premiere all our mixes a week early on Mixcloud. Subscribe to our Mixcloud Select to download the mixes, and ensure that the artists included in each one gets paid. Read more about why we’ve joined Select.

Izukaitz – Xori Bele (1978)

Active between 1974-1981, Izukaitz were a folk rock band formed by friends in Eibar, Guipúzcoa. Deeply influenced by British folk rock bands such as Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, they only released two albums in their short career but set a landmark for others to follow. They used an extensive set of traditional Basque instruments such as Alboka (single-reed woodwind instrument), Txirula (a flute with only three holes tuned in C) or Pandereta (a tambourine with pairs of small metal jingles across the frame) mixed with electric guitars, percussion, keyboards and saxophones. 

I picked the track ‘Xori Bele’ as it is the standout for me on their first album. Long instrumental intro sets the tone with a sparse arrangement of bass guitar, acoustic guitar and flutes, accompanied by a xylophone, only set as an introduction to percussion and txirula that come after two minutes well into the song. A playful mix of male and female vocals make way for electric guitar and bass guitar solos before all musicians enter the climax around the 5 minute mark. A captivating piece of music that places the listener in a fairy tale well in line with all the Basque extensive folkloric mythology.  

Haizea – Hontz Gaua (1979)

With only two albums released before the musicians parted ways in 1980, (Haizea, Herri Gogoa 1977 and Hontz Gaua, Xoxoa 1979), Haizea blended Basque traditional folk songs with elements of jazz and free improvisation.

The title track of the album ‘Hontz Gaua’ is an ambitious and complex 14 minute spiritual journey that includes field recordings, gregorian chants, flutes, bells, percussion and acoustic/electric guitars combined with Amaia Zubiria’s singing, howling and spoken word passages.

A genuine representation of the “Akelarre”, or what Spanish inquisitors named as “diabolic assembly” since the witch trials of the 17th century. First time I heard it I was blown away. 

Mirotz – Maitasun Ez Posiblez (1982)

Not much info about this band, not even on the insert of the LP. Formed in Vitoria-Gasteiz, this five piece band with Lourdes Jungitu as lead singer, only released one album which they recorded at IZ estudios in San Sebastian with Angel Katarain (Check his music if you haven’t — featured in the first release of Hegoa Records ). 

Here is my favourite track of the album. Phased guitars and mellow singing from Lourdes with passages of spoken word until the track takes off with crazy brazilian like rhythms and percussion.

M-ak – Arreba 1983

Pioneering four piece group introducing sounds of post-punk, new wave and electronic funk music in the Basque Country. Formed by Kaki Arkarazo and Angel Katarain around 1982, as a way to experiment in the studio with the use of drum machines, synths and samplers, they are an essential band in understanding the evolution of rock, new wave and even punk music in the region’s music history. Hugely influential amongst other bands throughout the 90s. 

Amaia Zubiria, Pascal Gaigne // Itsasoa Laino dago 1985

This was one of the first albums that inspired me to delve into my own cultural heritage a few years ago. After living in London for a while, I can’t remember how I came across this title but I was haunted straight away. Shortly after I contacted Pascal Gaigne and met him in San Sebastian to buy a few copies of the LP from him. A sought after record amongst collectors worldwide, this piece from Amaia Zubiria and prolific composer Pascal Gaigne stands out from the record even though the whole repertoire is stunning.

Deep and elegant spiritual jazz cut from the duo with nice arrangements, melting synth arpeggios, accordion, clarinet and violins, in a blend not often seen or heard—far less in places like the Basque country. Heard this one dropped in various radio shows by John Gomez, Nosedrip, Jack Rollo and Elaine Tierney from Time Is Away. 

Follow Hegoa Diskak’s movements and listen to Angel Katarain’s ‘Hypatia II’, taken off the first release on the label.

We now premiere all our mixes a week early on Mixcloud. Subscribe to our Mixcloud Select to download the mixes, and ensure that the artists included in each one gets paid. Read more about why we’ve joined Select.

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