Culture & History

An Irishman Playing the Alboka: Irish & Basque Music

The amazing connection between Basque and Irish music

Many of the great tales concerning Ireland and Spain shudder with images of cold sailors on ships, both real and imagined, and with weapons elongating the hand.

But eating and drinking are the other shared pursuits, the cypher through which Basque and Irish music is compellingly entwined.  As Basques migrated north and became Irish, the rough winds between the southern tip of Ireland and the Bay of Biscay were funnelled down thin whistles and instruments like the alboka, as was cider and stout between two musicians that speak nothing but music.

Victor Hugo, Artistic Licence & DNA

In The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo, two women make their acquaintance; one speaks Basque while the other speaks Irish, and somehow they conspire to understand one another. This is impossible, and the writer is simply winging it, making up the fact that the two are comparable off the cuff.

Simply put, the Basque language is starkly different from Celtic ones. This is, nevertheless, surprising because of our strong genetic links to the Basque Country. Dublin’s Smurfit Institute of Genetics, via a major study, has demonstrated that our closest cousins are the Iberians of northern Spain.

As a side note, even our badgers are said to hail from the Basque Country! And there seems to be some conjecture about the link between Britain and the Basques.

But where the languages have their points of contrast, the music is remarkably similar. Take the case of Alan Griffin.

An Emigrant’s Call

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In an interview with the Irish Times, Griffin describes vividly how a repurposed cow horn – which is the shape of the alboka, an ancient musical instrument – left him nonplussed. Thirty years later, he now finds himself as an authority on all aspects of it.

As a token Paddy, he was expected to – and he happily obliged – to play music at parties and at great culinary gatherings between friends. At one of these, he fell into the orbit of Txomin Artola, a beloved singer-songwriter.

They and two others formed a band, with a particular emphasis on reviving traditional music.

With influences reaching deep into history and stretching out between two peoples, listening to their albums will delight your ear with a wide range of ideas and themes, from satirizing the Celtic Tiger to collaborations with Irish musicians who, by virtue of still living in the country, are very much rooted in the Irish tradition.

While some of the Basque songs might sound rather distinctive, they are easily grafted onto Irish tunes, and vice-versa.

In other ways, both are linked because they are stamps of national identity.

Session

Different nations curl words around aspects of their native culture. So while the idea of a session might inspire thoughts of sweating in the gym or some kind of formal proceedings, an Irish person will always mean going to the bar when they use this word, with a rising intonation, indicating a rhetorical question and excitement.

Are ya going for a pint? Ah, you will. 

Generally, Spanish people bar hop. Conversely, Irish people stay in one place, drink and play. Often with the same people and the same tunes, week in and week out. Therefore, there’s more conformity in Irish music, with instruments more attuned to each other, and with musicians familiar with a greater body of work.

This is not so true in the Basque Country, where the constant moving between bars disrupts this symmetry of the session.

Great Music with an Irish and Basque Mix

I highly recommend, of course, checking out more of Alan’s work. And in addition, there is a treasure trove of music out there.

One port of call should be Ballad Norde-Irlandaise, which the About Basque Country blog describes a beautiful song, and it’s an opinion seconded in the comments below the video. It’s sung in French, subtitled in Spanish and Basque, inspired by an Irish traditional tune and once the choir kicks in, the melodic harmony of the voices show disparate cultures at ease in this cultural jigsaw.

The Basque Irish Connection is the Ronseal of this genre – they do exactly what they say on the tin. Fortunately, they do it extraordinarily well. And the name sounds better in Irish – Ó Euskadi go hÉirinn.

The group is composed of two Irish people and a Basque, and each member is highly accomplished individually; their personal highlights reel is a whos-who of Irish musical legends. Having been the support act for many years, they are now taking centre stage as they tour Ireland this year.

This is a unique tour as the group was formed especially for it; here’s hoping we see more examples of it.

Celtic Connection

If you find yourself in Scotland during 2019, you’ll be able to avail of smatterings of Basque culture around the country. You might have missed out on the Celtic Connections festival, which had a heavy Basque component, but more concerts will be given around Scotland by musicians from the Pais Vasco as Scotland seeks to bolster cultural ties with other regions.

Aside from their similar, Nothern positions at the tips of their respective countries, and the bundle of questions about identity that can provoke, this initiative is about fostering those cultural ties through music and language.

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And remember…

You can listen to our podcast on RadioPublic, the aural place of culture and insight! Also, why not take a look at this article? It’s about the intricacies of a name.

Thanks for reading!

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