Gernika Zuzenean
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cd cover Mikel Laboa
   Zuzenean (1997)
   Gernika Zuzenean 2 (1999)
   Xoriek 17 (2005)
All titles Elkar (

Mikel Laboa, born in 1934, is really one of the father figures of Basque folk music. But, though he is devotedly Basque, he's not explained simply as a Basque, nor does he sing solely in Euskera.

In his most recent decade, his work has been a combination of the new and the re-worked, with both classical, jazz and folk elements. It's also been the story of a number of interesting collaborations, on both music and lyrics. He also released a collection of his essential recordings from the 1960s.

Basque writers Bernardo Atxaga, and Joseba Sarrionandia, perhaps the two most accomplished writers in Euskera, lend their text to Laboa's treatment. But so do Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Brel, and Atahualpa Yupanqui, in tributes to James Joyce and Billie Holliday, among others.

Zuzenean and Gernika Zuzenean are two live discs that appeared in the late 1990s. Gernika Zuzenean is not recorded in Gernika (Guernica) but does feature a tribute composition to that city famous for its tragic near-obliteration by aerial attack in 1937.

A third CD, Xoriek 17 is a near 80-minute, single disc, released in this, the artist's 72nd year.

cd cover All offer intensity, variety and artistry. Of the three, Gernika Zuzenean 2 is the most complete, the most coherent, and the most haunting. The participation of the Donostia Orfeoia choir and the Basque youth orchestra is inspired.

The opening track, "Elgeta," is simply two accordions (Joseba Tapia and Iker Goenaga), overlaid by synthesizer and a number of voices, including Laboa's reading texts by Atxaga and Sarrionandia. It's a moving tribute to Elgeta, a great Basque trikitilari or accordionist.

"Gure hitzak" based on another text by Atxaga, is about the loss of language, a poignant issue for Basques. "Kiromantzidtxa" is an extended recitation by a palm-reader (Sarrionandia's text).

Of the final three tracks, "Gernika" is the most powerful, an orchestral depiction, perhaps, of the bombing itself. "Txoria txori," next, is Laboa's best known song, a six line, four minute masterpiece, here with orchestra and choir.

Recorded in Gasteiz and Donostia in 1995-96, Zuzenean, less powerful overall, still contains a number of Laboa standouts. These include "Lili bat," two versions of "Baga-biga-higa" and of course Xabier Lete's lyric "Ihesa zilegi balitz:" ('If escape was ever permitted ­ if peace existed somewhere…') A Brecht text, "Geberako aterbea," is also interesting with Laboa's odd, distorted vocals.

His most recent disc Xoriek 17 is another look at Laboa, this time through a jazz prism. Piano and synth accompanist Inaki Salvador is brilliant on most tracks.

Ruper Ordorika and Bernardo Atxaga (better known as a writer) turn up to provide vocals on the ten-minutes-plus, "Langile baten galderak liberu baten aurrean." On a tribute to Jexux Artxe, a longtime collaborator, we hear the signature haunting Basque percussion: the txalaparta.

On this disc, one sees the return of several Laboa themes, including that of the xoriek, the birds. It all ends with an instrumental version of his great song, "Txoria txori" (here with violin and violoncello).

Xoriek 17 is an old man examining his life, his work, his influences, his country. Sometimes Laboa sings, but in a language that seems to be no language at all, or a mixture of languages. No surprise that Laboa, in his other life, is a psychiatrist.

Xoriek 17 may be the last recording of a great artist, but if we are lucky, perhaps not. Either way, it is long, strange, and ultimately, rewarding. - David Cox

Elkar CDs are available at cdRoots

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