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Iberia: The Music of Spain and Portugal

Alaitz eta Maider
Alaitz eta Maider
Elkar - Spain

It's well known that many outwardly respectable music reviewers conceal guilty pleasures. Japanese animation. Abba. Perhaps Shonen Knife, Japanese pop rock featuring bright, bouncy female vocals, exotic, a bit silly and above all cute, but ultimately cloying and unnourishing, the musical equivalent of empty calories. This self-titled recording by the Basque duo of Alaitz Telletxea and Maider Zabalegi replicates some of the cuteness of Shonen Knife, but is a part of a healthy listening regime, nothing to be either ashamed of or easily bored by. The music is driven by Maider's light, skipping button accordion and Alaitz' curiously refreshing percussion on, of all things, spoons, but features their smiling harmony vocals.

The galloping start of "Txanpon baten truke," polka accordion and a trilled shout, suggests something Mexican, but with a lighter, more lilting step, unexpected chord changes, and those spoons. The spoons can waltz, too, in "Bota bexamela," quiet and pretty with tight harmony vocals and more unexpected accordion work on instrumental bridges conveying the feel of a medieval folk dance. "Txuria lan beltzetan" begins with electric guitar feedback, resolving into a lively singsong with more shouts and staccato accordion. The exuberant "Atxutxale," a pop polka opening with a lighthearted conversation, showcases Alaitz and Maider's light and perfectly matched voices at their best, cute and coy without cloying.

Some of the instrumental tracks threaten to upstage the vocals. "Xurdin" begins as a light accordion polka, perhaps a bit traditionally staid, before the addition of a jazzy rhythm guitar, which lends the accordion and spoons a whole new context. There are also some unaccountable but invariably pleasant and welcome elements, such as the pedal steel guitar in the folky waltz "Carpe diem". The quick marching waltz instrumental "Zunbeltz" is a great piece of accordion bragging rights, and contains one of the longest trilled shouts on record.

Liner notes are in Euskara, the Basque language, and contain Spanish and French translations. Alaitz eta Maider deliver pretty, often exciting music with sufficient content and staying power to grow on you. - Jim Foley

(Elkar, Igarabidea, 88 bis, Donostia, Spain 20009)
(More Basque info is available at

Luis Delgado
El Sueño de Al-Zaqqâq
Intuition Music (via Alula-US

By the eighth century the Umayyad caliphate had stretched its empire far to the west of its origins and included most of the Spanish peninsula. Islamic Spain enjoyed several centuries during which Arabic language and its poetry flourished. Because of the paramount role of the Koran and the consequent attention that Muslims give the written and spoken word, poetry in Al-Andalus evolved to become renowned for its rich metaphors and allegories. Even as far away from home as it was in Spain, Arabic poetry retained poetic signals from early Islamic and pre-Islamic antecedents. When the Almoravids from southern Morocco later put an end to Spain's Taifa kingdoms, much of the region's poetic practice ceased. Yet the spoken and written word found refuge from the piety of Spain's new rulers. In Valencia, a "neo-classical" school of poetic arts continued and grew. Early in the 12th century Valencian poet Ibn Al-Zaqqâq created verses that were popular during the time, but eventually were stored in manuscript archives in Berlin and Damascus. It is the imagery of Ibn Al-Zaqqâq's verses that Luis Delgado gleans for his own musical recitation, El Sueño de Al-Zaqqâq (The Dream of Al-Zaqqâq).

It's unusual to find an album constructed around Arabic poetry written nearly 900 years ago. Yet from that singular idea Delgado culls moods that transcend the centuries and demand a listen. Typically, I prefer a bit more variety when I listen to an album, but Delgado wins me over. Prominent are Arabic and Andalusian lutes, Arabic tar, and a variety of expected (Andalusian viola) and unexpected instrumental contributions (i.e. banjo). Aurora Moreno and Mohamed El Arabi Serghini provide delicious vocal phrasing to the verses. e.g. - "The roses that have fallen in the pool, spread by the breath of the wind, are the flood of the wounded knight that pours through his broken armour." -Richard Dorsett

Jose Serrano, Antonio "El Agujetas"
Two Cries For Freedom

Jose and Antonio The real Gypsy kings are in prison in Spain. Jose Serrano and Antonio "El Agujetas" were both in prison in 1996, serving sentences for violent crimes. The prison administration and a flamenco club chose them from among 150 entrants from jails around the country in a singing contest for residents of the penal system. It's easy to see why they couldn't choose a single winner. Antonio "El Agujetas" comes from a family of singers in Jerez, one of the great centers of flamenco. He is a raw, rugged singer who places passion above flourish and grunts. He growls and moans his songs with great sincerity and energy. He is the consumate Gypsy singer, learning as much from the tradition as possible and then making it all his own. Serrano is the more professional and polished of the two, with a strong, controlled voice comparable to legendary cantadors like Terremoto de Jerez and Camaron. His emotional content is conveyed in classic phrasing from flamenco's history book. The two singers do a single duet together on this recording, a romantic fandango that shows the amazing qualities of each voice in stark contrast. On all the tracks they are accompanied by guitars and palmas (handclapping) only, allowing for a lot of emotional elbow room and improvisational delivery. As a result of the contest and the ensuing concert and recording, both men are now on parole, so I suppose someone has heard their "cries for freedom." - Cliff Furnald

Various Artists
The Rough Guide To The Music Of Portugal
World Music Network (

I first heard fado, Portugal's melancholy urban ballads, last April. Although I enjoy songs that evoke strong moods, a little fado can satisfy me for quite a while. The Rough Guide's music samplers accomplish much the same goal as its World Music book; they open musical vistas to most everyone except those already well-steeped in a particular region's music, in this case Portugal. So while fado appears on the CD (Manuel Del Almeida, Carlos Zel, Lenita Gentil, Maria Teresa De Noronha and Margarido Bessa), so do Portugal's other authentic and pleasing textures. You'll find some of them all on The Rough Guide to the Music of Portugal: urban and rural fado, dramatic vocals, a bit of hurdy-gurdy, and Coimbra guitar (traditional and modern) on tracks available from releases by Portugal's leading artists. - Richard Dorsett

Le Chant Basque
Detour/Erato Records (

Odarra is a men's choir from the Basque region. Their album "Le Chant Basque" is a stately, considered rendition of traditional Basque music. Most songs are based on Catholic themes such as the prayerful "Egon Atzarririk," or "Aita Gurea," their "Our Father," which is sung with enough strength and reverence to delight any priest. In addition, there are dance songs with flutes and love songs to pass the long Basque nights, songs to calm crying babies, and even sailing songs. Odarra's range and intonation reminds me of men's choirs from Russia and Georgia, but Odarra sounds more familiar. The closest I can compare them is to some of the more interesting Gregorian chants or plainsongs.

The group's name is from the Basque word for ´┐Żlan or impulse. The album is recorded in a chapel deep in Basque country, and, like the foundations of the ancient church they sing in, Odarra's love for their homeland goes deep and strong. - Brian Grosjean - Brian Grosjean

Estou Vivindo No Ceo
Nube Negra/Intuition (US via Alula: [email protected])

Uxia comes from the Galician region of Spain, situated in the northwest and known for its Celtic roots. The music here is a wonderful mix of cultures even at its most traditional, and Uxia and her talented producer and musicians push these traditions to the breaking point.

The album opens with a lush "alala," a traditional song style notable for its lack of structure, melodically and rhythmically. Her voice wanders through open phases that allow for a full exposition of her formidable vocal talents, from gentle sweetness to powerful roar. The musical underpinnings are far from traditional, though. Using a droning synthesizer for a bottom, they add harp, cello, violin and bagpipes to create an unearthly, airy sound that is what all those Enya-esque records dream of and never achieve. An old Armenian tune drifts through the song, adding another layer of complexity. The lyric says "I have lovers, I have boats, I am living in heaven" and listening to the song, you can believe it.

Many of the twelve songs on the album are traditional, but their treatments range from simple folk accompaniment to some very edgy, almost avant garde pieces. But the contemporary songs are some of the shining moments. "Arquestas Noites Tan Longas (Those Long Nights)" is an adaptation of a 13th century poem. It has strong Galician roots but a very modern thrust, driven by mandola, violins, Arabic percussion and the trikitixa (Basque diatonic accordion) of Kepa Junkera. There are one or two tracks where the lushness of the synthesizers and the singer collude to make something just shy of a cocktail lounge soundtrack, but they are mercifully brief moments in a shining hour of music. The rest of the album is a diverse set of Galician, Portuguese and Spanish roots. This could well be one of those recordings you can't get out of your CD player. A month after discovering it, I still couldn't. - CF

The Discoteca Collection
Missao de Pesquisas Folcloricas

Rykodisc (

Most of this is ritual dance music, and so is quite repetitive and definitely not a candidate for the world-beat hit parade. It is for serious students of the music of Brazil and its roots. All but one of the 23 cuts are vocals, accompanied by a potpourri of percussion. Much of the former reflects the unmistakable call-and-response of African esthetics. You can also hear precursors of the modern rhythms of Brazil in unique blends of various percentages of African, European and Amerindian influences. This material was recorded in northern Brazil in 1938 and eventually found its way Library of Congress

I was especially taken with the choral backgrounds on the two cuts of Indians from Praia. They sound like work songs from Texas transferred through some trans-dimensional pitch warp machine. The bilingual notes tell something about the function of the music, and can, I suppose, help you learn to read Portuguese. - Stacy Phillips

Los Activos
Hasta Los Huesos

For those looking for flamenco more adventurous than the Gypsy Kings, Spain has given birth to the young assemblage Los Activos. Breaking down traditional flamenco to its African roots, Los Activos emphasizes percussive compositions filled with the expected guitars, bongos and soaring vocals but also employing atypical instruments like ceramic pots, coconut shells, slamming notebooks, knuckles rapping on a door and anything else they can get their hands or feet on. Purists may sneer, but tradition is only the illusion of permanence. Los Activos' bold interpretation creatively pushes flamenco to lengths unheard. - W. Todd Dominey

Radio Tarifa Rumba Argelina
World Circuit/Nonesuch

While the obvious fusion of Spanish music with the music of North Africa is a well worn path in the last decade, few bands have done it as successfully as Radio Tarifa does here. While most of these projects are made to enhance the music of one locale with the influences of another (flamenco with a Moroccan groove; rai with a Spanish flair, etc), this band seems to have created a new music that exists outside of any one geographic boundary.

The music is an elusive mix of Algerian and Moroccan sounds, Spanish and Medieval folk music and of course, flamenco and its cousins. This music does not seek to become a fusion of diverse styles, but rather seeks to find intimate relationships in closely bound cultures within Spain and from its nearest neighbors, a process that has been going on for hundreds of years already. It is played on instruments as ancient as the Mediterranean culture in an almost all-acoustic setting unprocessed and unmarked by faddish production. The dream-like quality of the music lies in its history and connected-ness, not in some artifice applied from without.

Rumba Argelina as an album has actually been around for a number of years. It was recorded primarily by a trio of musicians from Spain led by Fáin Sánchez Dueñas, starting with basic tracks that were enhanced by the addition of musicians form a number of Mediterranean countries. Radio Tarifa, as a band, did not even exist at this point, but was formed to bring these recordings to life after the European press raved about the record. - CF
See also:
Radio Tarifa,

Ginesa Ortega
Harmonia Mundi

All the Gypsy things and kings out there have left the word "flamenco" in a state of confusion. The synths, the cheesy drama, the new age machinations the music has suffered make one loathe to listen to another "new" flamenco album. Siento is one you should listen to. It would be enough to tell you of Ortega's voice, a husky, dusky instrument, rich in tone and fueled by yearning. I could describe her performances here, full of color, conveying an abiding sense of history and a driving need to renew it. She is no traditional revivalist; she imbues her singing with an awareness of jazz, blues and pop, yet it never sounds like any one of them. I could also tell you of the musicians involved; the guitarist Chicuelo, a flamenco guitarist who is no stranger to the rest of the world's music, who is joined by flutes, mandolins, percussion, cajon and palmas to bring the voice of Ortega and her backing singers an acoustic sound that both displays and enhances the experience. I could tell you, but instead, I will give you the admonishment I reserve for those few albums that escape my best attempts to describe them: "Listen." - CF

Equidad Bares
Mes Espagnes

Mes Espangnes features an incredible voice, one that can rumble and roar along the ground or soar to the heights. Bares sings songs from the many cultures that are Spanish, from Judeo-Spanish, Gypsy and Asturian traditions she derives songs and inspiration. She seems to live these songs, such is the depth of her performance here. This would be enough, but the band that backs her is a phenomenon. Reeling hurdy-gurdies scream in ecstasy (Marc Anthony is a master), frame drums buzz and rumble, reeds and bagpipes shriek and moan. While she is based in France these days, she paints an ancient picture of a Europe with different borders. Bares' Spain is a place of diverse wonders, of pleasure and pain, and it's all here on this recording. - CF

The Guitar Trio

This is the record that shows all of those supposed guitar-duos (you know, the ones with synths and electric drums and enough reverb to drown the Royal Albert) how to really succeed: Just Play It! Three masters of the guitar bring their instruments and their expansive talent and burn through 9 tracks of jazz, flamenco, Indian and South American music. While most of the songs are originals by one member or another, all you need to listen to is their rich interpretation of the Luis Bonfa chestnut "Manha De Carnaval" to see where their coming from. For sheer technical wizardry, listen to McLaughlin's fired-up "Letter From India" or Lucia's more romantic "Les Monastere Dans Les Montagnes." Then listen closely to the album and realize that they did add synths and electro-percussions to the mix, but with such subtlety and skill that it enhances rather than detracts from the beauty of the record. It can be done, but it takes this kind of proficiency and sensibility to do it. All others should head back to the woodshed. - CF

Negu Gorriak
Ideia Zabaldu

Never mind that Negu Gorriak is speaking the oldest language in Europe, they are making some of Europe's most revolutionary music. The band acts as an icon and voice for the Basque Country's separatist movement. The Basque people are the oldest ethnic group in Europe, preserving their ancient, unique language and traditions since Paleolithic times. The 2 million Basques were granted autonomy from Spain in 1980, but many still seek independence. Their album, Ideia Zabaldu (Spread The Word), is now available in the US. The music is strongly influenced by punk rock, but also incorporates traditional sounds and hip hop elements. Although the different influences don't cross paths much in any given song, one song will be straight ahead punk rock and the next will be percussion based and another. They have disbanded with plans to rejoin upon Basque's independence. - Paul Harding

Various Artists
(Erde Records, Postfach 200 244, 5060 Bergish Gladbach 2, Germany)

It's an accordion! It's a dance! It's a movement! It's amazing how those little reeds in the accordion have changed the music of the world in little more than a century. from South Africa to Sweden, from the Crescent City to the plains of Kildare, the squeeze box has become THE traditional instrument of the world. In Euskadi, the Basque lands on the French/Spanish border, trikitixa is both the name of the instrument and the music it has grown to represent. Trikitixa! is the first full overview of the folk music of Euskadi readily available in the U.S., and it displays a variety and innovation of styles that will thrill any accordion lover, and aren't we all? Mostly trios of melodeon, percussion and voice, these songs are so full of life that you'll see the listeners dancing out of their chairs when you play them. Simple, direct folk music is always in style, and these are pure-bred folk pieces right from the heart of the Basque country, a land coming back to a realization of its nationhood and culture. - CF

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