If you hoisted up a park bench, cut the back off of it, removed the legs, placed it on top of cushion on a saw stand, and commenced to thrum on it with headless croquet mallets with a dear friend, you'd have created a bootleg version of the txalaparta, a traditional instrument from the Basque region of Spain. Two of the area's most renowned musicians took this contraption on a trip to play with indigenous nomadic musicians the world over, creating Nomadak TX, a music documentary where notes are exchanged in culture-to-culture melodies.
Igor Otxoa is a member of the group, Oreka TX, that embarked on the project that took them to India, Mongolia, Lapland, and the Sahara. Days away from the group's launch of their North American tour --and in the midst of a visa kerfuffle that threatened to derail the whole thing -- Otxoa (who is staying in Spain while band members Mikel Ugarte and Harkaitz Martinez de San Vicente man the txalaparta in the States) answered our questions via email from San Sebastian. His group will be in town next week (Thurs/23) at the Basque Cultural Center for a live performance of the music in Nomadak TX.
Oh you say you like guttural rhythm? Do we have the trailer for you...
San Francisco Bay Guardian: Why do you play the txalaparta?
Igor Otxoa: I saw it played in my neighborhood fiesta and I loved it. "Percussion and related to Basque culture, that's for me!" I told myself. After that I saw it again at school played by the Artze brothers, some of the ones that brought back the instrument. After that, I started looking for somewhere I could learn it.
SFBG: The txalaparta almost disappeared at one point in the 20th century. Is there a well-documented tradition of how to play it, or have you developed your approach independently?
IO: The way to play it that we received was the one that the last of the old txalaparta players left to us. In the '60s there were only two txalaparta player couples, the Zuaznabar brothers and the Goikoetxea brothers, and they left us the way of playing that they learned from their grandfathers. But after that there was a process in which the Beltran brothers and the Artze brothers started to develop the instrument in a more musical way. We are from the next generation -- we learned from the Beltrans, and we developed the instrument in our own way.
SFBG: Why is it important that it be a two person instrument?
IO: It was related to the work on the farms, and as in many percussion instrument that come from a tradition of work, it became an instrument. For us the txalaparta it is not the physical instrument itself -- it is the way of playing it, sharing the rhythm between two people. That is why we don't understand the txalaparta without two players. It's its peculiarity, what makes it unique in the world, this way of sharing the rhythm between two players.
SFBG: Tell us about the motivation behind the film Nomadak TX. Why nomadic peoples?
IO: We choose the countries and peoples we wanted to meet for different reasons. One was the level of nomadity that they had. Another reason was the music of those cultures. We were very interested in the Khoomi singing in Mongolia. And the Bereber women´s singing. And the Indian rhythms. Another reason was the materials that condition the way of living in those parts of the world. The ice and snow that takes up many months in Saapmi, the sand and stones of in the Sahara dessert, the wood in India, and the air in Mongolia. We wanted to play txalaparta with those materials. And we got to!
SFBG: How did you locate the musicians that would be in the movie?
IO: Sometimes we made the arrangements before traveling. The musicians, we contacted them by different ways -- the Internet helped a lot. Other times we didn't contact any of them and it was just who we found on the trip. We think that like in music, on the trips the improvisation was the most interesting as we never knew what we would find. We had unforgettable musical surprises on all the trips. For us it had the same value: the music of a professional musician in a studio or old men singing in a yurt in the Mongolian steppe.
SFBG: In Nomadak TX you make txalapartas out of everything from ice to stone -- why the multi-media?
IO: That was one of the most marvelous moments of the project. We never expected to do a txalaparta with ice. Our idea was that we were going to play with the txalaparta of wood and the Terje Isungset "Iceman" in Saapmi would play with ice. But we tried it, and it was so nice to work with the ice. If you cut too much we would throw water on it and in few seconds it was frozen and the note was changed!
SFBG: Now that you're doing the North America tour, inquiring minds want to know -- when's the Oreka TX hip hop remix coming out?
IO: Good question! I hope that during the USA Tour we will be able to contact good hip-hop musicians that can work on it. It is not our music style, so if we want to have a quality result, better if someone from USA makes it!
Oreka TX's Nomadak TX live concert
Thurs/23 8 p.m., free
SF Basque Cultural Center
599 Railroad, SF
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