Contemporary music in the United States is all about falling into love, or finding an encounter in a club, maybe profanely sexing it up dipsomaniacally–under the influence of one chemical or another. Or it’s falling out of love in the form of ballads in a more invigorated form of pop self-reliance, braggadocio, accumulation of wealth. It’s fun, exciting and empty.
?? But music has also existed as a form of protest. Music inspires even as it incites. It unites cultures linguistically. It invents new ways of understanding the world–aurally, lyrically. Lyrics combined with music have their own special power among those attuned to listen.
When traveling around Spain and ultimately venturing into the Basque region, one readily sees how the language shares little similarities with its bordering Romance language-based neighbors. Linguistically, it stems back to a Proto-Indo-European language, long before Roman and Celtic influences. There’s always been a rich Basque singing tradition. Music has been a part of the Basque culture, as troubadours would break out into song in the native language in pubs and public squares. It was a fundamental communal ritual of nationalistic pride and celebration.Order now
Folk music was intrinsically linked with the language that gave it the gravity of meaning. In the post-war Franco regime there was a clamping down of the Basque language, and anything associated with an expression in the language. Despotically, schools were shut down and expression in the Basque language was rendered illegal. But this mandate could not shutter the nationalistic pride that encapsulated and defined the oral and singing tradition. There was truth in the folk expression. It was the language of the people of the region, and it retained its relevance in the face of the majority combatants of the time.
The post-Franco years saw a return to an openness of expression. Basque music took a decidedly more forward approach, a shift propelled by a new radio station exclusively broadcast in Basque. It appealed to a broad audience (especially the youth) who were steadfastly holding on to their heritage and language, many of these young people, including members of the band were first generation speakers of their native language. They could not release their ideals to a rigid structure that threatened their identity and their independence.
It was the 80s and music worldwide started to encompass a new form of protest against established regimes. Punk music took on social protest. Bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash railed against societal norms and conservatism was challenged in more invigorated and more creative ways. Rap music evolved by the late 80s to take on a system that suppressed too many voices to be ignored. Rap outfits like NGA and Public Enemy emerged with a vengeance. They abruptly faced convention, kicking the world in the teeth with a message of racial unrest.
The popular Basque band Kortatu, developed in this wake of societal change. Labeled as Radical Basque rock with a noted ska influence, they eventually evolved into a more abrasive expression, borrowing from punk and rap influences, they shifted to vocals sung exclusively in the Basque language when they re-formed as a more nationalistic and politically astute Negu Gorriak. Members of the band had grown up with political instability, high unemployment and messages of no hope that plagued the Basque area in the late 70’s and 80’s. ? Active during the first half of the 90s, Negu Gorriak were unabashedly radical in their political stance. Fiercely and patriotically motivated, they were a new Basque alternative to the mainstream music of the Spanish language and multitudes were ready for their message. With a harder sound inspired by 80s punk and gangster rap, they heralded something new and exciting and dangerous.
They unleashed social protest in their familiar language. Fundamentally Basque, it tapped into musical influences of social protests happening in the US and the UK. Hardcore pulses with trumpets, a bit ska, shredding vigorously, their sound was still melodic in their abrasiveness. They found a sound that was aggressively inspired by their folk roots.
Unrelentingly angry and socially confrontational, they called out everyone who would stand in the path of freedom, justice and equality resounding a siren of a proud culture, knowingly borrowing from outside influences, but securely placed within the lineage they were bound to endorse. But they still maintained a sense of playfulness but never relinquished their folk roots. Their melodic hooks buffered the shrill sirens of their social disapproval. The iconography of Negu Gorriak boasts two hatchets. Are they symbols of slicing down injustice meted down to the disenfranchised Basque culture?Intimating socialistic change or awareness? Negu Gorriak. Red/harsh winter.
Walk around the public spaces of bullet-ridden Bilbao and it seems clear. ?? Their first performance at a maximum-security prison immediately led to problems with the Spanish government. It was with the song “Ustelkeria” that the group harshly protested a government that had failed them and the Basque people overall. The lyrics specifically accused the government of corruption, calling out various members of the police including one chief of police from San Sebastian, who was later convicted on drug and corruption charges that Negu Gorriak gained infamy.
The band was fined for their anti-government message, but the charges against them were eventually dropped some five years later after the band had gone their separate ways and were no longer performing. ?? Early in their music video “Radio Rahim” the camera pans across a poster of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”. The end of the video shows the front man leading the viewers into a mass revolt with a loud speaker. “Do the Right Thing” is chanted in the fadeout with groups taking to the street in protest. It’s a scene and message of police brutality that could be ripped quite literally from today’s headlines. The song is actually a reference to a character in Lee’s film who–in an escalated altercation–is killed by the police in a chokehold.
?? Autonomy in the Basque region has continued to be held in question, and proved to be even more problematic with the rise of the ETA, a separatist group that was formed in the 1950s by Basque nationalists in an effort to confront Franco’s oppressive regime. The ETA flag bears a single symbol of an axe and a snake that seems quite obviously influenced by the crossed axes found in the band’s graphical militaristic representation. Considered by many to be a terrorist group, with bombings and kidnappings, the ETA fought for the rights of the disenfranchised Basque people, embracing a Marxist-social ideology, but leaving behind a bloody path. They have continued to play an active and influential socio-political role in the region, with ceasefires being embraced and rescinded on both sides throughout the years. Social protest is deeply rooted within the Basque culture.
As a minority within their own country, and with a history of subjugation, they have emerged victorious with a distinct identity and unwavering expression, flourishing, evolving, and ultimately with their language secure, surviving to this day. The Basque tradition is rich with sounds that span the gamut from folk accordion music to hard metal. Festivals and celebration of the Basque culture and it’s sometimes defiant and always proud ownership of it’s heritage reach far beyond the small beautiful region nestled there in the north of Spain. From the Bay of Biscay it has merged into the hearts and minds of sympathetic listeners world wide.?