David Romtvedt’s Postcard from Basque Country

David Romtvedt, longtime friend of Centrum’s Fiddle Tunes, is a musician, writer, and a champion of Basque culture.  David is traveling in the Basque Country (an autonomous community in northern Spain) during the month of May.  He has been visiting with Joseba Tapia, Arkaitz Miner and Xabier Leturia, three Basque musicians who will be on staff this summer at Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend.  David sent us this ‘postcard.’

May 20, 2013
From Euskal Herria

I’ve just come from spending two hours with the accordionist Joseba Tapia who along with Arkaitz Miner (fiddle and mandolin) and Xabier Leturia (percussion) will be at Fiddle Tunes this summer. It will be their second appearance at Fiddle Tunes and Tapi says that they are even more excited this time because thy have an idea of how Fiddle Tunes works.

“You have to understand,” he tells me, “that we have nothing like Fiddle Tunes for Basque music. In the Basque Country parents bring their children to the local accordion studios when the kids are six or seven. The parents have decided the kids will play–what they will play and when they will play. And the parents expect results. The kids are taught to read and to practice getting every note right. Then there is theory and tests and later contests for kids of all ages leading up to the national trikitixa accordion contest. They study to enter and win competitions. As to whether they want to play or what they want to play, well, those are unspoken questions. It’s all about winning. And often both children and adults don’t know if they want to play.”


Tapi explains to me that at Fiddle Tunes he saw another model of music. It was one in which one learned by listening. And one often played intuitively. “One night,” he says, “I was sitting in building 204 playing. People would come in, sit down, play a while, then when they were bored or were ready to go on to something else, they got up and left and someone else sat down to play. At one point the bass player left and one of the guitar players put down her guitar and took up the bass. I asked if she was a bass player, too. She said ‘oh, no’ then began to play. And it was good. In Basque music that would never happen.”

“Now I am trying to bring Fiddle Tunes to my teaching of Basque music. I let beginning students play any instrument and switch as they please. Maybe a student starts at age ten and noodles around on three or four instruments for several years but at some point that student will be drawn to one or a few instruments, will feel at home with the instrument. I ask them to play by listening to a song and using only their ears, maybe stumbling around on the instrument to discover what’s what.”

Some of what has happened for Joseba Tapia has also happened for the fiddler Arkaitz Miner. Arkaitz studied at the Basque Conservatory of Music and when he completed his education he was at the point of giving up music. Then he discovered the traditional dance music of the trikitixlariak–the Basque accordion players. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the fiddle, along with the alboka (a double reed instrument like a bagpipe but without the bag so that the player must circular breathe), the tixstu (a Basque three-hole fipple flute), and drums played a big part in Basque music. But then the accordion showed up and as happened in many places, its volume, durability, and ability to provide melody and some basic harmony and rhythm pushed aside some of the older music. Now Arkaitz Miner has begun playing fiddle along with the trikitixa. And what he’s doing is not only influencing music in Euskal Herria, but in the American Basque towns where the fiddle has not been heard for a hundred years and where even the trikitixa was largely replaced by the piano accordion. Now both trikitixa and fiddle are again being heard.

All for now, more at Fiddle Tunes when we will have for the second time in the Festival’s history music that represents Basque people in both the European homeland and the American diaspora.

See you at Fiddle Tunes,
David Romtvedt