On Wednesday night, Instituto Cervantes provided me with one of the most unique concert experiences I’ve ever seen, courtesy of Chicago’s World Music Festival. While it would be standard journalistic protocol to dutifully write that the band Oreka Tx hails from Guipúzcoa in Spain’s Basque region, and then you file it in the “maybe one day I’ll know where that is” section, one locus of creation would slight this band’s music to the point of dishonesty. True, the band’s central instruments are Basque, and true, its members are too. Oreka Tx, however, feels that this particular instrument has enjoyed being a local oddity for long enough; what it could really use is a few jogs around the world.
The instrument in question is the txalaparta. It’s basically a sawhorse with precisely carved pieces of lumber or stone sitting atop it, played rhythmically by two players striking the thing with mallets. It creates a hypnotizing, circular sound that would otherwise indicate that a gang of windchimes got into some plutonium and have come to take over your town. The skill required to play the unwieldy instrument involves as much athleticism as you’ll ever see in a musical capacity short of a one-man-band running a marathon. The wooden txalaparta especially requires an assertive whack to coax a distinctive pitch from it (the stone resonates a lot more) and so the more dramatic the crescendos became, the more melodious the songs became. It was fantastic.
I assume this was a joke from Madrid in the forties: “How many Basques does it take to form a trio?” “Four.” Wednesday night proved who got the last laugh. The two txalaparta players, Igor Otxoa and Harkaitz Martínez, embodied pure warmth and love of their craft, the look in their eyes like Don Quixote tucking you in at night. Buttressed by the omnipotent musicianship of multi-instrumentalists Mixel Ducau and percussionist Inigo Egia, Otxoa and Martínez locked with each other into a sinusoidal, rhythmic intimacy the likes of which music lovers live to see develop between two musicians. The live performance was seamlessly set to a documentary projected onto a screen upstage that chronicled the travels on which this instrument has taken Otxoa and Martínez. Between songs, the musicians left the stage and let the film play. Scenes showed the pair painstakingly crafting a txalaparta out of Arctic ice, Mongolian stone, and jamming with local musicians in the Sahara, India, and pretty everywhere else planes go. Then the musicians would amble back onstage and play along with the backing tracks of the filmed recording sessions. Despite having four people onstage, Oreka Tx’s concert integrated Indians, Africans, Laplanders, and others into the same show.
The effect was a welcome assault on the concertgoers’ concept of music and sound. Once you’ve heard ice transformed into music, you can’t go back. We rarely think of the sound produced by a marimba as being the sound of a tree, or of a wailing Coltrane solo as harnessed wind. Oreka Tx used the opportunity of publicizing this obscure instrument, a particularly primitive instrument once banned by the Franco regime, to convey the natural origins of “man-made” sound. What kept this show from being a staid piece of academia, however, was the most important part of that message: musical drama is the same the world over. During the most impassioned passages, we listeners were transported away from the cognition that what was being performed before us was the melding of ancient traditions only possible in the age of laptops and airplanes. We sublimated to the emotive fury and passion that all humans crave from their music makers, and that we were getting. By the end of the show, it was clear we only have meaningless terms like “world music” because in many ways, our culture is as tucked away and isolated as the txalaparta once was.