The Basque folk group Oskorri continues to delight listeners while exploring the folk traditions of the Basque Country (northcentral Spain and southwestern France). Admirably, the founding members of this band (originally a pop-rock group) set out to learn Basque (Euskera) as adults so they could record and play music in the language of their native land.
Oskorri's formula is to take folk music to the people, and as a result they have achieved iconic status in the Basque lands. In Desertore, the venerable group, now an octet with several new members, presents a new sound but sticks to their tried formula of using the verses of Basque bertsolari (folk poets) for lyrical inspiration. For this album, they wrote 30 songs, eventually distilling that to 13 for the CD.
Music credits are spread, as usual, among the group's eight members; the pieces range from high-energy songs to slow ballads.
While there are echoes of Oskorri's recent work, particularly their 2000 album Ura, there are new elements as well. There is more emphasis on the bass and percussion -- the songs even take on some of the dramatic architecture of rock songs, showing the band's early roots. They do this not to the detriment of the folk material, but to its advantage. At the same time, the lyrics are rooted in the specifics of Basque society.
The structure of a typical Oskorri album is to open with energy, pause for a slow ballad, more energy, pause and stretch again, bring a last bit of fireworks and then throw in a coda that moves everything off kilter. They stick to that structure here.
Let's begin by describing violinist Xabier Zeberio's composition "Ezin Erran Nizun Hitzez (Impossible to Say It in Words)," one of the ballads. It's a love story -- of a sort. Zeberio himself lays down the rhythm, followed by Gorka Escauriaza on bass, guest Luiz Lozano on Hammond organ, Bixente Martinez on guitar, Josu Salbide on flute, Inigo Egia on percussion.... Sung by the impressively humble Natxo de Felipe, this four-minute song is a minor folk-fusion masterpiece. "Desertore bakendako burkoa (Pillow for a Deserter)" is another in that style. Similarly, "Ilberriz (New Moon)," sung by a very sedate Anton Latxa, marks a pause in the energy level.
At other times, the group seems they've been gathering inspiration, to great effect, from early Kansas "Gerradantza Bakerako (War Dance for Peace)" and, as always, from their great friends in La Bottine Souriante. The lively "Lamikizko Sukalderia (The Cook from Lamikiz)" is a call-response, simply a list of cook Maria Angeles from Lamikiz's culinary talents. "Negarrez Jaio Nintzan (I was Born Crying)" is fast-moving folk with expressive bass by Escauriaza, while "Bart Ikusi dut Euskera (Yesterday I Saw Euskera)" is a typically bizarre Oskorri album-ender with unusual lyrics, featuring the tuba.
And the lyrics: Desertore should serve as the handbook for folk lyric-writing. Fortunately, these gems of Basqueness are rendered into English, French and Spanish in the accompanying booklet for our enjoyment. "Altzoko Handiaren Balada (The Ballad of the Giant from Altzo)" is one of the great song-stories here. Written by Ainize Munoa, it chronicles the tale of a giant, too big for his cradle; everyone always stared at him so he ran off and joined the circus. But Oskorri moves from the picaresque to the sublime. Without knowing a word of Basque, you can see that "Nira begi ninia (Apple of My Eye)" is a stunning poem by Jon Sarasua with lovely internal rhyme. In "Desertore bakendako burkoa," bard Harkaitz Cano writes about the soldier-deserter: "Drunk with sea water he memorizes the waves.../the kit bag is but a pillow on a forgotten beach."
There are other great tunes on this CD, but by now you can see I regard Oskorri and its founders/driving forces (Latxa, De Felipe, Zeberio and Martinez) to be among the true masters of folk and world music. They are creative, prolific world-class artists that never for a moment forget where they are from.