Tales from the Road: Lucas Hicks in Basque country
by Lucas Hicks
“Beste bat! Beste bat!!”, the crowd in Donostia-San Sebastian chanted.
One month in the Basque Country had given me an understanding of a small handful of words and phrases in Basque: I knew how to order wine, how to introduce myself, and how to swear like a sailor with Tourette’s syndrome who just won a toe-stubbing contest, but “Beste bat!” was new to me.
I looked to my bandmate of 10 days and through a series of gestures and a few words of Spanglish-Basque, he explained the crowd’s request, “One more song!” He pulled his trikitixa back onto his shoulders, I slipped my banjo picks back onto my fingers and we played the final fandango of the night (not a euphemism guys, c’mon).
While I watched the crowd dance, a familiar question floated into my head, one I had been asked almost daily since my arrival: How did I get here? An American who didn’t speak the language (neither of them), carrying two banjos and an accordion across the Basque Country of Spain during a decidedly non-tourist season? It was a fair question.
I had come to the Basque Country at the invitation of Joseba Tapia, a master of the trikitixa. I’ll spare you a technical discussion of what separates the Basque trikitixa from other types of accordions, but if you are a squeeze box nerd reading this and your interest is piqued, chat with me later. Both of you.
Tapia jokingly told me, “If you are Basque, you play trikitixa.” By the third day of my trip I realized it was less of a joke, more of a humorous generalization that happens to be true. Like how if you’re an Alaskan you wear Xtra Tuffs, or if you’re a Bellinghamatron you love Dan Vee.
As I learned about the culture and the music, I began to realize that my host Joseba Tapia was more than just a staggeringly good musician and master of hilarious broken-English jokes: It turns out he’s a national treasure in the Basque country.
The Basques have managed to keep their culture alive in the same area, a section of Southern France and Northern Spain, for thousands of years. Through wars, invasions, power shifts, and decades of discrimination under Franco’s dictatorship, they are still there and still Basque. People like Joseba Tapia -artists focused on preserving and enriching their language and culture- are taken seriously and clearly held in high esteem.
Tapia altered the course of Basque music thirty years ago as a teenage musical prodigy and even made some modifications to the trikitixa which many players now use and refer to as “The Tapia System”. He has recorded dozens of records and added to the canon of Basque songs commonly sung at singing lunches (a tradition sort of like Bellingham’s poetry brunches, or Fairhaven’s balloon animal suppers).
Somehow this asskicking musical hero had invited me to come teach his students banjo, to learn some accordion, and to play some shows with him. It’s like if you were a Swedish folk musician who wanted to learn how to shred your balls off on electric guitar and Josh Holland invited you to come hang with him in Bellingham in exchange for teaching some of his students nyckelharpa. Like that, if an autonomous Bellingham had been here for thousands of years, had the cheapest yet best wine you could ever find, and we all spoke Bellinghamese. Exactly like that. Because, science.
In addition to standing slack-jawed in wonder at the accordion Mecca I had stumbled upon, I spent my first couple of weeks giving daily banjo lessons and workshops in a music shop that had, excuse my French, approximately one metric shit-ton of quality button boxes of all types as far as the eye could see.
My challenges in teaching new students banjo without the use of language were balanced by the hilarity of the situation: I was teaching the king of all hillbilly instruments to a bunch of accordion players using only mime. It’s like Kristin Allen-Zito using skills she developed during games of pictionary to teach a songwriting workshop to Japanese Kabuki dancers. Just like that. Because, again, science.
The trikitixa is usually accompanied by the pandero, a type of tambourine played like a real and even virtuosic instrument in the hands of Basque musicians. The pandero playing I witnessed was all the more impressive to me when I repeatedly tried in vain to emulate even the basics of it and yes, I do realize an accordion/tambourine band is some of the most fertile ground for bad musician jokes since the great Kabuki/ songwriting/pictionary workshop debacle of 2012.
Near the end of my stint teaching I played a concert with Tapia’s popular trikitixa and pandero duo, Tapia eta Leturia. They cranked out the hits: traditional dance music, mind bending show pieces, and many sing-alongs. Basque language is unique and belongs to no other language family, so hearing it sung by a roomful of smiling folks felt like an honor.
During my set, surprised and excited reactions erupted from a crowd who clearly hadn’t seen a banjo in person before. Also, most of the audience didn’t speak much English so I was able to embellish my singing with Commando and Total Recall references without anyone eating green berets for breakfast, getting their ass to Mars, batting an eye, which was a great way to blow off some steam, Bennet.
Beyond eating all the meat and drinking all the wine and coffee, my second two weeks in the Basque Country were spent primarily rehearsing and performing with one of my banjo students, Eneko Dorronsoro (pronounced Steve Johnson).
Eneko had invited me to stay with him and his roommate Iturtxo Zubeldia (pronounced Jeffrey White) in a very small town, confusingly named Ataun. A favorite bilingual joke in the area: “I live in Atuan. Which town? Ataun!”
Eneko and I shared very little language in common which made playing music together for the first time hilarious yet strangely focused. A rare camaraderie and musical connection became apparent during our first few tunes together and several uninterrupted hours later we had worked a sizable set of American and Basque music into something new and different. It reminded me of the first time the Gallus Brothers played together, if Devin spoke only Bellinghamese, and we might actually pass for brothers. Just like that. Because, math.
One day later, Eneko and I had an informal last minute show at the local pub that somehow turned into a packed house with an attentive audience. At the end of the night we each received a massive cheese wheel from the owner of the pub. (Fine, that one might actually be a euphemism, you pervert.)
Somehow this first night led to more performances: Incredibly rowdy drunken shows in Pamplona and Iruna, a dance-filled night in a rock bar in Zumarraga, and a standing ovation at the end of our last show in Donostia-San Sebastian.
“Beste bat! Beste bat!!”, The crowd in Donostia-San Sebastian chanted.
We launched into Eneko’s original fandango “Town Ataun,” and I started thinking about my imminent trip home. The question in my mind, “How did I get here?” faded, and was replaced with another: “How will I ever manage to leave?”
Lucas Hicks is a flighty dilettante who has managed to surround himself with fantastic musicians who make him sound much better than he is. You might see him perform on a variety of instruments with The Gallus Brothers, Rattletrap Ruckus, The Shadies or the world’s first banjo-trikitixa duo, Dorronsoro eta Hicks. You can find him and all his bands on Facebook utilizing the information superhighway on your home computing device or rotary phone.