Bilaka fuses tradition and new sounds

The Factory 08.09.2023

For daring performers, traditional music is more than a celebration of the past: it's a fertile breeding ground for sound and choreographic experimentation. Let's hear it for the young Basque collective Bilaka, based in Bayonne. 

"Kolektiboa" means "collective" in Basque. And "Bilaka" means research. The collective of those who seek: explorers, in short. " We not only keep the traditional Basque repertoire alive, but also explore and reinterpret it," explains Xabi Etcheverry, one of Bilaka's founders. Xabi is a violinist, or rather a "fiddler". The distinction is important to him. "In traditional music, this term is important. We find this nuance with the Irish, between "fiddlers" and "fidlers". The same distinction is made in Basque culture, where the fiddle may be called a 'biolin' or an 'arrabita', when it's playing in a traditional repertoire."

The idea of a collective dedicated to traditional Basque music and dance germinated in the minds of Xabi and a few musician and dancer friends, trained, like him, at the Bayonne conservatory and in folk music groups in the region's villages, ten years ago. " Bilaka was really born in 2019. We bring together professional performers, who make a living from their practice. Today, we are fifteen musicians and a dozen dancers."

Gernika from BILAKA on Vimeo.

Their credo: a contemporary, experimental interpretation of this centuries-old music and dance. The manifesto is announced right from the website's home page: "Bilaka works on the contemporary activation of the traditional culture of the Basque country." In other words, "We don't simply revive music and dance that has disappeared as if it were in a museum," explains Xabi Etcheverry. We enrich and activate these repertoires with current influences! Our dancers draw a lot of their inspiration from the corporality of contemporary dance, and in music, we like to add new sounds and instruments to extend the movement of traditional dance into a new language. Their latest shows feature an astonishing array of instruments: violin, percussion, bass, chromatic and diatonic accordion, guitar, txitsu and xirula - Basque flutes with three holes - as well as organ, piano, Indian harmonium, hurdy-gurdy...

At Bilaka, the musicians go against the grain of the great harmonization movement in Basque music that began in the 20th century. " We're looking for an original sound: this music was originally expressed with monodic singing and a simple drone. We want to rediscover this singular, minimalist and repetitive expression, which has a powerful trance dimension." Characteristics that evoke certain contemporary repertoires! The same applies to dance: "We respect the DNA of each dance, while trying to rediscover a diversity that may have been lost. The creative and experimental potential of this music is enormous...".

Basaide from BILAKA on Vimeo.

Bilaka now has six shows to its credit, "soon to be seven", says Xabi. One of the latest, Gernika (by Martin Harriague) is inspired by the 1937 disaster, with a strong anti-militarist message. "I write the basics of the music, but we mostly work with several hands. And, on stage, there's a great deal of improvisation. Dance and music are inextricably linked in traditional music, so on stage, together, we continually adapt to the dancers' movements.

Musicians and dancers are currently putting the finishing touches to a new show: Ilauna. "This word is difficult to translate; it evokes a set of ancestral beliefs about the afterlife, the appeasement of souls and, above all, conveys the idea that everything is ephemeral. On stage, four dancers and two musicians. An opportunity to discover the timbre of the alboka, the Basque horn, and the Gascony bagpipes. Premieres October 5 at Théâtre Espaces pluriels in Pau.

Suzanne Gervais

Photo © Irantzu Pastor
Photo © Franck Mage


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