This article about Kepa Junkera appeared at The San Francisco Tribune:
What happened in Spain with Kepa Junkera has happened with countless other musicians around the world, including Miles Davis and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Junkera took a traditional music and modernized it for an audience that preferred more pulse -- then was barraged by critics who said the changes amounted to sacrilege.
Trikitixa music has held sway in the Basque region of Spain for more than 100 years. At its core is a button accordion (also called trikitixa) that historically accompanies tambourine and other basic instruments. During his professional career, Junkera has played the trikitixa with jazz musicians, African artists, classical orchestras -- anyone he believes will add important flavor to his compositions.
"In the beginning of my career," Junkera says in a phone interview from Spain, "traditional musicians hated my music because it was different. They used to say it was another kind of music -- not trikitixa."
That's all changed. Now, at age 38, Junkera is the pride of Euskadi (the Basque word for "Basque Country"), and constantly tours with his ensemble. On Friday, he brings them to Stanford's Dinkelspiel Auditorium, where it might be difficult for ushers to stanch the flow of people leaving their seats to dance. (Junkera also plays Saturday night in San Rafael and Sunday night in Napa.) Songs like "Kaixarranka," which is driven by drums and Junkera's volcanic trikitixa playing, are restive tributes to Junkera's homeland, but he can also slow down the pace. On his album "Bilbao Oo:Oh," some of his songs are almost sad and reflective -- which makes sense, given the volatile history of the Basque people, who were suppressed for decades under Francisco Franco.
Franco, who died in 1975, banned Basque music and the Basque language, prompting many Basques to call for the creation of a Basque nation separate from Spain. The Basque separatist movement, whose groups have used violence against Spanish officials, is still vocal in Spain, but Junkera -- like other Basque musicians -- says music and politics should be kept apart.
"When I'm asked about (being Basque), for me, I think the most important thing is the music," he says in words that are translated by his wife, Miren. "I have ideas, but I'm not radical at all. I think of myself as Basque, but I love Spain, too. I feel Basque and Spanish and European."
Basques are concentrated in the northern part of Spain, including the city of Bilbao, where Junkera grew up. It's a measure of Junkera's success that some people have compared him to the Frank Gehry- designed Guggenheim Museum that opened in Bilbao in 1997. Both (so the analogy goes) have given Bilbao a new international standing, but Junkera laughs and dismisses the comparison, just as he laughs at the ways that Spain's priests first referred, many decades ago, to the music of the trikitixa. According to Junkera, the priests called its sounds "bellows from hell" for the way it made men and women want to dance.
"It was (considered) bad because the women and men would dance together very tightly," he says.
A self-taught musician, Junkera continues to surprise established artists outside of Spain. Having already played with Bela Fleck, the Chieftains and others, Junkera performed last summer with Pat Matheny, at an impromptu concert in the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. Junkera and Matheny appeared separately at the city's annual jazz festival, but when Junkera's manager gave Matheny copies of Junkera's albums, Matheny requested an onstage collaboration.
Junkera, who has recorded more than 10 albums and also produces the records of different Basque groups, has become a role model for young Basque musicians in Spain. Other Basque groups have followed his lead and mixed their sounds with jazz and world music. As he considers all of this, Junkera almost can't believe how far he's come from his teenage days as an experimental musician playing for small crowds in village squares. He was first inspired to play trikitixa as a small boy, when he accompanied his mother and grandfather to village dances. His grandfather would play tambourine while his mother would dance. Musicians who played the trikitixa would produce sounds that, to Junkera, were unique and fun. Junkera likens trikitixa music to Tex-Mex music, which also incorporates accordions.
"I loved the rhythm and the sounds of the instrument -- that's why I started to play by myself, without a teacher," Junkera says. "When I started, I couldn't imagine that one day I could make albums, play around the world and make (a living) from my music."
Junkera still refers to trikitixa music as a "tradition," even though he has altered that tradition in ways he also couldn't have imagined all those years ago.
And when you read that someone like Junkera says something as stupid as "I feel Basque and Spanish and European" you begin to understand why reporters get so confused that they end up reporting that the trikititxa is from Spain. Junkera needs a backbone.
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