The last of the best from Cuba

by Paul Fisher

Even after 10 years, I still find it difficult to predict what actually turns Japanese world-music fans on.

Japan eventually caught up with the rest of the world with the craze in old Cubans. This year just about everyone connected with the Buena Vista Social Club has played here, with Compay Segundo still to come at the end of this month.

Compay Segundo, the 93-year-old guitarist and composer, was a central figure on the Buena Vista Social Club album. This was demonstrated by the semi-“official” version of the group on tour in Japan earlier this year, featuring Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo. They were unable to perform some songs on the album, including the group’s near “signature tune,” the opening “Chan Chan.”

“Chan Chan” was written by Segundo, born Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz, the grandson of a free slave, in Siborney, eastern Cuba, in 1907. His family moved to Santiago, where after initially taking up the clarinet, he invented his own seven-stringed guitar, which he still plays today and which gives his music a unique sound. He played with the great Nico Saquito in the 1920s before moving to Havana, where he joined Orchestra Riverside and formed his own Compay Segundo y su Grupo in 1950.

After virtually retiring from music to become a tobacconist, since the success of Buena Vista Social Club (now over 4 million copies sold, notably on an independent label) he is back leading his own group, and records for a major record company in Spain. Ry Cooder simply calls him, “the last of the best.”

Compay Segundo Japan Tour, tickets for all shows are (S) 7,500 yen, (A) 6,500 yen. Nov. 27, 7 p.m., Osaka Kosei Nenkin Kaikan (Big Hall); for information, call HIP Osaka, (06) 6362-7301. Nov. 28, 7 p.m., Fukuoka Across Hall; for information, call Kusu Music, (092) 791-0999. Nov. 30, 7 p.m., Nagoya-shi Kokaido; for information, call Kyodo Tokai, (052) 962-0511. Dec. 2, 5:30 p.m., Tokyo Kokusai Forum Hall, Yurakucho. Dec. 3, Tokyo NHK Hall (sold out). Dec. 5-6, 7 p.m., Tokyo Shibuya Kokkaido; for information, call HIP, (03) 3475-9999.

There is, of course, the Buena Vista boom going bust because of overkill. With the glut of spinoffs and clones, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the good among the merely mediocre. In the wake of the muzak of Enya and the glitzy Riverdance show, this has already happened with the real Celtic music.

Nevertheless, perhaps as a product of the success of Celtic music, other European music has been among this year’s most successful in Japan: the much en vogue East European gypsy bands, and more surprisingly, the little known music of Euskadi, the Basque country in Spain’s northeast and France’s southwest territories.

The only two references in English I could find to Basque duo Alaitz eta Maider (Alaitz and Maider) strangely compared them to Japanese acts — Frank Chickens and Shonen Knife. Indeed there is something cute, light and fluffy about the music of Alaitz Telletxea and Maider Zabalegi, although in truth their music has a little more meat on the bone.

Maider plays the Basque accordion, the trikitrixa, literally meaning “devil’s bellows,” also the name of the accordion-driven Basque music. Even during the Basque-suppressive Franco years, the culture of Euskadi survived (perhaps even partly because of the repression). However, with the unbanning of the Euskara language, and a quasi-autonomy, it flourished, firstly with the group Oskorri, and more recently with their long-time associate, Kepa Junkera.

Junkera came to Japan earlier this year and was one of the hits of the Altan Festival. He and another accordionist, Joseba Tapia, revolutionized traditional music about 10 years ago, and influenced a new generation, including Maider. While Maider is perhaps not quite a match for the extraordinary Junkera in terms of pure technique, in partnership with Alaitz this is more than made up for.

Alaitz and Maider, still in their mid-20s, originally got together as a duo when they were 14. The instrumental combination of trikitrixa, and Alaitz’s panderoa, or tambourine, is one of the most common in Basque music. What helps to set Alaitz eta Maider apart these days is their sparkling, poppy vocals, especially when in harmony, in tandem with the traditional instruments. The music sometimes recalls Tex-Mex, waltz and polka or sounds like a medieval folk tune. The addition of guitar brings in elements of rock and jazz.

As in Celtic music, trikitrixa musicians like to yelp and howl to urge the others on, and Alaitz eta Maider are delightfully prone to this on occasions. The addition of bass and drums completes one of the most formidable roots-pop outfits around.

Their self-titled first album in 1997 sold 25,000 copies in the Basque country, not bad considering the population is around 3 million. Their latest album, “Inshala,” is following on from that success. They don’t consider themselves to be Spanish at all, and as their music is proudly Basque, they believe it is inextricably linked to political issues.

As I annually note at WOMEX, the burgeoning world music scene is primarily Euro-centric, in that it’s mostly European labels and agents who introduce the world to “local music that is not from where you are.” It’s therefore good to see that a European music that is still largely unknown in Europe has found its biggest outside audience first in Japan, courtesy of fellow WOMEX attendees in search of good music, Kaira Productions.