“As soon as I heard about the alboka I became interested in it, and have been learning and researching the instrument and its history ever since.”
Interview with alboka player Joe Memeo by Xavier Irujo.
The alboka is a traditional Basque musical instrument. Its sound is similar to the pipe, and it is also played using circular breathing, that is, the alboka player does not take a break from blowing into the instrument, and inhales while simultaneously exhaling when a breath is needed. This creates continuous, uninterrupted sound.
Joe is probably one of the very few alboka players in the U.S. and the sole manufacturer of albokas in the country. He has played the alboka for several years now and has participated in events and festivals over the last year with the Elko dance group Ardi Baltza.
How did you get immersed in the Basque culture?
I was able to get involved through my wife, Kiaya Memeo. She grew up within the local Basque community and spent many years Basque dancing and participating in the local festivals. About six years ago she started her own Basque cultural group in the Elko community called Ardi Baltza. Throughout the years I have become more and more involved with the group. I have enjoyed traveling and serving as an Ardi Baltza ambassador to other clubs, such as the Basque Club in Lima, Peru. In addition to this I have also had the opportunity to work with Anamarie and Mikel Lopategui at Ogi, the Basque Pintxo Bar in Elko. I have been able to meet wonderful people all over the US, Basque Country and South America and have been exposed to many facets of this wonderful culture.
How did you become interested in the alboka?
What first attracted me to the alboka was the uniqueness of the instrument. It is unique in almost every aspect: the sound, the build, the playing style, and the limited scale. There is a good metaphor applied to the alboka by Alan Griffin that highlights this: The alboka is like a hedgehog. It is small, spiky, and low on fancy and finesse, but full of individuality. As soon as I heard the alboka I became interested and have been learning and researching the instrument and its history ever since.
How did you learn to play it and, especially, how did you learn to manufacture them?
I bought my first alboka which was made by the incredibly talented alboka luthier Jose Osses and started to learn to play it. I am self-taught by researching music and watching videos of others playing the instrument to learn techniques. Mostly it was a lot of very loud practice (which my wife can attest to) and trying different methods to determine what works and what doesn’t. One of the difficulties was there are only a couple of people in the US that play the alboka, so there were no local resources. There are a few people in Argentina that actively play the alboka that I was able to connect with and they were very helpful with any questions that I had.
Learning to make them started out of necessity. Because the main sources for replacement reeds and expertise for the alboka is in the Basque Country. It took a long time and was expensive to get anything to the US. I was able to get information on the construction of the instrument and purchased the required equipment. One of the appeals of the alboka is its simplicity and simple construction materials. All the parts are made of wood and the horn is a steer horn. Once constructed, the instrument is sealed with bee’s wax. This meant that I can make every part of the alboka by hand. Recently I have been trying out different designs and tunings for the new albokas I have been making.
Besides the instrument itself, I also make and have available accessories and learning aids for the alboka. One of the learning aids I have made is the “Circular Breathing Aid”. The alboka is played using circular breathing (this is where the player does not take a break from blowing into the instrument and inhales while simultaneously exhaling when a breath is needed, this creates a continuous, uninterrupted sound). This can be a very difficult technique to master. The tool I have created mimics the mouthpiece of the alboka and lets the player practice circular breathing while adjusting the air resistance depending on the player’s skill. If you are like me and live with (or around) other people, the most important aspect of this tool is that it is silent and can be used for practice anywhere.
For how long have you participated in cultural events, concerts or celebrations with the alboka?
I have been playing the alboka for several years now but have only been participating in events and festivals over the last year. I have been participating and playing with Ardi Baltza in local festivals and most recently the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko that featured many Basque performers. In the coming year I plan to travel with Ardi Baltza to events and gatherings across the US and to have a booth at many more events with informational material and albokas for sale.
What is the response of the American public to this unique Basque instrument?
The response from Americans has been great. The alboka has not had a lot a representation in the US, so people have been very excited to see it growing, but for a lot of people it is still very new. There has also been a lot of interest in this instrument in the US outside of the Basque communities. Quite a few of the albokas I have made went to people that do not have big ties to Basque communities. I think this shows the wider appeal and appreciation of the alboka.
My goal is to be a resource for individuals and clubs that are interested in learning to play the instrument or that just want to know more about it. My hope is to connect everybody who is interested in the alboka and to spread knowledge about it as much as I can. I have also started the website Albokak.com (https://www.albokak.com) that has many links to good information and learning material on the internet, as well as all the albokas and accessories I have available.