What’s in a song? Txoria txori

“Txoria txori” (The bird is a bird) is a key song in the Basque musical canon. With lyrics by Joxean Artze and music by Mikel Laboa, it first appeared on Laboa’s seminal double album Bat hiru (One three) in 1974. To listen to this version, click here, with accompanying lyrics (and my translation into English) below.

Hegoak ebaki banizkion                    If I had clipped its wings
neria izango zen,                                    it would have been mine,
ez zuen alde egingo.                             it would never have flown away.
Hegoak ebaki banizkion                    If I had clipped its wings
neria izango zen,                                    it would have been mine,
ez zuen alde egingo.                             it would never have flown away.

Baina honela                                            But this way
ez zen gehiago txoria izango.         it would no longer have been a bird.
Baina honela                                            But this way
ez zen gehiago txoria izango.         it would no longer have been a bird.

Eta nik txoria nuen maite.                And I loved that bird.
Eta nik txoria nuen maite.                And I loved that bird.

La la la ra la…                                            La la la ra la…

640px-European_Robin_(erithacus_rubecula)_singing

European Robin (erithacus rubecula) singing, Cumnor Hill, Oxford, UK. Photo by Charlesjsharp,  own work from Sharp Photography, via Wikimedia Commons

The song sounds like a 60s-era protest song and, sure enough, it was actually written in 1968. So the story goes, the words came to Artze during dinner one night in a Donostia restaurant and he hurriedly wrote them down on a napkin in the form of a poem. Artze had in mind the severe restrictions on freedom maintained by the Franco regime in Spain at the time. Marisol Bastida, Laboa’s wife, noticed Artze doing this, read the poem, liked it, and told her husband he should read it too. He liked it as well, took the napkin home with him that night, and composed the music there and then. The rest, as they say, is history.

Among many cover versions of the song, that of Joan Baez here on her live album Diamonds & Rust in the Bullring, recorded in Bilbao in 1988, is perhaps the most famous. But there are others, such as that of Cuban singer-songwriter Pablo Milanés, the Mexican-infused version by Puro Relajo from Nafarroa, and that of Basque chanteuse Anne Etchegoyen, in collaboration with the Aizkoa male-voice choir (not to mention a punk and hard rock version by Etsaiak and Flitter respectively). The song is even sung by fans of soccer’s Athletic Bilbao and rugby’s Aviron Bayonnais (at approx. 0m 37s and 1m 55s). In short, it has become a Basque anthem.

And Laboa’s own orchestral reworking of the tune, with the collaboration of the Orfeón Donostiarra and the Basque Youth Orchestra,  is a fitting testament to one of the most emblematic of all Basque songs.

“Txoria txori” is cited in Zelestina Urza in Outer Space, the new novel by David Romtvedt, the Pushcart Prize-award winning author of Flower Whose Name I Do Not Know and Wyoming poet laureate.

2 Comments

  1. My dad was a Bertsolariak in the village of Banca a short distance south of St Jean Pied de Port. My mother was from Urepel a few kilometers further on. He taught me the only Basque song I know. It was a simple song and if I had my Basque English dictionary, I could write out the title. It’s about a white dove that flies away to Spain on a journey from which he doesn’t return. Not a sad song though my description makes it sound like one. I still remember it though I learned it from him during WWII in our home in Montana when I was about five or six. Dad was still remembered in the villages of Baigorry, Aldude, Urepel and Banca when I first traveled there in 1970. I ran into retired Basque sheepherders in San Francisco in 1973 who also remembered him and my maternal grandfather who was from Zuberoa but had a business in Urepel. Of course the song you cite here is from a more modern time and is probably more sophisticated but “Uso Zurria” as the song begins is an old folk song. I can still sing it and though I am a Geezer, it still sounds pretty good.

    • katu

      June 19, 2017 at 12:23 am

      Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful memories. Songs like the one you mention have been so important in transmitting Basque culture down through the centuries. As the expression goes, “Kantatzen duen herria ez da inoiz hilko,” a people that sings will never die out, and we’re sure your rendition of “The White Dove” sounds just great!

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