Welsh and Basque musicians unite as Galestar Konexioa | Songlines
Thursday, April 4, 2024

Welsh and Basque musicians unite as Galestar Konexioa

By Rhodri McDonagh

An unlikely camaraderie between Welsh and Basque musicians is making its way to Wales

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Galestar Konexioa at Atlantikaldia Festival

When imagining a region that would compare culturally to the Basque Country, Wales wouldn’t perhaps be first on the list. Yet an exciting collaboration between artists in the two countries has shown that Wales could have even more in common with the Basque Country than its closest neighbours.

In 2021, Herri Arte Eskola (The Basque Folk Art School) students began a series of musical exchanges with similar music schools in Catalonia and Galicia, and after an encounter with Welsh folk singer Gwilym Bowen Rhys, the school decided that Wales would be next. So, in 2023, three Welsh folk artists made their way to the Basque Country to learn Basque traditions and teach Welsh music. 

“Wales has more in common with the Basque Country than say with Ireland or Scotland in many ways,” says Rhys, “It’s got the same population, about the same proportion of that population who speak the native language, and the cultural pride that the language is the absolute ‘all’ of the culture, in a way.”

Like Wales, the Basque Country’s language is at the core of its cultural identity. Herri Arte Eskola celebrates Basque language and culture through a range of courses including music, visual arts, literature, spoken word and dance. The school is open to students of all ages but is attended mostly by young people keen to learn their culture’s traditions. Students can learn traditional instruments such as the txalaparta, alboka, dulzaina and trikitixa, all of which feature in the school’s Basque Folk Orchestra.

Galestar Konexioa, the ‘Welsh Connection’ project, began when dance artist Angharad Harrop (National Dance Company Wales) and fiddle player Patrick Rimes (Calan, VRï) were brought on board along with Gwilym to craft a performance set for the 57-strong Basque Folk Orchestra and dancers. Teachers and students helped develop the set by teaching their Welsh guests about Basque musical traditions.

“It was definitely a shock for us learning some of their rhythms… [Some] are more pan-Mediterranean or at least pan-Iberian, like fandango. It’s so joyous,” says Rhys. “There were points of familiarity with the dance tunes. We taught some of the standard twmpath and ceilidh dances, and a lot of those tunes are… in the same kind of sound world.” 

Students learnt Welsh dances, tunes and songs. Rhys taught them classic Welsh folk songs such as ‘Lisa Lân’. They were struck by the melody’s haunting modality, something that doesn’t often appear in Basque music.

After months of rehearsals, they performed at Atlantikaldia Festival. Their show is a celebration of musical traditions, fusing Welsh and Basque tunes and dances, all backed by a full orchestra of Basque folk instruments. Familiar Welsh dance tunes are given a new life by the joyous rhythm of the txalaparta, and the Basque jota shares the stage with fierce clocsio dancing. It is a beautiful expression of kinship between cultures.

Galestar Konexioa will appear at FOCUS Wales, Wrexham on May 11 (more info here), and at Tredegar House Folk Festival, Newport on May 12

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