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Beats, Not Bombs, for Spain

Can music be used to achieve political aspirations — instead of terror and violence?

March 20, 2004

Can music be used to achieve political aspirations — instead of terror and violence?

Basque culture is ancient, dating back to Europe’s earliest days. The language of the Basques, known as Euskara, is thought to have existed before most of the languages spoken today on the continent.

The modern movement for a separate Basque nation, however, has existed only for the last 45 years.

Euskadi Ta Askatasuna — or “Basque Fatherland and Freedom” — was formed in 1959, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Better known as “ETA,” the armed resistance group was created in the wake of the dictator’s repression of Basque culture and language.

ETA’s resistance to the Franco regime began with bombings and other attacks. It also relied on assassinations.

It committed its most notable political murder in 1973, when it assassinated Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco — one of the regime’s most prominent leaders.

Franco’s death in 1976 created a better situation for Basques within Spain. Some traditional Basque areas were granted autonomy, and language rights were restored and enhanced.

Yet, ETA found these improvements in the Basque region unsatisfactory. It demanded complete independence for the region — and continued its terrorist activities with a series of bombings, kidnappings and shootings.

Into this political and cultural ferment entered Fermin Muguruza — a young Basque musician who was born in the port city of Irun. His first group, called Kortatu, took its style from the “Two-Tone” scene in Great Britain — mixing ska and reggae music with punk rock.

Already, however, Muguruza’s music was experimenting with the politics of language in the region. He sang lyrics in a mix of Spanish and Euskara.

After 10 years, Muguruza broke up Kortatu and formed a new band, Negu Gorriak, which took much of its influence from rap music. After six years leading that band, Muguruza embarked on a solo career.

His first album as a solo artist — 1999’s Brigadistak Sound System — was truly a world album. It was recorded in studios located in far-flung cities: Rome, Havana, Carcacas, Los Angeles and Paris.

In many ways, it also represented a synthesis of all the sounds that Muguruza had used in previous records.

The syncopation of ska mixes with the hard guitars of punk, yet all of the songs have the clarity and sweetness of pop music.

Along with the musical variations, Muguruza’s obsession with Basque issues broadens to encompass all struggling nations.

The album is sung entirely in Euskara, but it takes the continuing aspirations of all people who feel marginalized in their struggle for freedom and justice as its main themes.

One song, “Newroz,” celebrates the struggles of Kurds. Another, “Mapuche,” takes up the cause of the indigenous people who speak that language and live in Chile and Argentina. “We urgently need,” sings Muguruza on this tune, “a Basque-Mapudungu Dictionary!”

Muguruza’s next record, FM 99.00 Dub Manifest, continues the singer-songwriter’s musical experiments with reggae and pop. The collection also reinforces Muguruza’s vision of the link between nationless peoples all over the world.

Songs such as “Dirty Spanish Money” and “Radical Chic” tackle the problems of colonialism and globalization with humor and wit.

Though his aspirations are global, Muguruza remains a controversial figure for very local reasons. It is clear that he believes in independence — or greater political and cultural autonomy — for Basques, which places him in a position of sharing a common aim with ETA.

Yet, he has stated repeatedly in interviews that he is a strong believer in non-violence and civil disobedience to achieve those aims — which clearly distinguishes his position from that held by ETA.

One of the moments in Muguruza’s career that demonstrates his stance was at the 2003 Spanish Music Awards.

According to the website of Egunkaria, a Basque-language magazine closed by Spanish authorities in February 2003, Muguruza used the platform of the April 2003 awards ceremony to dedicate his prize to the closed newspaper. He received boos and hisses for his political statements.

The site also noted that Muguruza was pressed by Spanish journalists on the question of whether he was supporting ETA and the violence that it has perpetrated to achieve its goals.

His response was that he disagreed with ETA’s violent methods. “My only armament is music,” he replied.

The recent terrorist violence in Spain is a reminder that even in the heart of Europe, violence is still a weapon used to address political and cultural grievances.

But the worldwide popularity of Fermin Muguruza’s music sends a different message: Cheerful and upbeat music can possess a great lyrical power — and celebrate the difference of a culture and language by building bridges, rather than demolishing lives.