The Spirit of Survival in a Basque Voice

I've been listening to the music of Fermin Muguruza, but I don't understand what his songs are saying. He's from Spain, but he doesn't sing in Spanish. That's a cultural statement in itself.

Muguruza, who just turned 39, was born in Basque country during the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco. At the time, the Spanish government violently suppressed the border region's culture and language, called Euskara, believed to be the oldest tongue in Europe. Fighting back meant keeping the dying idiom alive, at the peril of persecution.

So that's the first thing that comes through without translation: Muguruza's fighting spirit.

Actually, it's more than that. His sound telegraphs the urgency of survival. His voice is as raw as a street brawl, nasal at times. His tone is edgy, mocking, insistent. Backup chorus lines sometimes convey the menace of a war chant.

The music sounds riotous and subversive too.

Horns blare their introductions with the drama of arriving Roman legions. Cymbals and drum skins sizzle like rattlesnakes. Here and there, we hear the sound effects of disorder: voices on bullhorns, a Morse code of distress, an alarming siren.

All the while, rhythmic reggae chords and muscular bass riffs push you to get out of your chair, stand up to something, say no to how things are.

Or say yes, and just get up and dance. Join Muguruza and the raucous, multiethnic party illustrated on the cover of "Brigadistak Sound System," the 1999 album recently released in the U.S. on the German label Piranha through Harmonia Mundi. The illustration is a joyous jumble of people, smiling, twirling, celebrating. Only Muguruza is looking straight at you, a clenched fist on his sweatshirt but a smile on his lips. His arm is outstretched, palm open in a universal sign of friendship, fingers extended as if trying to touch you.

He touched me, without a word. I had never heard of this compelling performer until now. Although his two solo albums--"Brigadistak" and "FM 99.00 Dub Manifest"--were released much earlier in Spain, this is the first time both works have been widely available in North America. (The much less interesting "Dub Manifest" was released here last summer.)

Partly, it was the singer's commanding pose in that cover drawing that drew my attention, as if he was saying, "Hold on, don't let this album get lost in the muddle of commercial music."

Then I noticed my surname echoes his. That's probably because my heritage is also Basque; my father's origins trace back to the 19th century, to a town in the Pyrenees on the French-Spanish border.

Though I've never been there, I feel that mysterious tug of ancestral roots in Muguruza's work. Maybe that defiant, stubborn streak is in the blood.

But his work also appeals to me as a Chicano, a charged term applied in the 1960s to the politicized children of Mexican immigrants. We also live a border experience, on the edge of acceptance and expulsion. The whole idea of the Chicano movement was the reclaiming of culture and language, including native Mexican tongues, which were in danger of being lost through assimilation. Like Muguruza, who was taught only in Spanish and had to learn the Basque language later, Chicanos also felt compelled to recover Spanish, or at least Spanglish, and appreciate Mexican art, music and dance.

Among the fruits of that resistance was Los Lobos, the acclaimed Chicano rock band from East L.A., and a zillion ballet folklorico troupes across the Southwest.

Many older Mexican Americans recall being punished for speaking Spanish in school, just as Basque children once were. Euskara--which, mysteriously, shows no resemblance to languages in neighboring countries--was officially forbidden by the Franco dictatorship, which ruled for four decades until his death in 1975.

So it's not surprising to find the radical Chicano band Aztlan Underground collaborating with Muguruza on a track from "Brigadistak." His lyrics to "Nazio Ibiltaria Naiz" (I'm a Wandering Nation) could have been an anthem for the Chicano movement, a declaration that "I'm decolonizing my head."

Aztlan, after all, is the mythical homeland of the Aztec nation, said to be located in the Southwestern U.S. Like the Basques and the Palestinians, Chicanos cultivate long memories about land colonized in the name of a religious idea, like Manifest Destiny, the divine excuse for the United States' territorial war with Mexico.

Not coincidentally, Muguruza popped up in the West Bank last month at the start of the Israeli siege. The singer was part of a European contingent protesting the occupation, but his plans to hold concerts in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Ramallah fell through.

In Spain, Muguruza's controversial politics keep him well out of the mainstream record industry, although his concerts in Madrid and other Spanish cities draw thousands. As the vocalist of two prized groups, Kortatu and Negu Gorriak (Red Winter) in the early 1980s, Muguruza infused traditional Basque music with punk aggression, inspired by groups such as the Clash. But critics continue to denounce him for what they brand as political extremism.

In the U.S., there's a parallel in the backlash against gangsta rap pioneers N.W.A or rap activists Public Enemy, which Muguruza admires. You don't have to condone violence, and I certainly don't, to understand the impact of their artistic statements.

For all his nationalism, Muguruza makes many musical alliances around the globe, especially on "Brigadistak," which has lyrics translated into English, French and Spanish. Joining him on various tracks are members of Cuba's Los Van Van, Venezuela's furious ska band Desorden Publico (Public Disorder), Mexico's punk rockers Tijuana No!, and fellow rebel in Spanish rock, Manu Chao.

Muguruza espouses musical internationalism, and embraces a range of styles such as reggae, dub and electronica. But he has not wavered in his anti-capitalist message, an admirable stance in an era when all values seem to stem from the idolatry of the free market.

As Chevy Chase used to deadpan on "Saturday Night Live," Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead. But thankfully, Fermin Muguruza and his music are still alive and as powerful as ever.

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Agustin Gurza is a Times staff writer.

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