Negu Gorriak (which means red winter), a great band likened to the Clash for its ferociously energetic music and radical political stance, would merit attention strictly for the quality of music on the half-dozen CDs the Basque group released between 1990 and 1996. But Negu Gorriak went several steps beyond, adopting the punk D.I.Y. aesthetic with a vengeance and forming the Esan Ozenki label as an independent alternative to the mainstream music industry. The label became the center for releases by radical Basque rock bands and eventually the distributor for a few like-minded rockers and rappers from outside Spain. One thing though: don't call Negu Gorriak rock en español. Fervent Basque nationalism is an integral part of their political stance and Spanish culture and language is viewed as an imperialist imposition on Basque autonomy. Communication is highly valued, though, so the lyrics and websites connected to the band usually come in Castilian Spanish, French, and English, as well as Basque. In many ways, it may be a blessing to not understand Basque; chief songwriter Fermín Muguruza is a staunchly ideological and political lyricist who views rock and punk as a vehicle for expressing revolutionary sentiments. That could get real old real fast, but fortunately he's a born songwriter who knows how to shape those political message views into catchy choruses that stay with you even if you don't get the words or the message. And Negu Gorriak is a band that knows how to craft music, especially the magnetic guitar hooks created by Iñigo Muguruza and Kaki Arkarazo to frame those hard-edged sentiments and have an appeal purely for their sonic force. Negu Gorriak emerged from the ashes of Kortatu, a punk-ska-reggae trio centered around Fermín Muguruza and Iñigo Muguruza that became the creative standard bearer for Basque rock during the mid-'80s. At the height of Kortatu's popularity in 1988, the Muguruza brothers saw a Public Enemy concert in Paris in 1988. They immediately recruited Kaki Arkarazo, a sound engineering whiz who played second guitar on Kortatu's last tour, to embark on a project blending hip-hop and hardcore.
It didn't really stay that way, though, and each of Negu Gorriak's six albums has a distinctive flavor. Negu Gorriak is the blueprint of a project taking shape, with Fermín Muguruza's pit bull snarl placed alongside guitar riffs, programmed drum beats, and primitive sound collages. It's D.I.Y. in action, not amateurish so much as the work of musicians experimenting with new sounds and techniques for the first time. With Gure Jarrera, bassist Mikel Kazalis from Anestesia and drummer Mikel Abrego from Bap! (both Mikels used their band names as their last names on Negu Gorriak credits) came aboard in 1991 to make Negu Gorriak an arena-rocking band with a powerful line in guitar riffs. It was the first Esan Ozenki release and their biggest seller, in part because of Fermín Muguruza's outspokenness on "Ustelkeria" in linking a police unit directed against the outlawed Basque group ETA with the diversion of confiscated cocaine. It also named a Guardia Civil colonel by name and the subsequent defamation of character suit was ultimately resolved in Negu Gorriak's favor, but only after years in the courts. The distraction didn't hurt their creative output since 1993's two-LP Borreroak Baditu Milaka Aurpegi is a masterpiece, with the band in full command of its melodic resources and piledriver chordal assault. It's merely one of the best CDs released in any language anywhere in the world during the '90s. The live album Hipokrisiari Stop! Bilbo 93-X-30 from 1994 largely drew on that material and convincingly proved Negu Gorriak could deliver its complex, powerful music in front of thousands of delirious fans in Bilbao. A new set of international flavors brought about by overseas touring came to the fore on Ideia Zabaldu, the group's only record to be released in the U.S. (in 1995 by Grita). But Fermín Muguruza felt Negu Gorriak had run its creative course and pulled the plug when the band was poised to make a quantam leap in international recognition. Ustelkeria, a limited-edition CD of rare outtakes, live tracks, and dubs (available only through Esan Ozenki and apparently tied to a free speech campaign in support of the Basque newspaper Hitz Egin) came out in March 1996. The parting blast was Salam, Agur, a collection of 15 favorite songs released in December of that year. A song list including Basque bands, the Who, Otis Redding, Bob Marley & the Wailers, Macka-B, N.W.A., Public Enemy, Minor Threat, and the Dead Kennedys is revealing of the band's wide range of musical interests. Fermín Muguruza has since recorded one CD with the Basque grunge band Dut and two solo CDs (Brigadistak Sound System and FM 99.00 Dub Manifest) with a more reggae-oriented sound. His brother, Iñigo Muguruza, formed Joxe Ripiau and released four CDs of rocking, accordion-flavored music with that group before returning to the rock sphere with Sagarroi. Kaki Arkarazo continues to be a much in-demand engineer/producer and engineered Fermín Muguruza's two solo CDs. Mikel Kazalis and Mikel Abrego apparently went back to Anestesia and Bap!, respectively the latter also popped up as the drummer in Fermín Muguruza's Dub Manifest band. ~ Don Snowden, Rovi