Dan Ansotegui

2019 National Heritage Fellow Basque musician and tradition bearer
Headshot of a man.
Photo by Gregg Mizuta

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand. Used courtesy of free Music Archive.Dan

Ansotegui: That idea of playing music perfectly and kind of getting to the point where you play it well enough to record it isn’t as important as just playing for the dancers that are right there in front of you and there are always dancers

Jo Reed: That’s 2019 National Heritage Fellow Basque musician and tradition bearer Dan Ansotegui, and This is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Ask Dan Ansotegui what he remembers about growing up and he’ll tell you the smells and taste of his mother’s cooking and the sound of his father’s music—both deeply rooted in the Basque tradition.  These experiences set him on the path to an exploration and embrace of his heritage—not as something preserved in amber but a living breathing tradition that can’t help but be shaped by life in America. All four of Dan’s grandparents came to the US from the same area of the Basque region—near Bilbao at the turn of the 20th century; the men became sheepherders in the American west, with both families eventually settling in Idaho. There, remains a vibrant Basque community whose rich culture continues to bloom due in no small part to Dan Ansotegui.  As a performer, teacher and restauranteur, his passions for Basque music, dance, language, and food both leads and inspires.
Since the Basque region is the spine of Dan’s cultural work, I thought it was important to begin at the beginning with a little geography.

Jo Reed: If you don’t mind by having you situate Basque Country geographically.

Dan Ansotegui: Okay, think about how Spain kind of juts out a little bit kind of north of the northern part of the Mediterranean then there’s a point there where Spain and France meet and that northern part of the abutting of the two countries is the Basque area. The Basque area lies partially on the Spanish side of that section and partially on the French side so there are a total of seven provinces within the Basque Country. Four of those provinces are on the Spanish side and three of those are on the French side and it’s really quite small. You can drive across the entire Basque Country-- even with all its hills and curvy roads and stuff you can still drive across the Basque Country in just under a couple hours.

Jo Reed: I want to hear about your growing up. I know it was a musical family and I know you came from a family that knew how to cook so these are two of my favorite things in the world so tell me about it.

Dan Ansotegui: Mine too, plus the eating, the eating always kind of fueled my desire to learn to cook, but it’s true we did. My dad played accordion; he started with the button accordion, which is what I play now. He went up into the hills as actually a very young man. He was born here in the States but he and his brother kind of conspired against their mom to quit school after eighth grade and in 1925 that wasn’t as big of a deal although they said-- their mother said, “If you guys quit school you have to go herd sheep and-- during that-- those four years you would have been in high school,” thinking they never would have done that because it really was such a lonely and a difficult job-- and they took her up on it. And so, my dad was 13 years old and he was given a Winchester .30-30 and three dogs and a thousand ewes and up in the hills he went on his own, and he spoke about that a little bit, that was an incredibly lonely life for him. Before he went up, he got a hold of a button accordion and took that up with him and he said he was always really fortunate because he had this pretty amazing ear so when they were up there once in a while if there was a herder that wasn’t too far away they might get together and have dinner together and those Basque guys would sing him some song and he said usually by the next morning he had it and so he kind of learned music like that. When he came home he started to learn the piano accordion because it was so much more versatile and that’s the way I remember growing up and my dad, Papa, was playing the piano accordion for us kind of when we had family dinners and things like that. His good friend, Jim Jausoro who also won the same fellowship in 1985,

Jo Reed: YES! Jimmy Jausero the great Basque accordionist was another National Heritage Fellow!

Dan Ansotegui: Yes, and I got to go back to D.C. as a dancer then with the Oinkari Basque Dancers and dance for Jim’s performance there in Washington.

Jo Reed: Which I think is so cool.

Dan Ansotegui: It was really an-- a great experience to be able to do that with Jimmy. And my dad had passed away and so another gentleman was playing with Jim at the time and-- but in the late ‘50s Jim formed a Basque band and he asked my dad to play drums for him and my dad didn’t play drums but they kind of worked it out so that my dad started playing drums from then on. And so even though when I was growing up my dad still played accordion it was less and less, every year he’d be a little more frustrated and-- when he’d try to play, but he was a good drummer. And so, since drums are kind of the hard thing to move the band would meet at our house and have rehearsal maybe once a month or once every couple of months and I remember that really distinctly. We’d have dinner and then they’d start maybe at seven thirty or something and-- start with their rehearsals and learn a couple of new songs, maybe go over some sticking points in other songs, and then we’d always have to go to bed at nine o’clock or whatever it was. And they played in the room directly below my bedroom and so it—that music kind of came up through the vents and I just always remember that. I just always had that music around me I think.

Jo Reed: That’s wonderful. So Basque Dancing was actually your first performing experience. When did you begin to play?

Dan Ansotegui: Yes. We start quite young, we start around five or six years old, and so that was just something-- my dad was playing music for the dancers and so we went-- there wasn’t a question about whether or not we even wanted to; that wasn’t even in the cards-- but we just went as dancers and then when you turned 14 then the younger kids stopped and you joined the Oinkaris, the young adult group, and I did that until I was in my mid-twenties and then I kind of-- I played music for a few years and then I had the restaurant and so I kind of stopped doing that. I got married and had kids and when the kids started dancing then I was able to start playing music again for the Oinkaris and one thing kind of led into another.

Jo Reed: When did you begin to play music?

Dan Ansotegui: Well, I played the trumpet or cornet in high school. When I was a sophomore in college there was a Basque-- there was a program that went to the Basque Country and we were able to learn Basque. It was through Boise State University here; Dr. Pat Bieter had set up this program and there were 35 Americans that went over. I would say a third of us were learning Basque and two thirds were learning Spanish. We were in a little town called Onati and that’s when I began to learn the txistu, which is a kind of a Basque-- kind of the fife and drum kind of thing where you play a three-holed recorder in your left hand and you hang a drum from your left arm and then with your right hand you play the drum, and so I learned to play that back when I was a 19-year-old kid and I didn’t learn the button accordion until much later in 1990. A gentleman named Josebia Tapia came here to the United States and I’ve always-- I’d always had a fascination for the button accordion, hadn’t heard it really all that much but I always just loved the sound of it. Josebia came over for that Basque festival that year and he and I became good friends and I told him I wanted to go over; I had plans to go over-- maybe if he had a student who could teach me button accordion. He said, “Oh, heck, I’ll take you on” and so I had the champion of the Basque Country and the button accordion was my teacher and so I was there for four months visiting my sister and with the hopes of opening a Basque restaurant here in Boise and learning the button accordion. When I came back and-- I kind of-- taught myself a fair amount, and then being able to build on that it just changed so much about who I was and who I was to become and the importance of music in my life. It just took on a new role and really just has kept growing since then I think.

Jo Reed: I know this is a really hard question but can you tell me what it feels like for you when you’re playing the accordion?

Dan Ansotegui: I think if I’m playing well, if I’m not distracted, I think I become more of a listener than-- I think of myself more as a listener than a player. I don’t think about what my hands have to do; I don’t think about which direction the bellows are going; I don’t think about things like that. If I can just kind of get in that mode where I’m just listening and enjoying it I think that’s when I feel the most reward from it and I think I play better that way. When I start to kind of think about ‘uh oh, here comes that one tricky part’ or I have to remember that this button jumps up or-- if I try to think about technical aspects of it then I have a tough time and I mess up every time. And so, I think-- yeah, I guess that’s it, I really just become more of a listener-- an active listener if that’s possible to where I’m just kind of enjoying the music not that much differently than if I were sitting in the audience hearing somebody else play it. I don’t feel like I’m separated from myself at all; it’s nothing like that. It’s just this idea that I can’t think about the details and the technical aspects of what I’m doing; I just kind of have to enjoy the music.

Jo Reed: It’s like muscle memory kicks in.

Dan Ansotegui: Yeah, I think that’s-- that- that’s a part of it—

Jo Reed: And then you’re listening and responding but you’re not thinking okay, now I have to do this and this is a fifth so jump over there.

Dan Ansotegui: Exactly, yeah. That’s exactly right, Jo.

Jo Reed: Dancing is really crucial to Basque music and Basque music is crucial to dancing. You won’t dance to any music that isn’t live. Is that correct?

Dan Ansotegui: Yeah, in a lot of ways that’s true. Jimmy Jausoro was adamant about that as we were growing up. He went out of his way to play for the Basque groups in surrounding towns, one of them an hour away, and he would drive over there almost on a weekly basis and go play music for these kids because he said every dancing group needs to have live music and so he would do that as much as possible. That wasn’t always the case with other communities-- Basque communities here in the United States because they didn’t have that luxury of having a musician that was that dedicated to be able to do that so-- but we were very fortunate around here and we still are. Even though Jimmy’s gone we still have live musicians here in town that provide music for the dancers in their different facets and we’re pretty lucky about that.

Jo Reed: Is there a large Basque community in Idaho?

Dan Ansotegui: Yes. I’ve heard a lot of times that the Treasure Valley or this-- the valley that Boise is in has-- and just kind of the surrounding area has the largest Basque population in the United States. I haven’t really seen any statistics that hold true but it does seem to be a very large area and with southern Idaho’s population not being all that big-- we have maybe around 10,000 people of Basque heritage living in this area, even though we haven’t had very many immigrants since the 1950s but now we still have-- now we have the third and even fourth generation of Basques that are really clinging onto that culture and even going back to the Basque Country to learn the language.

Jo Reed: What makes Basque music Basque music?

Dan Ansotegui: Well, usually I would say it’s music that is centered around three main instruments, the oldest being the txistu and the txistu is that fife and drum kind of idea. That’s usually not used for social dances; that is used for performance dances. The second instrument is the alboka; the alboka is a very old double-reeded instrument that the player or the musician uses circular breathing so there’s never-- you can never really hear a breath being taken and has kind of a drone sound and it’s a little bit-- in sound it sounds like a bagpipe. It’s very limited, it only has a range of just a little over an octave, but it’s used more for the social dances, the-- typically the fandango and the Arin-arin or the jota and Porrusalda, the two main social dances of the Basque people. And then the last one and the newest one is the accordion, either the button accordion, the small one like I play, the button chromatic or the piano accordion, and those then are used for the ritual dances but they’re often used mostly for the social dances, things like waltzes and marches and things like that that are done a lot in the Basque Country.

Jo Reed: What about the lyrics? What are the songs about typically? Is it about everyday things? Do they tend to take on more of a transcendent feel?

Dan Ansotegui: I would say before 1970 the lyrics were quite lighthearted. The main song that was sung to would have been the jota and the Porrusalda, which is the Basque version of the fandango and its counterpart, the Porrusalda. The Arin-arin is more typically found in the Basque country than any other part of Spain but it always has a verse and the verses are something that are typically something comical, kind of a take on something that happens in town. Basque is a really interesting language to rhyme because it’s built on suffixes so “to the store” rhymes with “to my house” or “to my home” or “to the football field” or anything because “to the” is the suffix and so and that happens with all prepositions. So, Basque is really easy to rhyme and so making up these verses as they go is really kind of a-- kind of customary. From the 1970s before that-- Basque was illegal to be spoken in public—

Jo Reed: In Spain.

Dan Ansotegui: Yes. That was under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and mid ‘70s they kind of loosened the grip on that and then you started to hear folk singers that came out and were singing really beautiful lyrics and melodies and much more poetic.

Jo Reed: Well, this might be a good time to hear some music. Can you do that now or do you prefer to do it later?

Dan Ansotegui: Sure, I’d be happy to do one.

Jo Reed: I’d love it. What did you bring?

Dan Ansotegui: So, I have my button accordion. This is one that—so I’ll play one that is a march or a bete lukete[ph?] and this is called “Bye, Bye Baby.” It’s a play on words; in Basque it means “Yes, Yes, Two Cows” and-- but here-- this is—

Jo Reed: I have to get—that was good.

Dan Ansotegui: This is an original tune. <plays music>       

Jo Reed: That was fabulous. The minute you started my foot is tapping away and I’m moving around. This music just begs to be danced to.

Dan Ansotegui: Great, and that’s-- and I think that’s kind of one of the things that we always keep in mind. I talk to my students a lot, the accordion students, and when I do cooking classes and when I do other talks about the Basques I always talk about that idea that we have to know the roots, we have to know the basis upon which we build, and then it’s okay as long as we keep a foot in that, and then when we have new ideas as long as they kind of come back to that basis we’re okay. And that’s really kind of how I feel our community here and our culture, being Basque and American, how it continues because if we just copy things it’s that copy of a copy and pretty soon after just a generation or two you just notice a big difference and things have changed for the worse. And we saw that happening here in Boise and with the program that Dr. Pat Bieter had in the town of Onati, probably over the five years that the program lasted there were somewhere around 150 young people that went back and really got to find out more about their roots and find out more about the Basque language and the Basque culture. And it seems to me like that was one of the big parts of how our culture here in Boise started to change to where we kind of have our own little Basque culture here in the Boise area.

Jo Reed: Culture needs to be vibrant and if it’s rigid as with anything rigid it can just snap and crack and break but the vibrancy and the suppleness and taking things in just allows it to thrive.

Dan Ansotegui: Exactly. I so agree with that.

Jo Reed: Were you always interested in the cultural work that you’re doing? Was there a period that you were less involved in actively participating in Basque culture or has that always been a part of your life?

Dan Ansotegui: It seems like one aspect or another has been whether it was through dance or playing music or cooking or having the restaurant, whatever aspect it was, but I don’t know how much I ever thought of it as doing something to spread the culture; it was just what I enjoyed to do. You know, just kind of when I fell into something I just kind of got really submersed in that and-- whether it was music or the restaurants or teaching or whatever it was and I was just-- it’s always been something that I did just because it was fun and I enjoyed it rather than with the pure intention of trying to spread the culture. I don’t think that’s ever really been too much of my main purpose; I think it’s just been a consequence of that.

Jo Reed: Let’s talk about food.

Dan Ansotegui: Good.

Jo Reed: What is distinctive about Basque cooking?

Dan Ansotegui: I’ve talked to a lot of people about that and listened to a lot of truly good cooks whether they’re home cooks or whether they’re chefs and it always seems to come down to the same thing. One thing that was always there was incredibly fresh and diverse food. The fishing off the coast of the Basque Country is cold-water fishing. The early Basques traveled to get the Atlantic cod, learned about drying and salting, and that became a huge staple in the food, but the Basques have never been one for a whole lot of spices and herbs. The simplest of spices and herbs are used in Basque cooking, salt, fresh garlic, parsley, a little bit of crushed red pepper, and that’s basically it, and everything is kind of built on that. I remember doing a cooking class at Boise State and somebody came through who was a writer-- a food writer and she came through and we were doing-- that night we were doing roasted lamb and it was a great class, it was a three-hour class. I would supply the food that we were going to cook-- we’d talk about it and we would prepare it and we’d sit down and eat and then kind of tell stories about similar kinds of food and then we would clean up and it was just a fantastic class. The food writer came in when we were doing roast lamb and all we did was the basic rub that my grandma, my mom’s mom, Epi Inchausti did, which was olive oil, fresh garlic and salt, and you make it into almost a paste and you rub that on the leg of lamb and then we would roast that lamb. We’d use the drippings from the pan and from that we made a sauce that was from the lamb so we didn’t make a sauce separately out of peppercorns and rosemary and things like that; the sauce came directly from the meat. And I think that’s really typical with Basque food, whether you’re doing fish, chicken, pork, beef, whatever it is that you’re doing, if you have a sauce, it’s quite simple and it’s made from the protein itself. And that’s what I remember a lot from most of that, fresh ingredients simply done and the main flavor that you taste is the ingredient. It’s not the sauce or the spice rub or anything else; the main thing is that main ingredient.

Jo Reed: I would think that as with the music the food would have to adapt too because you have different herbs here and different food. I don’t know much but I’m pretty sure there’s not a lot of cod in Idaho.

Dan Ansotegui: You’re very right, and when Grandma Epi who was my mom’s mom when she came over-- she cooked very little in the Basque Country, she was a seamstress, and she came over here and she was thrown into the cook job there at-- on the sheep ranch and so she kind of remembered some of the stuff that her mom had done but you’re right. She didn’t have the Basque peppers here; she didn’t have salt cod. They had beef, which they really didn’t have as much of back home; they had the freshwater trout and things like that they had that she had to adapt to. And so the things that she did here we see this birth of this ranch-style cooking here in the United States at the boarding houses that are found in Nevada and California and used to be in Idaho and you would see this style of cooking that really resembles-- almost resembles American ranch cooking. The really hearty soups and stews and meats but always done with kind of that Basque flair. And so that was kind of the Basque food that we grew up on and then to go back to the Basque country and see these beautiful fresh fish that they did and the use of pork that is so much more prevalent there than it is here and very little use of beef. And so anyway there were differences with the music and with the food as well with how those things changed here in the States.

Jo Reed: You mentioned going to the Basque Country when you were thinking about opening a restaurant. Did you do an apprenticeship around food the way you did with music?

Dan Ansotegui: Learning about food really wasn’t a true apprenticeship; it was-- really that was just going back and talking to the mothers of my friends and I would ask-- I would find out that Mrs. Etxeberria made the best garbanzo-bean soup and so I would talk to her and I’d say, “Next time you make it can I come hang out and can I just kind of watch what you’re doing?” and I would write everything down. And so, a lot of my learning of food was through that and also through a lady named Miren Bakene[ph?] who worked for me here in Boise at the Basque Market and I just followed her around like a little puppy trying to watch everything that she did and learn from her.

Jo Reed: I’m curious about how social the music and the dancing and I’d imagine the food and cooking as well and it just strikes me especially now when we’re in a time of on one hand we’re able to communicate so much easier than ever before. We all carry these little computers in our hands or smart phones and that’s great but it also is more isolating, and oddly enough I think in Idaho where the population is small nonetheless it’s coming together and this community builds through these cultural traditions because they’re so social.

Dan Ansotegui: Yes, I agree completely and I think the social aspect of it is what keeps it going. We haven’t had a whole lot of individual recording here in Idaho; we’ve done some but not a whole lot because most of our playing of music is done just in a social aspect. That idea of playing music perfectly and kind of getting to the point where you play it well enough to record it isn’t as important as just playing for the dancers that are right there in front of you and there are always dancers. So, I agree with you. I think a huge part of our culture is that social aspect and when that-- when it kind of separates itself from that and it becomes more academic or more historical then it changes –

Jo Reed: You’ve mentored several apprentices, a few handfuls, throughout your life. Can you tell me the value of that not just for them but for you as well?

Dan Ansotegui: Fortunately, because of the organizational skills of Jean Arraketi[ph?] and Anna Mendiola we have Txantxangorriak a button accordion group that I teach accordion and another gentleman and a lady teach tambourine and so within that group since we got together-- we started in 2001 and have had the support of the Basque people here in the valley, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the number of people that we’ve taught but I would guess that it’s probably-- over those 18 years or so-- around 40 people that have learned button accordion and probably another 40 that have learned tambourine. Of those I think we have I guess we’re closer to 20 that are active right now continuing to play and continuing to provide music for our dancers. And all of the dance groups in the area except for one their musicians are people that have come through our little button accordion group so it’s pretty amazing; we’re really happy to see that going on and it just seems as strong now as it was 30 years ago when I was growing up.

Jo Reed: Tell me what being named a 2019 NEA Heritage Fellow means to you.

Dan Ansotegui: Of course it was a big surprise at the very beginning and then it was really-- for a while it was quite embarrassing because I think of all of the people that have played such a huge role in Basque culture in this area alone and have not been recognized, and when you have people like Patty Miller that has been the Director of the Basque Museum and had other roles within that and really was responsible for the creation or-- the establishment of the Basque Block in downtown Boise and all those things that she’s done and we have people like Chris Bieter who’s coming back with me to perform in D.C. and just about every music project I’ve been part of Chris has been right there and I just see all these other things and that was really difficult. And my wife kind of helped me come to the conclusion that really it’s not about me; it’s really a representation of all those people within the community who have done so much and that’s easier for me to handle to try to think about it in that sense that I may be the one that’s being recognized but it’s really the work of all these other people that have made what we’re doing out in this area a success.

Jo Reed: I think it’s for you and the community. Dan, congratulations. I really look forward to meeting you at the National Heritage events here in Washington, DC.

Dan Ansotegui: Thank you very much, Josephine. We’re really happy to come out. I have I think 20 family members and friends that are coming out as well and we’re practicing hard to try to put on a good show.

Jo Reed: I wish you were cooking though.

Dan Ansotegui: <laughs> Well, I guess you’ll have to come out this way and have something. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Definitely. We can do it that way. Well listen, thank you.

That was 2019 National Heritage Fellow Basque musician and tradition bearer Dan Ansotegui.  If you want to see Dan Ansotegui perform and you’re in DC on Friday, September 20, come to a free concert that will feature music, art and stories from all of our 2019 National Heritage Fellows including Dan. It’s at Shakespeare Company’s Sidney Harman Hall and it begins at 8 pm. You can get more information at arts.gov. And if you can’t come to DC, please do not despair. You can watch a live webcast of the concert at arts.gov.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I want to thank Steven Hatcher, Folk and Traditional Arts Director, Idaho Commission on the Arts for his insights. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

2019 National Heritage Fellow Basque musician, teacher and restauranteur Dan Ansotegui brings his passion for the Basque culture into everything he does. But he also sees culture as a breathing entity—not something set in amber. The roots of the tree may come from the Basque Region, but those leaves are growing in Boise, Idaho. Ansotegui is a great talker. In this podcast, ­learn about Basque music, dancing, and food (he does it all!) and the deep social connections these traditions give a community.