Alan Griffin obituary: Musician who opened a bridge between Irish and Basque cultures

When his band Alboka was formed, there were fewer than 10 people living who could still play the eponymous instrument. The only problem was, he wasn’t one of them

Born: January 22nd, 1952

Died: December 5th, 2023

Alan Griffin, who was born in Ennis, Co Clare in 1952 and died on December 5th in the Basque town of Astigarraga, made exceptionally important contributions to the traditional music of his adopted country, and opened up very fruitful channels of communication between Irish and Basque culture.

By his own wryly self-deprecating account, he had very limited musical ability when he came to Donostia-San Sebastián in 1984, pursuing a doctorate on the novelist Pío Baroja.

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Sure, he played the tin whistle – but what Clareman doesn’t? – and perhaps he could manage a tune or three on the flute. But he had no ambition to become a public performer, much less a composer, researcher and populariser of international distinction. Yet by 2004 the German magazine Folkworld rated Lau Anaiak, by Griffin’s band Alboka, as a top 10 international album of the year.

His transition was all the more remarkable in that he achieved it not only in a rather arcane musical idiom, and largely on an almost-forgotten instrument, but also through much original research in the famously difficult Basque language, Euskera.

Moreover, his quiet musical triumphs had to fit around a busy day job. Like so many Irish people abroad, Griffin became a teacher of English as a foreign language. He became the codirector of a much-appreciated language school in Hernani.

This small town had the unfortunate reputation of being an epicentre of the violent conflict that so bitterly divided the Basque Country until quite recently. But to him, and to his Irish business partner Joe Linehan, it was simply home. He made a good life in neighbouring Astigarraga with his Basque wife, Kontxi Irizar.

Griffin always claimed that his route into Basque music was determined by a stereotypical assumption made by his Basque friends. If he was Irish, they insisted, he must be able to play music. So the tin whistle began to come out at convivial dinners, a sacred local ritual. And long before “Irish” pubs were commercialised, Griffin had been organising Irish-style music sessions in Basque bars in several towns, introducing local audiences to our cultural traditions.

On one occasion, he played when the Basque band Ganbara were introducing their Irish friends in De Dannan to the delights of dry Basque cider and superb Basque food, while swapping tune upon tune. That night changed Griffin’s life: the accomplished and much loved singer-songwriter Txomin Artola heard him playing. He promptly invited Griffin, and Ganbara’s accordionist Joxan Goikoetxea, to participate with the exquisite vocalist Amaia Zubiria in his new venture, Folk Lore Sorta.

This project produced three influential and popular albums, reviving traditional Basque songs. Griffin’s musical engagement with Basque culture deepened with each one.

Griffin next formed a new band, Alboka, initially also featuring Artola, in which Griffin and Goikoetxea became the driving forces. Again, the motivation was rediscovering lost repertoires, though Alboka’s focus was at first instrumental rather than lyrical.

The alboka is a venerable Basque wind instrument, using a unique stop configuration. When the band was formed, there were fewer than 10 people living who could still play it, with a repertoire of barely 20 pieces. Griffin said they chose the band’s name purely for marketing purposes – it was both distinctively Basque and easily pronounced by international audiences, whom they were soon attracting in concerts on three continents. Only as they were finishing their first album did they realise they had better use an alboka on at least one track. As the wind instrumentalist, that task fell to Griffin.

He took to this chance pairing with relish and dedication. Alboka produced four more albums foregrounding the instrument, and Griffin also formed another band, Aintzina, recovering old Basque narrative songs, but also creating new pieces that he composed for the alboka.

He also plunged into research, publishing a remarkable book in 2016, in Basque, Spanish and English, Halfway to Hell, with 333 melodies for the alboka, including his own compositions, one of them a satire on Celtic Tiger Ireland, written in Euskera. There are now more than 150 alboka players in the Basque Country, and some further afield, with a vastly increased repertoire. This can be very largely credited to this emigrant Irishman.

Griffin spent summers in Clare, frequently playing in sessions there. Irish musicians often collaborated on his recordings, including Cormac Breathnach and, especially, the late Fiachra Mac Gabhan, a stalwart of the band, especially on Alboka’s last album, Lurra, Ur, Haize (2017).

This album is rich and dense, musically and lyrically. Reflecting the complex conflict in the Basque Country, from the Spanish Civil War to the recent past, it represents, as Griffin told The Irish Times, both the need for reconciliation and the need for accountability, on all sides.

Goikoetxea, Griffin’s long-term collaborator, commemorated him on social media with lines from Xabier Lizardi’s poem Bihotzean min dut:

“I have a heavy heart ... / The happy bird, at the end of the summer, / Meets winter with an impossible loss.”

Breathnach remembers him thus: “I was immediately struck by his sincerity and calm nature; he was very humble about his extensive knowledge about music and literature. He was a fine human being: ‘fear uasal ab ea é’”.

Juan Mari Beltran, veteran musician and doyen of Basque music studies, paid tribute to Griffin’s “superb judgement”, and for his “opening windows so that the breezes of the Irish landscapes could refresh our repertoire. For his interpretations and compositions, Basque music will always be grateful for the legacy Alan has left us.”

Griffin is survived by his wife, Kontxi Irizar, daughter Fiona, brothers Hugh and Brian, in-laws in both families, and many nieces, nephews, and friends.

Memorial celebrations of Alan Griffin’s work, with Irish and Basque music and dancing from friends and family, will be held at the Roadside Tavern in Lisdoonvarna on February 17th, 2024