TELLARIN (Mutil-dantza)

Musicians: Javier Larralde (txistua) and Patxi Larralde (atabala)

Arizkun, 1999

Xoriane mutil-dantza. Javier Larralde (txistua) eta Patxi Larralde (atabala). Arizkun, 1999.


The txistu is a one handed three-hole fipple flute, and thus an aerophone.

Description of the instrument

The txistu is a straight three-hole flute that is played with one hand. These three holes are located in the lower part of the tube, two in front and one behind.

According to written documentation, in the past the txistus were made of bone or wood, like the current xirula.

Although lately plastic and metal are also used, the txistus are originally made of wood. Today ebony and granadillo woods brought from Africa are used and hence the black color we know. Before, however, they were made of native wood, such as boxwood, and that is why old whistles had a yellowish color. The wooden tube is protected and decorated with metal rings. The mouthpiece and the bezel plate are also made of metal. It has a ring attached to the metal reinforcement at the bottom end that serves to insert the ring finger and hold the whistle.

Although the txistu is a bit conical on the outside, on the inside it has a cylindrical tube, like that of other common flutes.

Way of playing

The txistulari plays the txistu with one hand and the tambourine hanging from his arm with the other. In this way, a single musician provides the rhythm and melody of the music at the same time.

The instrument gives a two-octave diatonic scale with its natural fingering, but covering half of the holes and closing the bottom hole of the tube with the little finger can give a chromatic scale.


The txistu is the most widespread and well-known instrument of Basque popular music. One of the clearest examples is found in the article "Materials for the preparation of a census of popular musicians ..." by Jesús Ramos (1990). Most of the musicians on the list, which has about a thousand musicians who attended the Pamplona feasts in the 18th century, are txistularis from different regions of the Basque Country, the majority from Gipuzkoa and Navarra.

Something very curious happens with the of txistu. In the writings of until the XIX century this does not appear. J. I. Iztueta and Humboldt, for example, use the word “silbo” in Spanish and “txilibitu” in Basque to designate the txistu, and call the performer Tanbolinterua-Danbolinterua or jular-juggler. We do not know for sure since when it would be given the of txistu, which is so widespread today, but we do know that this was already widely used at the beginning of the 20th century.

Although melodies of songs can be found in the repertoire of popular txistularis, they especially play melodies for dancing. The repertoire of these musicians is nourished by the dance music of pilgrimages, squares and rituals. Academically trained txistularis have a wide repertoire of concert pieces.

We have abundant and ancient documentation on the history of this instrument. Some thought that the first trace was the bone txilibitu found by the archaeologist Emmanuel Passermard in 1921 in the "Laminazilo" cave in Izturitz (Baxe-Nafarroa), which according to experts dates back to about 25,000 years ago. Three holes are visible, all three on the same side. The bone is broken at the third hole and it is the only piece that remains. Others of us thought it was not at all clear that it was a three-hole flute (some of those American flutes have all three holes in the front) or it would have had more holes in the missing part. Later, in the excavations carried out in that cave, many other similar flutes have appeared that have clearly n us that they are flutes without four-holes and no mouthpiece. Therefore, today we know that the first flute that appeared in Isturitz was not the same type as the txistu. What we know is that txistu music has been heard by Basques for many generations.

J. Mariano Barrenetxea (1984) collected very interesting information on the use of bone txistu in Gorbeialdea:

María Jesús Ingunza, 90, from the Baltzola neighborhood of Dima, ed us a wooden txistu similar to the xirula and told us that in the past everything had been made of bone. She also told us that the basketmaker from the Ziarrusta neighbourhood played a bone whistle similar to them (p. 21).

Leandro Lejarda, 80, from the Lexarda farmhouse in the Uribe neighboruhood, told us that Antonio Etxeberria, from the Zuloa de Uribe farmhouse, had two bone whistles (shorter than those of today) and that sometimes he played both at the same time doing first and second: "Two whistles at the same time he played. He gave the high and the low. They were wooden whistles, but those of today are shorter. I don't know if the holes were three, but I imagine, because he played them like those of today. "(p. 21).

Albokari J. M. Bilbao from Arratia (born 1886) also told us that he had met a shepherd from Ubidia who had a “three-hole vulture bone txistu, and he played really well” (p. 22).

In the same book we find information about the use of bone txistu in Navarra: In 1959 J. Cruz balda, from the Navarrese town of Ezkurra, told us that they had a bone txistu at home (p. 22).

It has been regularly played in towns, in environments where in some cases ancient pre-Christian cultures, customs and beliefs are maintained. As we see in ancient documents, the txistulari was intimately linked to the society of their environment and participated with their music in the life of the people; in activities related to work, parties, dance, social celebrations, etc. (P. Donostia, 1952):

The drummer used to act as a watchman in the ports, calling with a special pattern to the sailors when a whale appeared in view, so that they could prepare the boats to hunt it down (268).

In 1749 the txistu was used to redouble the effort of those who built the ball court of Oyarzun, one hundred and eighty people, «to which the tambourines and drums contributed a lot, which with their continuous noise encouraged and encouraged them, so that It cost less than 80 pesos all that apparatus and work, having entered it about 4,000 people »(p. 269).

The txistu was used in Lequeitio in 1573 to revive the spirit of the town, terrified by a plague of nine months, in each of which seventy to eighty people died. "I paid Domingo de Licona, tambourine, for which he served with the said office of tambourine all the time of the said illness so that they would not feel it, 8 reales" (p. 268).

In 1823 a French traveler claims to have ever encountered a procession that was heading to a wedding, carrying the chirola and the drum before them; he led in triumph a calf adorned with ribbons and bows, which was destined to be sacrificed for the nuptial feast (p.269).

We could cite many examples of this type to learn about the role and social situation of the txistulari.

But not everything has always been sweet and pleasant for the txistularis. Although at present they maintain in most cases good relations with the Church and official institutions, throughout history they have suffered severe marginalization on many occasions, since they participated and directed some dances, acts (often considered pagans) and other ancient customs.

Here are some examples that appear throughout history, mostly taken from the book "Musical Instruments ..." by Fr. Donostia (1952):

The drummer's social disregard came to be extended to his families. Thus we know that comm was once denied to a drummer's son. To the drummer who did not want to leave his office and even break his instruments so as not to leave the slightest doubt about giving up his office, there were censors, confessors who denied absolution and did not allow him to comply with Easter. Some of these confessors demanded that his instruments be burned (p. 266).

There is in El Guipuzcoano Instruido (11) a note that says: «Honorary positions. Ordinance whose confirmation the Board agrees to in the Council so that the active or passive voice in their elections is never admitted in any of the Republics. Any drummer, who is currently a drummer, has not previously been a salaried worker, nor a drummer, a butcher or a town crier, not only of those who at election time are exercising similar trades, but even those who have been in any previous time »( from the year 1760) (pp. 265-266).

In Valmaseda they used to spend important sums in paying the atabalero, for having to bring them from outside, "because those of the town, having a low office and opposed to the Biscayan nobility, did not lend themselves to it" (p. 266).

This malfeasance to the drummer confirms the circumstance that the agotes (people separated from the town and despised) could be drummers, although they were forbidden to dance and play with the other neighbours (p. 266).

In the trial of the Holy Inquisition to the witches, held in Hondarribia in 1611, it appears:

It is always the man who appears playing the tambourine. Sometimes, rarely, the woman. Thus, in a trial of witches on May 6, 1611, in Fuenterrabía, a confession by Isabel de Arano appears, claiming to have seen "Inesa de Gaxen, French, Pedro de Sanza's wife, who played a tambolin" (p. 268).

Reading this confession, we do not know exactly why they accused her and acted against her, if because women were forbidden to play the txistu and tambourine, or because actually playing them was a sin, or for two reasons.

As you can see, the txistu has come a long and wide path in our history and as it has been widespread for a long time, although apparently it is one, there are many variants and styles to play and with it, there are notable differences in ution, repertoire and function of the txistularis. However, we could distinguish two main styles: one "rural-popular" (from rural areas) and another "urban-academic" (from urban centers).

It is difficult to know when is the txistulari of school or academic musical training, since when is he considered a "cult" musician in the cities and large towns. He appears in many medieval iconographic data, generally within a courtly environment, alone or in a group with other sound instruments. It should not be forgotten that at that time and later, there was a strong cultural Renaissance movement throughout Europe and that this type of sound instruments (tambourin) were widely used.

From the 18th century we have a lot of very detailed information. These txistularis play dances and concerts of the time, alone or in a group. Its repertoire includes works of violins and other instruments, as well as dances and rhythms that were fashionable in those days in "cultured" and street settings: minuets, counterpasses, polkas, waltzes, habaneras, etc. These great txistularis achieved great virtuosity. About the txistulari Baltasar de Manteli, from Vitoria, it is said (Donostia, 1952):

Of Baltasar de Manteli, a native of Vitoria (1748-1831), it is said that he had such skill that he could play two whistles at the same time, and in this way pieces of great difficulty; for example, some variations on the theme "Oh cara harmonio de Il Flauto Magico", by Mozart (p. 263).

Also outside of Euskal Herria, in the salons of the Madrid aristocracy, for example, they played demonstrating their ability (Donostia, 1952):

Formerly, that is, one hundred and fifty or more years ago, there must also have been, according to Iztueta (1767-1845). He quotes Vicente Ibarguren, a minstrel from San Sebastián, who performed in Madrid, with the txistu, a violin concerto. Perhaps it was this same txistulari, Vicente, who went to Madrid led by the Duke of Medinaceli and enthused his listeners in an aristocratic room, playing the melody of the "Ezpata-Dantza".

Zamacola claims to have known two txistularis that made the musicians of the Royal Chapel admire, a group considered to be the most competent in music (p. 263).

In the main capitals and towns of the Basque Country, txistularis are the official groups of Provincial Councils and Town Halls that accompany the corporation in its presentations, religious processions and of another type, to welcome the personalities that came from outside, in addition to playing music at other events and concerts.

As we mentioned at the beginning, these two styles "popular" and "academic" have been the most prominent among the txistularis, but since the limits the two styles were not completely fixed, there were also those who acted to one degree or another in both .

There are differences of character, even when forming a group, since we see that many "formulas" have been used depending on what was around them. These are some of the musical groups that have formed the txistularis throughout history:

  • The txistu and the tambourine (it appears with s such as tambourine, tambourine, tambourine, tambolitero, etc.) played in unison by a single musician has been one of the most common forms in which this musician is presented. In many documents the denomination of "psalter" appears and we suppose that in those cases the txistu would be accompanied by the string drum.
  • Txistu y salterio - "Chun chun" (see works by Jesús Ramos 1990 and Humboldt)
  • Whistle and tambourine.
  • Txistu-tambourine and atabal accompanying the rhythm.
  • Two txistu-tambourines (in duet, we suppose) and sometimes with the help of the atabal.
  • Txistu-tambourine and rabel (tambourine and rabete).

Although we do not know when it was formed, a fixed group appeared from the beginning of the 19th century, which we can consider the classic group of txistularis: txistu 1, txistu 2 (both with tambourine), whistle and atabal, a quartet that has survived to our times.

This type of group gained a lot of strength at the beginning of the 20th century and continues today with little change as an official group of txistu. Most of the large municipalities and Provincial Councils of Hego Euskal Herria have an official group of this type at their service. They offer numerous concerts and dance sessions throughout the year. We do not consider as a group the "displays" or concentrations of txistularis that have been done so many times throughout the 20th century to the present day and that have become common, since their harmonic and musical forms are based on scores and arrangements for the aforementioned quartet.

Current situation

In recent years, with the aim of expanding the possibilities of the txistu group, whistles of different dimensions have been created at the level of experimentation, as well as, increasingly, other instruments have been used with the txistularis groups.

On the other hand, the study of txistu has reached full official status (including the chair) and txistu is taught in most of the Schools and Conservatories of Music. In addition, with new books and study methods, the txistularis get an increasingly better technique. The tuning has also improved a lot; nowadays there are no obstacles to playing along with other txistus or any other instrument. For this reason, we predict a good future for txistu.



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