Los Xey, from the Basque Country to Broadway… and Back

by Harri X. Fernandez Iturralde

Between 1940 and 1961 the Basque ensemble composed more than 200 songs and performed in the leading theaters of the Basque Country, Spain, Latin America and the USA.

We can say it load and clear, and without fear of exaggeration, that there is currently no Basque musical ensemble that has achieved what Los Xey achieved in just 20 years: a crescendo that began by winning over the theaters of the Basque Country and that later led them to achieve success in the leading auditoriums of Spain, Europe, Latin America and finally, the United States. Although the name Los Xey comes from the Basque name of the original number of musicians in the group, sei (six), the group that became well-known was actually made up of five members. Four of them, Xabin Olascoaga, Xipri Larrañaga, Txiki Lahuerta and Txomin Arrasate, were singers, while the fifth, Pepito Yanci, played the accordion as accompaniment. And what did they bring to the stage? Satirical compositions of light comedy in which a cappella singing and polyphony stood out, and besides the accompaniment of Yanci’s accordion, their shows included piano and later on bands. Their career and achievements have recently been the focus of a documentary written and directed by Eneko Olasagasti and David Berraondo and entitled Los Xey, una historia de película, (Los Xey, a Real Movie Story) that was presented in October at the Seminci Film Festival in Valladolid and from that date had its commercial premiere in top cinemas across the Basque Country.

Poster announcing the film by Olasagasti and Barraondo. Sincro

Los Xey emerged in 1940 in San Sebastian once the Spanish Civil War ended, a conflict that devastated the cultural infrastructures developed in the Second Republic. Among the groups that did not give up, a double vocal trio was formed, which managed to fill “an open space in entertainment”, with members from the Easo Choir and the Schola Cantorum, rounding out two key figures: Víctor García and the pianist Guillermo Lazcano. Both would leave the group in a short period of time. In 1941 the double vocal trio became Los Xey, a group that obtained its first great success at the Victoria Eugenia Theater, at a concert in which they dazzled the cuplé singer Celia Gámez, an artist close to the Franco regime who decided to take them on tour in Spain. It was the beginning of their professionalization and a journey that would take them to several corners of the world.

The musicologist and former director of the Basque Music Archive, Eresbil, Jon Bagüés, is one of those who knows the trajectory of this group the best and points out several reasons for its success. First of all, he mentions the era in which the group emerged, marked by the end of the Civil War and the outbreak of the Second World War. In fact, in its journey through Europe we can highlight a performance in Latvia for the wounded of the Blue Division, although they also sang in France and Germany. Their “light comedy”, their “enormous musical quality”, and their presence in radio, cinema and later, television, would complete the keys to their great success. “They were accomplished singers who got together with experienced arrangers and thus achieved a very clean, tuned, toned sound of great musical quality,” says the expert. This point is another that brings out the greatness of the group, since its members were well versed in cultured music but shifted their expertise to popular music.

In addition to the names of the members that have remained for history, Bagüés points out three names from its beginnings worth remembering. Juanito Urteaga, Ignacio María de Lojendio and, of course, Guillermo Lazcano, three musicians who accompanied the singers on piano. Lazcano, who only remained in the group until 1942, was the one who proposed the harmonization style of Los Xey. When he finally left the group to focus on his career in Madrid, others continued his legacy: Txomin Arrasate, first, and then Xipri Larrañaga, who would ultimately be in charge of the musical direction, and of course, Pepito Yanci with the accordion. These were the ones who “from the shadows” gave “color” to the songs thanks to their work with the vocal harmonization.

At El Chico Cabaret in New York. Sincro

From Local to Universal

In 20 years, Los Xey composed 207 songs. “They did light comedy,” recalls Bagüés. “They didn’t get into politics, they didn’t talk about sex,” to avoid Franco’s censorship. However, that same “light comedy” which did not deal with complex issues but apparently served them precisely to avoid direct reference. One of their most famous songs, Buen Menú, (Good Menu) which made it to cinema in a scene in the film Yo no me caso, by Juan Orduña (1944), served to talk about a society that was experiencing hunger. Buen Menú is, in fact, more than an example of light comedy, “an exercise in dark humor”, the enumeration of a series of succulent dishes that the public wanted to dream about. “What people wanted at that time was joy and what Los Xey did was to give people a desire to live and songs that made life much more bearable,” says Bagüés.

Nevertheless, a group that could have seemed just local, responding to the reality of a Francoist society became universal thanks to its adaptive capacity. In 1946 they crossed the Atlantic on a merchant ship and arrived in Argentina, where they were received by the Basque community in exile. What was going to be a six-month tour became an eight-year tour of the main countries of that continent. Los Xey made their mark and filled theaters in Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba. They achieved such fame that in some of those territories they rubbed shoulders with the main political classes and in Cuba, they even came to act in the most prominent cabarets, the ones controlled by the Mafia. It is at this time when, in order to connect with the genuinely Latin American public, they expand their repertoire and begin to recover tunes from their popular music such as Cielito Lindo.

In the 21st century the importance of acting on Broadway is well-known, something that Los Xey did in the early 50s, more than 70 years ago. After triumphing in Cuba, the “logical leap,” says Bagüés, was to perform in the well-known theaters of New York. “Looking at it with some perspective you realize that there were five who left Donostia in the 40s, from an absolutely precarious situation. But that shows the group’s incredible quality, because Broadway producers never gave anything away. Clearly, they didn’t hire them because they were Basque,” the expert chuckles.

Scene from the film Habanera (1958). Mercury Films

The Importance of Radio, Records, Film and Television

After the Civil War, radio became the main means of communication in homes and Los Xey became more than regular guests on programs with live performances. What’s more, once the dictatorship was established, the record industry was also gaining momentum, which led Los Xey to release many singles that were also played on the radio. “Keep in mind that they did not survive many years as a group, only 21, but we all know some song by Los Xey. Nowadays you listen to any of their recordings and you are amazed with the quality of their voices,” argues Bagüés. But their presence on the radio was not limited only to their musical performances. In the 50s they were in high demand to design and compose advertising jingles for the main brands that were advertised on the radio, with Xipri Larrañaga as one of the authors of many of these ads: “They did a wide variety of ads and their sound really stuck in people’s heads.”

Another of the media that helped the dissemination of their music was cinema. The filmmaker José Luis Sáenz Heredia, for example, captured the essence of their performances on the radio stations in the film Historias de la radio (1955), in which the San Sebastian group performed another of its greatest hits, Oh, Pepita. Their participation in the seventh art did not stop there. In addition to those mentioned, they also acted, among others, in La Habanera, by José María Elorrieta, in 1959. There was a total of ten films displaying their music and image, five filmed in Spain and another five in Mexico.

It was also in Mexico where their performances gained notable exposure due to their participation in television programs. Although it was the early 50s, in line with their passage through Broadway, when Los Xeys peaked. They were invited to act in two television programs and as many radio programs of the CBS network with such repercussion that, according to media of the time, a large group of Americans were waiting for them at the entrance of the stations asking for autographs.

The movie Nuestras Vidas (Mexico 1949). Athos Overseas

The Return Home and the End

The 50s were Los Xey’s most successful decade, but also the beginning of the end. On one hand, in 1954, after their first return from America, there was the first major change in the group, Txomin Arrasate was replaced by Xipri Larrañaga. The group endured the change well, however, after a last trip to Cuba at the end of that decade, a country they had to leave in 1959 after the revolution, Txiki Lahuerta announced that he was leaving the group due to exhaustion. The abandonment of Lahuerta, who weighed heavily in the quintet, was one of the two factors that led the group to schedule their farewell tour. The external reason, on the other hand, had to do with the movement of new musical styles that in the 60s began to sweep among the new generations such as punk or new styles of rock n’ roll. “Los Xey no longer had the strength they had 20 years before to face this new reality.” In the 60s, in the Basque Country, other groups endured that followed in the wake of this group. This is the case of Los Cinco Bilbainos in Bilbao or Los Iruñako in Pamplona. But none came close to the success of Los Xey, an immortal group that after 1961 never reunited to perform again, although many of their songs have remained in the musical memory of several generations.

Los Xey at a concert in Barcelona. Sincro

About the Author

Harri X. Fernandez Iturralde
Harri X. Fernandez Iturralde is a journalist for the Culture section of the newspaper Noticias de Gipuzkoa, with a Master in journalism specialized in research, data and visualization. @harrifernandez

Be the first to comment on "Los Xey, from the Basque Country to Broadway… and Back"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.