The alboka is a small wind instrument native to the Basque Country. It is comprised of two melody tubes that each have a single reed. One of the tubes has three holes while the other has five, and they sound in unison or in harmony depending on the notes being played. The tubes are held together by a handle made of hard wood, with a mouth piece and resonating bell on either end of the handle. The mouth piece is made from either a section of cow horn or wood and acts as a wind cap and housing for the reeds, while also offering protection. The resonating bell is made of a longer section of cow horn and acts as an amplifier for the instrument.
One of the unique qualities of the Alboka is that it is played using circular breathing. The player exhales through the mouth while simultaneously breathing in through the nose to produce a continuous and uninterrupted sound, much like a bagpipe. The instrument can be thought of as a droneless, bagless bagpipe.
Albokas are generally pitched in A, with a range of 6 notes available (A,B,C,D,E,#F). However what it lacks in melodic range it compensates for in personality. As written by Alan Griffin, the Basque language has been compared to a hedgehog and the same metaphor can be used for the Alboka: small, spiky, low on fancy and finesse, but full of individuality.
The name Alboka is similar to the Spanish name for flute, albogue, and may have be derived from the Arabic word “al-buk” for horn. It is an ancient instrument that has been cited in Spanish book as far back as the 13th century and also included in medieval church decorations. The Alboka was commonly found the in provinces of Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Alava, and Navarre, but never had the popularity of the accordion or pandero. The Alboka suffered a drop in popularity and was down to only a few players in Biscay and Gipuzkoa by the 1970s. It was because of these players carrying on the tradition that it was not lost and the Alboka was able to experience the very successful revival it has today.
There are more Alboka payers today than at any point in history. Today, the Alboka is mostly played in Spain and certain parts of South America, with some of the most notable players being Ibon Koteron and Alan Griffin. The Alboka is also being incorporated into modern bands such as Kalakan and Garilak 26, where it is accompanied by accordion, drums and electric guitars.
Traditionally albokas were made by each individual player and this caused deviations in the tuning, making playing with other instruments very difficult. Jose Antonio Osses is an incredibly talented luthier from Otazu who has contributed a lot to the standardization of today’s albokas and played a big part in the revival of the Alboka today. Jose Antonio Osses also makes albokas in alternative tunings, D and G, and introduced synthetic reeds.