Snagging an interview with one of the nine National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship award recipients can be a challenge, especially if that person is Dan Ansotegui.
Ansotegui is receiving the award for being a “Basque musician and tradition bearer” — (his mastery of the button accordion and his contributions to the Basque community and the community in Boise and Idaho at large). He is also the on- and off-site catering director of the restaurant Txikiteo (say: chee-kee-tay-o), named from “a Basque word denoting a pub crawl or stroll with friends to partake in coffee, tapas, and wine,” according to the website. Ansotegui also coordinates catering by Txikiteo at Txoko, the new event space in the Watercooler Building.
When I went to Txikiteo on Monday, my first hurdle was getting across Main Street in Boise which was under construction. Secondly, no sooner did we sit down with Steven Hatcher from the Idaho Commission on the Arts at an outside patio table — a yard crew, including two roaring mowers, rolled onto the scene.
But no matter. Over the din and after it quickly passed, we did what Ansotegui has become so eloquently proficient at doing, and with a lot of practice, too: we conversed, communicated, laughed. He told me a number of things and said some names I necessarily needed to be spelled out — those vexing Basque words! — and we sipped perfect espresso out of tiny cups.
Hatcher said Ansotegui’s award has been in the works for years. That is, the Idaho Commission on the Arts began nominating him years ago for the the National Heritage Fellowship award.
“It’s a huge process,” Hatcher said. “There’s 150 names and they pick nine of those every year.”
This year, along with eight others in the U.S., Ansotegui will collect the award, the country’s highest honor for folk and traditional arts practitioners.
Since the fellowship began in 1982, only five Idahoans have received the honor. Serendipitously, Jimmy Jausoro who received the award in 1985, was not only another Basque accordionist, like Ansotegui — he was also Ansotegui’s mentor. And, Jausoro and Ansotegui’s father, Domingo, played in a band together, learning their traditions in boardinghouses and bars from Boise to Nevada to California. Sometimes, with their families in tow.
Ansotegui remembers how it all began for him, his love of music and playing. “My dad played accordion when we were growing up,” Ansotegui said, “and the band would rehearse at our house. ... They played below my bedroom; we’d go to bed upstairs falling asleep to it.”
Later, when the band would travel they’d bring the family along. “In Elko and Ely the guys would make me a pillow out of their coats … and I’d just stay there,” Ansotegui said.
Another serendipitous moment came in 1990, during “one of the Jaialdis,” Ansotegui said. “I was the driver for one of the bands.” Turns out, one of the members of the band was Joseba Tapia, the champion button accordion player in the Basque country that year, and “he and I became good friends.”
A couple of years later, Ansotegui took a trip to the Basque country. “I took four lessons from him … got an accordion and taught myself the rest,” he said. “I could kinda read the music because I took trumpet in high school.”
The button accordion is different than the piano accordion, said Ansotegui, in more than just how the two look. While the piano accordion is based on the piano, the button accordion is based on the harmonica.
“The button accordion is basically grabbing a harmonica and putting bellows on it,” he said.
It also creates “more of a staccato note,” Ansotegui said. “It’s great for dancing.” But, he added, it is limited — “it can’t play in every key.”
From Tejano to TexMex, Zydeco to Cajun, the accordion has helped facilitate in bringing these various music styles together and blending them. And, in bringing them into Basque music.
“It brought the idea of world music into Basque music and vice versa,” Ansotegui said, explaining that when he and his bands play, “the basis for everything we do comes from Basque roots — and then we go from there.”
When Ansotegui got the phone call from U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson informing him of getting the prestigious award, he at first thought it was a robo call.
“I didn’t think it was him — I thought it was a robot,” he said. “He told me I had received the fellowship … we had a nice conversation.”
Ansotegui said he’s usually not much interested in awards for himself.
“I have to look at it as representing the community,” he said. “Of all the things I’ve been involved with, it’s never been on my own. … As a kid, as a dancer, at Bar Gernika and at The Basque Market and now here … my staff and my family … and each one of the music things, with Chris Bieter or Sean Aucutt or both. Anything I’ve ever done, it’s always with a large group of people.
“This award is for all of them. I couldn’t have done any of it without them.”
Ansotegui said for the event in Washington, D.C., he will be performing along with Chris Bieter on guitar, Oliver Thompson playing the violin and Sean Aucutt on tambourine.
There will also be four dancers, “ a niece and nephew and my two kids,” he said.
And all of the songs they perform are original, “either Chris Bieter or I wrote. We only have eight minutes on stage.”
Ansotegui shakes his head, smiling.
“It’s just such an incredible honor.”
Editor's note: An earlier edition of this story incorrectly listed Dan Ansotegui as the owner of Txikiteo. Elizabeth Tullis is the owner.