Improvisational Basque verse
BERTSOLARI is the artist in Basque society who is capable of
improvising Basque verse on any subject spontaneously and setting it
Such a sung
piece of composition is called a bertso, the person who sings
it is called a bertsolari and the art of composing bertsos is
Bertso Jaialdia (SF 2010)
Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe's Shooting From the Lip: Improvised
Traditionally, the bertsolari has been regarded as the most Basque among
the Basques for his/her art is inextricably linked to the language, and
it has never been any other way.
comes to the language, the bertsolari is the ultimate authority.
H/she may not have a university degree, but there is no grammarian,
linguist, or writer who know the intricacies of the Basque language like
him/her. More precisely, the bertsolari knows the Basque soul
better than anyone else and can reach the Basque mind with a straight
bertsolari were generally known by their nickname, usually
coming from the family house or farm. Any list of
extraordinary bertsolari would include Fernando Aire
(1920-76)who was from Urepel, Benafarroa, but he went by the
name of "Xalbador" after his family home name. His
long-time singing partner was Mattin Treku Inhargue (1916-81).
They traveled here together in 1960 and while singing in San
Francisco their bertso saioa (song session) was interrupted and
this mishap got some Basques to thinking about starting their
own Basque club.
past the bertsolari figure was intimately tied to the Basque peasant
people, the baserritarrak (the backcountry villagers) or laboriak, the
farmers. [Whereas today its stronghold is in the urban areas.] If
Basques lacked the written variety of literature, not so the oral, which
is comparable to any other in Europe in quality and quantity.
bertso is the exact opposite of the painstakingly though-out and
rehearsed thirty-second media ads we watch everyday on TV. It is
also quite unlike poetry written on a piece of paper. Like life
itself, they are a "one-try" art with no second chance.
things Basque, the origins of bertsolartiza is unknown.
One early historical reference is from the 6th century when it
seems that a bertsolari interrupted St. Amandus' missionary
attempt among Iparralde ("northern side" or French) Basques.
bertsolari is not:
__not a simple troubadour
__not a minstrel
__was not an educated poet
__not a mere songster
__not an actor
improvising poets must do their work in a hurry, they cannot be bothered
by all the grammar rules, which are often broken. Bertsolariak
know when to break or bend grammar rules, and when not to.
However, even they must abide by some basic rules by which the art is
judged. For example, a) they must adhere to rhythm, b) the poetry
must rhyme--usually the even lines--and c) this must be done in song.
predicament of bertsolariak is not enviable. First, they must
stand in front of an
eager public, who at the same time is also their judge. One
thing they cannot afford is to be nervous or uptight. Their
greatest asset, therefore, consists in being plaza gizona (a man who is
comfortable in public).
__ mastery of the Basque
__ a love of the art form of bertsolaritza
__ a creative mind and imagination
__ a very good memory
__ quick mental reflexes
__ sense of humor
__ ability to perform in front of others
Today the art
form is more structured with championships and schools that
teach the basics. Andoni Egana was awarded four txapela.
knows when the bertsolari art originated. In the old days, it was
thought that one is born a bertsolari. You cannot learn this
trade, they said. But in the last decades that theory has been
disproved; women, young people, and even children in Euskal Herria
improvise poetry now.
champion Maialen Lujanbio, the first woman winner (2009).
This national level event comes around every four years.
Behind her at left is Andoni Egana, the former four-time winner.
Watch her "Agurra" (farewell) video at
Bertsolari are called upon
to compose and sing different kinds of bertsos by the
gai-jartzaile, the "subject setter". The
gai-jartzaile informs the bertsolari(s) of the type
of challenge, which tune they have to use, and the metre.
Some common bertso challenges include:
"The Initial Greeting": the bertsolari has to
address the audience at the start of the day's
competition, usually with a free choice of metre and
"Prison Cell Task": the bertsolari has to compose
and sing a bertso to a given topic.
"Conversation": two bertsolaris have to deal with
the topic together, singing the stanzas in turns and
responding to the previous statement. Again the
topic is given.
"Point Given": the jartzaile sings a
and the bertsolari has to complete it, staying
within the given tune and metre.
"Word Given": the jartzaile gives a key word
to the bertsolari who has to compose a bertso
containing this word.
"Rhymes Given": the bertsolari is given the four (or
more, depending on the metre required) rhyming words
and is required to compose the bertso "around" these
"The Winner's Farewell": here the bertsolari is
allowed to compose their farewell to the audience.
Some are born bertsolari, while
others learn. Today the art form is seeing a resurgence
with youngsters learning how to improvise. >
Maialen Lujanbio’s agurra at the Bertso
championships with English subtitles:
forthcoming documentary on Bertsolaritza:
Xalbador & Mattin singing bertsos:
Xabier Amuriza looking back at a great
moment in the Bertsolaritza contest he eventually won (subtitled in
2008 bertso exchange via Skype between
the U.S. & Euskal Herria:
Bertsolaritza from Batekmila
(requires Flash player)
|Many Basque traditional
songs are actually old verses made up by bertsolarii, and then
they were written down or passed orally from generation to
generation. One example is the popular song Maritxu nora
zoaz in ZORTZIKO TXIKIA:
Maritxu nora zoaz 7
eder galant hori 6
nahi badezu etorri 6
iturrian zer dago 7
biok edango degu 7
nahi dezun guztia 6
|Click on this link below to
read this special English issue on Bertsolaritza
in the 2009 world championships
Check out this video clip of a
forthcoming documentary on bertsolaritza in English at
Bertsolari trailer (Back-up if re/moved; requires
download of free Real media
Basque-American (Bertsolari) Poets
Martin Goicoechea, Johnny Curutchet &
National Endowment For The Arts Announces the 2003
Recipients of the
Nation's Highest Honor in the Folk and
Recommend books in English about
Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, Shooting from the Lip: Improvised
Gorka Aulestia, Improvisational Poetry from the Basque
Samuel G. Armistead & Joseba Zulaika, eds., Voicing the
Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition.