Search results: "basarri"

Veteran bertsolari Jon Azpillaga passes away

Jon Azpillaga Urrutia, one of the towering figures–both literally and metaphorically–of contemporary bertsolaritza (Basque poetic oral improvisation) passed away last Thursday, February 2, at the age of 81.

He was born in Pasaia, Gipuzkoa, in 1935, where his father Juan–originally from Ondarroa, Bizkaia–worked in the port. His mother, Veronica Urrutia, was originally from the Torre baserri (farmstead) in Berriatu, Bizkaia. After his father was killed in the Spanish Civil War, when he was barely a year and a half, the family moved back to the baserri in Berriatu. Azpillaga grew up on that baserri, which in total provided a home for 16 people, carrying out the obligatory farm chores.  At age 14 he began earning a living for himself away from home, in a boatyard in Ondarroa, cycling to and from work everyday.  After completing the obligatory Spanish military service, he eventually started his own repair business, alongside his brother and some other partners, in his mid-20s. Now living in Ondarroa, he also joined the local choir as a tenor. He married Maria Arrizabalaga Itsasmendi in 1960 and the couple moved to neighboring Mutriku, Gipuzkoa, where she owned a hair salon. And the couple eventually had 6 children.

By this time, too Azpillaga was already an accomplished bertsolari (versifier), making the final of the national championship in 1960 and 1962 and winning the Bizkaia championship in 1961. He had been somewhat of a child prodigy in this respect, reciting popular verses by heart at age 10. And he had performed his first spontaneous bertsoak (verses) in public, at the village fiestas of Amoroto in 1950 alongside another young bertsolari, Joan Mugartegi Iriondo (b. Berriatu, 1933). After winning the 1961 championship, he went on to perform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially in tandem with Jon Lopategi (b. Muxika, Bizkaia, in 1934). These performances, in what has been classified by expert Joxerra Garzia in Voicing the Moment as the “bertsolaritza of resistance” (toward the Franco dictatorship), were framed–where possible–with political references. Indeed, both had on several occasions been detained by the police for the political references they had made when performing bertsolaritza. He continued to take part in championships through the 1980s, reaching the fibal of the national champiosnhips in 1980 and 1982. And in 2000, on the fiftieth anniversary of his first public performance, he appeared once more alongside Mugartegi, just as he had done all those years ago, performing to a crowd of people from the balcony of the Amoroto town hall. Check out the video below of Azpillaga’s last public performance, on July 20, 2013, in Zarautz in honor of the great bertsolari Basarri:

Azpillaga dedicated a lot of his free time in Mutriku to fundraising for the ikastola or Basque-language school and establishing a bertso eskola (a bertso school) there to train young people in the art. The Church was an important part of his life and he even recited the Sermon on the Mount in verse. He also attended the annual July 4 church service and celebration held in honor of Saint Balentin Berriotxoa, one of the two patron saints of Bizkaia (alongside Saint Ignatius Loiola) in Elorrio.  On a personal level, he was always noted as a calm, composed, and fearless bertsolari with a great towering physical presence and a classic exponent of the bertso postura (stance). This all meant that he was invariably asked to begin any bertso session, hence the epithet “Hasi Azpillaga!” (Take it away Azpillaga!), which was also the tile of a free-to-download 2001 biography about him by Mikel Aizpurua.

Goian bego.

Further reading:

Jon Azpillaga Urrutia, at the online Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia.

Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika, free to download here.

January 20, 1935: First National Bertsolaritza Championship held

January 20, 1935 is a key date in Basque cultural history as it marks the first time a national championship was held for bertsolaritza (improvised sung oral poetry) one of the most dynamic and singular forms of Basque cultural expression.

Inazio Eizmendi or “Basarri” (1913-1999) in October 1937. One of the great figures of bertsolaritza who dominated the art form for thirty years. Image by Jesus Elosegui, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Termed at the time the First Bertsolari Day, the event was held in the Poxpolin Theater in Donostia and included the participation of some nineteen competitors. In the collective mindset of the organizers it was hoped that this relatively new format, an organized contest with a panel of judges evaluating the quality of the bertsoak (verses) on their technical features alone (or their degree of difficulty if you will) on a points-based system, would help to propel bertsolaritza into the twentieth century and away from what some at least considered its rather dubious connections with the raucous world of taverns and cider houses. That said, some of the traditional older bertsolariak (oral improvisers) who came from the latter tradition did take part in the championship, most famously of all Txirrita (Jose Manuel Lujanbio), the greatest of all cider house bertsolariak. As Gorka Aulestia observes in Voicing the Moment, “Txirrita, the elderly patriarch of traditional bertsolaritza –at the age of seventy five, weighing 260 pounds and dressed in the customary long black shirt– did not fit the image envisaged by” the more progressive organizers.

In the end, and much to their relief, the event was won by a young twenty-two-year-old from Gipuzkoa, born in Errezil but who had lived in Zarautz from age seven: Inazio Eizmendi, who went by the name “Basarri.” And the runner-up was Matxin Irabola from Senpere, Lapurdi. Basarri was the ideal winner for the modernizers who had encouraged the idea of moving bertsolaritza toward a championship format. He was young, forward-thinking, and would ultimately lead bertsolaritza out of the taverns and into more the neutral public settings of towns and squares. In short, this first national championship served a s a springboard to change the whole face of bertsolaritza, marking not just a generational change among its leading exponents but also a transformation in the very way the art form was conceived and performed.

Further reading

Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika. Free to download here. The definitive introductory guide to bertsolaritza in English that not only outlines the history and sociocultural impact of the art form in the Basque Country but also explains how it functions, the changes that have taken place in recent years with the coming of the technological age, and sets all this within a global framework by also discussing other worldwide examples of improvised oral art forms.

Improvisational Poetry from the Basque Country by Gorka Aulestia. An essential history of bertsolaritza to the modern age.

Bertsolaritza: The Reality, Tradition and Future of Basque Oral Improvisation by Joxerra Garzia. Free to download here. History and contemporary analysis of the art form by a leading theoretician of bertsolaritza.

 

Alan Lomax’s recordings of traditional Basque music and bertsos

Alan Lomax (1915-2002) was one of the great American collectors of twentieth-century folk music. A scholar, writer, and activist, he was one of the main architects behind the folk revivals of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, blazing the trail for the likes of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez (who of course sings a memorable version of the traditional Basque song Txoria txori), and many others.

Alan Lomax in front of American Patchwork video, c. 1984. From the Cultural Equity website.

Together with his father, the folklorist and collector, John A. Lomax, he also recorded thousands of songs and interviews for the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. Today, the Lomax Family Collections are housed at the American Folklife Center. To get some idea of the range of his activity, see the Alan Lomax Archive here.

In 1952-53, Lomax spent some time in the Basque Country, where he recorded many traditional songs as well as bertsos (improvised oral poems). The Association for Cultural Equity was founded by Lomax to explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement, and it generously posts Lomax’s Basque recordings here.

As well as making up a historical archive of incalculable value, these recordings serve to capture a time and place in Basque history in which public cultural expression in the Basque language was strictly limited by the Franco dictatorship.

Lomax’s Basque recordings include work songs (sung by both women and men), religious songs, sea shanties, and bertsos, including  some by two of the great bertsolaris of their day, Basarri (Inazio Eizmendi) and Uztapide (Manuel Olaizola),

Basarri and Uztapide. Photo by Indalezio Ojanguren. Image at the Department of Culture and Euskara, Provincial Government of Gipuzkoa

 

This is a truly invaluable resource for anyone interested in Basque culture in general or, more specifically, traditional Basque music and bertsolaritza. It is a fitting tribute to the life and work of Alan Lomax, and the Association for Cultural Equity is to be applauded for its efforts in posting these recordings online.

If you’re interested in these topics, the CBS publishes Alejandro Aldekoa: Master of Pipe and Tabor Music in the Basque Country, by Sabin Bikandi. Ostensibly a biography of one of the most renowned Basque taborers and dance masters, this work actually involves a wider description and discussion of the relationship between music and dance in the Basque tradition. What’s more, it is accompanied by a DVD that includes, among many other things, historic footage of Basque ritual dances in the 1920s, archive images of traditional Basque instrument makers and performers, and recordings of two different types of bertso performances (in both a formal championship and a less formal “bertso dinner” setting).

On bertsolaritza, more specifically, although the work that also includes a chapter on the musical  foundations of the genre, see Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika. This book is available free to download here.