Category: bertsolaritza (page 2 of 2)

Saint Agatha’s Eve: A Key Date in the Basque Cultural Calendar

On February 4, Santa Ageda bezpera, Saint Agatha’s Eve, communities across the Basque Country take to the streets of their towns and villages, or go from farm to farm in rural areas, singing and collecting money for charitable causes. People carry sticks and beat them slowly on the ground to the rhythm of the more solemn tunes they sing, as well as singing more lively koplak (verses). In some cases, bertsolariak (poetic oral improvisers) are on hand to create spontaneous verses.  While this is the eve of a Christian festival, the act of communally beating the sticks against the ground is commonly interpreted as an older rite commemorating the end of Winter, a group effort to physically wake up the earth from its Winter rest.

Nowadays, kids are encouraged to learn the tradition and, as a bonus, they get to skip a few hours of school, as the following video, taken in Lesaka, Navarre, shows:

The celebration is also performed by organized groups, like the Uribarri Choir, here performing in the heart of Bilbao, in the Santutxu neighborhood:

And for a great video showing the tradition of going from baserri to baserri, signing koplak, check out the following, taken in Zestoa, Gipuzkoa (note the generous refreshments on offer in the farms, as well as the protagonism of bertsolariak):

In the classic work The Basques, Julio Caro Baroja discusses the importance of Saint Agatha’s Day itself in Basque culture, with this saint being venerated as especially important to women.

Basque music and dance to feature at University of the Basque Country


Sabin Bikandi of Aiko Taldea and Javier Garaizar, the deputy to the vice-chancellor of the University of the Basque Country’s Araba campus, sign the agreement

Congratulations are due to our good friends at Aiko Taldea, which has just signed a cooperation agreement with the Araba campus of the University of the Basque Country (UPV-EHU) to teach a traditional music and dance workshop as part of the university’s EHUskARABAnda initiative that seeks to encourage Basque-language related activities on the campus.

Aiko will teach the first workshop on December 15, and this will be followed by similar workshops every Thursday in Vitoria-Gasteiz as part of the groups’s touring class schedule through the Spring.

Aiko is fast becoming a key cultural point of reference in the Basque Country with its emphasis on fun and popular participation in traditional Basque music and dance. And we at the Center are proud to have worked with the group. Check out some Aiko videos here.

Check out Sabin Bikandi’s wonderfully evocative Alejandro Aldekoa: Master of Pipe and Tabor Dance Music in the Basque Country, a book is far more than just a biography of this important figure in the world of traditional Basque music; in effect, this is a complete and thorough introduction to both Basque music and dance in general that includes (among many other things) descriptions of instruments used, dance steps, musical scores for the most popular tunes used to accompany dances, and an accompanying DVD with examples of the dances discussed and clips of different Basque instruments, as well as images of different settings for bertsolaritza performances (all with English subtitles).


See, too, Aiko’s  Urraska: a New Interpretation of the Basque Jauziak Dances as Interpreted by Sagaseta.  This is a complete guide to the famous jauziak dances–in many ways, the quintessential Basque dances–that includes a book in Euskara and English, 2 CDs, a DVD of dance performances, a guide to the dance steps for performing the jauziak dances, and PDF copies of the text in Spanish and French.



What’s in a song? Martin Larralde

“Martin Larralde,” a song on Ruper Ordorika‘s eighth album, Dabilen harria (1998), has become a staple of his repertoire and one of the most evocative tracks by the renowned singer from Oñati, Gipuzkoa. It is actually a poem, written by Joseba Sarrionandia for his collection of poems Hnuy illa nyha majah yahoo (poemak 1985-1995) (1995), set to music by Ordorika.

But what is the song about? Who was Martin Larralde? The true story of Martin Larralde (1782-1821) has almost passed into Basque folklore and reveals a fascinating tale.

A shoemaker by profession, Martin was also a well-known bertsolari or poetic improviser who went by the nickname of “Bordaxuri” (and later “Galerianoa” or “Le poète galérien,” the galley prisoner poet). He lived on the family farm in Hazparne, Lapurdi. Following the death of his mother in 1809, Martin asked his father for his share of the farm, but this led to the two of them arguing and falling out over the issue. Instead, his father gave permission for a tenant, Jean Ospital, to work the land in question. One day, as he was working in the fields, Ospital was shot dead. Martin was arrested and held in Baiona (Bayonne) until he appeared before the courts in Pau. Found guilty, he was subsequently condemned “to the galleys” or “work at the oar,” that is, sentenced to do hard labor as a kind of human chattel assigned to rowing duty while serving his time in Rochefort prison. There he ultimately died after five years, most likely as a consequence of the harsh regime associated with such incarceration. Indeed, Rochefort prison enjoyed a grim reputation at the time as one of the main destinations for convict rowers in France (together with Toulon and Brest).

While in prison, Larralde reputedly wrote a dozen or so poems, many of them in a bitter tone and describing in detail his life of penal servitude, which came to be known as “Galerianoaren kantuak” (Songs of the galley prisoner). These songs, and Larralde’s story, later inspired others to write about him: The priest and writer Piarres Lartzabal (1915-1988), fascinated by the beauty of Larralde’s poetry, composed the play “Bordaxuri” (1952); the musical duet Pantxoa eta Peio—Pantxoa Carrere (1948- ) and Peio Ospital (1948- )—set Larralde’s words to music in “Galerianoaren kantua” (The song of the galley prisoner) on their first eponymously titled album released in 1975; and the song “Martin Larralde,” of course, as noted, represents the collaboration of two major Basque cultural figures: Ordorika (1956- ) and Sarrionandia (1958- ).

Larre berdeak, etxe zuri teila gorriak,          The fields are green, the houses white and red-                                                                                                   roofed,

jendarme auto bat                                                     a police wagon

bidean bildots artean pasatzen.                        goes down the road, among the lambs.

Etxe elizetan otoitzak,                                            Prayers are said in houses and churches,

betiko otoitzak neguko keearen antzera    the same old prayers

lehun igotzen.                                                              ascending softly like winter smoke.

Martin Larralde ez da sekula itzuli,                 Martin Larralde never came back,

baina itzuli balitz                                                        but if he had returned

(arantzak barrurantza itzuliak lituzkeen     (like a hedgehog whose spines

sagarroia bezala)…                                                     had grown back)…

Itzuli izan balitz, zer? Gaur igandea da,         If he had returned, what then? It’s Sunday                                                                                                             today,

larre berdeak,                                                              the fields are green,

etxe zuri teila gorriak,                                             the houses white and red-roofed,

jendarme autoa bidean                                          a police wagon on the road

Bayonne 17 panopetik.                                          beneath a “Bayonne 17” sign.

Jendea familia erretratuetan bezala              People as if in a family portrait

larritasuneraino                                                         almost embarrassed

perfumaturiko arima erakutsiz                         showing off their perfumed souls

doa mezara.                                                                   go to mass.

Inork ere ez du                                                            No one

(dena ohitura, dena errua,                                    (all is custom, all blame,

dena barkamena)                                                       all forgiveness)

oroimenaren                                                                 unties the knot

korapiloa deslotzen. Inork ere ez du              of memory. No one

koblakaririk behar…                                                 needs a bard…


Martin Larralde honelako                                     Martin Larralde died

egun batez hil zen                                                      one day like this

galeretan,                                                                        in the galleys,

begiak zabalik etzanda, agian, zerua,             laying down, his eyes wide open,

itsaso ziki bat dela esanez.                                   saying, perhaps, that heaven is a murky ocean.






How to create a bertso

Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika, is, to date, the most detailed study in English of the specifically Basque phenomenon of bertsolaritza–“versifying” or improvised oral poetry that is sung in different formal and informal contexts–and how this art form is part of the global oral tradition of verse. One of chapters, “The Process of Creating Improvised Bertsoak,”  by one of the greatest bertsolariak (versifiers) of all time, Andoni Egaña, takes readers through the intimate mental process of creating bertsoak (verses) on the spot. Below is an abridged account of this chapter.


For those unfamiliar with bertsolaritza, a typical scenario involves a gaijartzaile (theme prompter) suggesting a topic to the bertsolari (versifier), who must then, within the space of less than a minute, come up with a verse on that topic that must obey certain rules; in other words, it must fit in with an established melody, meter, and rhyme (of which there are options in each case); and of course perform that verse, before an audience and without any musical accompaniment. The main strategy of the bertsolari is to provide a “sting in the tail,” a snappy ending that brings the whole bertso together. To this end, the bertsolari must actually think up this final line first, and construct the bertso toward that goal.


Aitor Mendiluze (2009). Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In his chapter, Egaña cites the example of the bertsolari Aitor Mendiluze, who was given the topic:  “A good friend of yours has offered you some pills which will guarantee you a better performance on many fronts. You are hesitating about taking them.” Bear in mind that Aitor had no idea what the topic would be, and he was expected to improvise a bertso on that topic, within a matter of seconds, in accordance with the abovementioned structure.

On hearing the proposed theme, Aitor looked for an argument that reflected his own opinion about designer drugs. The first argument to enter his head was the following: “hobetuko naiz, baina neu izan gabe” (“I would be better, but I would not be me”). He then mentally fitted this idea and sentence around a meter of 10/8 syllables:

Hobetuko naiz, baina orduan             10                    I would be better,

ni izan gabe, ordea.                                    8 A.                 but I would not be me.

Half a second before starting to sing and in a moment of inspirational lucidity, Aitor remembered the word hobea (“better”). This would serve him well in maintaining the common thread of the argument in the final sentence. And then he started to sing, “Ene laguna …” (“My friend …”). From this moment on, all his discourse, until reaching the previously worked out end-part, would be pure improvisation:

Ene laguna- – – -10

– – – – – – – –              8 A

– – – – – – – – –         10

– – – – – – – –              8 A

– – – – – – – – — –     10

– – – – – – – – –            8 A

– – – – – – – –              8 A

– – – – – – – –              8 A

– – – – – – – – – –       10

– – – – –  hobea         8 A

hobetuko naiz baina orduan 10

ni izan gabe ordea.  8 A

Here, the part of the discourse constructed by Aitor before starting to sing approximates to the words that appear; while that part of the bertso constructed while he was actually singing corresponds to those sections marked with discontinuous lines.

Aitor knew what he was going to sing at the end. However, to arrive at that point he had to construct the greater part of the discourse in such a way that the final puntu made sense and had the maximum impact. In order to do this, he searched his mental storage-retrieval system or “daisy” of rhyming words (in this case, a group of words end-rhyming in –ea) to sing the following:

Ene laguna uste zintudan                    My friend, I believed you

jatorra eta noblea.                                   to be faithful and honest.

Zuk ere alde ilun triste bat                  Apparently you, too,

nonbait zeneukan gordea.                   have a hidden, sad side.

Egin didazun eskeintza ez da             What you’re offering me

 uste bezain dotorea.                              is not as nice as it might appear.

Emango dit umorea                                 It will improve my mood

ta abildade doblea.                                  and double my skills.

Hartu ezkero izan naiteke                   Once taken, I would be

naizena baino hobea.                              better than I am.

Hobetuko naiz, baina orduan             I would be better,

ni izan gabe, ordea.                                   but I would not be me.

As Egaña explains, the audience do not know where the bertso is going. They follow it, from exposition to resolution, as if listening to a story for the first time. Aitor had opted to talk directly to an imaginary friend of his who had suggested taking the tablets, but this friend had a dark side. And in the end, Aitor told him that in no uncertain terms.

It is worth underscoring the fact that most of the lines in this verse were improvised during the actual performance of the bertso, but at the same time, this improvisation took place within a specific structure established, as noted above, by a melody, meter, and rhyme, as well as the key moment of thinking up the final “sting in the tail” first.

To download a free copy of Voicing the Moment, click here.

For more information on bertsolaritza, check out the Association of the Friends of Bertsolaritza.

Discover the Basque Country: The Basque Cider Museum

For those of you who may be lucky enough to get to visit the Basque Country sometime, we thought we’d share a few of our favorite places with you.

Did you know that the famed Greek geographer Strabo (64 BCE-24 CE) wrote of the Basques as a race of cider drinkers? The importance of apples, and especially their refreshing derivative, sagardoa ( cider), is celebrated in the Basque Cider Museum: Sagardoetxea (literally, the “house of cider”). Located in a famed cider town, Astigarraga (Gipuzkoa), this is a fascinating museum with plenty of hands-on activities for everyone to get involved in.

Los futbolistas tolosarras de la saga Alonso (Periko, el padre, y los hermanos Mikel y Xabi, ambos jugadores de la Real Sociedad) han abierto la temporada de sidrerías 2004, con el txotx en la sidrería Petritegi, de Astigarraga. Tras ellos, han disfrutado de la nueva sidra el resto de los asistentes.

Txotx time! Photo by Jon Urbe (Argia), via Wikimedia Commons

Cider houses developed out of traditional farmsteads, and were once no more than converted sheds for farmers to meet up, eat, drink cider, and of course sing. Indeed, there seems to be an intrinsic connection between drinking cider and singing, whether songs or bertsos (improvised oral poems). But cider house culture is also associated with all round revelry and partying. For example, dancing, too, was not uncommon in the cider houses of yesteryear. In The Basques, renowned anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja describes traditional “cider house dances” that consisted of “imitating the sound of a flute and the bass drum with the voice, and then as if one were eating in a casserole dish while having to take off half of one’s clothes, but always singing. Not all, but some, evolved in such a way that it is assumed that they were not at first mere burlesque pastimes.”


Family-style dining is the order of the day in this Astigarraga cider house. photo by Unai Fdz. de Betoño, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, cider houses open their doors to offer a unique gastronomic and cultural experience. The most traditional of cider houses are only open to the public between January and April (although others offer an all-year-round service). Family-style dining is the order of the day, as you sit down to a traditional menu of cod omelet, followed by fried cod with green peppers, a big juicy steak, and finish off with cheese, walnuts, and apple quince jelly, all washed down with as much cider as you want from the surrounding kupelak (barrels). Be sure to keep an ear out, though, for the magic word: txotx! (something akin to “drink up!”), which marks the moment when some brave soul goes to open up a barrel.


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.

“Bertshow,” the Gipuzkoan reconquest of the United States

Get prepared euskaldunak, for an eventful Summer 2015! Incredibly cool events are taking shape to save us from the summer heat. The Atlantic Ocean is going to become the bridge between the Basque Country and the United States. The Basque “exodus” is about to start… Are you ready?

“Bertshow,” the Gipuzkoan reconquest of the United States, consists of a nine-member delegation that will be performing in American Basque Centers during July and August.  This will be a very interesting transcultural experience based on the Basque oral tradition of Bertsos.

The main goal of this project is to bring Basque culture to the diaspora. The project consists of:  music, bertsolaritza, and Basque knowledge transmission. The group is going to speak about topics that should be of great interest to the Basque diaspora.

Bertshow will be a truly unique two-part performance aimed at building a cross-cultural bridge.  The first part will be a review of Basque music, the famous songs that are part of the Basque history, incorporating a performance made up of both singing and speech. The second part, meanwhile, will consist of the traditional bertso-saio musikatua (bertsos set to music) combined with familiar melodies to an American audience from songs such as “Let it Be,” “Blowing in the Wind,” and others in order to create a unique transcultural experience.

After its trip to the American Wild West, the group will compile their experiences in order to tour the Basque Country and share their new found perspective of the Basque diaspora.

They are going to be here, in Reno,  between the August 3 and 6.  

Basic concepts to understand the goals of this team.

1. Bertsoalaritza.

National sport of words.

2. Musika

Music is a universal language able to demolish the boundaries between cultures. A feature connected with Basque identity is knowledge of oral popular songs.  They want to get to know the Basque heritage in the United States. Combining Basque classical music with its newer counterparts.

  • Maite ditut maite (Mikel Laboa)
  • Eperra (Herrikoia -Zuberoa-)
  • Maiteak galde egin zautan (Imanol Larzabal)
  • Nire herriko neskatxa maite (Benito Lertxundi)
  • Martin larralde (Ruper Ordorika)
  • Lau teilatu (Itoiz)
  • Marinelaren zai (Sorotan Bele)
  • Mendigoxaliarena (Ken 7 –Lauaxeta-)
  • Betazalak erauztean (Katamalo)
  • Txoria txori (Mikel Laboa)
  • Xalbadorren heriotzean (Xabier Lete)
  • Izarren hautsa (Mikel Laboa)

3. Talks

The talks are going to be in Basque, with a simultaneous translation to English.  The talk is going to be divided into three topics: culture (what bertsolaritza is, the history of bertsolaritza from Profazadora’s until Maialen Lujanbio, and the tools needed  to create a bertso); the Basque language (The transmission of Basque and bertsolaritza in diglosic areas and the state of the Basque language over the course of the last two centuries); and finally music (the different melodies used in bertsos, a little history about Basque music).

The Bertsolaris:

Jon Martin

Inigo Mantzisidor ‘Mantxi’

Arkaitz Oiartzabal ‘Xamoa’

Jokin Labayen

Manex Mujika


Haritz Casabal


Ixak Arruti

Urtzi Olaziregi

Eneko Sierra


Boise, Reno, San Francisco, Bakersfield, Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston.

Anyone interested in bertsolaritza should check out Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika. This is a collection of essays on both bertsolaritza and other oral traditions from all over the world. These articles include chapters on how bertsos are created, bertsolaris in the American West, and the musical foundations of bertsolaritza. The book is available free to download here.

The Bilbao Song: Bertsolariak

Maialen Lujanbio’s final song in the 2009 Bertso championshop after winning the txapela.

A section from Joseba Zulaika’s That Old Bilbao Moon, entitled “Maialen’s Bilbao Song,” was published in its Spanish version in Bertsolari (n.96:6-16) the journal of the association of bertsolariak. The text was based on the singing championship that took place at the Bilbao Exhibition Center on December 2009 in which Maialen Lujambio was declared “txapeldun” (winner). It emphasizes the role of the troubadorial singers in redefining Basque identity and in promoting euskera in Bilbao as a most decisive aspect of “the miracle in Bilbao.”

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