On December 13, 2009, Maialen Lujanbio, from Hernani (Gipuzkoa), became the first woman to win the coveted national bertsolaritza championship.

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Maialen Lujanbio receives her winning txapela from 80-year-old bertsolari Joxe Agirre or “Oranda” at the 2009 national championship. Photo by Ukberri.net, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Lujanbio’s triumph, in front of 14,500 spectators at the Bilbao Exhibition Centre in Barakaldo, Bizkaia, represented a milestone in the development of this key art form that is a pillar of Basque culture. She finished first out of the eight competitors in the final, with a total of 1,630.75 points; followed by runner-up Amets Arzallus, from Hendaia (Lapurdi), with 1,582 points.  After being crowned winner with the championship txapela (beret), Lujanbio stepped up to the microphone to sing the following improvised bertso or verse (with English subtitles):

Bertsolaritza, the art of oral improvisation in Basque, is an amazing phenomenon that is so central to Basque culture. We can’t recommend highly enough Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika. This is a great introduction to the world of bertsolaritza that explains both how it has developed down the centuries and the multiple forms it takes today, as well as explaining comparative phenomena around the world. This book is also available free to download here.

Be sure to check out, too, the website of the Xenpelar Dokumentazio Zentrua, a great source of information about bertsolaritza:  http://bdb.bertsozale.eus/en/info/7-xenpelar-dokumentazio-zentroa

And if you’re in the Reno area, please stop by the Jon Bilbao Basque Library, which currently features a fascinating window exhibit on bertsolaritza (through April 2017).