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.

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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.

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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.