Jose Manuel Lujanbio Retegi, better known as “Txirrita,” remains one of the most renowned bertsolariak (improvising oral poets) of all time and the principal exponent of so-called cider house bertsolaritza (improvised oral poetry), in which humor and mockery take center stage in a general atmosphere of revelry that one would associate with the Basque cider houses.

He was born in the Ereñotzu neighborhood of Hernani, Gipuzkoa, on August 14, 1860 on the Latze (or Latze-Zar) baserri (farmstead). At age 13, though, he moved with his family to the Txirrita baserri, from which he would ultimately take his nickname, in nearby Errenteria. He began work as a stonemason while still an adolescent, but was already moving in bertsolaritza circles and word soon spread about his quick wit and sharp tongue. He didn’t enjoy his work and took any opportunity he could find to earn a little extra money or some free drinks by taking part in bertso challenges.

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Txirrita, together with fellow bertsolariak Olegario (sampling a wee tipple) and Juan Bautista Urkia “Gaztelu,” in Arrate, Eibar. Gipuzkoa, 1915. As you can see from the photo, these guys were major celebrities in the day. Photo by Ignacio Ojanguren. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This, together with his natural skill and aptitude for the art form, is how he came to define cider house bertsolaritza. And as he grew older his reputation as a roguish partying lifelong bachelor (or mutilzaharra, literally “old boy,” in Basque) clashed with newer generations of bertsolariak who wanted to take bertsolaritza further, out of the taverns and cider houses and away from its association with partying, and into the more formal settings of organized contests and championships. In such settings, they believed, one could truly see it as a cultivated art form.

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An older Txirrita and Saiburu. Photo by Ignacio Ojanguren. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Despite all this, toward the end of his life, the huge, bearlike 260-pound Txirrita remained one of the major bertsolariak, finishing runner-up at the inaugural national bertsolaritza championships held in 1935 and winning the same event a year later, in January 1936. That this semi-literate cider-house bertsolari could compete with younger, more educated, and “modern” opponents just bears witness to his tremendous skill with words. Txirrita died that same year, on June 3, 1936.

In the prologue to the Center publication Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, Antonio Zavala (1928-2009), one of the foremost authorities on bertsolaritza and a key figure in documenting and transcribing numerous bertsos created before the advent of sound and image recording, observes the following:

In our homes, the names Xenpelar, Txirrita, or Pedro María Otaño have the same resonance as world famous authors have elsewhere. What the skill of those authors represents for the educated person was what that of the bertsolariak meant to our people, who regarded them not only as teachers but almost as prophets. That’s the way it was for generations.

You can download this book for free by clicking here.

There’s a brief recording of Txirrita in action here:

And check out this cartoon about Txirrita’s life (in Basque):