The Maskarada–wild carnivalesque outdoor public theater combining song and dance and performed by regular people all from the same community–kicked off on Sunday, January 10 in the Basque province of Zuberoa (also known as Xiberoa).  This year, residents of the village of Sohüta-Hoki (Chéraute-Hoquy) will be performing the Maskarada all over Zuberoa, over a series of Sundays, between January 10 and April 10.

The Maskarada performance follows an established pattern, with performers representing different characters that are defined as either “Reds” or “Blacks.” The Reds include characters like zamaltzaina (the hobbyhorse) and the marexalak (blacksmiths) while the Blacks include buhame jauna (the gypsy king) and pitxu (the fox). The Reds are well behaved, formal, and elegant, performing specific dances and songs, but the Blacks move in a wilder, untamed, and more spontaneous way, grunting and shouting in joyful abandon. The Reds, then, support the central narrative of the performance; they give meaning to the story, while the Blacks attempt to subvert and undermine that meaning. The video below, shot in Atharratze (Tardets) in 2013, shows the introductory sequence of the Maskarada: the breaking of the barrikada (barricade) and introduction of the principal characters, with the Reds first and then the Blacks.

The following video, meanwhile, also shot in Atharratze (though this time in 2014), shows several sequences and demonstrates just how much this performance is rooted in these local communities. Note how close audience and performers are, the very public outdoor setting, and the unaffected nature of the performance (as well as the famous godalet dantza, the wine glass dance, from approximately 9m 25s onward).

This is not for the faint hearted! It involves bawdy renditions and representations, most of which are intended to cast a critical eye on anyone with pretenses to “authority.”  It is, without doubt, one of the most unique and beguiling events on the Basque cultural calendar, as well as being a living, breathing testament to the persistence of strong community values in the culturally rich province of Zuberoa. The Maskarada is folk theater in its most popular form, with people spending months rehearsing and performing as a means of cementing community ties and maintaining their language and culture.

For general information from the Basque Cultural Institute on the Maskarada click here.

If you’re interested in this topic, check out “The Folk Arts of the Maskarada Performance” by Kepa Fernandez de Larrinoa, a chapter in Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika.

For Fernandez de Larrinoa, the Maskarada represents much more than just a “dance-event”–the term most commonly used to describe this performance in most studies of the phenomenon that tend to focus on its dance aspects. He sees it as more a kind of “storytelling-event” more broadly speaking, interpreting the Maskarada in the wider terms of a folk performance combining music, dance, song, spoken word, free movement, carnivalesque performance, playfulness, subversion, and so on.

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