Tag: Bertsolari

November 26, 1976: Birth of bertsolari Maialen Lujanbio

Maialen Lujanbio and Joxe Agirre

Maialen Lujanbio Zugasti, the first woman to win the national bertsolari championship in 2009, was born in Hernani, Gipuzkoa, on November 26, 1976.

Lujanbio first took an interest in bertsolaritza (improvised oral verse) at her ikastola (Basque-medium high school), and began attending an extracurricular bertso eskola, a school dedicated specifically to imparting the art. By the age of fifteen she was competing in junior competitions. She then went on to study Fine Arts at the University of the Basque Country and qualified for her first national championship in 1997. In 2001 she was runner-up at the same championship and finished fourth at the subsequent context in 2005.

In 2009, though, she finally achieved the most prestigious award for a bertsolari, winning the coveted champion’s txapela (beret) in front of 14,500 spectators at the Bilbao Exhibition Centre. Her agurra (the farewell verse improvised by the champion bertsolari) remains one of the most memorable in the history of the competition.

Lujanbio also went on to teach bertsolaritza and shares her profession as a bertsolari with various roles in the world of artistic and literary creation: she has written song lyrics for Basque musicians like Maixa eta Ixiar, Alaitz eta Maider, Anje Duhalde, Mikel Errazkin, Mikel Markez, and the group Oskorri. She has also written articles for the Basque press and helped out with coordinating the bertsolaritza association. And in 2010 she published Hau cuaderno bat zen (This was a notebook), a compilation of the notes she took while taking a graduate studies in the transmission of Basque culture.

If you’re in the West, Lujanbio will perform at next year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, along with other bertsolaris, both from the Basque Country and from the West. It’s sure to be a fun event!

 

June 19, 1960: Microphone power outage leads to creation of San Francisco Basque Club

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It’s one of those anecdotes that makes one wonder whether truth really is stranger than fiction, and the lack of any clarification over or proof of what actually happened only adds to its mystique, but for those of you out there who didn’t know how the San Francisco Basque Club got started in the first place, let Pedro J. Oiarzabal, in his Gardeners of Identity: Basques in the San Francisco Bay Area,  pick up the story:

Two Basque homeland bertsolariak or verse improvisers, “Xalbador” and Mattin, accompanied by Charles Iriart, came to the U.S. in June of 1960 for a month to perform at the annual picnics of the Basque communities of La Puente, Reno, and Bakersfield as well as at the picnic of the San Francisco French association, Les Jardiniers, whose membership was also made up of a considerable amount of Basques. Les Jardiniers’ picnic took place at Saratoga Wild Wood Park (today’s Saratoga Springs) on June 19th and was attended by approximately 2,500 people. To the dismay of both performers and Basques attending the Les Jardiniers’ event, power to their microphone was cut off—intentionally according to some and unintentionally according to others.

The reaction of some young Basques was to establish their own organization under the leadership of Claude Berhouet, owner of Hotel de France, in order to protect and promote the culture of their homeland in San Francisco. Michel Marticorena, one of the first members of the club, and Claude sat next to each other in school during World War II in France, during the German occupation, and recalls that “Mr. Berhouet was a very generous and helpful person back at that time as he was in San Francisco.”

Paul Castech and Jean Acheritogaray were present at the meeting that ignited the creation of the Basque Club: “Claude said, ‘Why don’t we organize a Basque club?” Castech, born in 1938 in Ortzaize, came to the U.S. in 1956, and became one of the founding directors of the Basque Club. The Basque Club of California was born in June 1960.

Whatever the case, whether intentionally or not, this just all goes to show how much history can turn on a seemingly inconsequential event. Check out the history of the San Francisco Basque Club here.

June 3, 1936: Death of famous bertsolari Txirrita

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):

 

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.”