Jon Azpillaga Urrutia, one of the towering figures–both literally and metaphorically–of contemporary bertsolaritza (Basque poetic oral improvisation) passed away last Thursday, February 2, at the age of 81.

He was born in Pasaia, Gipuzkoa, in 1935, where his father Juan–originally from Ondarroa, Bizkaia–worked in the port. His mother, Veronica Urrutia, was originally from the Torre baserri (farmstead) in Berriatu, Bizkaia. After his father was killed in the Spanish Civil War, when he was barely a year and a half, the family moved back to the baserri in Berriatu. Azpillaga grew up on that baserri, which in total provided a home for 16 people, carrying out the obligatory farm chores.  At age 14 he began earning a living for himself away from home, in a boatyard in Ondarroa, cycling to and from work everyday.  After completing the obligatory Spanish military service, he eventually started his own repair business, alongside his brother and some other partners, in his mid-20s. Now living in Ondarroa, he also joined the local choir as a tenor. He married Maria Arrizabalaga Itsasmendi in 1960 and the couple moved to neighboring Mutriku, Gipuzkoa, where she owned a hair salon. And the couple eventually had 6 children.

By this time, too Azpillaga was already an accomplished bertsolari (versifier), making the final of the national championship in 1960 and 1962 and winning the Bizkaia championship in 1961. He had been somewhat of a child prodigy in this respect, reciting popular verses by heart at age 10. And he had performed his first spontaneous bertsoak (verses) in public, at the village fiestas of Amoroto in 1950 alongside another young bertsolari, Joan Mugartegi Iriondo (b. Berriatu, 1933). After winning the 1961 championship, he went on to perform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially in tandem with Jon Lopategi (b. Muxika, Bizkaia, in 1934). These performances, in what has been classified by expert Joxerra Garzia in Voicing the Moment as the “bertsolaritza of resistance” (toward the Franco dictatorship), were framed–where possible–with political references. Indeed, both had on several occasions been detained by the police for the political references they had made when performing bertsolaritza. He continued to take part in championships through the 1980s, reaching the fibal of the national champiosnhips in 1980 and 1982. And in 2000, on the fiftieth anniversary of his first public performance, he appeared once more alongside Mugartegi, just as he had done all those years ago, performing to a crowd of people from the balcony of the Amoroto town hall. Check out the video below of Azpillaga’s last public performance, on July 20, 2013, in Zarautz in honor of the great bertsolari Basarri:

Azpillaga dedicated a lot of his free time in Mutriku to fundraising for the ikastola or Basque-language school and establishing a bertso eskola (a bertso school) there to train young people in the art. The Church was an important part of his life and he even recited the Sermon on the Mount in verse. He also attended the annual July 4 church service and celebration held in honor of Saint Balentin Berriotxoa, one of the two patron saints of Bizkaia (alongside Saint Ignatius Loiola) in Elorrio.  On a personal level, he was always noted as a calm, composed, and fearless bertsolari with a great towering physical presence and a classic exponent of the bertso postura (stance). This all meant that he was invariably asked to begin any bertso session, hence the epithet “Hasi Azpillaga!” (Take it away Azpillaga!), which was also the tile of a free-to-download 2001 biography about him by Mikel Aizpurua.

Goian bego.

Further reading:

Jon Azpillaga Urrutia, at the online Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia.

Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika, free to download here.