“Martin Larralde,” a song on Ruper Ordorika‘s eighth album, Dabilen harria (1998), has become a staple of his repertoire and one of the most evocative tracks by the renowned singer from Oñati, Gipuzkoa. It is actually a poem, written by Joseba Sarrionandia for his collection of poems Hnuy illa nyha majah yahoo (poemak 1985-1995) (1995), set to music by Ordorika.

But what is the song about? Who was Martin Larralde? The true story of Martin Larralde (1782-1821) has almost passed into Basque folklore and reveals a fascinating tale.

A shoemaker by profession, Martin was also a well-known bertsolari or poetic improviser who went by the nickname of “Bordaxuri” (and later “Galerianoa” or “Le poète galérien,” the galley prisoner poet). He lived on the family farm in Hazparne, Lapurdi. Following the death of his mother in 1809, Martin asked his father for his share of the farm, but this led to the two of them arguing and falling out over the issue. Instead, his father gave permission for a tenant, Jean Ospital, to work the land in question. One day, as he was working in the fields, Ospital was shot dead. Martin was arrested and held in Baiona (Bayonne) until he appeared before the courts in Pau. Found guilty, he was subsequently condemned “to the galleys” or “work at the oar,” that is, sentenced to do hard labor as a kind of human chattel assigned to rowing duty while serving his time in Rochefort prison. There he ultimately died after five years, most likely as a consequence of the harsh regime associated with such incarceration. Indeed, Rochefort prison enjoyed a grim reputation at the time as one of the main destinations for convict rowers in France (together with Toulon and Brest).

While in prison, Larralde reputedly wrote a dozen or so poems, many of them in a bitter tone and describing in detail his life of penal servitude, which came to be known as “Galerianoaren kantuak” (Songs of the galley prisoner). These songs, and Larralde’s story, later inspired others to write about him: The priest and writer Piarres Lartzabal (1915-1988), fascinated by the beauty of Larralde’s poetry, composed the play “Bordaxuri” (1952); the musical duet Pantxoa eta Peio—Pantxoa Carrere (1948- ) and Peio Ospital (1948- )—set Larralde’s words to music in “Galerianoaren kantua” (The song of the galley prisoner) on their first eponymously titled album released in 1975; and the song “Martin Larralde,” of course, as noted, represents the collaboration of two major Basque cultural figures: Ordorika (1956- ) and Sarrionandia (1958- ).

Larre berdeak, etxe zuri teila gorriak,          The fields are green, the houses white and red-                                                                                                   roofed,

jendarme auto bat                                                     a police wagon

bidean bildots artean pasatzen.                        goes down the road, among the lambs.

Etxe elizetan otoitzak,                                            Prayers are said in houses and churches,

betiko otoitzak neguko keearen antzera    the same old prayers

lehun igotzen.                                                              ascending softly like winter smoke.

Martin Larralde ez da sekula itzuli,                 Martin Larralde never came back,

baina itzuli balitz                                                        but if he had returned

(arantzak barrurantza itzuliak lituzkeen     (like a hedgehog whose spines

sagarroia bezala)…                                                     had grown back)…

Itzuli izan balitz, zer? Gaur igandea da,         If he had returned, what then? It’s Sunday                                                                                                             today,

larre berdeak,                                                              the fields are green,

etxe zuri teila gorriak,                                             the houses white and red-roofed,

jendarme autoa bidean                                          a police wagon on the road

Bayonne 17 panopetik.                                          beneath a “Bayonne 17” sign.

Jendea familia erretratuetan bezala              People as if in a family portrait

larritasuneraino                                                         almost embarrassed

perfumaturiko arima erakutsiz                         showing off their perfumed souls

doa mezara.                                                                   go to mass.

Inork ere ez du                                                            No one

(dena ohitura, dena errua,                                    (all is custom, all blame,

dena barkamena)                                                       all forgiveness)

oroimenaren                                                                 unties the knot

korapiloa deslotzen. Inork ere ez du              of memory. No one

koblakaririk behar…                                                 needs a bard…


Martin Larralde honelako                                     Martin Larralde died

egun batez hil zen                                                      one day like this

galeretan,                                                                        in the galleys,

begiak zabalik etzanda, agian, zerua,             laying down, his eyes wide open,

itsaso ziki bat dela esanez.                                   saying, perhaps, that heaven is a murky ocean.