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Bertsolarismo, Basque Oral Literature

Bertsolarismo is one of the remotest and most idiosyncratic Basque cultural facets.  “El arte del bertsolarismo: realidad y claves de la improvisación oral vasca” (The Art of Basque Verse-singing: reality and keys of Basque oral improvisation), by Joxerra Garzia, Andoni Egaña and Jon Sarasua, defines this phenomenon as “the speech made by singing, rhyming and  weighing up”.

A bertsolari is an improvised Basque verse singer, who competes against another rival (or adversaries). Unlike the rest of the improvisers known around the world today, he performs without the help of any musical instrument, instantly facing the performance of a theme through bertso (verse), which is usually complex and is made up of stanza and rhyme.

Mental agility is crucial, as the verse-singer only has a few seconds to come up with the verse, whereby the last word used by the adversary is the one that marks the rhythm.

Jone Miren Hernández, professor of Social Anthropology at the UPV also highlights the cooperative nature of verse-singing, where the informed, supporting and passionate public is the essential agent. “In fact, the verse makes sense only when the public arrives”, she points out.

Origins

Although improvised verse-singing, as we understand it today, dates back to the 19th century, it is an activity whose roots lie in pre-history.

Going back to our most ancient past, in the 9th century, there were already references to the  “excellent voices, education and culture” of the Basque slaves by the Arabian historian, Al-Makari, whilst the historian, Esteban Garibay, identified the 14th century as the century of “improvising women”.

It was in 1452 when the first “unquestionable” evidence on the social presence of the improvised oral tradition appeared, as mentioned on the Bertsolaritzaren dat-basea website. None other than the Charter of Vizcaya has two direct references to improvising women in the Villa.

However, the official commencement of modern verse-singing is February 1801. At this time up to 4,000 people gathered in Billabona to attend the challenge between verse-singers Juan Ignazio de Zabala (Amezketa) and José Joaquín de Erroicena “Txabalategi” (Hernani) in the village square.  Five ounces of gold were at stake, and after a tough battle which went on for two hours, it ended in a tie.

A tradition that is very much alive

The verse school and workshops created in many schools in the Basque Country keeps the flame burning of one of the most important forms of cultural expression in our country.

“The work of these centres increases knowledge of Basque and the ability to communicate in public.  They also allow a fun and participative activity to be enjoyed”, says Miren Josune Ariztondo, Culture Representative of the Provincial Council of Bizkaia.

Verse-singing Championship

This event has been organised by the Friends of Bertsolarismo Association for several years. Its origins date back to 1935, although it is since 1982 that it has been held regularly, more specifically, every four years. Andoni Egaña has been one of its great stars, winner between 1993 and 2005.

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