Monday, September 19, 2011


Next week my Basque classes will start up and I will again be immersed in the complicated language.  As a little refresher, I have been reviewing my notes from last year and along with my two friends from class (Cecilia, left, Monste, right) last year, have just attended a movie all in Basques (subtitles in Spanish, thank God!).  Not only was it a great way to hear the language again and get back into the habit, but this movie, called Bertsolari, gave me a good at the world of bertso that is very important in Basque culture, but something I have not really experienced yet.

In Basque life, bertso (pronounced burr-cho) which kind of translates as 'verse' in Basque, bertsolaritza is the art of rhyming spoken word set to various melodies completely improvising.  Think of a poetry singing contest that takes place live and the singers create thier rhymes on the spot.  Only traceable to the beginning of the 19th century, these spoken verses were mainly sung by very literate people and were quite informal (at a dinner or out drinking with friends).  In the film they note that this type of oral history is of course integral to society, so that although there are not records of bertos from so long ago, that this tradition has lived on for longer than we can imagine.  Be it a very old custom, it is still rich in the Basque Country to this day.

Only in 1935 was the first bertso competition held but quickly after, due to the Spanish Civil War, was put to a stop.  During this period, even speaking Basque was dangerous, so celebrating the language through spoken verse was a big risk.  Despite this fact, bertos were still sung at low-key events and became a way to voice an opinion about politics and news.  The film confronts this bertso survival by explaining that 'Francoism didn't speak Euskera' and seeing as bertso are all about the beauty of the Basque language, it was an uncrackable code.  Not until the 1980s was the next national championship bertsolari competition held.  People came out in droves - over 10,000 people - to hear thier language in this special form.

At a bertsolari txapelketa (bertso competition in Basque), contestants sit on stage in regular street clothes in a simple chair in front of a vast audience of Basque speakers and fans.  They are individually called to the mic and give a subject by the gai-jartzaile (subject setter).  With this subject they have to invent a verse according to the meter and tune are given.  There are many typical categories that they compete within, including some of the following:
- The Initial Greeting (Hasierako Agurra)- the bertsolari can freestyle his intro verse to say hello
- The Prison Verse (Gartzelako Lana)- the bertsolari is given a topic and must compose a verse related to it
- Conversation Verses (Elkarrizketa)- two bertsolaris must take turns dealing with a given subject in verse
- Key Word (Hitza Emanda)- the bertsolari must use a key word in his verse
- Rhyme Words (Oinak Emanda) - the bertsolari is given some rhyming words and must incorporate these into his verse
- Farewell Verse (Txapeldunaren Agurra)- also freestyle, the bertsolari can part ways with the audience how he likes

While a beautiful form of spoken art, the Basque still manage to have a good time with this friendly competitive environment.  From the film, we really got the impression that all bertoslaris are a kind all thier own and that thier love and practice of the language bond them.  Thier topics could range from hunger in Africa (prison verse) or accidentally getting into your grandma's bed (conversation verse where one person would be the guy and one would be the grandma) to something as simple as fire (key word). 

Seeing as I have only studied one year of Basque, going to one of these txapelketas would be a bit silly for me because I would be completely lost.  Joseba has told me that after a year or so more of learning we will go and then I will get to experience a bertso competition live, which will be quite a reward for learning the language.  Just experiencing the nerves that lead up to a competition for one of these people was intense and to see how after being given a topic and thinking only a few minutes they compose beautiful verses, I was amazed.  It is like a comedian who performs improve or a rapper who makes his beat on the spot, but with no props nor music - just the words and thier power. 

Nowadays, people study very hard to become good bertso singers.  One of Joseba's bandmates is a popular bertso performer and also a bertso teacher.  The film gave a peek into a bertso school in Zarautz (about 20 mins from San Sebastian) and showed some of the techniques they use to teach kids (from qutie a young age) how to start to master this craft.  Highly regarded in the Basque Country, one bertsolari artist defined the verse improvisation as the following:
Neurriz eta errimaz
kantatzea itza
orra or zer kirol mota
den bertsolaritza.
    - By Xabier Amuriza   

Which would loosely translate to mean:
Through meter and rhyme
to sing the word
that is the kind of sport
bertsolarism is.

To see people so proud of thier language, especially because it is a minority one, was uplifting.  I know that I probably will never speak Basque well enough to be able to compose these poetical verses on the fly, but knowing that someone can master thier own language so well and be so aware of verse composition in such a tense environment is astounding.  I have included a link to a publicity video for the movie I just saw with English subtitles.  I know you won't  understand the Euskera (don't worry I don't catch even half of it), but hopefully you can see the magic in this video.  

Seeing that so many people in the world speak English, I think we take our language for granted.  Here in Basque Country, with only about 650,000 speakers, Basque is cherished, relished and respected in every form.  Bertsos - be them at dinner with friends talking about politics; at a bertso school with kids just starting to master the craft; or the every 4 years txapelketa with 15,000 people packed in to feel the excitement live, are touching.  Basques rarely get the chance to get excited and celebrate thier language and this 'sport'/'art' gives them that opportunity, and hopefully one day I will be able to appreciate that without subtitles.


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