Basque Fact of the Week: Basque Improvisational Poetry

Bertsolaritza, or Basque Improvisational Poetry, is the art of composing, on the spot and impromptu, sung couplets about a given topic. A specific meter and rhyme must be followed. Competitions are held for the best bertsolaris, or singers of of these poems, but bertsolaris are also famous for singing impromptu at any gathering.

Image from GDKO Irratia.
  • While the exact origins of bertsolartiza are unknown, there is evidence that bertsos (the poems) were sung as far back as the 1400s, with mention in the Ancient Charter for Bizkaia, which calls out “the Women, known for being shameful, and agitators of peoples, [that] make couplets and songs in an infamous and libellous manner.”
  • The championships, the Euskal Herriko Bertsolari Txapelketa Nagusia, are held every four years. They started in 1936 but were suspended during the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent repression of Basque Culture during the Franco years.
  • The reigning champion, Maialen Lujanbio Zugaste, is the first woman to win the championship. In the first year she won, in 2009, her solo challenge was Maialen, you are a doctor. You’re observing two children suffering from cancer organising a wheelchair race in a hospital corridor. She had to compose a 42-line sung poem on the spot about this topic. Her poem can be found here.
  • Jon Lopategui Lauzirika, a famous bertsolari who won the championship in 1989, was born on this day in 1934. Not only was he one of the great bertsolaris, but he was known for his tireless work in teaching the art of bertsolaritza to the next generations.

A Tree of Gernika for School

For school, my daughter’s class is studying world cultures and they were told to pick one for each of them to study in depth. My daughter chose Basque as her culture. One of their projects was to write a creative essay. She wrote her interpretation of a Basque family immigrating to America. Maybe she’ll let me share that down the road.

The other project was to create a visual about the culture. Her project was to make a representation of the Tree of Gernika and write on the leaves various facts about the Basque Country and the Basque people. Things like the first person to sail around the world was Elcano, the heaviest stone a Basque has lifted was 725 pounds, many Basques came to the US to be sheepherders. I thought the visual project turned out really nice, so thought I’d share it with everyone.

Great job, txikitxu!

Euskara, a secret handshake

I was in San Antonio this week for work. The Minerals, Metals and Materials Society, better known as TMS to materials scientists, has an annual meeting that floats around the country, and this year it was in San Antonio. This conference brings together researchers from around the world that are advancing our understanding of materials, from more applied aspects such as how materials corrode to fundamental insights into the nature of grain boundaries — the interface regions between grains that occur in all but the most defect free of materials.

In any case, on Wednesday, my last night in San Antonio, I was returning to my hotel after a dinner on the river walk. (An aside: being from Idaho, I always class California, Texas, and Florida in these bins of “places that are horrible and I never want to visit.” However, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Texas and have particularly enjoyed San Antonio the few times I’ve been there.)

Anyways, I was waiting at a crosswalk for the light to turn. A family approached the corner — the parents, a baby in a stroller and a little boy of maybe 5 or so. Suddenly, the crosswalk is going nuts: “wait,” “wait,” “wait,” blared from the speaker over and over. At some point, the parents start yelling at the boy. I suddenly notice that they are yelling at him in Euskara. My Euskara being piss-poor, I understood only a few words (“zikin” being the one that jumped out at me).

As they pulled the boy away from the button, the light changed and we crossed. As we crossed, I asked, in my broken Spanish (which is infinitely better than my piss-poor Euskara), if they were from the Basque Country. They looked at me warily and said “yes,” at which point I told them that my dad had been from there and that I lived for a year in Donosti (learning the little bit of Euskara I do know). They, coincidentally, are from Donosti.

We talked for a minute about their vacation in the Americas (starting from Mexico, going up into Texas, after which they were heading east). It was a brief conversation, lasting only a few minutes, and I never caught their names. But, it struck me how even recognizing Euskara is like being part of a secret club, where people you might not otherwise recognize as being from the Basque Country are instantly recognizable. A few words of Euskara and suddenly there is a connection.

This has happened to me before. I met a couple of guys who were speaking in Basque in a line leaving an airplane in Germany. It’s always cool to make these connections, facilitated by the strange and wonderful language of the Basque Country.

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