November 19, 2018
Culture
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Spain
A Basque Poetry Slam

Defying Franco to keep an endangered language alive

By Amanda Gonser

Bertsolaritza is the Basque art of competitive improvised rhyming, sung a capella or set to melody.  Think of a live poetry singing contest, where the performers must create their rhymes on the spot.

Only traceable to the beginning of the 19th century, these spoken verses were mainly sung by literary people, typically in informal settings (at dinners, or while drinking with friends).  Although there are no records of bertsos from long ago, the tradition likely stretches back much further. It’s still a rich custom in the Basque country where I live.

Bertso (pronounced “burr-cho”) competitions began in 1935, but were soon put to a stop, during the Spanish Civil War.  Even speaking Basque was dangerous, then — so those who celebrated the language through spoken verse took a big risk. Basques nonetheless kept singing bertsos at low-key events; they became a way to voice opinions about politics or the news.

The documentary Bertsolari explains bertso’s survival by noting that “Francoism didn’t speak Euskera (Basque).” Since bertso is all about the beauty of the Basque language, it was an uncrackable code. Not until the 1980s was the next national bertsolari championship held. Over 10,000 people turned out to hear their language celebrated in this special form.

At a bertsolari txapelketa, or bertso competition, contestants take the stage in regular street clothes, and perform siting in simple chairs, facing a vast audience of Basque speakers and fans. One by one, the contestants are called to the mike. Each is given a subject by the gai-jartzaile, or subject setter.  The task: to invent a verse according to a specified tempo and tune.

Typical assignments are to ad-lib a greeting; to compose a verse on a particular subject; or to incorporate certain words or rhymes. In “prison verse,” the bertsolari must compose verse related to a given topic; in “conversation verse,” two bertsolaris take turns discussing a given subject. “Farewell verse” is a way of saying goodbye.

A bertso could be about a serious theme, like hunger in Africa (prison verse); or a comic situation, like accidentally getting into your grandma’s bed (conversation verse, with one performer playing the guy, the other his grandma); or centered on a word, such as “fire.”

You could compare a bertso performer to a comedian who performs improv, or a rapper who makes up his beat on the spot, but without props or music - just words and their power.

Nowadays, people study hard to become good bertso singers. One of my husband Joseba’s bandmates is a popular bertso performer, and teaches bertso too.

The highly-regarded bertsolari artist Xabier Amuriza defines bertso this way:

Neurriz eta errimaz
kantatzea itza
orra or zer kirol mota
den bertsolaritza.

Through meter and rhyme
to sing the word
that is the kind of sport
bertsolarism is.

It was uplifting to see people so proud of their language, especially because it is a minority one.  I know that I probably will never speak Basque well enough to be able to compose these poetic verses on the fly, but just learning about people who could master their own language that well was astounding.

Since there are so many English-speakers in the world, I think we take our language for granted.  But with only about 650,000 speakers, Basque is cherished, relished and respected. Basques rarely get the chance to get excited about and celebrate their language;  bertso gives them that opportunity. I hope one day I’ll be able to appreciate it without subtitles.

Amanda Gonser writes and blogs from Spain’s Basque country.

2 comments about “A Basque Poetry Slam”

  1. Un reportaje sobre el bertsolarismo escrito por una norteamericana que quiere a nuestro país - About Basque Country says:

    [...] (Sigue) (Traducción automática) [...]

  2. The Scoop Interviews: Mary D'Ambrosio | The Spain Scoop | Traveling in Spain / Stay in Spain | Blogs About Spain | Spain Festivals | Culture Spain says:

    [...] love discovering talented new writers and visual journalists. We recently ran this wonderful piece http://www.bigworldmagazine.com/a-basque-poetry-slam/ about the Basque art of bertsolaritza, or poetry improvisation, by the young American writer Amanda [...]

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