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BERTSOLARITZA: Improvisational Basque verse

The BERTSOLARI is the artist in Basque society who is capable of improvising Basque verse on any subject spontaneously and setting it to music.  Such a sung piece of composition is called a bertso, the person who sings it is called a bertsolari and the art of composing bertsos is called bertsolaritza.

Related link:  Bertso Jaialdia (SF 2010)

Joxe Mallea

Excerpt from Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe's Shooting From the Lip: Improvised Basque-Verse Singing.

Traditionally, the bertsolari has been regarded as the most Basque among the Basques for his/her art is inextricably linked to the language, and it has never been any other way.

When it comes to the language, the bertsolari is the ultimate authority.  H/she may not have a university degree, but there is no grammarian, linguist, or writer who know the intricacies of the Basque language like him/her.  More precisely, the bertsolari knows the Basque soul better than anyone else and can reach the Basque mind with a straight shot.


Most historic bertsolari were generally known by their nickname, usually coming from the family house or farm.  Any list of extraordinary bertsolari would include Fernando Aire (1920-76)who was from Urepel, Benafarroa, but he went by the name of "Xalbador" after his family home name.  His long-time singing partner was Mattin Treku Inhargue (1916-81).  They traveled here together in 1960 and while singing in San Francisco their bertso saioa (song session) was interrupted and this mishap got some Basques to thinking about starting their own Basque club.

In the past the bertsolari figure was intimately tied to the Basque peasant people, the baserritarrak (the backcountry villagers) or laboriak, the farmers. [Whereas today its stronghold is in the urban areas.]  If Basques lacked the written variety of literature, not so the oral, which is comparable to any other in Europe in quality and quantity. 

A bertso is the exact opposite of the painstakingly though-out and rehearsed thirty-second media ads we watch everyday on TV.  It is also quite unlike poetry written on a piece of paper.  Like life itself, they are a "one-try" art with no second chance.

Like most things Basque, the origins of bertsolartiza is unknown.  One early historical reference is from the 6th century when it seems that a bertsolari interrupted St. Amandus' missionary attempt among Iparralde ("northern side" or French) Basques.

A bertsolari is not:

__not a simple troubadour
__not a minstrel
__was not an educated poet
__not a mere songster
__not an actor

Because improvising poets must do their work in a hurry, they cannot be bothered by all the grammar rules, which are often broken.  Bertsolariak know when to break or bend grammar rules, and when not to.  However, even they must abide by some basic rules by which the art is judged.  For example, a) they must adhere to rhythm, b) the poetry must rhyme--usually the even lines--and c) this must be done in song.

The predicament of bertsolariak is not enviable.  First, they must stand in front of an eager public, who at the same time is also their judge.  One thing they cannot afford is to be nervous or uptight.  Their greatest asset, therefore, consists in being plaza gizona (a man who is comfortable in public).

Bertsolari requirements:
__ mastery of the Basque language
__ a love of the art form of bertsolaritza
__ a creative mind and imagination
__ a very good memory
__ quick mental reflexes
__ sense of humor
__ ability to perform in front of others

Today the art
form is more structured with championships and schools that teach the basics.  Andoni Egana was awarded four txapela.

No one knows when the bertsolari art originated.  In the old days, it was thought that one is born a bertsolari.  You cannot learn this trade, they said.  But in the last decades that theory has been disproved; women, young people, and even children in Euskal Herria improvise poetry now. 

World bertso champion Maialen Lujanbio, the first woman winner (2009). 

This national level event comes around every four years.  Behind her at left is Andoni Egana, the former four-time winner. 

Watch her "Agurra" (farewell) video at

  TOPICS. Bertsolari are called upon to compose and sing different kinds of bertsos by the gai-jartzaile, the "subject setter".  The gai-jartzaile informs the bertsolari(s) of the type of challenge, which tune they have to use, and the metre.  Some common bertso challenges include:
__Hasierako Agurra "The Initial Greeting": the bertsolari has to address the audience at the start of the day's competition, usually with a free choice of metre and topic.
__Gartzelako Lana "Prison Cell Task": the bertsolari has to compose and sing a bertso to a given topic.
__Elkarrizketa "Conversation": two bertsolaris have to deal with the topic together, singing the stanzas in turns and responding to the previous statement. Again the topic is given.
__Puntua Jarrita "Point Given": the jartzaile sings a puntu and the bertsolari has to complete it, staying within the given tune and metre.
__Hitza Emanda "Word Given": the jartzaile gives a key word to the bertsolari who has to compose a bertso containing this word.
__Oinak Emanda "Rhymes Given": the bertsolari is given the four (or more, depending on the metre required) rhyming words and is required to compose the bertso "around" these rhyming words.
__Txapeldunaren Agurra "The Winner's Farewell": here the bertsolari is allowed to compose their farewell to the audience.


Some are born bertsolari, while others learn.  Today the art form is seeing a resurgence with youngsters learning how to improvise. >

Music. There are scores of possible tunes which can be used for singing a bertso, stemming from traditional songs that once caught on and embedded themselves in folk culture. They are all, however, unaccompanied.  To listen to some of these tunes click on http://www.bertsolari.net/default.cfm?atala=doinuak2


Here you can see the intricacies that are involved in bertsolaritza with this video clip of a forthcoming documentary on bertsolaritza in English at http://vimeo.com/9355066
Bertsolari trailer (Back-up if re/moved; requires download of free Real media player)

A bertso consists of two main components:  the spontaneous verse and the melody to which it is sung. The famous modern-day bertsolari Xabier Amuriza (at right) defined it in a bertso as:
Neurriz eta errimaz Through metre and rhyme
kantatzea itza to sing the word
orra or zer kirol mota that is what kind of sport
den bertsolaritza. the bertsolaritza is.


Related Links:
"Shooting From the Lip:" NABO's Bertsolari Book

Bertsozale website
Oral Tradition Special Basque Issue

Bertsolari - Wikipedia
Bertsolari Aldizkaria

Bertso Jaialdia (SF 2010)
Basque Scientists Want to Know What Makes Bertsolaris Tick


Johnny @ Vimeo.com
Bertsolaritza online video clips:

Maialen Lujanbio’s agurra at the Bertso championships with English subtitles:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6B-yXKy5HDk

Asier Altuna's forthcoming documentary on Bertsolaritza: http://vimeo.com/9355066

Xalbador & Mattin singing bertsos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0-vXt1M_rE

Xabier Amuriza looking back at a great moment in the Bertsolaritza contest he eventually won (subtitled in French): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQwRksqT4ho  

2008 bertso exchange via Skype between the U.S. & Euskal Herria:
Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7v_6D9KAoY
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6478QpvtVag

Video clip:  Bertsolaritza from Batekmila (requires Flash player)

The bertsolari art form came here to America with the immigrating Basques.  U.S. bertsolari include (from l-r):  Johnny Curutchet, Jesus Goni, Martin Goicochea and Gratien Alfaro.




Many Basque traditional songs are actually old verses made up by bertsolarii, and then they were written down or passed orally from generation to generation.  One example is the popular song Maritxu nora zoaz in ZORTZIKO TXIKIA:

Maritxu nora zoaz    7
eder galant hori        6
iturrira Bartolo          7
nahi badezu etorri    6
iturrian zer dago       7
ardotxo txuria           6
biok edango degu     7
nahi dezun guztia     6
Click on this link below to read this special English issue on Bertsolaritza
Pdf_icon If the above link fails, click here to download the pdf version
If the file does not open, you will need to download the free software to view it by clicking on free pdf viewer

participants in the 2009 world championships
Check out this video clip of a forthcoming documentary on bertsolaritza in English at http://vimeo.com/9355066
Bertsolari trailer (Back-up if re/moved; requires download of free Real media player)


Related Links:
"Shooting From the Lip:" NABO's Bertsolari Book

Bertsozale website
Oral Tradition Special Basque Issue

Bertsolari - Wikipedia
Bertsolari Aldizkaria

Basque-American (Bertsolari) Poets

Jesus Goni,
Martin Goicoechea, Johnny Curutchet & Jesus Arriada
National Endowment For The Arts Announces the 2003 Recipients of the Nation's Highest Honor in the Folk and Traditional Arts

Recommend books in English about bertsolaritza:

Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, Shooting from the Lip:  Improvised Basque-Verse Singing.

Gorka Aulestia, Improvisational Poetry from the Basque Country.

Samuel G. Armistead & Joseba Zulaika, eds., Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition.