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Bertsolaritza Comes to Reno

By Kyle Young
Published: Last Updated on

Maialen Lujanbio Zugasti, 2017’s National Bertsolaris Champion, and Miren Artetxe Sarasola, bertsolari and researcher at the University of the Basque Country, come to the University of Nevada, Reno on Friday, Jan. 26.

At noon Friday, Sarasola will deliver a lecture entitled: “Women Bertsolari: From the first attempts to the current achievements.” At this lecture, attendees will learn how women rose through the ranks of a formerly male-dominated art form/sport. People of all ages and genders can look forward to an illuminating experience with a feminist focus.

From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., the two renowned performers will indulge the audience in a live display of their distinctive craft – bertsolaritza. The noon and 5 p.m. events will take place in the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center Jon Bilbao Basque Library and Center for Basque Studies, third floor, north side of building. Guests must access this area by using the north elevator located next to Bytes Café on the second floor.

What is Bertsolaritza and Who are Bertsolaris?

Bertsolaritza, the name of the art form, mixes poetry, song, improvisation, and tradition. A bertsolari performs bertsos, the sung verses. A bertso, always unaccompanied, includes an improvised verse against a selected meter and melody.

The storytelling of bertsos, despite my ignorance of the language of Basque, has an epic style that reminds me of “The Iliad.” Sonically, at least to my ears, bertsos are powerful and haunting. Given today’s almost unlimited access to art of all types, it’s rare to find such a unique use of language and melody.

Bertsolaris and many Basque people across the world appreciate bertsolaritza. The art form is not only beautiful in and of itself, but it also helps to spread the Basque language. As an isolate language, Basque bears no relation to other languages. Consequently, it’s vitally important for speakers of the language to actively promote its use and dissemination. Basques, like the ancient Greeks, use oral tradition to pass knowledge, mythology, and cultural heritage along through the generations.

In Z. Andonegi’s bertso, “Aitorren Izkuntz Zarra,” the bertsolari illustrates the importance of the Basque language to Basques. Here is the first stanza.

 

Image: Wikipedia

 

Bertsolaris perform their craft in varied venues including schools, political events, villages, and competitions. The content of bertsos is varied due to its extemporary nature, but some common themes emerged over time. Hardship, struggle, and humor are portrayed in some popular bertsos, but all subjects and points of view can be called upon – challenge permitting.

At the National Bertsolaris Championship, held every four years, the gai-jartzaile, or subject setter, details the meter, melody, subject, and specific variety of challenge to competitors. The gai-jartzile can solicit hyper-specific subject matter from the bertsolaris. In one challenge, Zugasti was called upon to assume the role of a doctor observing cancer-ridden children who are conducting a wheelchair race in a hospital. Her resulting bertso provoked smiles, tears, and hope.

Thousands of Spectators Descend

Perhaps it’s the versatility of thought that draws in such enormous crowds. The 2017 National Bertsolaris Championship drew more than 14,000 spectators. Video footage of the event looks like a literary Olympics of sorts.

In case you miss Zugasti or Sarasola on Friday, you can catch them in Elko, Nev., at the 34th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The family friendly event takes place Jan. 29 – Feb. 3. UNR’s Basque Library and Center for Basque Studies are co-sponsoring. This year’s theme, “Basques and Buckaroos: Herding Cultures of Basin, Range and Beyond,” will delight lovers of poetry, music, tasty food and adventure.

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