Language the winner as Basque poets face off for glory

Tradition of improvised verse thrives in northern region

It’s a chilly Saturday evening in the Illumbe sports arena, where 6,000 people are gathered, watching two men who are standing up on stage.

One of them sings some lines of verse into a microphone, a cappella, to which the other then responds, all in the Basque language, Euskera. The ritual is occasionally interrupted by appreciative applause.

These are bertsolaris, Basque-language troubadours or poets, who draw on verbal prowess and breathtaking reserves of self-confidence to create and recite verses as they stand before an audience. They often perform in a non-competitive context in bars, squares and taverns. But this event is special: held every four years, it is the provincial championship of Gipuzkoa, the heartland of Basque culture.

Outside the arena, queuing to get in, is José Cruz Labaka, whose daughter, Ane, is one of the eight competitors. For him, like many of those present, this competition is all about the language.


“I’m a Basque speaker,” he says. “I speak Spanish too, but I prefer to speak Basque and I love everything to do with Euskera – above all this event.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Xabier Argote, another local who has come to the final.

“For us, it’s like something magical, almost,” he says. “It’s so well done. It’s like a religious experience because it is something that is very deep inside of us.”

To an outsider, the rules and parameters the bertsolaris must observe can seem almost absurdly strict. The verses they deliver must contain a certain number of lines, and each of those lines a certain number of syllables. As if that were not enough to think about, judges also reward complex rhyming schemes.

The Gipuzkoa final is made up of several rounds, each with slightly different conditions. Competitors – four men and four women in this final – are frequently paired off and, with advanced warning of just a minute or so, they are given roles to perform in a series of imagined scenarios.


"There's a topic giver and they suggest to you a topic, usually also a character, and you have to sing from the point of view of that character," says Nerea Ibarzabal, a bertsolari from the province of Bizkaia.

“But they have to think first what they want to say from this position they are suggested, and then they have to start a dialogue,” she adds. “When they sing in verse they have to answer each other and then they have to build a conversation.”

There is a tense silence after the topic has been given and each bertsolari stands before their microphone, planning what they are going to sing, the melody they will choose to deliver the words and the technical restrictions they must respect while doing so.

“A good bertsolari should know how to adapt, to different places, moods and different people,” says Ibarzabal. “Sometimes you should know how to read the situation and the moment, to see what they expect from you – if you want to be funny, or go a bit deeper.”

She compares the improvisation to that of musicians or rappers, who rely on techniques they have used before to create something new. Experience and training mean bertsolaris have many phrases and rhymes already internalised, making the moment of invention before an audience less intimidating.

Topics they are given to sing about tend to be everyday issues, such as personal dilemmas or, perhaps fittingly in a region known for its industrial history, labour disputes.

In one phase in the Gipuzkoa final, two competitors are told they are workmates who have been asked to take a first-aid course outside office hours. One of them argues in favour of doing it, the other against. Some of the scenarios are less formal. For example, two bertsolaris play the role of friends, one of whom always has to have the final word. “I can’t help it if I know everything,” he sings, to laughter from the audience.

The bertsolari tradition has existed for centuries. But it nearly died out during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, which repressed the regional languages and customs of the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia. After the return to democracy in the late 1970s, Basque institutions were restored and the regional government vigorously promoted the use of Euskera, through the education system and culture.

Meanwhile, organisations such as Bertsozale Elkartea (Friends of Bertsolarismo) work to give bertsolarismo prominence in contemporary society and children are able to learn the art in classes and workshops.

A notoriously difficult language to learn, with roots that pre-date the Indo-European tongues that surround it, Euskera’s exact origins remain a mystery. Today, it has about a million speakers, the vast majority in Spain’s northern Basque region and in the north of neighbouring Navarre, with a small minority in France’s Basque territory.

Ancient times

Given the relatively small geographical area in which the language is spoken and the challenges of learning it, it is perhaps unsurprising that Basque speakers attach such importance to the bertsolari events.

“Today we are singing, thinking, laughing, maybe crying in Basque, completely in Basque and I think this helps to normalise a language,” says Ibarzabal of the Gipuzkoa final. “It’s a culture that comes from ancient times but it becomes modern every time it’s sung.”

The Gipuzkoa championship ends with a stand-off between two finalists: Agin Laburu and reigning champion Beñat Gaztelumendi. In a light-hearted role-play, they are cast as two Catalans who have come to San Sebastián to watch Barcelona play in the nearby Anoeta football stadium, but who get lost and find themselves watching the bertsolari contest instead.

“Look, there’s Puigdemont, up there in the stand,” sings Gaztelumendi, in a reference to the Catalan politician who lives abroad to avoid the Spanish judiciary. “Here you are free!” shoots back Laburu.

When it is over the panel of judges chooses the 32-year-old Gaztelumendi as the winner and his trophy is the txapela, a large black beret, which he receives to an appreciative roar from the public. If the other seven competitors are disappointed, they hide it well, entirely in keeping with an art form that thrives on kinship rather than oneupmanship.

“We all want to win the championship but what does winning mean?” Gaztelumendi asks the next morning as he sits in a bar on the outskirts of San Sebastián. He stayed up celebrating until 5am but after just a few hours’ sleep his passion is undimmed.

“I’m not out to beat the others,” he says. “If I perform I want the other person who is performing with me to do well so that I perform better. In that sense, it’s a collective art.”

Gaztelumendi is pleased at the way bertsolarismo is going, with more women and young people getting involved. And, for this quietly spoken champion, it seems the real winner is always the language.

“Our parents’ generation feared that those who came after them might not speak Euskera,” he says, looking back at the dark days before democracy returned.

“That fear has passed. Our generation speaks it more than before, so this is a good moment. The language’s survival is no longer at stake.”