I was reminded yesterday, by a dream, oddly enough, of a little-known performing art practised in the Basque country, that of the Bertsolariak. Euaskadi is known, if it's known at all, for having the oldest and one of the most interesting languages in Europe, and for the custom of a handful of its people to kill in the name of the others, even though they keep telling them to stop. But there is much that is beautiful, strange and fascinating in that area, and the Bertsolariak are all of those things.
They improvise songs at public events and festivals, and at competitions specially held for the purpose. These songs or rhymes always follow a set pattern, a strict set of rules governing rhyme and metre. The very sound of them is beautiful.
Improvisation is guaranteed by providing, immediately before the verse is sung, a subject, a word or words, which the bertso must use or address. Or the bertso can be an immediate response to one sung by another bertsolari.
In the words of Juan Mari Lekuona, this what happens next:
"En un plazo escaso de segundos el bertsolari ha intuído y ordenado materiales de su composición, ha elaborado su borrador mental; pero... él concebirá su estrofa empezando no por su principio sino por su terminación final, por el último verso..., (y) monta su estrofa 'atzekoz aurrera' (de atrás adelante), cumpliendose exactamente el axioma filosófico escolástico de que el fin es lo primero en la intención aún cuando sea lo último en ejecución."
"In the space of a few seconds the Bertsolari has conceived and structured his composition, and created a rough version in his mind; but... he conceives the verse starting not at the beginning but at the end, with the final line..., (and) builds the verse 'atzekoz aurrera' (from back to front) fulfilling the philosophical precept that the end is where an intention begins, although it is the last step to be carried out."
It is a remarkable thing to watch, and compelling both to the ear and the eye, as you watch the faces of the singers, searching their linguistic and thematic resources, adapting what they find instinctively to the age old structure of the bertso, and seeking to make it beautiful, and wondering, as all performers do, fearing that this time, they may not make it. It is not a technical exercise, the technical restraints serve to highlight the art. When they're good, that is.
They are young and old, traditional and reformist, and the subjects they are given are very varied, from the land and its people and history to the Working Time Directive and what happens when your computer goes down. Try this:
Enkarterriko Bertsolari Txapelketa: Mikel Petuya irabazle
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