ELKO — Spontaneous thought, melody, rhyme and tradition will unite through improvised verse in bertsolaritza to be performed during the 34th annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko as part of programming that recognizes Basque culture.
“It is very old tradition,” said Xabier Irujo, director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. “Today it’s very popular. It has gained a lot of momentum.”
Among the singing guests scheduled to perform is two-time National Bertsolaris Championship winner Maialen Lujanbio from Hernani, Gipuzko, Basque Country, who took the title most recently in 2017. In 2009, she became the first woman to win the competition, which occurs every four years in Barakaldo. The event draws audiences of more than 14,000 people, and last year’s edition featured 43 bertsolaris who competed.
“It is a traditional but contemporary art, and I think it is one of the most powerful meeting point[s] for Basque speakers,” Lujanbio said.
The Elko bertsolaritza performance features three more artists, including another woman, Oihana Iguaran Barandiaran from Basque Country, and Martin Goicoechea from Basque Country, and Jesus Goñi, who immigrated to the U.S. and now lives in Reno.
Not much is known about the earliest bertsolaritza, but it dates back at least 500 years ago, Irujo explained. In the old times, bertsolaris would sing in village squares as a way to debate.
“They did it on the spot in rhythm and in verse,” he said, explaining that today’s version follows the same format. “They have to start singing on the spot … and they have to argue with each other.”
Basque Country straddles Spain and France surrounded by the Pyrenees Mountains, Atlantic Ocean and the Ebro River. Speaking Euskara, the Basque language that developed in isolation, residents of the New Jersey-sized autonomous community historically lived agrarian and seafaring lifestyles. Some came to the U.S. and settled in northeastern Nevada in the mid-1800s as sheepherders.
“We hope to show our way of singing, our improvising tradition and above all our language,” Lujanbio said. “Basque language is alive and is our main tool to create our poetry, in which we express our opinions, feelings and our point of view towards any current affairs.”
Onstage, the four will demonstrate the oral tradition. In modern gatherings, a singer-poet will within seconds mentally prepare a poem based on a theme, word or words, character, rhythm or poetic form then sing his or her creation in Euskara, Irujo explained. Then the next singer-poet responds, in a fashion similar to American slam poetry, trying to outdo the previous performer.
“It will be exciting for us to show our way of singing and to share and to know other tradition[s] and artistic expressions,” Lujanbio said.
This is the first time that the Cowboy Poetry Gathering has featured Basque culture as a theme, although a bertsolari sang during the event about 10 years ago, Irujo said.
This year’s gathering will showcase bertsolaritza in several sessions, including “Jousting in Verse” on Feb. 2. The Center for Basque Studies also will present “The Role of Women in Basque and America Oral Poetry,” a conference to be conducted several times over the weeklong schedule, to discuss women’s achievements in the context of bertsolaritza.
“The fact that they are doing it here at home is a very special event for us,” he said. “It is the first time that we do such a thing.”