ELKO — Joxe Mallea throws his head back and laughs as he translates Euskara during a performance of improvised Basque poetry. He jots notes on a pad while five singers from Basque Country and the U.S. demonstrate bertsolaritza Feb. 2 at the 34th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
For the first verbal joust, Mallea set the stage by giving Oihana Iguaran and Martin Goicoechea a scenario about which they must sing. Iguaran, from Basque Country, and Goicoechea, from Wyoming, must in spontaneous verse and song impersonate lovers who have not seen each other in 50 years — since the man left for Elko to become a cowboy and the woman stayed in the old country.
Iguaran begins, producing a melody in the native tongue with the sound of sweet ringing. Goicoechea responds in a nasally voice, and the two go back and forth about four times to build the scene in song.
In his translation, Mallea explains the imaginary conversation in a love story that ends with the man saying, “I see you as pretty as ever.”
What makes Mallea laugh, however, is another role-playing scenario in which Miren Artetxe, from Basque Country, and Jesus Goñi — the national champion bertsolari from Reno — must embody an engaged couple arguing over whether to live in Elko or Europe.
Their debate is interrupted by a casino worker, portrayed by world champion bertsolari Maialen Lujanbio, who tests Goñi’s resolve to wed one woman. In a conversational singing tone and with a twinkle in his eye, he says through a translator the real jackpot is the two young women vying for his attention.
Yet Mallea shows true glee as Lujanbio delivers the determinant line in a low and undulating voice. In English, the meaning is something like this: “The playboy will end up with no money and no women.”
Throughout the performance, the singers convey the improvisational and collaborative fundamentals of bertsolaritza, a hundreds-year-old oral tradition of the Basque culture maintained in the old and new worlds. The transcendence shows when more than once a verse loops around to a refrain familiar to all the participants, and no matter who stands behind the microphone, all sing along.
After the final fast exchange of ideas, verse, rhyme and rhythm among all the singing poets, Mallea once again translates.
“One of the last verses was, ‘We don’t have cowboys like you in the old country,’” he said.