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ELKO — In the history of bertsolaritza, male participants mostly sang about or represented women in the Basque improvised singing poetry. Over the past 30 years, however, female bertsolaris including Maialen Lujanbio and Oihana Iguaran from Basque Country have begun to put women into verse and in the spotlight.

“As women, we are growing and redefining the group,” Lujanbio said.

She and Iguaran discussed their experiences about entering and changing the male-dominated cultural art form Jan. 30 during the Center for Basque Studies 15th annual conference as part of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which features “Basques and Buckaroos.”

Bertsolaritza performances and discussions are on the gathering schedule to demonstrate the importance of the Basque oral tradition, which is akin to American slam poetry but sung extemporaneously in Euskara on specific topics using rhyme and melody while responding to another participant.

For context, Iguaran presented a short film portraying illustrations, photos and video of performers documented over three centuries. The Basque people singing and debating in town squares were nearly all men, and the film did not show women singing.

“That’s how we go – the history of bertsolaritza,” Iguaran said before asking the audience to imagine her as a young girl seeing similar images. “Do you think I could identify with any of the bersolari we saw?”

That changed when Lujanbio shattered convention by becoming the first woman to win the Bertsolaris Championship in 2013 and again in December 2017. Showing a photo of Lujanbio wearing the winner’s txapela, or beret, onstage at the championship, Iguaran said, “This one [is] the biggest change, or the most symbolic.”

In her talk, Lujanbio explained that just because women were not documented as singers doesn’t mean there were not women participants in the past.

“We bertsolari have existed since ever,” she said during her first English presentation.

But it’s only in recent years that women have emerged in the public arena to sing at community gatherings such as bars and at movies, and in competitions. With the newfound platform, Lujanbio and others have been broadening the boundaries of the craft. Efforts include introducing more topics about women, portraying women in a wider variety of roles, encouraging women to participate and teaching the next generation how to improvise.

“I think it is important to design the transmission of this culture,” Lujanbio said, explaining through a translator that the continuation of bertsolaritza preserves the Basque culture and language.

Lujanbio described some of the factors that contribute to the success of women’s emergence as noted improvisational poets. The accepting nature of a younger generation and the establishment of schools that teach the art of improvisation to boys and girls alike helped blaze the way. Both speakers said that the full incorporation of women into bertsolaritza has progressed but still has a long way to go.

“The idea is to develop and be alive,” Lujanbio said. “In bertsolaritza, we take a risk and we gain success.”

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