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"Language is the heart of culture and orality indicates that a language is alive"

Asier Barandiarán, an expert in bertsolarism, collaborates with a research project on creativity and oral language at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society

Descripcion de la imagen
Asier Barandiarian es experto en bertsolarismo de la Universidad del País Vasco
FOTO: Natalia Rouzaut
02/05/18 11:23 Natalia Rouzaut

Oral genres are present in all cultures, but their importance has steadily diminished in favor of writing. One of the exceptions to this is found in bertso, which is comprised of stanzas sung and improvised in the Basque language.

According to Asier Barandiaran, a professor in the Department of Language and Literature at the University of the Basque Country, at present, "bertso as a genre is growing in strength."This is due to its organization, for example, there are institutions that conduct research on bertsolarism, documentation centers and schools dedicated to it. The genre has keenly united "tradition and modernity," Barandiaran points out.

For the expert, orality is still present today since much of the information we receive is transmitted audiovisually and not in written form. In fact, he affirms that "Language is the heart of culture and orality indicates that a language is alive" because oral creativity demonstrates "how we create language, how we use tradition, how we use prefabricated elements, as well as our ability to create new images, ideas..."

The ORFORCREA project aims to understand how the human mind can generate manifestations as complex as oral poetic representations; the Marie Curie researcher Sarali Gintsburg develops ORFORCREA at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society. Asier Barandiaran collaborates with Gintsburg on research about different oral traditions and the cognitive bases of creativity in verbal art.

Among the traditions they address, Sarali focuses on Jbala, an oral poetic tradition from northern Morocco. "Orality has a series of tendencies or patterns that are common in different cultures and languages​​ and among them is Jbala," Barandiaran notes. Gintsburg and Barandiaran agree on the similarities of these traditions: both are linked to a more traditional and rural world. In addition, their communicative strategies, including compositional and even certain rhetorical techniques, are quite similar.

Women and bertsolarism

The first documentary references to bertsolarism, as far as we know, date from the beginning of the 19th century. They include oral interpretations in city squares and taverns, often in the form of competition. However, Barandiaran says that the first evidence of improvised bertsolarism come from women, for example the funeral songs of Milia de Lastur (15th century), which, like in many cultures, were sung on an improvised basis at funerals.

"In the world of orality, in general, women have played a very important role," he mentions. However, he notes regretfully that, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, women were relegated to the background. "This has been reversed in recent decades where, thanks to, for example, bertsolarism schools, women began to take part in various bertsolaristic events," he adds. In fact, the current bertsolarism champion is a woman named Maialen Lujanbio; she will perform at the ICS on May 16.

How are bertsos composed?

In the beginning, aspiring bertsolari performers had to learn to create their stanzas by listening, paying close attention to others and creating mental rules. All this changed in the 1980s with the first bertsolarism schools. They taught bertso composition step by step through the “zu ere bertsolari” method based on Xabier Amuriza’s book of the same name. Barandiaran asserts that now there are "very developed materials and able teachers for learning bertsos," including texts, audiovisual material, exercises, etc. "Bertsolarism ceased being something almost magical and began to be taught as something that can be learned," he contends.

As the researcher affirms, learning can begin with text, but orality and improvisation quickly emerge. To create a bertso, he explains, "first you have to take into account the assigned topicor your partner’s words through bertso" since most bertsolaristic events involve competition. Bertso starts at the end, thus a bertsolari must think first of the final effect she wants her words to have, adjusted to the rhythm, rhyme and meter. Then, depending on the give rhyme, she must look for a whole series of puntuak (points) or words that rhyme with that phrase.

Finally, she engages inbete-lana: "She must complete what is left of the bertso, trying to infuse meaning, while paying attention to the meter." All this happens in less than a minute as it is sung and improvised.

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