Oral improvisation in the world
Versified and sung improvisation is a universal phenomenon.
To access the ARGO database on oral improvisation
throughout the world, click on the different areas of this map (www.argodat.com)
The priest Manuel Lekuona (1894-1987), chairman of the Basque Academy for
many years, was the first great researcher to undertake serious studies on
the primitive and universal nature of improvisation. In his work he
considers versified improvisation to be a relevant part of oral literature
and he says that throughout the world this phenomenon is both very rare and
Although at the beginning of the 21st century it is tending to disappear
across the world, this tradition still remains well alive in the Basque
Furthermore, it is worth highlighting the fact that although
bertsularisme (improvisation) is mostly found in the Basque Country, it is
also present amongst the 10 million Basques living across the world, namely
in the United States ...
Oral improvisation in the world
West and East Asia
Africa, South and central America
details visit the site of our
partner, the "Xenpelar" improviser resource centre
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You will be accompanied throughout this site by improvisers. During your
visit: click on their photos to discover what they have to say.
"Sung mass was also held during the week, and I used to sing to accompany
the priest. I took great pleasure in doing this because at that time I
I found it easy to learn church hymns, although I didn’t understand what
I was singing because everything was in Latin. Later on, I became interested
in Basque songs.
I learnt some of them from my shepherd friends, but mostly from copies
collected here or there. Most of them were given to me by my aunt Mariana.
This is how I learnt many Basque songs.
Sometimes I even hummed away to tunes amongst my sheep. They also seemed
to appreciate my singing.
Behind the songs, writers … Then I began to think that someone was behind
these magnificent songs and I even learnt that they were called
I found this astonishing and difficult to believe because I didn’t think
that I had such a talent.
I was fascinated by the thought of these mysterious characters"
"When I was a child, I didn’t have a model, except for my father. Later
on, at the age of 13 or 14, I began to realise that I had a preference for a
certain type of versification, and I began to know what direction I wanted
Since then, whenever I’m asked who’s my favourite improviser I answer:
Jose Agirre. My father felt very close to him, because they both came from
the same background. We, on the other hand, were born in towns and for us
Jose Agirre is the opposite of our own experience: he was brought up in a
farming environment, in the countryside, he began to work at a very early
He had other references, and you can see that in the way he improvises.
To my mind, he’s a model because his language was rich and full of
colourful expressions, and because he represents a world which is the
opposite of our own"
"When I was small, I wanted to be a pelota player. I hardly realised that
it was even possible to become an improviser.
Afterwards, you begin to think that you could be a improviser, you try to
understand the talent of others, and you have a certain admiration for them.
Then your turn comes when you are standing alongside those who you admired,
and they even become your friends. We saw all of this.
This was the case with Joxe Agirre, who’s 75 years old and still an
improviser. You discover who they really are and you admire them even more.
When you go to a village with this figure, this symbol, you’re surprised to
see how humble they are, and that they’re always ready to help you.
It’s an incredible chance to be able to meet such figures. This is also
the case of Andoni Egaña, three times champion, an unrivalled theoretician,
an enlightened and innovative improviser and a forerunner, but who, when
he’s sat at a table with you, is just one amongst you.
There are great lessons to be learnt from these meetings"
‘"Last year the international improvisation festival took place. There
were Mexicans, Argentineans, Cubans, Catalans and Georgians. They were all
struck by our lack of expression.
We don’t move our body, we don’t modulate our voice, we don’t use any
means of expression. We certainly have a lot of work to do in that field.
But, just as when you lose one sense you compensate it with another, just
like the blind hear better than us, in improvisation it’s the words which
are important, they’re what convey the message.
Content has always been the priority and we’ve achieved a high level of
quality in that respect, but perhaps the time has come to take a look at the
form. But without scarifying the very nature of improvisation.
The body should not take priority over the word, the word must remain at
the centre of the message. Another criticism is that improvisers don’t sing
very well. It’s true, but there again, what’s important is the word, and we
concentrate on words. It’s not singing. The melody is there to help convey
So whilst it’s true that we do need to work on improving the singing and
expressivity, I don’t think, as if often said, that anything is missing from
improvisation. It lacks nothing"
"I acquired a taste for improvisation when the ikastola (Basque-medium
school) in Bayonne opened a class. I was in CM2 (10-11 years old) and we
were only a small group. From then on, I’ve always continued. Karlos
Aizpurua was our teacher.
I must admit that in the beginning I was pushed by my mother, but
afterwards, I realised that improvisation enabled me to learn many things.
Also, it was something new, and it was a change from usual activities like
football or pelota.
When the improvisation schools got off the ground, we met outside lesson
time for an hour a week with Karlos Aizpurua as our teacher. Then I attended
to high-school in Cambo and there, a new group was set up: there were a few
of us from the Lycée in Bayonne, others came from inland in the Basque
At present there are five of us, four boys and one girl. In the
beginning, there were more of us, simply because some left. Improvisation is
not everyone’s cup of tea"