Improvised Poetry & Song in the Basque Country


History and development
Competitions and championships

Masters of improvisation
Becoming a bertsulari
Basque Country Improvisation Championship 2009

Partners :

Aquitaine BNSA

Duels of improvisers

In the old days, once a week, on Sunday afternoons, after evensong, most of the villagers used to meet in inns and cider-houses near the church. There, for hours on end, whoever had the “divine talent” improvised verses about the simple things in life, singing and always with humour. This poetic improvisation showed its worth when two improvisers met. Then, a true "dialogue" began. Most of the time one provoked the other.

Audio extract: The improvisers Mattin and Xanpun during a duel
Subject: Mattin plays the role of a pig and Xanpun that of a dog - 3min30
(Basque Cultural Institute Archives)

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Basarri and Uztapide improvising in a cider-house during the 1960's

These talented "entertainers", privileged witnesses of their era who were both admired and revered, were invited to perform at many different public and private events: local festivals, fairs, markets, processions, pelota matches, banquets, weddings, christenings, etc.
For decades, the organisers of popular events generally called on the services of two bertsularis. Placed higher the audience (standing on chairs, a wall or a balcony), the two improvisers led the contest as they wished. They alone controlled the game.

Meal with the bertsulari Sebastian Lizaso

Having an audience was essential to perform and spectators were very often taken by surprise ... by directly having to provide some of the subjects for the improvisers who took pleasure in giving these ordinary people who had come to have fun an ego trip or making them blush .

Open air improvisation contest

This social aspect and friendliness of versified and sung improvisation are still present in the Basque Country today where bertsularis take part in a wide variety of social and cultural events.


For further details visit the site of our partner, the "Xenpelar" improviser resource centre


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The guides

You will be accompanied throughout this site by improvisers. During your visit: click on their photos to discover what they have to say.