We know very little about the exact history of improvisation before the
The author and editor Antonio Zavala, a specialist in this matter, humbly
admits: "We do not know about this subject before 1801".
The writer Joxe Azurmendi replies to this by saying: "Yes, nothing is
clear: not through a lack of material, but because no-one has cast any light
The author of "A History of Basque Literature" and member of the Basque
Academy, Luis Michelena, tells us that "the tradition (of improvisers) is
ancient and goes back at least as far as the improvising ladies of the 15th
century" mentioned by Garibay. But, as Joxe Azurmendi suggests, it is
possible that from the 14th century a certain form of improvisation was
present in the Basque Country since there are songs which evoke wars, family
quarrels and also the death of a Chief, victory over an enemy, etc.
Gorostiaga says that "Improvisation dates back to the Arab period
(888)", a theory supported by the researchers C. Etxegarai, P. Urkizu
and J.A. Arana-Martija.
The year 888 seems a long time ago, but it would be interesting to
analyse the cultural and literary relations between Arabs and Basques.
On the other hand, the Catholic faith which only became established in
the Basque Country late on, undoubtedly influenced our future bertsularis
through its hymns, just like the troubadours and jongleurs.
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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"
"My father, and above all my grandfather, were very fond of
improvisation. When I was 9 or 10 I began to take improvisation classes,
which at that time were organised by Jexux Arzallus.
At the age of 12 Amets Arzallus and I went to classes in Oiartzun. But
after several years we stopped going there and the teacher from Oiartzun
came to Hendaye. That’s how we created a new group in Hendaye. It almost
feels like I was born knowing how to improvise. I know that’s not the case,
but it’s the impression I have.
I actually decided that I enjoyed improvisation when I was 16, when I
realised that I couldn’t do everything: dance, drama, music, improvisation
and pelota. When it came to the crunch, I realised that if there was one
thing I really didn’t want to give up, it was improvisation. From that time
on I think that I accepted it more easily.
I’m convinced that it’s the people, the group that makes you stay …
because it’s not easy when you’re young. Not many of us were improvisers,
few girls, and the group got smaller.
I think that today things are easier. There are more groups, and
improvisation is encouraged more.”
"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"