From the spoken word to the written word
From the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century
most improvisers were ordinary people who did not know how to read or write.
However, some of their verses have remained in the collective memory.
There was a time when, on the initiative of educated people,
certain improvisations celebrating love, nature, the family or the Basque
Country were copied by someone who was able to write.
The manuscripts were sold at church entrances or left at the gate of each
farm. Later on, verses were printed on loose sheets and distributed in
public places, sometimes by the improviser himself, or, most often, by a
"professional" who travelled to the different villages where he would sing
them in a beautiful voice in order to sell them more easily.
Thanks to these printed verses, many bertsularis made a name for
themselves. This tradition continued until much later since Félix Iriarte
from Banca used this method to distribute his verses entitled "Hitlerren
amentsa"("Hitler’s Dream") in 1946.
When, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century,
the first newspapers and magazines appeared, some accepted or even proposed
publishing verses, which is why these "fliers" disappeared little by little.
There was even a specialised magazine "Bertsulariya" ("the versifier") which
for one year (1931-1932) published verses and the biographies of
improvisers. All of its issues were published together in the form of a book
by the "Sendoa" publishing house.
The magazine "Argia" and the newspapers "Herria", "Berria", as well
as many others, also regularly publish articles accompanied by
There are also verses present on the web, many of which have been
There is a wide selection of improvised verses at the following web
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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"