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The improviser

Improvisers are well integrated in the community, come from different backgrounds, are men or women and keep their audiences’ breath bated with their sharp minds and quick wit.

Great Bertsolari Championship of the Basque Country 2009
Great Bertsolari Championship of the Basque Country 2009 (EKE - Maite Deliart)
In competitions, championships and sparring matches, bertsularis perform without makeup, in everyday clothes (no special costume or specific style of clothing) and without any special effects. With their hands behind their back or in their pockets, the spoken word is rarely accompanied by any kind of gesture.  There are no apparent signs of social distinction.

Social status

In the past Basque improvisers were usually from modest backgrounds, very often from the countryside.

Bertsularis in a tavern
Bertsularis in a tavern
Furthermore, very often they often used the name of the farm where they were born or the name of their village as their stage name: Juan-Francisco Petriarena alias "Xenpelar" was from the "Xenpelarre" house in Renteria or Pernando Aire alias "Xalbador" from "Xalbadorrenea" in Urepel; Pernando Bengoetxea alias Pernando Amezketarra was from the village of Amezketa in Gipuzkoa, Mattin Trecu alias "Ahetzeko Mattin", lived in Ahetze, etc.

Bars and restaurants were their preferred venues for improvising. They were often illiterate or had very little schooling and they entertained their audiences after having drunk. At a time when there were no newspapers, radio or television, bertsularis were emblematic characters. They drew inspiration from social topics which they freely commented on.

With the evolution of society, the image of improvisation and a fortiori the identifying characteristics of improvisers have changed.  More and more frequently from urban backgrounds, they have been through higher education. They are also younger and younger, a direct consequence of the current widespread teaching of this art.

Men and women

Throughout the long history of improvisation, men were for a long time the main players. Only men improvised in public places, such as bars, squares, competitions and championships.
One of the latest developments in improvisation is undoubtedly the appearance and increasing number of women in matches, as well as their involvement in their organisation. Just like all other walks of social and cultural life today, women are increasingly present in public life. This recent phenomenon deserves looking at in greater depth.

Maindi Murua, Mixel Xalbador II
Maindi Murua, Mixel Xalbador II. Xi - La - Ba Bertsulari championship of the North Basque Country. Sara, 2010-09-02. (EKE - Maite Deliart)

Intellectual skill

Even though they used to often be illiterate or had little schooling, bertsularis prove their exceptional talent and skill: a sharp mind and quick wit, a stupendous memory and self-confidence, in short exceptional talent.

Odei Barroso
Odei Barroso. Vice-champion of Xi - La - Ba 2010. (EKE - Jakes Larre)
What strikes most when in the presence of bertsularis or at a match is their mental agility when improvising. Since they do not know the subject beforehand, improvising verse and singing whilst respecting the rhythm and rhyme is a truly impressive feat!

Besides vast general knowledge and a creative ability, they also have an exceptional memory, which is really useful to avoid repeating words and especially for finding rhymes.

Some bertsularis are born gifted with some of the essential innate qualities, but becoming a good improviser also requires a great deal of hard work.

In his autobiographic book, ''Odolaren mintzoa'', Xalbador says: "Ez dakit baden ofizio errexik, bainan etzaut iduri hau baino zailagoko aunitz baden munduan. Ez litaike ez hala! Oraino ere zonbaitek, eta nihaurek haur denboran uste bezala, dohain hutsez egiten balitz!'' ("I don’t know whether there are any easy professions out there, but there aren’t many harder ones. And many people still think, just like I used to when I was small, that it’s simply a question of talent!").

Directory of Basque versified improvisers

Bertsolaria

Improvisers,  improvisation contest leaders, judges, contest organisers, improvisation competitions and championships, courses and improvisation resources, in the directory of The Basque Cultural Institute.