Kantuketan, in Quest of Singing

Written in 2006 by journalist and translator Kattalin Totorika for each record "Kantuketan" Ocora Radio France.

The history of Basque singing is also a ceaseless repetition, like that ancient spring –so dear to the contemporary Basque poet Josean Artze–, which seems to be regenerating since time immemorial and for all eternity. To reach us today, repetition of these words and melodies has already been relayed for centuries, by the miracle of memory and the human voice. And all the motions of this singing are still being repeated today, being transmitted and transformed in the process the better to be perpetuated or shared. 

Maddi Oihenart  © Loraldia Festibala (2022)
Maddi Oihenart © Loraldia Festibala (2022)

As ethnologist Denis Laborde writes, this is no doubt how "a common culture" is formed, "enlivened and invented by a shared language, that constructs over long years our reasons for being together, and for wanting to stay that way". For Basque singing is not just a reflection of men’s lives, with their vicissitudes and triumphs, their landscapes and customs. It is a social link, witnessing both the History and the more personal stories of a community which, through singing, is able to mock its own shortcomings and praise its heroes, a community for which this music carries as much hope as suffering.

No more or less than elsewhere perhaps, but Basque singing has one particularity: Euskara, a language to which it has been historically inseparable from the most ancient times. Euskara, pre-dating Indo-European languages, is one of the oldest in Europe. It was this language which fashioned popular singing and lived on, there again, thanks to the repetition of words, phrases, and sonorities transported by singing.

Since Basque was for a long time exclusively oral, the first Basque writing dating only from the 16th century, Euskara no doubt brought to Basque singing, as suggests the musicologist José Antonio Arana Martija, a supplementary musicality. But an oral tradition like this, unusual at the heart of a civilisation of the written word, has made Basque singing history rather difficult to outline for historians and researchers keen to explore the subject. The breakthrough came from some "curious, forthright scholars" who in the 19th century, began to collate material, giving this singing a new life through their publication of the first albums of popular songs.

From then on, in the words of Denis Laborde, "we write to keep our words". And it is true that Basque singing, despite often tumultuous pressure, was able to keep, preserve and regenerate the words of this language, so singular and universal at the same time, nowadays declined in every tone, every rhythm, and capable of any creative audacity. A language ceaselessly repeated and always renewed, carried tirelessly, to their last breath, by the bards, troubadours and poets of today. Differently perhaps to those who preceded them, yet in some ways so similarly.

A trip to the history of singing in Basque Country

"Unlike the tense and somewhat theatrical sentimentalism of the Latins, and the tormented despair of popular songs of the Balkans, Basque songs are imbued with a spirit of calm and contemplative melancholy, serene and objective like the Basque people themselves".

Rodney Gallop, British researcher


Everything may have began with a vulture bone, pierced with three holes, around 20,000 years before our era. A prehistoric flute, discovered in 1961 by the archaeologist Eugène Passemard, in the caves of Isturitz (province of Basse Navarre), proves to be the oldest musical instrument ever found in Europe. Its form and the disposition of its three apertures make it an ancestor of the present-day txistu (a straight flute with three apertures) and its Souletin variant, the xirula.

Another discovery also testifies to a very ancient Basque culture: in 1960, the ethnologist José Miguel de Barandiaran uncovered, during excavations in the caves of Atxeta, a few kilometers from Gernika (province of Biscaye), a deer’s antler with three points. This is a horn capable of producing up to four different notes. The instrument, now exhibited in the Archeological Museum in Bilbao (Spain), could be roughly 8,000 years old. No doubt the musical practices of proto-Basque peoples, whose affiliation with contemporary Basques has been proved, was accompanied by an autochthonous vocal tradition.

But in the absence of any concrete traces and documents, certainty has to cede to hypothesis and interrogation.We had to wait until the beginning of the Roman Empire for a written account by the Greek geographer Strabon, describing the Vascones as "dancing to the sound of the flute and leading the dance with a trumpet". An account which anthropologist Julio Caro Baroja saw, in the 20th century, as describing the "drinking dance" (edate dantza) still known today in the Basque Country. It does therefore seem indisputable that Basque music existed already at this time, a fact confirmed a little later by two sons of Kalagorri-Calahorra (an ancient Basque town in the province of Rioja): Marcius Fabius Quintalanius and Aurelius Prudencius, left priceless testimony to the music of their day, evoking notably the polyphonic singing in two or three voices, practised in the country of their birth. Subsequently, despite probable Greek, Celtic and Roman influences, Basque music was to undergo little radical change until the Middle Ages.


In the Middle Ages, with the propagation of Christianity, music of the Basque Country was to be profoundly influenced by the introduction of a form of monodic chant, composed essentially in abbeys: Gregorian chant. At first reticent about this new way of singing, theBasques were little by little to accept its structure and appropriate its melodies. Several choir books from the 11th and the 12th centuries testify to this adaptation. Some of them have music written on a single line (anterior to the notation on four horizontal lines introduced in the mid 11th century by the Italian Benedictine father Guido d'Arezzo). Gradually, Gregorian music was to modify the scales traditionally used in Basque popular music, without ever managing to impose its melismatic style of singing (several notes of music for a single syllable of text). Popular Basque singing was to remain syllabic (each syllable being assigned to a single musical note).

From the 15th century on, with the secularisation of church music, polyphonic singing, taken into the public arena by the troubadours, experienced a truly golden age. At the beginninng of the 14th century, there was a school of polyphony in Navarra, and José de Anchorena, who in 1436 was choirmaster of a children’s choir in Pamplona, was already composing polyphonic music differentiating voices from instruments. Two other composers were at the heart of this development of polyphonic music: Joanes de Antxieta, born in 1463 in Azpeita (Gipuzkoa), who held the positions of cantor and musical chaplain at the court of Ferdinand and Isabelle de Castille, and Gonzalo Martinez de Bizkargi, born in 1460 in Azkoitia (Gipuzkoa), no doubt the first Basque musician of European renown, and noted for his work on singing theory. The first landmarks of so-called "art" music were laid. It would continue to develop independently of popular music and singing.


If songs were no doubt essential to Basque popular poetry since time immemorial, a lack of written archives long deprived researchers of any solid basis for ascertaining this. Though popular song was already prolific in the Middle Ages, according to Jean-Baptiste Orpustan, the author of a Summary of Basque literary history, "almost everything prior to the 13th century was lost in the course of time". The only texts to have reached us are "fragments of an almost everyday literature born of oral improvisation". And we have to await the 19th century and the intellectual ferment of the period of "Basque Enlightenment", until a few audacious scholars become interested in this popular tradition.

The first would be Juan Ignacio de Iztueta, author in 1826 of one of the very first song albums in musical notation to be published in Europe. In the words of the author himself, this work, entitled Euscaldun Anciña Anciñaco, and produced in collaboration with the musician Pedro de Albeniz, "should not be considered as an object of leisure, but as a veritable national monument". It marked the beginning of a movement that would continue to grow throughout the century. The Basque Country was in fact not to escape the infatuation for popular traditions prevalent in Europe at the time. This was the time when Antoine d'Abbadie, future president of the Academy of Sciences, inaugurated his "Fêtes basques" in the Northern Basque Country, a kind of floral parade which contributed to the valorisation of Basque singing. The albums and critical works of several authors would follow.

Augustin Xaho, Francisque Michel, Mme de la Villehelio, Pascal Lamazou, J. D. J. Sallaberry, José Manterola, Charles Bordes and Bartolomé de Ercilla were all pioneers in a field that helped to create the "popular" or "traditional" song. In 1912, a competition organised by a delegation from the provinces of Alava, Biscaye and Guipuzcoa, for the author of the best popular Basque song album, was the occasion for two eminent Basque musicologists to constitute a monumental, determining work for the history of Basque singing. Resurreccion Maria de Azkue (1864-1951), the winner of the competition, published a few years later his Cancionero Popular Vasco (Popular Basque song-book), an album of some thousand melodies, in musical notation, along with commentaries and analysis, their complete texts and variants, and a translation of the ensemble into Castilian. Father José Antonio de Donostia (1886-1956), second prize-winner in the competition, published in 1921 an album of nearly four hundred melodies entitled Euskal eres sorta. He subsequently devoted his whole life to the work of collating repertoire. These two albums would finally constitute the body of works that the Basque Country needed, and allow the discovery of the gems of Basque oral literature that are still part of popular repertoire today.

"The Basque is always singing everywhere: at home, in church, in the street, in the country side. He sings whether he is happy or sad, whether crouched to scythe meadows of regularly sweeping bracken, or trampling apples in the cider press".

Father Donostia, musicologist


Numerous aspects of the community’s life are evoked through traditional Basque songs. The most ancient would be songs of quest, most often linked to highpoints of the year (Christmas, New Year, Saint Agathe, Carnaval, Saint John). Excerpts of a few war songs, relating great historical deeds, managed to reach their compiler: this is the case of the Song of Beotibar, which describes, in close to epic form, one of the bloody episodes of the mediaeval wars in the Basque Country, the combat of Beotibar against Guipuzcoans and Navarra in 1321.

But of these mediaeval songs that have miraculously come down to us, the Berterretxen khantoria (Song of Berterretxe), a Souletin complaint of the 15th century, is unquestionably one of the best preserved, and most moving. Set against the feud of the Beaumonts and the Gramonts, it narrates the assassination of Berterretxe, a young man from Larrau, whose killing was ordered by the Count of Beaumont. It was published for the first time by J.D. J. Sallaberry, in his volume of 1870. Love songs, abundant in the repertoire, seem for the most part to have been later in origin. Their use of metaphor is constant –the most frequently used symboles being the bird, the star, or the flower– and, as points out Jon Bagües, Director of the Basque Music Archive Centre in Renteria (Guipuzcoa), "they are often a blend of personal testimony and outpourings of love with considerations of society at large". A spirit of sarcams and mockery is not absent from popular poetry and satiric songs abound, at all epochs, on the subject of isolated events and everyday misadventures, when they are not criticising the supposed upholders of law and discipline.

There are also numerous songs of exile, born of those vast waves of emigration to the American continent which were to radically transform the whole of Basque society in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries. Obliged most often for economic or political reasons to take up exile? Basques would express their nostalgia for their homeland in these songs. The religious canticle has quite a special place in this oral heritage. This was transmitted orally during liturgical ceremonies for, as José Antonio Arana Martija, points out "the illiterate Basque learnt many verses of songs and canticles, and even knew Latin canticles from masses and vespers by heart".

Albums like that of Joannes Etcheberri, Kantica izpiritualac (1630), also testify to the practice of ancient para-liturgical music in the vernacular. And in the course of the 20th century, the clergy themselves asserted a desire to construct a liturgy in Basque, of which the cornerstone was singing. Of course, this anthology would be incomplete without lullabies, children’s songs, funeral songs, sea shanties, drinking songs or dance tunes, which have also come down to us and continue, in the case of some of them, to nourish contemporary repertoire.

As for the so-called "political" song (formerly qualified as "historical"), it would assert itself in the 19th century –the period of the emergence of nationalism throughout Europe– with a personality who was to become the greatest "bard" of Basque history, José Maria Iparragirre, the author of the song Gernikako arbola (The Tree of Guernica), considered today as the Basque national anthem. A universalist hymn, this text evokes as a symbol of liberty the oak of Gernika beneath which kings, since the Middle Ages, would swear to respect popular liberties. After Iparragirre, political song was to be a special flower, blossoming in protest to tragedies and dramatic events of the 20th century.

The birth of Basque nationalism was accompanied at the beginning of the 20th century with a new awareness of what could be called "Basque identity". In the Southern Basque Country, poets like Lizardi, Lauaxeta and Orixe brought a new dynamic to literature in Euskara, while in the North, the figure of Jules Moulier "Oxobi", took up the Basque language, giving it the brilliance and freshness of a poetic renaissance. Their writings will sooner or later become songs.

In this country, any popular poetry is eventually sung. In 1936, the Franquist coup d'Etat and the subsequent war in Spain, crystallised nationalist sentiment. And poets also fell victim to ferocious repression: Federico Garcia Lorca, in 1936 in Grenada, Lauaxeta and Aitzol (the driving force behind the magazine Yakintza), were executed in 1937 in the Basque Country. In memory of the resistance of Basque combatants, one song of struggle, Eusko Gudariak (The Basque Combatants) is still sung today.

The Second World War and the installation of Franco’s dictatorship were to momentarily halt the rebirth of Basque culture. But in the sixties, the Basque Country was to experience the same social and cultural boom as the rest of Europe.


A Guipuzcoan priest, Nemesio Etxaniz (1899-1982) can be considered, according to the historian and researcher Xabier Itzaina, as "the real precursor of the new politically committed Basque song". After him, Mixel Labéguerie (1921-1980), a political figure and an artist, was to assert himself as the man of transition. His texts innovated with their politically and socially orientated messages, offering a veritable vision of the Basque Country identity. No-one before him, in the Basque Country, ever accompanied himself on the guitar. He even introduced the so-called zortziko rhythm (in 5/8) into his songs. Gu gira Euzkadiko gazteri berria (We are the New Youth of the Basque Country) was a song that rapidly became the symbol of a whole new generation of abertzale (Basque patriots). Mixel Labéguerie certainly opened a new path, taken shortly after in the Northern Basque Country, by new composer-songwriters, influenced by the international protest song and particularly by the politically committed French song: Manex Pagola, Peio Ospital and Pantxoa Carrère, Beñat Sarasola or Eñaut Etxamendi and Eñaut Larralde. "All inherited the legacy of Labéguerie, investing it with a new social and political dimension", states Xabier Itzaina.

In the South, where the Franquist dictatorship banned any form of political expression, especially in Basque, a new artistic cultural underground prospered, notably with the experience of the Ez Dok Amairu collective (1965-1972) which united artists later to become famous like Benito Lertxundi, Xabier Lete, Lurdes Iriondo, Mikel Laboa, Jose Angel Irigarai, the sculptor Jorge Oteiza or Jesus and Josean Artze. In the 70s, kantaldi (concerts given by Basque artists) played to ever-expanding publics. Concert halls, fired with white heat, would fervently sing refrains that demanded Basque sovereignty, amnesty for political prisoners, or liberty of expression in Euskara.

Telesforo de Monzon, a political figure and a poet, the author of a great number of songs performed by the duo Peio eta Pantxoa, symbolised the link uniting, during this period, Basques from both sides of the Pyrenees. After the death of Franco (1975) Basque gradually came out of hiding as its song began to translate the hopes and aspirations of Basque society. On June 17th, 1978, 40,000 people filled the San Mames Stadium in Bilbao for the closing concert of the Bai Euskarari campaign (Yes to the Basque language), in support of the Academy of the Basque language. All the exponents of new Basque song were there for this event, the unique dimension of which marked both the apogee and the beginning of the decline of the movement sparked off by the kantaldi phenomenon. Soon these artists would be relayed by others who would also enrich the musical currents of their time.


They were twenty years old in the 70s. One was born in Aussurucq, in Soule, and grew up in Paris. The other, born on the banks of the Nive, in Ustaritz, never left his native Basque Country. Both avid fans of Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, they were to create a veritable "culture-shock" by deciding to form a Basque rock group, in the Basque Country. Niko Etxart, with his group Minxoriak, and Anje Duhalde, who founded with guitarist Mixel Ducau the group Errobi, were unquestionably the precursors of this phenomenon which eventually became a musical genre in its own right: Basque rock.

Still solo performers today, these two paved the way for musicians like the group Itoiz, which would leave its "symphonic rock" stamp on Basque song in the 80s, and for a new generation which, with groups like Kortatu, Hertzainak, Negu Gorriak or Su Ta Gar, would give rock a ring of radical urban revolt, the echoes of which still resound today.

Basque rock was then endlessly transformed, going wherever possible to meet its public, notably to the festival Euskal Herria Zuzenean (the “live” Basque Country Festival) which, since 1996, attracts thousands of people to the Basque interior each year for a huge line-up of artists from the Basque scene and elsewhere.


"A people that lives is a people that sings", declared Father Donostia in 1922. For sure, the Basque Country no longer sings as it once used to. Voices sing more discreetly, in churches and cafés, in public squares and in the countryside. But they can still be heard at celebrations, during meal-times, or in choral concerts, the popularity of which has never let up in this country. Popular repertoire is still alive and well. It belongs to one and all. The message has reached those active in Basque culture today: for years, associations have been working remarkably well with children, forming choral groups, improvisation schools, or organising singing competitions on the scale of the whole Basque Country.

The Kantuketan programme, initiated by the Basque Cultural Institute, has allowed a very wide cross-section of the public to rediscover the historical, social, literary and pedagogical dimensions of Basque singing, thereby regaining their ceaselessly renewed versions of these songs, their re-inventing of the repertoire with new sonorities, their cries of revolt in words and sounds of today, they explore every creative path. 

"We would be right in assuming that the practice of sung improvisation has always been, as much in the Basque Country as elsewhere, the most highly developed form of literary social expression".

Jean-Baptiste Orpustan, A Concise History of Basque literature


The phenomenon of improvisation fascinates and draws admiration in all cultures. But when sung, versified and rhymed as in the Basque Country, improvisation becomes art, literature, both playful and challenging, and demands exceptional qualities of its exponents. The singing of the Basque extempore poets has always amazed their public which, able to remember a few couplets, has made some of their lines immortal. Some have even become classics of Basque singing. In this sense, versified sung improvisation is often considered the "mother" of all singing in the Basque Country.


With very little information at our disposal before the 19th century, it is difficult to date the origins. Some researchers date it from the Arab Empire (9th century), while others maintain that from the 16th century on, a certain form of improvisation was practised in the Basque Country. If this very ancient tradition also existed in other parts of the world, the phenomenon took on quite another dimension in the Basque Country where it was practised in taverns, cider factories, and in all places of meeting and fellowship. For, as writes Antonio Zavala, the author of a study on this phenomenon,"bertsularism" "springs above all from a particular ambience".


Ordinary folk, the great majority of the 18th, 19th and even early 20th century improvisers did not know how to read and write. Mostly from shepherd or peasant backgrounds, they very often took the name of the farm where they were born as a pseudonym: Fernando Aire was called "Xalbador" after his native home, a house called Xalbadorrenea in Urepel (Lower Navarra) and Juan Francisco Petriarena was called "Xenpelar" after Xenpelarre, a house in Renteria (Guipuzcoa). Both of them continued to work at their trade, though they would often be entertaining at religious feasts, dinners, matches of pelote basque, and market-days: "the bertsolari wields the plow and the plane; he is a son of the earth, very close to nature. In this consists his profound originality, his authenticity. This is why the public identifies with him and comes to love his work".

Their jovial love of life sometimes drew scorn from their contemporaries, and their freedom of speech led them to be banned, or even imprisoned. Loved and feared, these "verbal athletes" have always been figures of Basque society, and unable be to ignored.


An improviser creates as he sings. He only has a few seconds to choose a melody rhythmically suited to the line, maintain the measure of the verse, find good rhymes and get his message across. With an added particularity: he has to keep the climax for the last line, thinking almost in reverse from bottom to top, since the last line of the verse works as the "spinal column" of the poem he is singing. When well done, this kind of performance is staggering "It presupposes [according to the author Daniel Landart] qualities of audacity, self-confidence, presence of mind, rapidity of imagination, elocution, faultless memory, not to mention a mastery of language and a knowledge of ancient repertoire".

Multiple talents about which these men and women, poets of the present moment, despite their being admired, remain wisely humble, preferring "being" to the trappings of existence.


This popular traditional art has today proven itself adaptable to social change, despite the difficult passage from country-living, for so long practically the only source of inspiration for this discipline, to life in an urban, industrial context. Nowadays, improvisation is gradually moving into new spaces of communication offered by the media, opening itself more and more to women, and finding its way into schools to ensure its transmission.

A Basque Country-wide championship began in 1935. Tournaments have multiplied. Improvisation schools have been created to teach the techniques of this discipline, and bring children to the pleasures of sung versification. Moreover, following in the footsteps of famous figures of former generations, the young have now raised the discipline to a very high level of artistic quality, and enjoy increasing public success with other young people. All give breath and life to an art of the immediate instant that has been outpouring for centuries. And which will continue to outpour as long as Euskara, its source, shall live.