Bertsolaris to be Honored at Basque Cultural Center March 12

Basque singer-poet Johnny Curutchet

Bertsolari Johnny Curutchet. Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Basque Club.

The North American Basque Organizations (NABO) will be honoring five bertsolaris from the U.S. in a special tribute to be held next Saturday at the Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco. Four of these bertsolaris and two from the Basque Country will be performing at the event, which starts at 4 p.m. and includes dinner.

The five honored U.S. bertsolaris — singers of verses or bertsos — include Johnny Curutchet, Jesus Arriada, Jesus Goni, Martin Goicoechea and Gratien Alfaro. Sebastian Lizaso, a well-known champion from Azpeitia, and Aitor Mendiluze, also a Basque Country champion and a bertso teacher, will also perform. The Bertsolari Special Tribute (Omenaldi Berezia), which is free, will include real-time on-screen translation of the verses into English to make it accessible to non-Euskara speakers.
Joxe Mallea, author of “Shooting from the Lip” about the art of bertsolaritza, will introduce the event. Todor Azurtza of Boise will give the singers their topics and Xabi Paya will lead the translation team.

The Basque art of bertsolaritza has grown more popular in recent years. The competitors gather at festivals or among friends to face off in improvised lyrical duels in their language of Euskara. The singers are given random topics, which can be anything from immigrating to the U.S. to love or culture. One by one, the singers belt out their spontaneous poetry, usually sung to a simple folk melody. Their ability to pinpoint essential truths about life often move audiences to tears and laughter.

The event, originally scheduled for 2020 but postponed because of the pandemic, was supposed to be the 10-year anniversary of a similar tribute held at the cultural center on March 13, 2010, which commemorated the founding of the San Francisco Basque Club in 1960.

Bertsolari Gratien Alfaro. Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Basque Club.


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The 90-minute performance will start at 4 p.m. Cocktails will be served at 6 p.m. and dinner follows. To reserve a spot for dinner, send an email to The Basque Cultural Center is located at 599 Railroad Ave., South San Francisco and can be reached at (650) 583-8091.

Basque accordionist Mercedes Mendive of Elko, Nev. will be playing after the bertso performance.

Four of the U.S. bertsolaris – Arriada, Curutchet, Goicoechea and Goñi — were honored in 2003 by the National Endowment for the Arts for their achievements in maintaining this revered form of artistic expression. They performed in Washington D.C. as part of the celebration.

This poetical musical art is known as bertsolaritza in Euskara. The bertsos, as the compositions are known, are sung by a bertsolari. It’s a tradition dating back hundreds of years to the villages and hamlets of the Basque Country. In recent years, bertsolaritza has experienced a resurgence in the Basque Country, evidenced by the thousands of Basques who attend public competitions which lead up to the National Bertzolaris Championship, held every four years. The next championship is scheduled for next year, 2021. Filmmaker Asier Altuna made a documentary “Bertsolaritza” in 2011 about the art.

The goal of the March 12 event is to recognize the bertsolaris who have sung at many Basque-American events over the years such as Kantari Eguna (Day of the Singer) and the annual NABO convention “year in and year out,” said NABO president Philippe Acheritogaray. Arriada retired as a bertsolari several years ago, but he will be at the event. The other four will perform, which Acheritogaray noted is very rare. Usually just one or two of them will perform at an event.

“We’ve been lucky to have these three, four bertsolaris for the last 30, 40 years,” said Acheritogaray. Lack of immigration from the Basque Country since the 60s means fewer Euskara-speakers will be around to perform the poetic art in the U.S.

Having the screen translation of the singing was an important component of planning the event, noted Acheritogaray. They are even bringing Paya, a bertsolari singer and scholar, to lead the translation team. Translation is even helpful for Euskara speakers, who may not always understand, due to a singer’s dialect or their poetic use of words.

In the Basque Country, an organization Bertsozale Elkartea was organized to maintain the art and the national championship. For the history of the championships, read this page.

Some bertsolari recordings of Xalbador and Mattin from Amazon.

A spotlight on bertsolari Martin Goicoechea

Bertsolaritza tribute to Father Tillous, the Basque priest who served the U.S. for many years.

Basque Country bertsolari Sebastian Lisazo

US bertsolaris performing in New York with translation

An excellent English description of the art of bertsolaritza.

Bertso introduction to the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival with English translation