What is a Bertso?

Xabier Amuriza encapsulates bertsolaritza in this stanza:

Neurriz eta errimaz
kantatzea hitza
horra hor zer kirol mota
den bertsolaritza.

(Metre and rhyme
the singing word
behold bertsolaritza
as a form of sport
).

Likewise, the book The art of bertsolaritza: improvised Basque verse singing, written by Joxerra Garzia, Andoni Egaña and Jon Sarasua, defines bertsolaritza as a sung, rhymed and metred discourse. Nevertheless, this air, rhyme and metre are mere technical aspects of the bertso. “The quality of the bertso is reflected in its force of reasoning and in its poetical-rhetorical value”.

Despite this, we have a deeper knowledge of the technical aspects.

The Airs

The bertsolari, unlike the rest of improvisers known in the world today, performs without the help of any musical instrument.
Joanito Dorronsoro, the representative and researcher par excelence of the improvised melody in Basque, has examined and classified 3.040 airs.

According to his procedure, the airs for bertsos are classified into three categories:

Traditional folk melodies: the great majority
New airs that coincide with traditional metre
Melodies that are specifically composed.

It would be thought that a bertsolari, unable to depend on musical accompaniment, should have a good voice and a good ear for music, amongst many other skills, but, according to the experts Joxerra Garzia, Andoni Egaña and Jon Sarasua, “the communicative success or failure of the bertsolari does not depend on his or her voice, but on the melody chosen and the manner in which it is sung”.

Metre

The Basque bertso is divided into puntuak and each puntua, depending on the metre, has a certain number of syllables. As explained in The art of bertsolaritza, “The bertsolari never counts the number of syllables while he or she is improvising. That is, while the air or the rhyme allows for a certain margin of variation, the metre chosen or appointed has no such flexibility. Either the verse is metered well or it is not metered at all”.

Here are some of the most common metres in improvised bertsolarismo:

Other Paradigms

The metres mentioned above are the most common in the festivals and non-conducted (imposed) performances. Nevertheless, other paradigms exist such as the koplas, simple rhyming verse and which have had a grand tradition over the centuries when performing in many kinds of ronda (around the streets).

Their structures are:

  • Kopla mayor
  • Kopla minor

There are also much more recent paradigms, often created by the improvisers themselves, with the objective of successively competing in the various Championships that are regularly held. It is, as it were, looping the loop - the greater the number of puntus, the greater the number of rhymes ... and the greater danger of making a mistake – without the safety net of the traditional paradigms – but also greater the possibility of achieving excellence if successfully performed. The new paradigms respond to a modern tendency whereby the improviser needs sufficient textual space in order to demonstrate his or her originality, the complexity of their arguments, the distance between the performer and the proposed theme for the ad-lib verse singing ... in these times wherein the context is not so agglutinative as in others, it is the text that greatly supports the weight of communicative success. And this explains the tendency for the text to be longer.

Here are some examples:

The metres here use only one family of rhymes, but there are other paradigms which alter this regularity. Here are some examples:

Rhyme

The art of bertsolaritza: reality of and keys to Basque oral improvisation defines the rhyme as the formal quid of the bertso – without the rhyme there is no bertso. If we rhyme (although its quality may not be the best), we are creating a bertso.

As we have seen, the rhyme is always of the same group and the higher the intensity and quality of its consonance, the more highly regarded it is. Let us say, for example, burua (head) rhymes with ordua (time). But this consonance is relative, as it is limited to the last two vowel-syllables and, thus, what we have would be regarded as a fairly poor rhyme. Between elizan (in the church) and gerizan (taking shelter) there is rhyming of better quality. They rhyme as regards their suffixing (-an) and also with the preceding fricative (z-), the vowel prior to this (-i-) and even the vowel sound of the first syllable in both words.

Nevertheless, while it appears that both the rhyme and the metre are norms or limitations that restrict the bertsolari, the repeatedly quoted work on the subject reveals that they are also essential guidelines. Thus, bertsolaris can never utter what they exactly wish to say. They say what the metre and the rhyming words - which they have stored in their minds eye to be used at a given opportune moment - allow them to say. There does not exist a bertsolari who says what they want to say and, at the same time, have metre and rhyme. There are bertsolaris who rhyme and use metre and, moreover, who, in moments of lucidity and inspiration, come very close to what they wish to say.

Difficulty of Bertso

Leaving aside exceptions, the rhyme of a bertso always belongs to the same family and always has consonance. The greatest challenge confronting bertsolaris is the choosing of rhymes appropriate for the discourse in question. If the two rhymed words in the same verse turn out to be the same, the bertsolari is considered to have committed a poto. It is simply the act of repeating a rhyming word but is undoubtedly the most penalised mistake both for a judging panel and for the public.

The metre gives no quarter – but the Basque bertsolari is used to thinking in 10, 8, 7, 6 and 5 syllables.

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