A land of proud and independent men, sailors and mountain people, the Basque Country, called Vasconia in the Middle Ages, has had an eventful history that has nevertheless enabled it to retain its mysterious language and culture.
Basques call themselves Euskaldun and speak Euskara, the language. Euzkal Herria refers to the Basque Country in a geographical and cultural sense, whereas the term Euzkadi contains more of a political sense of homeland. It is the latter that is used today to designate the Spanish Basque Country made up of its three provinces, Araba-Álava, Biscay and Gipuzkoa.
Euskara, vector of Basque culture
The oldest language in Western Europe, the Basque language that preceded the Indo-European and Latin languages, is not related to French and Castilian, but has some similarities with the languages of the Caucasus, such as Georgian.
Of unknown linguistic origin, if we speak of Basque as a linguistic isolate we must also stress that the Basques, after having been conquered and socially assimilated in turn by the Romans, the Visigoths, the Franks, the Muslims, then finally the French and the Spaniards, are one of the rare peoples to have been able and to keep intact its original language.
Divided into several dialects whose development was encouraged by the Pyrenean mountain isolation, the Basque language was spoken by 80% of the Basque population at the end of the 19th century. Nowadays only 20% of this population speaks Euskara Batua, the unified language developed by Euskalzaindia, the Basque Language Academy.
This modern Basque is now used in the media, literature, administration and Basque schools (ikastola). The vast majority of these speakers live in the Spanish Basque Country, where Basque has had official status since 1978.
The repressive policies of the Spanish and French states, compulsory education in these languages, the lack of linguistic unity and the establishment of a non-Bascophone population have largely contributed to its marginalisation.
Forced to speak French or Castilian on a daily basis, Basques have been forced to weaken their own language by practicing it only in the private sphere, among friends, with family or at cultural gatherings.
However, the new language policies applied mean that Basque has the same presence in the public and educational sphere as Spanish in Basque territory. Road signs, street signs or inscriptions on public buildings transcribed in both languages can be seen.
An age-old cultural heritage
If the Basques are said to sing and dance at the foot of the Pyrenees, it is because they have a cultural heritage in the image of their country, as rich as it is varied.
This includes both everyday skills and oral skills that perpetuate tales, myths and legends. A heritage that is perpetuated through numerous artistic productions: literature, theatre, songs and dances…
Not forgetting a magnificent environmental heritage of deep and isolated valleys, high mountains and green hills and of course the ocean that many Basque sailors and fishermen often faced with difficulty during long and gruelling whaling hunts.
In the Basque cultural universe, singing and dancing have always occupied a primordial and convivial place.
Improvisation, The bertsularisme:
Pillar of Basque oral literature, this ancient tradition, a true intellectual exercise, is an improvisation sung and verified on themes most often imposed.
Since 1935, championships have been dedicated to the art and training schools have been opened since the 1980s.
A highly codified art, these oral games organized directly on stage, in convivial meeting places, seduce an increasingly important public among which many young people. A sign of adaptation, the younger generations of improvisers (bertsolari) mix their art with other disciplines such as dance and music.
The bertsulari Fernando Aire “Xalbador” (1966)
As essential as singing, Basque dances are one of the pillars of Basque culture. Even if particular dances are common to all Basques, each historical territory, each village has its own dance which it practises during particular festivals or more important festivities like the carnivals.
Some of these dances are very old, others have been updated with modern and popular arrangements and choreographies.
Among these, we can distinguish three types :
Processional or square dances: practiced during processional festivals, these spontaneous and popular dances have contributed to the development of the repertoire of dance groups. They are still very popular, especially in rural areas where they invite processionaries and visitors to participate.
swords dances: their interpretation is always linked to commemorations or tributes.
Dances at the end of festivities: as its name suggests, this type of dance is performed to close carnivals or special events, processions.
In Bizkaia we can note the Kaxarranka performed in Lekeito on the Spanish Basque coast or the Dantzari dantza of the county of Durango, which is one of the most representative dances of the Basque Country due to its rhythm, its strength and the beauty of its choreography.
In Guipúzcoa, the hoop dance, Arku dantza, and the ribbon dance, Zinta dantza, particularly attract the attention of tourists.
On the French side, in Labourd (Lapurdi), Bayonne region, the Kaskarotak is a female dance born in the expectation of fishing boats. In the Soule (Xiberoa,) isolated valley of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Basque dance is learned through a network of schools forming groups of official village dancers: the aitzindariak.
Traditional outdoor theatre
From a very ancient tradition, Pastorale, which can be performed and sung outdoors, is the oldest form of Basque theatre, particularly in La Soule where it is the most elaborate form of popular Basque outdoor theatre. La Mascarde is a form of theatre performed, sung and danced during the carnival period.
The Toberak or charivari. Widespread in Europe under different names, the charivaris, popular theatrical judgments, continued in the Basque Country in their oldest form until 1937.
This artistic expression was also a festive occasion to satirically stage a courtroom with judges and defendants. Dance was as preponderant as the dancers’ costumes, bertsolari, improvisers, clowns and musicians were associated with it. This form of popular outdoor theatre was accompanied and closed by a noisy parade.
The indoor theatre
It was with Marcelino Soroa that the classical indoor theatre took root in San Sebastian at the end of the 19th century. In the Northern Basque Country, this classical theatre did not see the light of day until the 1920s. Since the second half of the twentieth century, Basque authors and adaptations of classical works into Basque have emerged and expanded this theatrical repertoire.
The theatre in Basque developed in the early 1920s
In 1545, the collection of religious and secular poems by Bernat Dechepare, parish priest of the village of Saint-Michel in Basse-Navarre (Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port region in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques) was the first book printed entirely in Basque.
Then in 1643, Pedro’Axular’ de Aguerre, parish priest of Sare, still in the same department, published’Gero’ (later), considered a masterpiece of Basque literature.
Before Basque literature became secular in the second half of the 19th century, it was a Guipuzcoan Jesuit, also a grammarian, Manuel Larramendi, who became famous in the 18th century for his important linguistic works. In the second half of the 20th century, Basque literature underwent an important development with authors such as Jon Mirande and Gabriel Aresti.
Among the most prominent current writers is Bernardo Atxaga, from Guipúzcoa, whose novel’Obabakoak’, which won the Spanish National Literature Prize in 1989, has been translated into 19 languages. As for Itxaro Borda, he received the Euskadi Prize in 2001 for his novel “100% Basque”.
Currently, 1500 books are written and published each year in Basque.
Euskal pilota, the Basque pelota
A very old game, traces of which can be found in different civilisations, modern Basque pelota is a product of the palm game, of which it became a local adaptation, after this practice disappeared in the 17th century.
Whether in the mountains, in the valleys or near the ocean, north or south of the Pyrenees, many Basque villages are equipped with a cancha, a playground for Basque pelota.
Even if the practice with bare hand, the oldest, remains the most traditional and the most popular way to play pelota, especially in France, the game underwent transformations and adaptations with the appearance of various specialities.
The main playgrounds of Basque pelota
The three most frequent are:
Free square pediment:
This is the most widespread playground in the Basque Country, each village generally has at least one. It is also called frontis or plaza in Spanish.
One can practice the bare hand, the chistera, the pala or the rebot.
The wall pediment on the left:
Originating from the Spanish Basque Country where it is most common, it is called frontón or pilotaleku which literally means “place of pelota” in Basque.
It consists of a front wall and a side wall on the left and sometimes a back wall. The cancha, the playing area, is divided into squares formed by lines 3.50 m apart. These canchas can be different according to the places and their construction periods. They can be inside as for the jai alai, or outside.
Of the two, only the Spanish fronton is recognised by the international federation.
It is an enclosed and covered play area with four walls used for the game.
Clothing and protection
During tournaments or competitions, the pelotari is dressed in white trousers and a polo shirt with collar in the club colours. On the French side, the red beret is often associated with the pelota.
Pelota can reach very high speeds, up to 300 km/h for cesta punta, the wearing of safety glasses in specialties such as pala, paleta, cesta punta or xare, is mandatory.
With the exception of the bare hand, a helmet is required for specialties played inside with a leather ball.
Practice and instruments
Demanding strength, skill and agility as well as a good glance, vista, there are two ways to practice Basque pelota: direct or indirect.
Also called blaid, these specialties are practiced through a wall.
These are the most common ways to play pelota: each player must return the pelota after the first rebound on the ground or on the fly: bare hand, xare, joko garbi…
In a direct way
This option sees two teams face to face: rebot, pasaka…
Some variations of direct games derived from the palm game are included in the inventory of intangible cultural heritage in France: rebot, pasaka, laxoa.
Bare hand: it is the most natural and the oldest practice, often considered as the most noble, it does not require any instrument. This discipline is played as a fronton, trinquet and wall on the left, as an individual (mano a mano, head to head) or as a team of two players, one front and one back.
The object of the game is to return the ball to the pediment so that it bounces again. If the ball cannot be returned to the pediment or if it is thrown out of the playing area, the point is lost and the engagement is then given to the opponent.
This must be done by exceeding a minimum line (falta) so that the goal is validated, but it must also not exceed more than once another line called pasa under penalty of giving the point to the opponent.
This ball, called pelota, consists of a boxwood core of small diameter, from 20 to 36 mm, surrounded by an elastic wire to form a core whose weight is regulated according to the age of the players and the game played. This core can also be made of latex for disciplines such as xare or cesta punta.
This core will be covered with a virgin wool thread scrupulously wound and sewn on the surface by a network of cotton thread to maintain the wool and prevent it from swelling again. The whole will finally be covered with goat skins cut and sewn together by hand or in one or two layers.
The chistera (xistera in Basque, cesta in Spanish) is a kind of wicker basket that allows to catch the pelota to send it back. It is fixed to the player’s hand by a leather glove. There are different sizes and depths depending on the specialties chosen.
The palas are wooden snowshoes of different sizes and weights to hit the ball. Their ancestors are the beaters and lighters used for the palm game.
It is a curved wicker racket with braided wire in the shape of a spider web. Also called Argentinian snowshoe, it is only used in staysail.