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  • The Process of Creating Improvised Bertsos
  • Andoni Egaña

Improvised verse is, above all, and as its name indicates, an act of improvisation.

"To improvise" is a verb that often has negative connotations in present-day society. Used in the negative sense, it is the last recourse of those who are unable to plan or build on what might have been planned; it is last-minute, "everyone for themselves" desperation, the result of which is always imperfect and ephemeral. The positive perception of "improvisation," on the other hand, is common in the sporting context, when an athlete has been capable of improvising a move here or a strike there, or a manager has been able to solve a problem on the spot, undoubtedly due to his great capacity and genius for "improvisation."

As far as bertsolaris are concerned, the act of improvisation has nothing to do with either of these attitudes. The bertsolari does not improvise for lack of ability to plan, nor because (s)he is necessarily an extremely talented person. For the bertsolari, improvisation is a way of expressing his or her ideas and feelings; it is a form of cultural expression that goes way back in time and is part of the cultural heritage in which the bertsolari has been immersed from childhood. For bertsolaris, improvisation is a pre-established framework of entertainment wherein their relationship with themselves and their surroundings can be resolved dialectically.

The improvised bertso1 has something magical about it and, although it is in no way magic, this is what the public expects, waiting in expectation for the white rabbit to appear out of the hat, knowing full well that the top hat does not have a false bottom, unless it is the linguistic and dialectic skill of the bertsolari. Improvising bertsos is neither trickery nor necessarily the fruit of an extraordinary genius.

It may seem paradoxical, but improvisation for the bertsolaris is very much a thought-out act. They have continuously lived out and practiced analogous situations to those they may have to face, at any given moment, on the stage of their extemporaneous art. They have learned to work the oral and mental skills of this art according to the rules of improvised bertsolaritza (the melody, rhyme, meter, and so on) in such a way that what may seem to the outsider to be restrictions are, in fact, aids that enable them to improvise more freely. They have become used to soaking up everything that may, at some later time, come in handy at the moment of improvisation.

It is a labor of management and logistics. The idea is to keep the store well stocked and [End Page 117] then to put everything in order so that, at the right moment, the most complete and attractive presentation of the product can be given. It is known that pure improvisation does not exist; nobody improvises anything starting from scratch. So where does the beauty of improvised bertsolaritza lie? It comes from the fact that it is one of the few cultural expressions wherein the moment of artistic creation and its exposition to the audience are one and the same. The bertsolari improvises and, as (s)he does, the audience listens.

When the interspersing of certain English words into everyday conversation became fashionable, the term "performance" caught our attention quite powerfully. We thought at first that this must be something very unusual or innovative . . . until we realized that it was no less and certainly no more than what we, as improvising bertsolaris, had been doing for years and years.

Formal Aspects

To construct an improvised bertso a number of formal aspects must be considered. A bertso consists of sung, rhymed, and measured discourse. Thus, independent of the content of such discourse, the tune, rhyme, and meter are inseparable elements of improvised bertso singing. We can say that a person who can sing and construct a bertso with the chosen meter and rhyme has the minimum skills required of an improvising bertsolari. But this is just the technical aspect of the profession. The true quality of the bertso depends on the dialectic, rhetorical, and poetic values of the constructed verse.

The Melodies


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