- Toward True Diversity in Frame of Reference
On May 16th and 17th, 2003, the first symposium on Basque orally improvised poetry was held in Reno, Nevada, organized by the University of Nevada's Center for Basque Studies. At the symposium, Andoni Egaña, Jon Sarasua, and I gave a presentation about our book, The Art of Bertsolaritza: Improvised Basque Verse Singing (2001).
Following our presentation, I had a friendly and, at least for me, highly profitable private conversation with Professor John Zemke, who, among other things, asked me "against whom" the book was written. The question surprised me, but I must admit that the mere fact that it was asked revealed John Zemke's extraordinary insight in having been able to perceive in our book something that the authors themselves had overlooked.
Professor Zemke is right: our book does have a certain air of protest, something perhaps not so common in the academic world, and, needless to say, not something we purposefully set out to achieve (so unconscious was it on our part that we had not even realized it was there until he pointed it out). In fact, the tone of the book is determined both by the nature of the research from which it arose, and by the context in which it was published.
Regarding the nature of our research, it is, to say the least, heterodox. First, and although I work at the University of the Basque Country, our investigations were not carried out under the auspices of any research organization, but rather in collaboration with the Association of Friends of Bertsolaritza, the Bertsozale Elkartea.
Second, our research was mainly informal and was carried out "from within." Indeed, for approximately ten years now, I and my two fellow authors have been personally involved with improvised bertsolaritza—Sarasua and Egaña as bertsolaris (bertso performers) and myself as a theme-prompter at festivals and the head of the television program about bertsolaritza, Hitzetik Hortzera.
It was never our intention to create a theory about bertsolaritza. Rather, it was our active participation in all kinds of performances that raised the following questions (or, if you prefer, working hypotheses): Why do certain details seem out of place in the traditional vision of bertsolaritza? What are the advantages and disadvantages of bertsolaritza's adaptation to the media? What were the reasons behind the boom in bertsolaritza at the beginning of the '90s? What are the consequences of widening and renewing bertsolaritza's audience? What role should bertsolaritza play within the small yet complex Basque cultural scene? [End Page 143]
In short, our research was based around these and many other questions, always asked on the basis of our direct experience with the art of bertsolaritza. Many initial responses to this type of question often arose during the long, passionate, informal gatherings held after performances, or at the countless meetings of the Association of Friends of Bertsolaritza. Our method was as follows: to share our questions and sketch out (always provisional) answers, taking what we deemed most appropriate from each theory. Little by little, the pieces of puzzle began to fall into place,1 and the book we presented in Reno reflects our position at the beginning of this decade.
Meanwhile, the "official" authorities continued to cling to the old way of seeing things, and bertsolaritza continued to be considered as a sub-genre of Basque poetry. In regard to orality, the most modern references were those of Marcel Jousse (1925) and Walter J. Ong (1982). In this context, I believe that the somewhat protest-like tone of our book is, if not excusable, at least understandable.
The enthusiasm with which our presentation was received by the participants of the Reno Symposium was a source of great satisfaction, and an even greater relief; all our work had been worth it, and our intuition had taken us to the same terrain in which figures as imposing as John Miles Foley, James W. Fernández, Samuel G. Armistead, Joseba Zulaika, and even John Zemke himself focused their research. Of course, this does not mean that we agree about everything, but the mere confirmation that we speak the same language...