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Resisting Poems: Expressions of Dissent and Hegemony in Modern Basque Bertsolaritza

François Mouillot

Published: 2009-12-05

This paper analyzes the relevance of bertsolaritza—the art of sung improvised poetry in Basque in front of an audience—in light of the current situation of the Basques as a globalizing cultural and linguistic minority of France and Spain. In the context of the democratic freedom and degree of self-governance granted to the Basques with the creation a Basque autonomous community (Euskadi) in post-Franco Spain, bertsolaritza has been subjected to a large-scale process of institutionalization across the entire Basque country. Most significantly, this process redefined the organization of the practice into widely broadcast large-scale competitions which have increased its following by all segments of the Basque population (Bascophones and non-Bascophones alike) and made it the most popular expression of Basque culture today. Following a brief history and contextualization of the Basque Country and of Basque nationalism, the author considers how bertsolaritza, through the intercultural dimension of improvisation and the careful modernization of its organization, consolidates a hegemonic definition of Basque national identity based on the notion that ‘being Basque means speaking Basque.’ In the final section, the author examines the role of the Basque improviser as an activist, and how, at the same time as offering great potential for community-building within Basque society, modern bertsolaritza offers a complex discourse of resistance to other, more global forms of political, economic, and cultural hegemonies.

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Improvisation is a human right

– Muhal Richard Abrams