Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 3mins.)

Earlier this month I attended a group singing in Basque, a language of which I only know a few phrases, as we walked through streets of the town of Bermeo, in Bizkaia province of the Basque Country.

I was invited by one of the organisers to whom I had been introduced the previous evening by a Basque friend as we walked on an errand through the narrow streets. At the appointed time and place I met the walking singers and about four guitarists, male and female.

Around 40 mostly women, the majority ranging in age from middle-aged to elderly with a scattering of teenagers met in the Town Hall square. Unusually, the Basque ikurrina (national flag) hung from a flagpole there without the legally-required presence of the Spanish State’s flag.

Singing around the port area

Spanish State law decrees that its flag must accompany any others on or in front of municipal buildings throughout the state, be they Basque, Catalan, Galician or other. And that the State’s flag be elevated higher than the others.

However, the municipal building was damaged by fire, it is not open for ordinary business while being repaired, so …

The singing group, Kanta, Kanta Lorue (‘Sing, Sing, Parrot’) was addressed at some length by a woman, apparently their Secretary or Chairperson with I guessed, from the names of towns and dates, a schedule for the month or so ahead. At least one location named is across the border.1

Each of the participants had a songbook or the lyrics saved into their Iphones or tablets and I was loaned a songbook by my contact, who was one of the guitarists. A local man (who could have been Irish by his features) led the singing with great energy, throwing his whole body into the role.

Picking up the airs, I joined in singing the lyrics in Basque of which, as noted earlier, I speak only a few phrases2. This is quite easily done as, like much of Irish, knowing the sound of the vowels one can read the words without knowing what they mean.

The consonants too are simple (unlike in Irish) providing one remembers that TX is pronounced like the TCH in English and X as SH; the J as the English J (not usually as the Spanish J, pronounced like the Irish lenited C, i.e Ch) and that the H is silent (as in Spanish and French).

Pronunciation of individual words is not the problem but what can be difficult is that the Basques often cram a lot of syllables into one line. At times I laughed helplessly as I stumbled to a halt while the rest of the singers pronounced each word to the air, passing on to the next line without difficulty.

Photo of some of the singing group from their Facebook page which is however unused with part of the port harbour visible behind (and also some banners that seem to be the work of the Amnistia prisoners’ solidarity group).

The group proceeded down to the port where the singing continued outside one tavern, then outside another (some wine and beer glasses appearing in the crowd); from there on to the central park area, stopping outside two more pubs.

I am given to understand that the themes of the songs were a mixture, as on might expect, of love for the land, the people, romantic love, seafaring and a few of opposition to foreign occupation and fascism (without naming any names!).

Sometimes the singing included some doing harmonies and once of different sections of the group singing one line behind the others.

Recovering from being unwell and feeling tired, I enquired politely how many more stops we were due to make. “Only a few more” I was assured but it soon became clear that I was being teased, this was the last stop. And here one of the guitarists was urged to play and sing an Irish song in English.

After a little reluctance, he did so and it turned out to be The Wild Rover3 ballad. I sang along and soon took over the verses as, to my surprise, I recalled lyrics I had not sung in probably over two decades, with some of the ensemble joining in on the chorus. Then it was agur, gabon and etxera.

There are around 140 such singing groups throughout the Basque Country, one of the participants told me, some meeting monthly, some more often and others still only on special occasions (such as local festivals). The accompanying instruments too may vary.4

The occasion was an enjoyable one for me and seemed so for the other participants, who take to the local streets one evening a month. This is an activity we in Ireland could easily emulate: we have probably many more songs (at least in English) and likely more musicians than do the Basques.



1The Basque Country consists of seven (zazpi) provinces (zazpiak bat = ‘the seven [are] one’), three currently in the French state and four currently in the Spanish state.

2Although my mother was born and raised in the Basque Country, neither she nor her mother spoke the language and her father was German. The language was forbidden during the Franco dictatorship of four decades and her part of the family may not have had much Basque nationalist feeling. As a result, the language I learned from my mother is Castilian Spanish, with which I can converse with Basques from the Spanish state, though I try to use whatever Basque I have learned since. Hori da.

3In case there should be others, this is the one with the opening line of I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year … Although it has been in the Irish repertoire for centuries, it’s actual national origin is unclear.

4For example, the Taberna Ibilitaria group in Bilbao includes acoustic and electric guitars, txistu (3-hole Basque flute), ordinary 6-hole flute or whistle (which they call “Irish”), piano accordion, trikitsa (small diatonic accordion) and pandera (small open one-sided drum like the tambourine but without the ringing pieces).

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