Sing Like a Basque: Traditional Folk Songs
In France, to “sing like a Basque” means you sing “loudly, well, and often,” according to Mark Kurlansky’s Basque History of the World. And it is no wonder why on chant comme un Basque is a French expression, as the Basque have been developing and performing a unique vocal repertoire for centuries.
Born out of an array of practical, artistic, and competitive uses, the rural theater of pastorales; the shrill, yodel-like call of the irrintzi; and bertsolaritza—a live performance of improvised verses—are among the many musical forms and vocal traditions that propel the Basque people into their cultural status as known singers.
The following recordings—unearthed in the Moses and Frances Asch Collection in the Ralph Rinzler Archives—are just a few Basque songs included in an episode of The Folk Music of France, a radio program aired by the North American Service of the French Broadcasting System in the mid-twentieth century. Performed by a five-piece choral group, the featured folk songs were composed at least as long ago as the nineteenth century, and span from the Lapurdi to the Zuberoa regions in the French Basque Country.
As folk music often does, the songs provide (sometimes poetic) insight to Basque life and worldviews, discussing daily activities, games, and gender roles, expressing love and heartbreak, and reflecting on landscape and the natural world.
The translations are an outlet for the stories inside the tunes. Rather than merely analyzing the music, the songs can speak for themselves.
Written by Jean Baptiste Elissanburu (1828-1891) from Lapurdi region
Herriko besta biharmunian // On the day after the village festival
Berek dakiten xoko batean // In a corner that they know
Lau andre, hirur mutxurdin // Four women, three spinsters
Bat alarguna, jarriak itzalean // And a widow sit in the shade
Harri xabal bat belaunen gainean // A flat stone across their knees
Ari ziren, ari ziren trukean // They are gambling
Hago, Maria, otoi, ixilik // Be quiet, Maria
Ez dun* ikhusi neure keinurik // Didn’t you see my wink?
Xorta bat edanez geroz begiak ñir-ñir // After taking a drink, your eyes wink
Zer! Ez dun* ahalkerik? // Shamelessly
Edan nezaken azkarren hortarik // I could drink with no problem
Gatilua, gatilua beterik // From that full glass
“Iragan Besta Biharamunian” (Last Year’s Village Festival) vividly sets a scene of four women likely playing mus, a Basque card game wherein teams of two rack up points in four rounds, betting on each hand. Team members can secretly communicate their hands to each other by winking, twitching, biting their lower lip, raising their eyebrows, and other facial clues.
This song stands out from the collection as it lyrically employs noka, a form of address toward a woman that has almost disappeared from contemporary speech, according to Begoña Echeverria, Basque scholar and associate professor at UC Riverside. (Examples of noka denoted with *.)
From Zuberoa region
Adios ene maitia // Goodbye, my love
Adios sekülako // Goodbye forever
Nik ez dit beste phenarik // I have no regrets
Maitia zuretako // About you, my love
Zeren üzten züntüdan // For I left you
Hain libro bestentako // So free for another
Even before reading the English translation for “Adios Ene Maitia” (Goodbye, My Love), you may detect, due to the slow drawl of the melody in a minor key, that this song laments for a lost love. Begoña Echeverria provides the translations for an additional verse that was not included in the original program, a response from the deserted woman:
Zertako erraiten düzü adios sekülako? // Why do you say goodbye forever?
Uste düzia eztüdala amodio zuretako? // Do you think I do not love you?
Zük nahi balin banaizü // If you want me
Enükezü bestentako // Don’t leave me for another
Whether or not it is well known in Basque Country today, the song has lived on through renditions by artists such as Kepa Junkera, and is featured on the aptly titled Ringtone Hits, an album of regional folk songs as cell phone ringtones.
Ni Naiz Kapitan Pilotu // I am the skipper
Neri behar zait obeditu, obeditu // I must be obeyed
Bestela zenbaiten kasketa // Otherwise, so much head-butting
Bonbilun, bonbilun // Like buoys
Behera egin ezkero zenbaiti // Having to push some people away
Bonbilun bat eta bonbilun // Like buoys
Eragiok Santi arraun horri // Move that oar, Santi
Eragiok Santi arraun horri // Move that oar, Santi
Arraun hori! // That oar!
The lively vocal rounds in “Ni Naiz Kapitan Pilotu” (I Am the Skipper) make it easy to envision Basque fishermen making their daily trip to sea. Boats like the trainera that were once used to race back to the market with a fresh catch are now raced in competitive tournaments. A trainera will typically have thirteen oarsmen and a coxswain, or skipper, who faces the rowers and shouts instructions.
This summer, you can hear the Basques sing like the Basques at the Folklife Festival. The Basque: Innovation by Culture program will bring bertsolari improvisers, a choir, a shepherd singer, small traditional ensembles, and contemporary rock and pop groups. Join us on the National Mall and sing along!
Kyle Baker holds a bachelor’s degree in ethnomusicology, interns for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, and has recently discovered how present the Basques have been in his own life, from the namesake of his hometown in California to the breed of his dog.
Begoña Echeverria, a member of our Basque community advisory group, provided the translations.