A journey

Welcome! Come on in! Come into the theatre and sit down. Choose your seat, your space, your window. Define your boundaries. Your spaceship, your universe, your perspective. Get ready to travel into the depths of Basque theatre. Mould your improvised corner to your satisfaction, until you feel comfortable.

Come in and choose your place in the pelota court, in the cultural centre or in the famous theatre; on the street corner, in the gaztetxe youth centre or in the town square. Come in and take a seat, we’ve planned a journey for you: a trip into the interior of the Basque stage. Travel with us through the veins, the threads and the knots of Basque theatre. Discover the stars, satellites and constellations of Basque theatre. Relish, smell its entrails, its lungs, its relics and its contradictions. Play with us. Play from your corner, your blood, your knowledge, your culture. Deck out the spirit with longing and make Basque theatre your fancy for a while. Open your door, the eyes of your heart to us. Dear spectator, we welcome you into our theatre. The show is about to begin!

‘Come in and take a seat, we’ve planned a journey for you: a trip into the interior of the Basque stage.’

Look! The curtain’s going up, the curtain of the Basque stage. It can be found on the outskirts and in town centres, coastlines, fields and plains. The geography of Basque theatre is multicoloured. Basque theatre is diverse. Respectful. Responsible and with social values. Always attentive towards the people and its language. The attachment to Basque theatre is the desire for Basque culture, the love for it. Basque theatre is a simple snapshot of the Basque essence: things learned from yesterday, revived by lovers, enriched by contemporaneity. The repertoire is long. Too long to be able to list it all here… We’re going to recommend a few spaces. Dip your hand into the bag and fate will choose today’s stage! Open the map and… there you have the stops! The stages! The spots! The journey is about to begin!

1st STOP:

To start this tour, I want to invite you to Harri Xuri in Louhossoa, Labourd. The Harri Xuri Theatre is a bastion of different residencies and premieres since 2009. A thoroughly pleasant place. Even so, there’s always something that particularly stands out: uniting Basque territories and dialects, three companies – Artedrama, Axut and Dejabu – offer a new take on theatre. I don’t know if they’ve brought it back to life, but the fact is that they’ve moved the audience. And lately tickets for all performances are regularly sold out. They put on a new show every two years. If you can, make the most of the opportunity and see for yourself. It won’t leave you indifferent, that’s for sure!

2nd STOP:

Just over the border inside Gipuzkoa, since 2008 Renteria’s Mikelazulo cultural association has been organising the Eztena performing arts festival. Its hub is located at Beheko kalea 4. There, year after year, salsa, games, performances, genres and experimentation have taken turns in the intense month of June. Visit the cave, liberate your body, ties, reason… and get down to enjoying yourself with theatre lovers!

3rd STOP:

Wherever there’s salt water, that’s where the outing will head. To where? To San Sebastian. Graceful on canvas, where the sea embellishes the city. This is the setting since 1912 of the prestigious Victoria Eugenia Theatre, built with elegance on the banks of the Urumea River. The theatre has more than 900 seats facing the red velvet curtains. Come on in. Come in and take a seat. Today, 27th March, World Theatre Day, the Donostia Theatre Award will be presented. Like every year, the best play in the Basque language performed in the city will receive the award and the recognition. Emotions and smiles, hugs and kind words pronounced between colleagues of the profession. Today the red carpet is theirs.
However, thespians from San Sebastian have always referred to the Principal Theatre in the Old Town as their local favourite. Basque theatre owes a great deal to this space open since 1843. So many dreams, anecdotes and curiosities… So many memories, stories, events… experienced in this theatre. However, today the young people, the dyed-in-the-wool Basque speakers and the refined spectators of the 21st century head for the Gasteszena in the district of Egia to watch Basque theatre. It would seem that it has a very interesting programme.

4th STOP:

Azpeitia, smack bang in the centre of Gipuzkoa, will host the 27th edition of the Encuentros de Teatro in November. The Soreasu Theatre is the direct witness of all these years. Even when it was said that Basque theatre was on the point of disappearing, it clung to its dream. Thanks to these encounters, Basque theatre has received well-deserved admiration and respect, even in the years when it was at its lowest ebb. Following an exercise in perseverance, today this renewed theatre houses interesting premieres every year.

5th STOP:

From Gipuzkoa we make the jump into Bizkaia to meet at the Durango Fair. Make the cultural appetite and resolve, the popular identity your own; fill your pockets and pile everything into your backpack. A fabulous opportunity to spend a great day. To discover the areas, borders, philosophies and experiments of cultural activity. Because over and above the largely rural environment, the performing arts have their own space going by the name of Szenatokia, managed in collaboration with the Basque Theatre Lovers Association – EHAZE. Szenatoki’s meeting point is the local San Agustin Hall – a former church turned theatre – where you’ll find an interesting programme which every year includes new events related to the performing arts, innovative plays, launches, conferences and round tables.

6th STOP:

A few kilometres from here, in the little town of Aulesti, the Artedrama Laboratory (ADEL) takes place during Easter week. A space of experimentation for bodies, voices and communal creative processes at the different classes running throughout the week. A meeting point between actors, directors, authors and lovers of the performing arts world, a place to share experiences, opinions, goals and strengths. With artistic exchange as their bottom line, here the programme is packed with cutting-edge theatre performances. Legend would have it that once you’ve discovered this experience, you’ll want to repeat it.

7th STOP:

A few kilometres from here, in the little town of Aulesti, the Artedrama Laboratory (ADEL) takes place during Easter week. A space of experimentation for bodies, voices and communal creative processes at the different classes running throughout the week. A meeting point between actors, directors, authors and lovers of the performing arts world, a place to share experiences, opinions, goals and strengths. With artistic exchange as their bottom line, here the programme is packed with cutting-edge theatre performances. Legend would have it that once you’ve discovered this experience, you’ll want to repeat it.

8th STOP:

The road continues into Álava. Here you’ll visit Vitoria’s Baratza Hall, with its three theatres. Having opened its doors in 2013, this welcoming venue has since proceeded to unite myriad creations, interdisciplinary projects and artists from different spheres. Throughout the year it runs events including shows, seasons, courses and exhibitions, to the delight of those who live in Gasteiz and the satisfaction of their curiosity for the audience. It also offers grants for residencies. For those wishing to discover the innovative arts as a family, Baratza is a must.

9th STOP:

Our trip is now coming to an end: heading for Navarre we’ll stop at the Escuela Navarra de Teatro in Pamplona’s Calle San Agustín. Choose a show from the Antzerki Aroa programme and make your way to this theatre known for its special charm. Get yourself a drink from the outside bar and enjoy the experience!

10th STOP:

Open your eyes. Breathe in the fresh air. The compass is directing us towards the north-east. We’ll follow leafy paths taking us to Soule, a marvellous stronghold of small hamlets. To the area where traditional theatre spans the period between the 16th and the 21st centuries. A visit not to be missed by historians and researchers. Although they sometimes put on a pastorala, libertimentua, tobera… today the play is a Maskarada, performed right there in the village square (a different one every Sunday) by the locals – people from the village who have taken up the baton for the year. The mouths of the inhabitants pronounce a sweet Basque dialect. Although we’re in winter, they look towards the spring. The birds trill and the Txorotxas sing. The graceful gorri dancers perform their nifty leg movements. Meanwhile, the ruthless beltzas cause a rumpus on the fringes. This is a true popular celebration and tradition if ever there was one! A tradition and an identity! A rite! History recovered from the past. The local actors are elegantly dressed in red. And the square is the stage: the place where the beltzas in black garb roll out their mischief and focal point for the audience.

11th STOP:

Dear spectator, join us and take your seat, choose your place, your space and your window. Open the map, close your eyes and bring your finger down anywhere you like, because countless villages, halls, performing arts weeks, magical spaces and charming corners are waiting for you that we haven’t been able to mention here. Countless seeds and leaves. The garden of theatre in the Basque Country is acquiring increasingly vast swathes of colour and we want to share them with you wherever they are.

Now pick up your glasses and adjust the graduation, the shadow and the light to your taste. Make yourself at home. Approach us with curiosity: with the desire to experience, to discover and to live. Because theatre is life, a living entity. And now we invite you to be our esteemed spectator, our eager lover. Drink from our voices. From our performances. Feed on our passion. Cry, cherish or laugh until you can’t take any more. Play with emotions, tears and desires, and allow them to spice, soften and perfume your skin and your heart, to be as one with them. Be the star performer in our play. Be our luxury audience. Welcome to Basque theatre. The show is about to begin!

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An outfit worn around the world


When I was little, I asked my mother why she decided to have her children learn a language that was not her own. I was referring to Euskara, but what she said applied to English as well. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old, but her words stuck with me: “Languages are like coats: if you only have one, it’s the only one you can wear, rain or shine. But if you have two, or three, or even more, you can decide which one to put on every day, which one feels right for the occasion and, above all, which one best identifies you.”

Thirty years later, with the wardrobe wide open and half a dozen coats staring at me, I look in the mirror and wonder why the language that fits me best is Basque. It is undeniably a mysterious language; after all, unlike most European coats, its origin is unknown – let’s just say that the first time the wardrobe was opened, Basque was already in there, even though it’s unclear whether it was made of Russian Astrakhan, Tyrolean wool or Cordovan leather. But as the Basque linguist Koldo Mitxelena once said, its real mystery lies not its origin, but how it has managed to survive for hundreds of years surrounded by so many voracious languages.

You could say that languages are like noble gases: they try to fill every available space, which is why they’re in constant competition with each other. However, the Basque corpus suggests that it didn’t follow the same pattern as other languages; Basque vocabulary reflects centuries, miles and leagues of contact with other languages. Who knows – in order to survive, Euskara may have had to learn to negotiate with the other languages that tried to crush it. And maybe the words izquierda (‘left’ in Spanish; ezkerra in Basque), aquelarre (‘witches’ coven’ in Spanish; aker larre or okela erre in Basque) and zurrón (‘sack’ in Spanish; zorro in Basque) are simply the spoils of those exchanges.

‘ The Basque sailors who reached the shores of the North Atlantic in search of whales took their songs with them.’

What is clear is that it’s a well-travelled language. Those unfamiliar with the Basque language often describe Euskara as bumpkin-like and backward but its passport boasts an impressive record of 15th century travels. The Basque sailors who reached the shores of the North Atlantic in search of whales took their songs with them. The first words uttered by Juan Sebastián Elcano were most likely in Basque as he came ashore in Sanlúcar de Barrameda having circumnavigated the globe for the first time in history.

I know that languages are not coats, but if Basque were an outfit, it would certainly not be green. And while for centuries our forests and mountains have been blanketed in a thousand shades of green, olive, turquoise and emerald, the Basque language has used the Latin loan-word berde and the neologism orlegi (literally, ‘the colour of leaves’) to refer to the colour green. There is no original word in Basque for green, the colour of hope. The absence of the word is striking, especially when the rest of the names for colours are rich and full of meaning in Basque: gorri is used for the colour red, but also the absence of additions or alterations (larru gorri = ‘naked body’; urre gorri = unalloyed gold); urdin is blue, ‘the colour of water’; beltza is black and shares a root with the words bele (crow) and arbel (blackboard); zuri means white and seems to come from the word zur (wood). In so many cultures white is associated with purity and innocence, but for Basque speakers, white is the colour of falsehood. Perhaps this is because, just as a tree is a different colour inside and out, people who are false think one thing but do another. But… how can it be that we have gorri, urdin, beltz and zuri in Euskara and no bona fide word for ‘green’? It may be the same reason why the Inuit peoples of the American Arctic don’t have a plain and simple word for the colour white, or why the Maori in the red deserts of New Zealand apparently have no word for red. In a country with so many shades of green, a language that serves to identify the world around us would never use the same term for the leaves of an oak tree, the needles of a pine or the grass in springtime. Therefore, the word berde would not have arrived until the Roman Empire brought new colours to the Basque vocabulary. So, if Euskara were a coat, it wouldn’t be green but rather a patchwork of different shades of green.


If Basque were an outfit, some would consider it old-fashioned and démodé. But for others it would be the height of cool, vintage and edgy. Using an animal allegory, the linguist Juan Uriagereka compared Euskara to a shark, a species that predates the dinosaur by two hundred million years. He said that no matter old its origin (obviously not as old as the shark), if an animal or a language has managed to survive until now, it’s because it has adapted to its environment; and for anyone who thinks otherwise, the linguist suggests we pit an ape (a much more ‘modern’ mammal), against a shark (in the water, of course) and see what happens. In any case, the longevity of a language, specifically Basque, is a failsafe guarantee for its future. After all, it has withstood the test of time and is fully braced to face the challenges ahead.

‘Euskara jantzi bat balitz, gizonezkoentzako zein emakumezkoentzako jantzia izango litzateke, bereizketarik gabe’

If Euskara were an article of clothing, it’d be worn by men and women alike since it is a genderless language. It wouldn’t be a unisex garment, however, because Basque verbs have a unique ability to indicate the gender of the person being addressed. It’d be very easy to wear because all the auxiliary verbs in the language fit on a single sheet of paper – something Romance languages can only dream of. It could even be a magic cape. Is it not mysterious that the basic elements of life sound so much alike: ur (water), lur (earth), zur (wood), su (fire), elur (snow), egur (wood), hezur (bone)…?

I recently discovered, in fact, that Basque indeed is an article of clothing. In English, the word ‘basque’ means ‘corset’, the tight-fitting bodice that girdles the female body from chest to hips. Who knows, maybe that’s how we’ve been seen by others, a restricted and closed linguistic community. Or maybe there are no hidden parallels. After all, the language that keeps me warm, alive and dreaming is just the opposite – a friendly, open, flexible language used by just over a million people every day to learn, study, speak out, share their lives and, most importantly, to see themselves in the world around them.

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Bodies that take to the streets

At the turn of the new century, a woman in a black skirt stood in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, facing the camera. She opened her legs and began to urinate, standing there out in the open. The artist’s name was Itziar Okariz and the work was entitled To Pee in Public and Private Spaces. From 2000 to 2004 she performed in different locations, sometimes live and sometimes on video, as an independent and permanent work of art. Although the first time was on the Rhine River in Düsseldorf, most of her performances were set in New York, where she was living at the time.

The echoes of this performance in distant places did not take long to reach the Basque Country’s art scene. The artist’s work was a provocative expression of different ideas being debated in the feminist movement of the time. In 1999 a second edition of Judith Butler’s book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity was published (translated into Spanish and published in 2001). In her book, the philosopher develops the basis and theory of the queer movement, namely that gender is performative, represented and repeated. What defines us as men and women in the eyes of others are the attitudes, behaviours and actions that we repeat over and over again. Butler argued that identity is performed, that it is reproduced all the time and that by interrupting this repetition of acts or by assuming attitudes that in principle do not correspond to us, we can break with gender identity.

That is precisely what happened when Itziar Okariz opened her legs on the Brooklyn Bridge and began to urinate. Instead of the typical squatting position that females adopt when urinating, she chose to pee standing like a man. And instead of looking for an enclosed, private place, as women usually do, she opted for a public space, which men so often use without a second thought. At that moment, Okariz was a woman displaying the body language of a man. She made it clear that there is no physical biological element that justifies the difference between the two postures, but rather a social decision laden with significance.

‘Okariz’s work has been a reference for many Basque artists who have fused body and feminism; but she is not the only one.’

Okariz’s work has been a reference for many Basque artists who have fused body and feminism; but she is not the only one. Many years ago, Esther Ferrer used her body as raw material for art. In 1977, in her performance Íntimo y personal (Intimate and Personal), she undressed, took measurements of different parts of her body and wrote them down on a chalkboard. And she invited the public to do the same. In this way, she illustrated the control to which women’s bodies are subjected and wanted to present the body as a real experience, reclaiming it as something more than an object of pleasure for the entertainment of others.

A fundamental point in Okariz’s work was already present in Ferrer’s: distinguishing the public from the private. Contrasting the intimate and personal with the public, in other words, things that happen in private spaces that have historically been considered a woman’s own; and walls that limited their ability to act.

“ Their early video works often depicted women enclosed within four walls, in a relationship with the domestic space that was not always comfortable.”

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the critique of domestic life has been present since the origins of feminist art. Some artists have made this critique by focusing on specific domestic spaces typical settings for women’s work. One example is the American artist Martha Rosler’s performance Semiotics of the Kitchen; many others have focused on femininity-related issues. In the Basque Country, the most striking example is Penélope by Itziar Elejalde (1980): a bright white cloth, hanging like clean linen, is fastened to a strip of pink neon with clothes pegs. On the cloth is a sentence embroidered in pink thread: Hasta cuándo, Penélope, abusarás de tu paciencia (How long, Penelope, will your patience endure?

Twenty years later, while Okariz was staging her first performances on the river Rhine, Naia del Castillo presented Espacio doméstico. Silla (Domestic Space. Chair) for the Gure Artea plastic arts award. The work consisted of two parts: an object and a photograph. The object was a wooden chair with a cushion on top and a skirt made of the same fabric tied to the cushion; the photograph was of a woman tied to the chair by the skirt she was wearing. It showed the woman fixed to the domestic space with a material linked to women’s work – fabric and sewing. Household furniture was represented as junk that defined and limited performativity, clouding the supposed warmth of the home with the darkness of prison.

The spaces and objects, habits, attitudes and movements that shape the role of women come to light in Naia del Castillo’s artwork; Itziar Okariz’s work creates situations that break away only to take on other spaces and attitudes. Okariz invites us to construct the complexity of identity by acting – and not in just any place, but in the public space that shapes the public subject.

Along these same lines, the group Pripublikarrak decided to take over the public space and in 2006 launched the Koktelazioak initiative to promote the idea constructing identity. In public squares in Bilbao, passers-by were given the chance to shape the map of their identity by choosing features from a menu. Instead of names, the menu offered actions, i.e., instead of “I am a sportsperson” they could choose “I practice sport”. To challenge the static identity, they wanted to show the participants how an identity is constructed and transformed every day through our actions. And to show how original all the identities were, they linked the actions on the menu to an ingredient. A cocktail with the different ingredients from their identity map was then made for each person.
In the work created by the group Señora Polaroiska we can also see the journey of the woman’s body into the public space. Their early video works often depicted women enclosed within four walls, in a relationship with the domestic space that was not always comfortable. Lady Jibia, however, made the same year as Koktelazioak, contrasted domestic space and nature: in the former women’s bodies were confined and standardised through clothing, work and gestures; in the latter, the body moves naked and free. From that point on, Señora Polaroiska’s work on how women take over the public space became increasingly evident.

A perfect example is their 2012 work Pilota Girls. The fronton is one of the central public spaces in the Basque Country. In addition to being a ball court, the fronton has often served as the village square. Like many other environments, it is totally masculine since only men played ‘pilota’ and the audience and the people who placed wagers on the game were also largely men. For this video, Señora Polaroiska followed the ‘pelotari’ (Basque ball player) Patri Espinar through the streets of Bilbao, while she used the walls of buildings as makeshift ball courts. The pelotari took to the streets of the city, once again showing attitudes and movements not associated with her gender and showing the spaces coupled with their defining gender markers.

The power of women’s actions and bodies to influence the public space, and the possibilities they offer for reflecting on the separation of gender are recurring themes in contemporary Basque art. Taking to the streets a means of protest is not alien to modern Basque society, and it continues to be necessary.

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From Mikel Laboa to Delorean: The flight of a free bird

It’s as if Mikel Laboa (Donostia, 1934-2008) never left us. The words to his best-known song, ‘Txoria Txori’ came to him in the way of poem by Joxean Artze printed on a napkin in a restaurant in San Sebastián in the 1960s. Laboa liked it and took one of the napkins home with him. Here is a translation of what it said: “If I had clipped its wings / it would’ve been mine / It could not have escaped. / But then, / it would no longer be a bird” / And I… / what I loved was the bird”. Laboa wrote a melody for Artze’s poem in 1969. He later recorded it for the album Bat-Hiru (One-Three).

Mikel Laboa is not just any musician; he is a legend. Throughout his career he shifted back and forth from tradition to innovation, from the past to the future. He started local only to embrace the universal. His music was mostly approachable, but he also created experimental pieces (his famous lekeitios involved screams and onomatopoeic sounds) which is a kind of tribute to John Cage and Camarón de la Isla in a single song. Laboa was a giant. And he’s not about to disappear. Indeed, he is still very much alive at public and private events, family meals, schools, among friends, in towns and cities. His songs rang out at the opening of the European Cultural Capital 2016 in Donostia and at the Baigorri Rugby field in victorious celebration.

Laboa has lit up the sky like a giant rainbow. In 2017 the electro-pop band Delorean released Mikel Laboa, an album that reinterpreted his songbook. What? A paragon of Basque indie rock paying homage to the godfather of Basque folk? How can that be? What in other places may sound like bluster, here it is explained by our musicians’ endless feeling of reverence for Laboa.

‘Throughout his career he shifted back and forth from tradition to innovation, from the past to the future.’

Back in 1990, when Laboa was 55 years old, a series of new bands came out with an 11-track album of his Laboa’s songs entitled Txerokee: Mikel Laboaren kantak. In terms of popular impact and historical significance, two names stand out above the rest: Negu Gorriak and Su Ta Gar. The first, led by Fermín Muguruza, were the kings of hardcore rock south of the Pyrenees in the 1990s. They were only together for six years, but their attitude (committed, combative, tireless) is still very much alive. Su Ta Gar are our Iron Maiden, a tour de force of Basque heavy metal that shows no signs of slowing down. Xabier Montoia is credited with launching the band. Illustrious figures signed up from 1980s radical Basque rock (BAP!!, Delirium Tremens, M-ak), a diverse movement that revolutionized the music scene and had its roots in British punk. Fermín Muguruza, the man who does just about everything music-wise the Basque Country, nailed it when asked about Mikel Laboa: “He’s the inescapable gold standard in Basque music.”

Laboa cannot be fully understood without his travelling companions. From 1966 to 1972 he was co-founder of Ez Dok Amairu, the band that changed Basque song forever and gave rise to a batch of artists (Xabier Lete, Lourdes Iriondo, Benito Lertxundi, the Artze brothers…) who are now intertwined in the popular imagination. Lete was an unforgettable poet and musician. Together with Iriondo, the two captured the spirit of Basque youth in the face of harassment under the Franco dictatorship. Lertxundi is another legend, one of our longest-standing and best-loved artists. Known as the Bard of Orio, his music has gone from protest songs to love songs, epic songs, Basque folklore and more. They all played off each other sharing, giving and taking, sharing synergies. In their concerts they alternated their own songs with songs by Jaques Brel or Donovan sung in Basque, which was a real discovery. Euskera was becoming associated with other musical cultures, including rock ‘n’ roll. Founded in 1974, Errobi played both traditional Basque music and American folk rock. The group from Bayonne led by Anje Duhalde and Mixel Ducaut were, together with Nico Etxart, pioneers of Basque rock.

“Mikel’s music comes from within, from the deep furrows he steadily ploughed and never abandoned.”

Whether singer-songwriters from yesteryear or rock bands today, everyone loves Mikel Laboa and all roads lead to or from Mikel Laboa. The song ‘Izarren hautsa’, for instance, was originally written by Lete and a version was later released by Laboa. Contemporary solo musicians such as Mikel Urdangarin and Anari include it in their live shows. The mainstream pop-rock band Ken Zazpi also created their own version. ‘Haika Mutil’, a classic song popularized by Laboa, was included in the album Etxea (2008) by the accomplished accordionist Kepa Junkera. Ruper Ordorika is another key figure in Basque folk and beyond (slow rock, electric guitar singer-songwriter) of the last 30 years. He collaborated on a song from Laboa’s last studio album, Xoriek 17 (2005) and participated in a new tribute released under the highly-regarded Bidehuts label.

Twenty years after the release of Txerokee, a new dream team of (not exclusively) rock bands exercised their creative freedom to reinterpret 19 Laboa songs in Txinaurriak. Mikel Laboari ikasitako kantuak (2010). This double album puts a new spin on Laboa’s legendary career and musical diversity. Seven years before Delorean, some of biggest names in the Basque alternative independent music scene, including Willis Drumond, Lisabö, Audience, Athom Rumba, Inoren Ero Ni and Berri Txarrak, came together to pay their respects to an immortal man who flew like a free bird. And everything seems to indicate that Mikel Laboa will continue to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for some of the most unexpected musicians: indie rock band WAS with their electronic samples of Laboa’s ‘lekeitios’; Sonakay’s flamenco version of ‘Txoria Txori’; the deconstruction of a rocker who also flies high and free, Joseba Irazoki; the improvisation of a total artist like Mursego; the heterodoxy of the penultimate discovery of Basque experimental folk incarnated in Bas(h)oan…

Ruper Ordorika once wrote: ‘Mikel’s music comes from within, from the deep furrows he steadily ploughed and never abandoned. Those furrows were not only created by intuition, but carved out in detail, forever connected to the influences of his time and place.’

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New basque cinema: On flowers and giants

Today’s Basque cinema could be compared to a brilliant spring flower: its sturdy, upright stem leads to a series of colourful petals that sparkle in the sun, and suddenly the everything around it becomes incredibly beautiful. The metaphor is not gratuitous. Loreak (Jon Garaño andJosé María Goenaga, 2014) surprised everyone at its première at the San Sebastian Film Festival.

Shot entirely in Basque, this film about the captivating power of bouquets over the three female lead characters – Ane (Nagore Aramburu), Tere (Itziar Aizpuru) and Lourdes (Itziar Ituño) – was met with both critical and popular acclaim. This beautifully crafted drama was shortlisted for the Oscars and has enjoyed a long and splendid life. With more than 30 awards, Loreak has won more prizes than any Basque film to date.

‘With more than 30 awards, Loreak has won more prizes than any Basque film to date’

Garaño and Goenaga are the most visible filmmaking duo from the so-called new Basque cinema. Their 2010 film, 80 egunean, was screened at over 100 international film festivals, including four A-list festivals. Their most recent film, Handia (2017), equally beautiful but a more ambitious production, is based on a legendary 19th century Basque character called Miguel Joaquín Eleizegui Arteaga, better known as the ‘Giant of Altzo’. Handia won 10 of the 13 nominations at the Goya Awards.

Loreak sowed the seeds of exquisite lyricism, visuals and quality. Handia gathered the harvest and told a story that inevitably reminds us of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Between one film and the other, between flowers and giants, Basque cinema has shown its credentials. Iratxe Fresneda, researcher and lecturer in audiovisual communication at the University of the Basque Country, sums it up nicely: ‘Very new and beautiful things are being done, starting out with Basque themes and real situations that embrace universal values and truths.’ Dantza (Telmo Esnal, 2018) is a splendid example. Based on traditional Basque dances, the cycle of life, the struggle for survival and the passage of time are represented in an amazing audiovisual display. 250 dantzaris (dancers) from 15 companies show us global themes in a film that is much more than a musical. It is a poetic journey, a journey to the very essence of our existence. It is a journey to the myths that lie beneath the earth’s surface.

Errementari (Paul Urkijo, 2018) and Amama (Asier Altuna, 2015), each with its own codes and genre, also ride the waves of tradition. Combining a dose of microcosm and universalism, they have made a place for themselves in the heart of new Basque cinema. In Errementari, Urkijo draws on a Basque folk tale from 1902, ‘Patxi Errementaria’, which in turn belongs to a compendium of European fables about devils who hunt human souls. Amama (English title: When a Tree Falls) uses the traditional Basque farmstead, or ‘caserío’, as both a metaphor and a way of life that is vanishing like a sugar cube in troubled waters. Altuna tackles issues like patriarchal society, morality and family from a symbolic lens charged with longing – and manages to take his message to every corner of the planet.

While the subject matter is wildly diverse, spanning a wide range of genres, there is, however, one thing in common in contemporary Basque film: the language. For the first time, the Basque language, Euskera, is a major player at the cinema. It is not a new phenomenon, per se, but the sporadic incursions in the first decade of the 2000s are now taken for granted.

Without another Basque film-making duo, Asier Altuna and Telmo Esnal, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today. In 2005, they achieved unexpected success with the delightful comedy Aupa Etxebeste!, which drew 70,000 spectators to the box office. The story of a family forced to spend their holidays locked inside the house instead of on the Mediterranean won over the Basque audience. ‘We thought it would work as a comedy. We watched it at the advance screening for the crew. But we didn’t know if it would run for a week or a month,’ recalled Xabier Berzosa, one of the film’s producers. ‘Much less that it would become almost a cult movie,’ added co-producer Iñaki Gómez. The challenge then was to succeed outside the Basque Country. In the first decade of 2000 other films were made in Basque, such as Kutsidazu bidea, Ixabel (Fernando Bernués and Mireia Gabilondo, 2006) and Ander (Roberto Castón, 2009). Driven by the Loreak effect and with Euskera completely standardized in Basque film productions, Asier Altuna and Telmo Esnal released their sequel, Agur Etxebeste, 14 years later.

Animation has long been fertile ground (Gartxot, Kalabaza tripontzia, Ipar haizearen erronka…) in Basque cinema. In 2018, the multifaceted Fermín Muguruza dared to make Black is Beltza, an animation movie for adults, creating a frenetic story that blends together soul music and the tumultuous revolutions of 1960s USA. Iratxe Fresneda, a filmmaker herself (director of the documentaries Irrintziaren Oihartzunak, 2016, and Lurralde hotzak, 2018), underlines the diversity of films being made in Basque and the rise of more experimental and out-of-the-ordinary projects. San Sebastian director Koldo Almandoz immediately comes to mind. After earning his stripes with short films, in 2018 his film Oreina featured in the New Directors section of the San Sebastian Film Festival. Almandoz belongs to a generation of Basque filmmakers (Telmo Esnal, Jose Mari Goenaga, Aitor Arregi, Jon Garaño) who for years have been active in the Kimuak short film programme, sponsored by the Basque Film Library and the Etxepare Basque Institute. One of its latest representatives is Maider Fernández whose film Gure hormek, co-directed with María Elorza, was nominated for a Goya in 2019 for Best Documentary Short Film.

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10 keys to understanding Basque gastronomy

1. Food first

Don’t mess with food, especially in a country where much of the social life revolves around eating. It’s a standard topic of conversation and most plans involve food. For Basques, food is a religion, a blind faith, a celebration, a matter of utmost importance. First things first: what to eat and where to eat it. They’ll be time to sort out the rest of the world once we’re sitting around the table.

2. A shared treasure

Vitoria-Gasteiz is in the top ranking of European cities with the most green space; Bilbao flaunts its Guggenheim Museum and amazing urban revitalisation; Donostia is the city of festivals and a destination that has drawn visitors from 19th-century royalty to surfers the world over. But what all three cities have in common, what unites the our three Basque capitals and the region as a whole, is food.

3. The Commandments

The philosophy of Basque cuisine is based on a series of strict commandments: locally-sourced and/or zero-kilometre ingredients, seasonal produce, a personal touch, and a natural blend of tradition and avant-garde. Tradition is as important as sophistication and innovation, and they are not at odds with each other. Two examples of mind-bending creativity intertwined with long-standing tradition: Juan Mari Arzak’s popular redfish terrine and Pedro Subijana’s green pepper sea bass served at his restaurant Akelarre.

4. Curious cooking clubs

Equipped with commercial kitchens and dining rooms, cuadrillas (groups of friends) meet regularly in these locales for lunch or dinner. They’re not restaurants open to the public and there are no waiters or cooking staff. The tasks are generally shared among the members – some do the shopping, others do the cooking. And once everyone has finished their meal, the total cost is tallied up and split equally. Visitors and tourists might not even notice them but there are hundreds of cooking clubs, or txokos, in the Basque Country.

5. Txotx!

The cider season kicks off on the Friday before January 20th and lasts until the end of April or early May. At some cider houses people eat standing up, while at others, they’re seated. But all cider houses follow the same rituals: set menu of cod omelette, fried cod and thick steak, cheese with quince and walnuts for dessert, and all washed down with unlimited cider served from the barrel at the sound of “Txotx!”. Most important of all is the fun and relaxing atmosphere.

‘Euskaldunentzat, janaria pasio itsua da. Fede paganoa. Ospakizuna. Lehentasunezko gaia.’

6. On Michelin stars and other constellations

An impressive statistic: San Sebastian is second only to Kyoto in the number of Michelin stars per square metre on the planet. It’s easy to spot the glowing constellations of award-winning restaurants on a map of this part of the world. A total of 23 restaurants in the Basque Country were awarded Michelin stars in 2019, four of which earned the coveted 3-star rating.

7. Basque chefs: local heroes (universal ambassadors)

At the end of 1976, a dozen Basque chefs founded a movement known as New Basque Cuisine. Paul Bocuse was their messiah, father of the nouvelle cuisine movement in France. Its pillars were three: cooperation, innovation and the human factor. It revolutionised Basque gastronomy and shook the culinary world. Forty years later, Arzak, Subijana and company are keeping the spirit very much alive. In recent years several Basque chefs have picked up the baton from the master veteran chefs. Among the new crop are Aizpea Oihaneder, Elena Arzak, Pilar Idoate, Eneko Atxa, Gorka Txapartegui, and Ruben Trincado.

8. Pintxomania

You’ve probably heard by now that pintxos are small bits of food that you find at bars. Ranging from the traditional piece of bread with some kind of topping, to the fancier haute cuisine in miniature, pintxos can usually be eaten in two or three bites. In 2018 the Lonely Planet’s ‘Ultimate Eatlist’ billed pintxo-hopping as ‘the top food experience in the world’. It has become wildly popular among visitors and is a deeply-rooted tradition among the Basques. Oh, and pintxos are generally eaten while standing. Long live informality!

9. ‘Palabra de vasco’

Trust between customer and server is sacred. It’s not customary at a bar to settle up right after your drinks are served. There’s no stress involved when people eat and drink in the Basque Country. Only when you’re finished will the server pop the question (What did you have?), to which the customer will always answer in all honestly. ‘Palabra de vasco’, (the word of a Basque) is good as gold, no signatures or handshakes needed. The architect Frank Gehry once said: ‘When the Basques say something, you don’t have to get it in writing.’

10. Basque Culinary Center: the mecca of flavour (and expertise)

It’s not surprising that the Basque Country is home to a faculty of gastronomy. The Basque Culinary Center celebrated its first graduating class in 2015. Since then, students from around the world have been learning about avant-garde cuisine and broadening their horizons with other gastronomy-related knowledge and skills. Attached to the University of Mondragon, the best chefs on the planet lead master classes at the ‘Harvard of cuisine’. The BCC is also home to BCC Innovation, the first technology centre for gastronomy.

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10 books to immerse yourself in 21st century basque literature

The list that follows brings together the soul of Basque literature, a combination of prominent names as well as authors just coming out of their shells. Together they make up a sort of dream team of Basque letters. Many of these books have been translated into different languages, received multiple awards, and some have even been made into films. Ten books written in this century, ten great reads, literary treasures bound to reward their readers with riches.

1. Prako tranbia (Unai Elorriaga, 2001)

Unai Elorriaga was only 29 when he won Spain’s National Prize for Literature in 2002 for SPrako tranbia (A Tram to SP). His first novel opened the doors to a new generation of Basque writers and caused a literary revolution. What was his debut novel all about? What was so special about it? Who was this young writer? The story of Lucas, Marcos and Maria is a coming together of young and old in an original narrative style. Aitzol Aramaio adapted the novel to the screen in Un poco de chocolate (original title). ‘Unai Elorriaga’s is one of those books that appear so rarely,’ wrote Felipe Juaristi in the Basque newspaper El Diario Vasco.

2 Lagun izoztua (Joseba Sarrionaindia, 2001)

Joseba Sarrionandia is one of the most brilliant writers in Basque literature. He is also one of the most enigmatic. In 1985, Sarrionandia escaped from the Martutene penitentiary in San Sebastian, hiding himself in one of the loudspeakers at a concert given by the Basque singer Imanol Larzabal. His whereabouts remained unknown for over 30 years. Now living in Cuba, his novel Lagun izoztua (The Frozen Friend) became a bestseller and won the Critics’ Prize for the best prose in Basque. Revolving around the topic of exile, this is the closest ‘Sarri’ has come to an autobiography: ‘Although it’s fiction, I felt closely connected to the characters and circumstances described in the novel,’ he explained to the magazine Argia.

3 Soinujolearen semea (Bernardo Atxaga, 2003)

Here we have a writer of universal appeal. Since the undisputed success of Obabakoak (1988), every new book out by Bernardo Atxaga is an event in itself. And the effect generally spreads in different directions. His book Soinujolearen semea (The Accordionist’s Son) is paradigmatic: it was translated into nine languages, brilliantly adapted for the stage in 2012, and made into a film by Fernando Bernués in 2019. One of Atxaga’s most personal and representative stories, The Accordionist’s Son traces the friendship between Joseba and David from the Spanish Civil War to the end of the 20th century.

4. Bilbao-New York-Bilbao (Kirmen Uribe, 2009)

Another stunning debut. Kirmen Uribe triumphed in style with his first novel, clinching two of Spain’s most coveted literary prizes: the National Prize for Literature and the Critics’ award for best Basque-language novel. Delving into the waters of autofiction, the story takes place on a flight from the Bilbao airport to New York’s JFK, following the story of three generations of a family. The writer from Ondarroa regularly participates in international literary events. The Harvard Book Review wrote that ‘Uribe’s literature deepens its roots in the Basque Country, but it’s completely universal’.

5. Twist (Harkaitz Cano, 2012)

Harkaitz Cano is a Basque culture multitasker. He works as a literary translator, is both lighthearted and classy (he used to be a TV scriptwriter and is joined at the hip to the world of comics) and admits to being a ‘frustrated musician’. Twist, Cano’s fourth novel, earned him the Euskadi Prize for Literature, among and other accolades, and has been translated into half a dozen languages. While the story is fictional, Twist opens with an event that was like a dagger to the heart of an entire generation of Basques: the 1983 kidnapping, torture and murder of ETA members José Antonio Lasa and José Ignacio Zabala by the paramilitary organization GAL.

6. Martutente (Ramón Saizarbitoria, 2013)

His writing has been likened to Tolstoy’s greatness and Flaubert’s obsession with stylistic precision. But it is the echoes of Max Frisch’s Montauk that ring most clearly in Saizarbitoria’s novel Martutene. This is not just another title in the illustrious career of Ramón Saizarbitoria, one of the great renovators of Basque literature. The 720-page treatise on the Basque Country was only been showered with awards and praise, but marked a new milestone in the author’s career. As Basque linguist Gorka Aulestia once said: ‘We are before a conscientious architect who erects harmonious, well-assembled literary architecture that begs for careful reading’.

7. Bidean ikasia (Arantxa Urretabizkaia, 2016)

The Hondarribia parade has been held since 1639 to commemorate the town’s liberation from the French troops of King Louis XIII. In 1993, a group of women wanted to take part in the parade, but their demands were met with a backlash. Arantxa Urretabizkaia, one of the leading voices in Basque literature, decided to tell the story of the struggle of these women and the bitter events that opened wounds and stirred consciences. Urretabizkaia won the Euskadi Prize for Literature in 2017. In the words of the jury, ‘The book is the achievement of a writer who has managed to take a mature look at the big picture of the situation.’

8. Jenisjoplin (2017, Uxue Alberdi)

Writer and bertsolari (a singer of bertsos, improvised musical verse in Basque tradition). Uxue Alberdi belongs to a rising generation of Basque women writers who combine the local with the universal and have a distinct feminist voice. Jenisjoplin tells the story of Nagore Vargas, a young woman from Bilbao who works in a community radio station and finds herself in a terrible mess. The Basque political conflict is the jumping off point for a dramatic personal story, but also a beautiful love story and the meaning of family. Jenisjoplin, Alberdi’s second novel, won the Basque readers award 111 Akademia.

9. Bihotz handiegia (2017, Eider Rodríguez)

Something quite unusual happened with Eider Rodríguez: for the first time ever, two Euskadi Prizes went to the same person in a single year, one for Rodríguez’ comic book Santa Familia and another for her book of short stories, Bihotz Handiegia. Although she is from the town of Errenteria in Hegoalde (the Basque region south of the French border), Rodriguez lives in Hendaye, Iparralde (the northern Basque region). It’s no coincidence that the stories in this book cross borders that separate two communities, but also two realities that unite them forever. The years Rodríguez spent in Paris and Madrid forged her identity as a writer. She says she felt like a foreigner, a sentiment shared by the characters in these six stories.

10. Azala erre (2018, Danele Sarriugarte)

The youngest member of this dream team and one of the most talked about names in literary circles. Danele Sarriugarte (Elgoibar, 1989) became known with her first novel, Erraiak (2014), which won the Gipuzcoa booksellers guild award. This time she tackles friendship, envy, success and shallowness, set in the world of art. The story illustrates the dependence on social networks of its two young protagonists and all the rumours that swirl around them. ‘A writer should ignore the racket that is so often created on Twitter,’ says Sarriugarte.

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Scotland Goes Basque 2019

Scotland is key for sharing Basque culture. Much like the Basque Country, it is a land with a strong sense of cultural identity, a place with proud roots and a passion for projecting its identity to the rest of the world.

Scotland’s rich and effervescent cultural life is also reflected in its many long-established international festivals of music, film, dance and literature, making it an indispensable nation for cultural exchange and conversation.

#ScotlandGoesBasque was developed in 2019 to forge bonds between Scotland and the Basque Country by promoting collaborative efforts by Basque and Scottish creators.

From literature to the performing arts to music and film, the Basque cultural cycle in Scotland, #ScotlandGoesBasque, showed the work of Basque artists at some of Scotland´s most important cultural events, including the Celtic Connections, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The Scottish public and professionals from the creative, cultural and academic sectors had the chance to discover the variety and wealth of contemporary Basque culture and creation through forums, performances, gatherings and films, and create a space to exchange ideas with artists and industry professionals.

A total of 86 Basque creators (including musicians, performers, dancers, writers and film directors) took part in 106 activities promoted by the Etxepare Basque Institute. In addition to the many activities geared to the general public, two meetings were also held for industry professionals – one on cinema and another on music – as well as an international academic congress. A total of 137 Basque cultural stakeholders travelled to Scotland to take part in the different activities carried out throughout the year.

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Saison Québec-Pays Basque 2021-2022

The relationship between Quebec and Euskadi goes back a long way. The connection, which began five centuries ago with Basque whalers, is still alive today.

Quebec and the Basque Country also share a common vision when it comes to protecting cultural and linguistic diversity, delivering on innovation, safeguarding the environment, and tackling climate change.

Saison Québec-Pays basque 2021-2022 will serve to highlight our excellent creative talent, collaborate between the cultural professional of Quebec and Euskadi, encourage the exchange of artists, creators and cultural industries, and strengthen collaboration between the two nations.

Directed by the Etxepare Basque Institute and the Ministry of Culture and Communications of Quebec, the project will be reciprocal: Basque artists and creators will show their work in Quebec and artists from Quebec will do the same in Euskadi.

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