Basque Battle Raps and Stealth Sloganeering

Today’s slide show: Images from the Basque Country.

A Basque-language anti-bullfighting poster.

The Basque Country is a land of Navajo code-talkers. Unlike Spain’s other minority languages, Catalan and Gallego, a knowledge of other Romance languages won’t help you decipher Euskara, the Basques’ ancient tongue. Packed with K’s and X’s, the only language it resembles is Klingon, the lingua franca of Star Trek’s wrinkly headed warrior race. (Since one of the Star Trek franchise’s longtime writer-producers has the classic Basque name Echevarria, I wondered if the resemblance was intentional, but a Web search reveals a disappointing lack of evidence for my theory.)

Their impenetrable language means Basque separatists don’t have to dissemble in front of outsiders—by stating their message in Euskara, they keep it in the family. On a day trip to San Sebastián, I had a pre-lunch aperitif in a separatist bar. The posters plastered all over the walls were in Euskara, and only a few stray words—presoak (prisoners), amnistia (amnesty)—betrayed Latin roots. Still, the Cuban flag hanging on the wall, the Che Guevara mirror behind the bar, and the extensive real estate devoted to collection jars (one, I swear, in the shape of a bomb) signaled that this was a gathering place for like-minded souls, not a service-with-a-smile hospitality center for tourists. It works out well for the tourist authorities, too: Since Basque nationalists tend to use Euskara in their political graffiti, it doesn’t scare the vacationers. It isn’t immediately obvious to visitors if that “Gora E.T.A.” scrawled on the walls of the Casco Viejo supports or condemns the banned Basque separatists. (It’s pro.)

Euskara may be Europe’s most ancient language, but it’s very much alive. A Basque-language TV channel transmits dubbed kiddy cartoons (Rocko, Kanguru Modernoa), movies (“Yankiak, zuz John Schlesinger”), and trashy live coverage of the Aste Nagusia festivities. (The language itself may be a mystery, but judging from the guests’ body language, the interlocutors ask questions like, “Did you enjoy the fireworks?” “Were you really drunk last night?” and “Do my ears look big in this beret?”)

Bilbao’s bertsolariak give bards a new image.

Every morning during Aste Nagusia, bertsolariak, Basque bards, perform in the Plaza Nueva. It’s a very low-key presentation: As if to confound the bardly image of long robes and flowing beards, the bertsolariak and the MC who runs the show seem to make an effort to wear aggressively casual clothing—grubby T-shirts and disreputable-looking shorts are particularly de rigueur. These aren’t old geezers, either—two of the four bertsolariak in Monday’s show looked like high-schoolers; sitting up on stage between turns, they looked like naughty boys waiting to see the principal.

The bertsolariak’s performance is an amalgam of improv comedy, poetry slam, and battle rap. The MC presents a topic—based on the two or three words I could make out, subject matter included star-crossed toreros and ill-fated kickoffs to the Aste Nagusia celebrations—and the bertsolariak improvise melody and Euskara lyrics on the theme. They usually work in pairs, trading verses, but there were also solo turns, and in the show’s big finish, all four bertsolariak took to the mike. Other than a little teasing about one bertsolari’s scratchy voice, there didn’t appear to be much dissing going on—though I suppose that if your gift in life is composing ephemeral songs that only about 600,000 people in the entire world can understand, it’s not a good idea to use your one chance to blow to alienate colleagues.

When I first spent time in Spain in the early 1980s, my main exposure to Euskaldunak, speakers of Euskara, was on the train ride from Paris to Madrid, a route that runs through Irun, Pamplona, and other points Basque. The passengers who boarded the train at the various stops in what Mark Kurlansky calls “Spanish Basqueland” looked very different from both the foreign tourists and the returning Spaniards. Somehow, the Basque-language newspapers they paged through seemed like political theater props—the equivalent of a lone woman in a carriage full of men bringing out a sharp knife and slowly peeling an apple—and a “screw you” to the news-hungry travelers who’d spent the night in transit; their impenetrable headlines designed to frustrate the curious.

Back then, I thought Euskara was toast—the isolated rural communities where the Basque language had persisted were opening up to the world; the language had effectively been banned during Gen. Francisco Franco’s 38 years in power through 1975; and its complexity—20 declensions, 12 cases, and no prepositions or articles—made a revival seem unlikely. Today, Basque TV transmissions of Donkey Kong eta Bere Herrialdea and the youthful bertsolariak prove that it survives and thrives. Although castellano­—Spanish—is still Bilbao’s first language (when counting and answering the telephone, locals almost always use Spanish, and young people seem to flirt exclusively in castellano), the 100,000 or so Euskaldunberri (new speakers of Euskara) of the last decade suggest that a minority language can survive in an age of globalization.