Improvising through hardship, Basque singer carries on tradition in Nevada – The Nevada Independent

Washoe County resident Jesus “Jess” Goñi has a knack for a traditional Basque singing style called bertsolaritza took him all over the region and even to the halls of Congress.

But his talent also helped keep a unique language and culture alive, especially in northern Nevada and the Great Basin region, where many Basque immigrants settled after leaving Europe in the face of harsh persecution. in the twentieth century.

Bertsolaritza is a type of improvisational singing where the singer is asked to perform a song on a specific topic and fit it into a traditional verse structure. Singers like Goñi — known as bertsolaris or bertsos – address topics ranging from touching and dramatic to humorous and playful.

Set to a specific rhyme scheme and performed in Basque, scholars and bertsos often comment that when translated, songs lose much of their original meaning and artistic intent.

Parameters where bertsolaritza is achieved ranges from groups as informal as friends all sharing a meal together to powerful politicians in the United States Congress.

It all started for Goñi when he started singing with his grandfather while growing up in the hills of Navarre, the largest province in the Basque Country, a region nestled in the Pyrenees between Spain and France.

Basque history

While many people in the United States confuse Basques with a subculture of Spanish or French, Basques have their own language, culture, and society. One of Europe’s oldest living cultures, the people of Euskal Herria, or the Basque Country, fought diligently to keep their traditions alive, even in the midst of political and social persecution and hardship.

One of the most striking examples took place 85 years ago last week during the bombing of Gernika. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, the Basque army was fighting to prevent Spanish nationalist troops from taking control of the provinces of Gipuzkoa and Biscay.

On a typical market day when 10,000 civilians had gathered in the spiritual capital to go about their business, an airstrike began. While the number of casualties is hotly disputed, between 126 and 1,654 people died in the shelling, many of them civilians.

The tragedy reverberates generations later, inspiring dance, sculpture and painting, including the famous painting by Pablo Picasso Guernica. the Gernika arbola, the oak tree planted in the town square of Gernika to represent the independence of Biscay, has remained standing despite the bombardments and has become a symbol of Basque resilience and hope.

Francisco Franco was a Spanish nationalist, wanting to eradicate any group in Spain that was not Spanish. From becoming Spanish dictator at the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975, Basques were prohibited from speaking their language and participating in their culture and were sometimes tortured or killed for their political beliefs.

Due to this cultural genocide, coupled with political warfare, the terrors of World War II and the lack of financial opportunities, many Basques left for other parts of the world, including Argentina, Chile and the United States. They brought their culture, language and society with them, planting seedlings of the surviving Gernika tree in Boise and, later, Reno.

A clock shaped like the Basque Country at Jesus “Jess” Goñi in Reno on April 15, 2022. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

The journey of a singer

Born in 1947, Goñi moved to the United States as a teenager in the 1960s. Many Basques had left to work in the United States, where they often found better opportunities and earned more money, allowing them to to financially help their families who remained in the Basque Country. Goñi soon found work in the sheep camps in Arizona, eventually deciding to move to the United States, where he worked in the ranching industry as well as in construction.

In these foreign lands, Basque immigrants created their own diasporic cultures seen today around the Washoe Valley, Elko, and other parts of Nevada. Basque immigrants could stay in Basque guesthouses which eventually became many of the Basque restaurants the area is known for today. They ate roast meats, beans, soups and stews and drank red wines and picon punches. They were playing music and playing bertsolaritza.

When Goñi arrived in the United States, he didn’t sing much – there weren’t many Basques in Arizona. Working in sheep camps can be very isolating, especially when there is no one around who shares your culture. And Goñi said Arizona was too hot for him. Eventually he left for Idaho, where he met more Basques and befriended other bertsos before moving to the Reno area in the 80s.

In Euskal Herria, after Franco’s death in 1972, the Basques revived their language and rebuilt their culture. Meanwhile, Goñi was creating a group of bertsos who performed at everything from Basque picnics to funerals, winning awards in Boise, Gardnerville and San Francisco.

He even performed with a band for Congress in 1992. Goñi said he never imagined his life would take him to play bertsos in Washington, DC.

Goñi still performs today. In September, he sang a bertso honoring the Basque Shepherd statue as it moved from the Nugget Casino Resort, previously owned by second-generation Basque immigrant John Ascuaga, to the UNR campus. In March, Goñi was honored with the Bertsolari Special Tribute at the meeting of the North American Basque Organization in San Francisco.

Goñi said that although he had many memories of performances for national leaders, his favorite memories of singing are after performances, when people gather to eat and drink. Often people take turns playing instruments and singing for each other.

“It’s the good memories, singing a lot…you find people you don’t think you’ll find,” he said.

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