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Basque, Condensed

A brief guide to Basque contributions to art and culture


If you've made it this far into this issue of Boise Weekly, you may have noticed a trend-this isn't called "The Basque Issue" for nothing. Bear with us-we're not done yet. In honor of the 2005 Jaialdi Festival-that celebration of all things Eskaldunak that happens every five years-we present a quick-and-dirty tour of cultural history with a decidedly Basque slant.

It seems like every group-ethnic or otherwise-can retrofit history to examine and highlight their tribe's contributions to the cultural landscape. Well, since Jaialdi is once again upon us, we're giving the Basques a turn. What part have the Basques played in the story of civilization? Where have they been hiding between the pages of our history books?

It seems that when we think of a thing called "Basque culture," we're thinking of something pretty narrow. Basque dancing, music and food-all local, all folksy. It may surprise people-it surprised me-that Basque contributions to local, national and international culture have been widespread, varied and pervasive. And not all have to do with sheep or cod.

When we speak of Basque, we might speak of ethnic Basques (those with Basque blood) or cultural/national Basques (those from the Basque country). In true Basque fashion, we're casting a wide net as we take a look at the sometimes surprising roles of Basques to our shared culture.

When trying to conjure up Basque contributors to world culture-some big, recognizable names-you may come up blank. But a little research reveals that there are a lot of historically significant Basques, past and present-you just didn't know they were, well, Basque.

Literature is a natural place to start for an ethnic group with a unique language. However, on a global scale, there aren't a lot of people who speak or read the Basque language (somewhere in the neighborhood of 700,000). Basque literature is by its nature a somewhat arcane niche.

From the Middle Ages on, Basque language literature has often been utilitarian rather than artful, often involving religious instruction (utilitarian in a medieval sort of way). The Basque country's political volatility and the accompanying toll on the development of the Basque language might help explain this.

Which makes it all the more surprising when a work of Basque literature makes the leap into any kind of mainstream. Acclaimed Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga's prize-winning novel Obabakoak, for which Atxaga received the Spanish National Literature Prize in 1989, was the first Basque-language novel ever to be translated into English. Other Basque men of letters include the philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno, and the novelists Pío Baroja and Robert Laxalt.

Basques in sport include the cyclist Miguel Indurain, the golfer José María Olazabal and tennis-players Jean Borotra and Nathalie Tauziat, and more than a few Spanish soccer players and French rugby players.

There are Basque contributors to arts and culture outside of the Basque region that might flip on a few more light bulbs of recognition than these names do.

For instance, most of us learn in school that Ferdinand Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe. However, Magellan actually died in the Philippines. Lesser known, perhaps, is the Basque explorer Juan Sebastian de Elcano, who actually completed the first circumnavigation of the globe after the more famous Magellan met his premature end.

Basques who have helped shape culture on a fundamental level include all the kings of the medieval Kingdom of Navarre, as well as the Carlist general Tomás Zumalacárregui (some modern Basque nationalists believe that he was a precursor to their movement). Famous Basque religious leaders include Ignatius of Loyola (also a military man), who founded the Jesuits, currently the largest Catholic order, and Valentín Berriochoa. Revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, credited with leading the fight for independence in what are now the countries of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Bolivia and known as a liberator and hero throughout much of Latin America, was also of Basque descent.

You may not be familiar with Basque composers J. C. Arriaga and Jesús Guridi, but you've likely heard of French composer and pianist Joseph-Maurice Ravel (whose mother was Basque) of "Boléro" fame. The title of the unfinished concerto, Zazpiak Bat (Basque for "Seven of One"), is a motto often connected with the idea of a Basque nation, reflecting Ravel's Basque heritage. The sound of the concerto was heavily influenced by Basque music. The Frenchman Louis Daguerre, the man who invented photography, was also of Basque descent. Other Basque contributors to the arts include the violinist Pablo Sarasate and the sculptor Eduardo Txillida.

Just this July, the Guggenheim Museum opened an exhibition of works by Basque artist Jorge Oteiza, a Modernist sculptor who died in 2003. Oteiza's first museum retrospective in the U.S., "Oteiza: Myth and Modernism," will display 125 pieces of sculpture, drawings and collage through August 24. The first New York gallery to give Oteiza an exhibition shortly before his death, Haim Chanin Fine Arts, recently presented a selection of Oteiza's sculptures and collages in conjunction with the Guggenheim show.

So here's the thing about the Basques: For such a numerically and genetically small group, they get around.

In the present case, the value of this exercise of who's who of famous Basques might ultimately be of limited value. But it is certainly interesting. At least, it is if you're Basque.