San Francisco Bertsolariak Awarded

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Jesus Goni, Martin Goicoechea, Johnny Curutchet, Jesus Arriada

NEA Press Release:

September 23rd, 2003

Despite Hurricane Isabel, the Show Goes On

Washington, D.C. – Due to the ravages of Hurricane Isabel, the National Endowment for the Arts was forced to cancel two of its 2003 National Heritage Fellows events, an award ceremony on Capitol Hill scheduled for Thursday, September 18 and a concert at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, scheduled for Friday, September 19. 

In the spirit of “the show must go on” however, the Arts Endowment gathered together the artists, their friends, family and colleagues for an alternative celebration. An awards ceremony and performance took place, Friday September 20 at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel across the Potomac River from Georgetown University. Sam Donaldson of ABC News presented the awards along with the Arts Endowment’s Senior Deputy Chairman Eileen Mason. Nick Spitzer, host of National Public Radio’s American Routes program was the emcee for the performance. The fellowship includes a one-time award of $20,000. 

The award was presented to Jesus Arriada and Johnny Curutchet (San Francisco, CA), Martin Goicoechea (Rock Springs, WY), and Jesus Goni (Reno, NV).

The improvisational poetry tradition, known as bertsolaritza, is one of the most revered forms of Basque artistic expression. At festivals and gatherings, the bertsolari (poets) sing improvised rhyming stanzas in a variety of pre-determined forms on pre-selected topics in public verbal jousting sessions. These four poets have delighted audiences across the West with their fast-paced and witty vocal improvisations. They demonstrate their poetic skills for enthusiastic audiences by expounding freely on a variety of topics, many relating to the life of the Basque sheepherder, such as lost love, lost wages, or lost sheep.

By CARL HARTMAN, Associated Press Writer - June 2003.

Johnny Curutchet

Jesus Arriada


WASHINGTON - From a Florida designer of diving helmets to four 
Westerners who write poetry in the Basque language, 16 Americans will 
share this year's annual awards given by the National Endowment for 
the Arts to creators in popular and folk traditions. 

They will share 11 National Heritage Fellowships worth $20,000 each. 

The Basque poets are Jesus Arriada and Johnny Curutchet of the San 
Francisco area; Martin Goicoechea of Rock Springs, Wyo.; and Jesus 
Goni of Reno, Nev. They perform regularly for the 60,000 American 
descendants of Basques. Immigrants from mountainous northern Spain 
and southern France, the Basques were drawn to the West first by the 
California Gold Rush and came later as shepherds. 

At Basque gatherings, the performers improvise songs in traditional 
patterns on subjects picked in advance, engaging in a kind of musical 
joust against one another. The NEA says the unusual Basque language 
is one of the world's few with an increasing number of speakers. 

For achievement in the traditional arts field as a whole, 
Carmencristina Moreno of Fresno, Calif., was singled out to receive 
the year's Bess Lomax Hawes Award. She is an administrator as well as 
a singer, composer and teacher. 

Nicholas Toth of Tarpon Springs, Fla., carries on a family tradition 
of designing helmets for divers who harvest natural sponges, a local 
commercial specialty. His one-piece helmets, made of spun copper have 
been sought by collectors and museums for their beauty. 

Agnes Kenmille, who has spent most of her 87 years on Montana's 
Flathead Indian Reservation, won the award for her work with beads 
and the regalia of her people. New York's Rosa Elena Egipciaco 
carries on a 500-year-old tradition of making mundillo, the weaving 
of lace from wooden bobbins. 

Other winners include two father-and-son teams: Roberto and Lorenzo 
Martinez, Hispanic musicians from Albuquerque, N.M.; and Felipe and 
Joseph Ruak, who perform traditional stick dances from the Northern 
Mariana Islands in the Pacific. 

Norman Kennedy is a Scottish weaver, singer and storyteller from 
Marshfield, Vt. 

Norma Miller of Las Vegas is a dancer and choreographer who helped 
create the acrobatic style of the Lindy Hop. 

Ron Poast makes the Hardanger fiddle, Norway's national folk 
instrument, in Black Earth, Wis. 

Monoochehr Sadeghi was born in Tehran, Iran, and performed on the 
santur, a stringed instrument played with hammers, in the orchestra 
that played for the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi. Sadeghi later 
emigrated to Los Angeles, an area now home to half a million Iranian-

2003 National Endowment for the Arts

National Heritage Fellowships

Program Information

Language and the oral tradition have long served as central markers of Basque identity. Basques refer to themselves in their own language as Euskaldunak, or "speakers of Basque." Not surprisingly, Basques who come to the western United States hold on to this appreciation of their language and place great import on its continued presence among younger generations of Basques. The performance of the Basque improvisational poetry tradition, known as bertsolaritza, represents one of the most artistic and entertaining ways of keeping this language alive and in the community's consciousness.

The first major wave of Basques who immigrated to the United States came during the California Gold Rush and in the years following. Most came to pursue their traditional occupation of shepherding and also brought with them their bertsolaritza. Just as they had in the old country, the bertsolari (poets) entertained at nearly all community festivals and gatherings.

In a typical performance of bertsolaritza, two or more performers competitively alternate singing improvised rhyming stanzas (called bertsoak) using a number of traditional forms. The content of the poems is based on assigned topics often related to the life of the Basque sheepherder, such as lost love, lost wages, or lost sheep. These topics remain common to this day, though very few Basques in the United States still herd sheep. Each bertsolari is judged on his quickness, use of imagery and wit in performance.  Through their constant and often boisterous verbal feedback and encouragement, audiences make clear the relative success of each participant.

Jesus Arriada, Johnny Curutchet, Martin Goicoechea, and Jesus Goni delight audiences across the West with their fastpaced and witty vocal improvisations. All four of these individuals are so universally present at Basque cultural events that nominators refused to single out any one of them. As Meg Glaser, Artistic Director of the Western Folklife  enter, describes their skills: "They are respected widely for their strength of voice, skill in  improvisation, gift of language, and knowledge of Basque culture."

Though bertsolaritza has experienced a renaissance in the Basque region of Spain in recent years, Arriada, Curuchet, Goicoechea and Goni are some of the few bertsolari active in the United States today, a testament to the magnitude of their cultural importance above and beyond their artistic skill.  Lest we think their achievements are isolated or on the decline, we need to be reminded that Basque is one of the few languages in the world with a growing number of speakers. The 60,000 Basques in the United States celebrate their heritage with a variety of festivals and picnics across the West, including the annual Bertsolari Championship held since 1988 in Gardnerville, Nevada.

The place of these Basque poets in their community is unmatched. In the words of John Ysursa of the North American Basque Organizations, Inc, “Succinctly, they sustain our Basque community’s cultural lifeline.”

San Mateo County Times

October 6th, 2003

Poets help keep Basque culture alive

   Emily Fancher, STAFF WRITER

JEAN Curutchet likes to play with words. Often in front of an audience of thousands. Along with his friend Jesus Arriada, Curutchet is a master of an obscure form of improvisational Basque poetry called "bertsolaritza" that requires mental acuity, musical aptitude and theatrical flair. While Curutchet, of South San Francisco, and Arriada, of Daly City, may never be household names, they are considered at the top of their form in the Basque community. In fact, the National Endowment for the Arts recently named both men 2003 National Heritage Fellows, and they flew to Washington, D.C., to receive the award and perform. The Basque Country is a semi-autonomous region of seven provinces in the Pyrenees mountains, split between France and Spain. The Basque language is unrelated to any other and is considered very difficult to learn. Throughout the centuries, the Basque people suffered political instability and cultural persecution, but like many ethnic minorities, their arts flourished. Working as shepherds or farmers in small mountain villages, the Basque developed a strong oral storytelling tradition. "Many of these poets can't write their own name," said Curutchet, "but what they compose, it's unbelievable." Both men sat down with the Times over duck legs and a hearty French table wine to explain this style of poetry that is as much a part of Basque culture as sheep-herding, handball and the iconic black berets known as "ponetas."

The challenge of verse

The poetry is often presented in homes on Sundays or at local bars or for special events, such as weddings and

funerals. Usually two poets perform a duet, singing more than speaking their stanzas.

The audience gives these bards a theme, such as love or death, or a scenario, such as a newly wed couple or a father whose son has just died. The two poets assume characters and improvise rhyming verses that can be sober or silly. The verbal sparring can a couple of hours.

"It's all mental," said Curutchet, a lively man with dark eyebrows and tufts of white hair peaking out of his beret. "It takes a lot of concentration. You see the subject, and when you begin the phrase, you don't know how you're going to end it."

He added: "There are a thousand people around you, but you don't see anyone. You visualize it."

Arriada, who is from the Spanish side of the Basque region, was born in the village of Erratzu, high in the Pyrenees, and immigrated here when he was 25 to become a sheep-herder in Bakersfield before moving on to landscaping. Curutchet, from the French side, moved to the Bay Area at 19 to help support his family and still works as a landscaper.

A compact man with a ruddy complexion and flashing blue eyes, Arriada was thrilled to travel to Washington, D.C., with Curutchet to receive the awards, though the ceremony was moved to another location due to Hurricane Isabel.

Victoria Hutter, communications specialist for the NEA, said the two men were nominated by the Basque Poetry Center in Reno, Nev. She said they were chosen for artistic excellence, authenticity and contribution to their field.

The men perform every month or so at the Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco and annually at a festival in Nevada.

Curutchet said he learned the art from the village elders, but particularly from his father. But he worries about transmitting the art form to future generations.

"You've got to be very fluent in the language to perform, and a lot of kids born here don't speak Basque," he said.

Looking back at his heroes of the past, Curutchet reveres one is particular: Xalvadore. Xalvadore died in 1976, but not before Curutchet had the honor of performing with him. Remembering that moment, tears welled in his eyes.

"He composed three songs for his wife," he said. "If you could understand those words, you would cry. They were sad and beautiful."

Staff writer Emily Fancher covers South San Francisco, Daly City, Colma and Brisbane. She can be reached at 348-4340 or .

(c) 2003 San Mateo County Times. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.


Pictures from Washington DC