In the Basque Country, or Euskal Herria, every Basque speaker knows what 'bertsolarismo' is and has heard a 'berso' or two sometime in his or her life. In fact, there are virtually no festive events, feast-days, tributes, etc. that do not involve 'bersolaris' (berso artists). Basques are certainly not lacking in occasions to hear them.
Bersolarismo-improvised verses put to simple melodies - is a deeply-rooted tradition in Euskal Herria, reaching back to the times before Euskara, the language of the Basques, was a written language. And while it is indeed an age-old custom, in some aspects it is also quite modern, as the subject matter has managed to keep up with the times. 'Bersos', the word used to refer to the verses themselves, are novel, intense, competitive and risky - all those features which seem to be required in these modern times. The melodies, ideas, expressions, points of view, exercises, performances, as well as the bersolaris themselves are in a continual process of renewal.
Bersolarismo is the product of spontaneous oral literature. It is also a dialectical confrontation between two people, where reasoning and ideas carry as much weight as form. Bersos are a blend of poetry and rhetoric.
They are also a means of communication. A berso is revealed to the audience at virtually the same time is actually created by the bersolari. The performance could not be more 'live'. The audience delights in the inherent risk involved for the bersolari in improvisation and knows how to appreciate the quality of the outcome. And it is not only the risk, but also the fact that whatever topic the bersolari is given, he or she only has a few seconds to invent original, profound ideas, all conforming with strict berso rules. This talent is greatly admired and envied by the audience.
The phenomena of bersolarismo cannot be completely covered in a single book, nor in a lifetime of research (which is precisely what Padre Zavala spent his life doing). These brief and simple pages are an attempt at reflecting a few basic ideas on what bersolarismo really is, fully aware that it is merely the first layer of paint on the artist's canvas before he truly begins to paint.