ELKO, Nevada — “Nevada is the eighth province” of Basque country, sang the bertsolari.
It wasn’t just any singer of Basque traditional improvised poetry performing at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in this small town of 18,000 halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City. It was the first woman winner in history of the bertsolaritza championship, held in Basque Country every four years. Now 33, Maialen Lujanbio won in both 2009 and 2017.
Talk about multi-tasking: A judge gives the poet a topic. Then, he or she has under a minute to compose a poem of 8-10 rhyming lines in the Basque language, Euskara, without the same rhyme twice, and perform it a cappella to a melody. It’s such a tricky, constrained art form, some scientists in Europe study the brains of the poets, who are asked to improvise during brain scans.
“It’s a way for me to understand and express myself,” said Lujanbio, who also spoke after the movie screening of Bertsolari, about the Basque passion for the art form that transcends age, gender and occupation.
“I can be Obama. Twenty minutes later I’m an old bike, 20 more minutes later I’m a jilted lover, but all is filtered through my view,” said Andoni Egana, another master improviser in the film. One scene featured an orange bridge that looked hauntingly familiar and — was that a Wells Fargo bank? It was. She performed in San Francisco in 2010.
Every year, the six-day Elko festival celebrates a specific “cowboy culture” and its music, dance, art, storytelling, films and food. In 2018, its 34th year, it was Basque sheepherders and ranchers, found mostly in Nevada and Idaho, but also California. In past years, it was southwest Louisiana’s African-American French-speaking Creole cowboys and Mexican vaqueros. The Western Folklife Center in Elko, which preserves cultural traditions of the American West, sponsors the festival.
Another film, Song of the Basques, depicted Basque Country, an autonomous region in Spain and France on both sides of the Pyrenees, and interviewed people on their work — from whaling with harpoons and fishing on the coast to making Idiazabal sheep milk cheese. One subject was a multi-Michelin-star chef: half of Spain’s Michelin-star restaurants are in Basque Country. But the Basques don’t consider themselves French or Spanish, and their language resembles no other on earth.
I ran into its filmmaker, Emily Lobsenz of New York, on the shuttle transporting attendees to events. “I lived in San Sebastian for five years, and became fascinated by Basque culture,” she explained.
A Basque cooking class starred Jean Flesher, an avid member of Salt Lake City’s Basque Club, who taught us to make veal stew and short ribs using the beloved Basque spice, Pimente d’Espelette, made from chile peppers in that French Basque town, along with onions, garlic and bell peppers.
The beret-wearing Mr. Flesher turned out to be the bandleader and accordionist of Amerikanuak, which performed often during the festival. Two band members hailed from San Francisco: guitarist Daniel Iribarren, who now lives in Berlin and works as a film sound designer, and his brother, Christian, the keyboardist and flutist, who still lives in SF.
“My father was a founder of the Basque Club of San Francisco. A bunch of Basque hotels, restaurants and a church were in North Beach in the 1960s and 70s, but few are left,” Daniel recalled. “We went to Basque summer camp in Boise and Nevada as kids, so I knew all those songs before I joined Amerikanuak in the 90s. Our CD sales help fund those camps.”
The Arinak Dancers, a 50-year-old Basque troupe in Elko, performed energetic dances in colorful costumes to toe-tapping music. In contrast, a somber contemporary-style dance memorialized the bombing of Guernica, a Basque town, during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 (the subject of Picasso’s famous painting of the same name), performed by the Ardi Baltza troupe.
Storytelling sessions recounted the lonely life of Basque shepherds in Nevada and Idaho, who often saw a town once every two months; food was brought to them. Many left their families behind in Europe. While some Basques immigrated to the U.S. during the California Gold Rush, many are descendants of those who came in the 1940s and 50s. Their immigration was spearheaded by Nevada Senator Patrick McCarran, who got laws passed allowing Basques to immigrate from Spain at the behest of his Nevada rancher constituents. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the powerful politician had jurisdiction over immigration laws.
“We left with no jobs and nothing to eat,” Bob Heguy said his French Basque grand-parents told him. “My grandfather was a sheep man, wanted nothing to do with cows. My father, a cow man, said, these cows are yours, too. A diehard sheep man, his father said, ‘No, they’re yours.’” Hoisting a big sheep hook, used to corral sheep while on horseback, he explained a notch was carved to count every 100 sheep.
“Today, I’m an accountant. I herd numbers — make sure they go in the same direction,” he chuckled.
A walking tour of Basque-related businesses in Elko completed our immersion into Nevada’s Basqueness. The town had six Basque boardinghouses at one point. Today, the only one left is The Star, a Basque-owned restaurant built in 1910 as a 22-room boardinghouse. (I later had dinner here in the restaurant filled with long communal tables, a bar in front, and a hands-on owner who was served as bartender).
Another spot, Ogi Deli, a casual eatery, hosted live Basque music on Friday nights, plus an array of tempting pinxtos, Basque tapas ($2.50), sandwiches and paella bowls (seafood and chicken for $6). It turned out to be the spot for festival attendees: my yummy sandwich was grilled pork, roasted red and green peppers, melted Basque cheese and aioli on French bread. At night, I returned to watch owner Anamarie Lopategui play the accordion with other musicians, while people jubilantly danced inside and outside the deli. A pizza joint/bowling alley was in the former Telescope Hotel,, another Basque boardinghouse.
Sharon McDonnell is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.