SHERIDAN – A group of traveling artists will showcase Wyoming’s Basque heritage this summer, giving centuries-old troubadour tradition a modern twist.
Worlds of Music, Inc., a Wyoming-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote community development through music, received a $ 12,000 grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund to conduct its project The Tree of Gernika in the state of Wyoming.
Renée Bovée, program coordinator at the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, said Buffalo resident and writer David Romtvedt recently produced a written translation of the work of Joxe Mari Iparragirre, a 19th-century troubadour poet and musician. Romtvedt and members of a Basque group called Ospa, which recently produced a CD of Basque music, are creating a traveling show just like Iparragirre’s.
“They took this story, this work, and they associate it with Basque music. They will tour the state of Wyoming. Some of it is still pending, but this project will introduce communities in Wyoming to the poetry and music of Iparragirre, the most prominent representative of the Basque country, ”said Bovée.
Iparragirre was a singer-poet born in 1820, Romtvedt explained, adding that there is a long tradition around singing around predefined melodies in many cultures. Iparragirre lived through some of the most tumultuous periods in Basque history, including the destruction of Basque autonomy at the hands of the French and Spanish states, largely Spain.
“In the end, of course, Spain destroyed the independent communities,” Romtvedt said.
The Basque people came to the Americas with the first explorers and were famous for their shipbuilding and maritime activities. Many Basques also came to the United States during the 1849 West Coast Gold Rush, and some of them migrated to Wyoming, Rock Springs in particular. The Basque population in Johnson County comes mainly from the Basque community in northern France, Romtvedt said.
The University of Nevada at Reno has the largest center for Basque studies in the Americas, and the Center for Basque Studies approached Romtvedt to translate Iparragirre’s work for the 200th anniversary of his birth. Together with the director of the center, Romtvedt, who learned Basque as an adult, produced the first translation in 2020. This is the first full English translation of all 39 known songs of Iparragirre.
The book is called The Tree of Gernika, named after the place where the kings of the surrounding regions bowed down to an oak tree, swearing loyalty to Basque autonomy. The Tree of Gernika is the most famous song written by Iparragirre, probably in 1853.
“We still sing it today, and all Basques know it. There is a debate about what the Basque national anthem should be, and if it could end up being the tree of Gernika, ”Romtvedt said.
The book was published in 2020, and many events surrounding its publication have had to be moved online due to COVID-19. While Romtvedt was working on the project, he also started performing the songs, both playing and singing them in the original Basque form, and then reading the English translation. This summer, given COVID-19 precautions, Ospa and Romtvedt are set to take the show on the road.
Iparragirre’s music and poetry are known everywhere, and some songs are political about Basque independence and freedom. Others concern everyday life, from love to sport.
Although Iparragirre did not live in Wyoming, its people lived there – and still live, Romtvedt said.
“This is the history of Wyoming. It gives us a broader sense of ourselves knowing something about the diversity of our past, ”said Romtvedt.
“Sometimes we tend to present a place as one type of thing, no matter what people choose to say, ‘This is who we are, that one thing’. But if you look a little deeper at a place, you often find that there was a much wider range of actors to shape it, ”said Romtvedt. “The kind of relationships people have today are down to the past. I think it’s really not only useful but very beautiful to learn who was here and what they did.
The grant from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund will help grow the show, which, although dates and locations have yet to be set, will tour this summer to locations outside of Buffalo to Casper and Cheyenne.
“They will be performing not only in some of the areas in Wyoming that have a Basque heritage, but also in other communities in Wyoming so that people can learn more about the Basque heritage through the performances,” said Bovée.