Article Basque American Song

Basque sheepherder. Dangberg Ranch, Douglas County, Nevada

Basque sheepherder. Dangberg Ranch, Douglas County, Nevada. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Collection, Reproduction Number LC-USF34-024097-D. Prints and Photographs Collection.

The Basque people speak a language known as "Euskera" (or "Euskara") and inhabit a region in the western Pyrenees that straddles the border between France and Spain.

Basques, who have long been great seafarers, have been present in America for at least as long as there have been European settlers. They constituted the biggest ethnic group on Christopher Columbus' ships and frequently participated in cross-Atlantic voyages during the early years of European exploration of the continent.

A few educated Basques held administrative posts and founded missions in Spanish California in the late 1500s. But large-scale immigration to the United States only began in the 1860s, when many Basques left their homeland in the wake of economic restrictions and enforced military conscription. News of the California gold rush further incentivized Basque citizens to seek their fortunes in the west. [1]

Attracted by the mining, logging and shepherding industries, many Basques settled in Idaho (in and around Boise in particular) where the largest Basque community in America continues to exist today. [2] Many Basques in California and Nevada subsequently joined the community in Idaho.

Music and dance are extremely important to the Basque people. The immigrants who arrived in America in the late 1800s brought with them the main Basque musical instruments: the "triktixa" (button accordion), "pandero" (tambourine), harmonica and guitar.

Much of the Basque people's music is driven by song. Old songs, a selection of which can be heard via the Library of Congress Folklife Center's collection of folksongs recoded by ethnomusicologist Sidney Robertson Cowell for the WPA in the 1930s, are sung at festivals. Central to Basque musical culture are the "Bertsolariak" -- poets who compete in festivals by improvising songs on any subject.

Among the best known are "Gernika'ko Arbolo,"which honors the Tree of Gernika, a symbol of Basque democracy, "Boga, Boga," which describes the difficult life of fishermen, and "Aitoren Ixkuntz Zarra,"whichtells of the beauties of the Basque language and urges the Basque people to speak their native tongue.

In 1940 Sidney Robertson Cowell recorded six songs sung by Basques in California, which are part of this presentation. These include a spinning song, "Iruten har nuzu," a song about spinning wool for thread for stockings, performed by Mrs. Francisco Etcheverry, Matias Etcheverry, and Antoinette Erro, which relates to the Basque involvement in the production of wool.

Since 1978, the North American Basque Organization has sponsored a summer camp where Basque song and dance are taught, which has further helped to keep Basque vocal music traditions alive.

Basque choruses have been organized in the United States as a means of preserving the Basque language and culture. One prominent ensemble is the Biotzetik Basque Choir based in Boise, Idaho.

Starting in the 1960s, folk bands like Ordago and Gaupasa formed to play a combination of traditional Basque music and popular songs. Since then, groups like Amuma Says No have brought a more contemporary edge to Basque music by mixing Basque and American instrumentation and rhythms. A webcast of the performance of Amuma Says No performing both traditional and contemporary songs at the Library of Congress in 2010 is available online.


  • 1. Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. The Harvard Encylopedia of American Ethnic Groups p 173-179. (Harvard, 1980; Second printing, 1981) [back to article]
  • 2. "Iberian Music" by Janet L Sturman in Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) [back to article]


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