Arts January 13, 2009


The World's largest celebration of Basque culture—in Boise.

 A rhythmic click-click-click reverberates through the air. A dozen young men—clad in white shirts and pants, red berets, and red sashes tied around their waists—are skipping past each other, striking wooden hoops as they go. The crowd cheers as the dancers kick their feet high over their heads and then jump into 360-degree turns, the toes and the red-and-green laces of their white, rope-soled shoes pointing gracefully toward the ground.

Accompanying them is happy, melodic music in the two-third time of a polka. One musician in a red beret plays a trikitixia (accordion). Another fingers a txistu (a three-holed, flutelike instrument held straight up and down, rather than sideways) with his left hand, while tapping out a rhythm with his right on a small tanbolina drum.

Boise has the distinction the largest jaialdis in the world.

The music prompts an elderly Basque lady to dance across the grass, tapping to the beat with her cane. Fathers pick up their young children and dance merrily around with them in their arms.

This may not be the type of scene you would expect to encounter at a festival on a hot summer day in Idaho. But then again, Jaialdi isn’t like any other festival.

In another area of the grounds, Basques from the Old Country are competing against American-born upstarts in a traditional game, seeing how much weight they can drag, in a human version of the tractor pull. Elsewhere, a choir from Nevada is trying to out-harmonize a choir from San Francisco in Euskara, the unique language of the Basques.

At Jaialdi, hamburgers play second fiddle to chorizos—spicy red Basque sausages that most nearly resemble Polish sausages. Garlic and sautéed onions sizzle on the grill as teenagers dressed in the red, green, and white colors of the motherland serve up solomos—marinated pork-loin sandwiches topped with tangy pimiento strips. The Old Country Basques found in pimientos a delicious way of using overripe sweet red peppers—and they have become a trademark of today’s Basque cooking. >>>



Other teenagers are selling croquetas (fried, creamy balls filled with chicken and ham) and lamb chops—a tribute to the sheep herding that brought many of the first Basques to Idaho.

“Even now, if you spend Thanksgiving with an Idaho Basque, you’re likely to get soup, rice, garbanzo beans, chorizos, rice pudding, flan. Every once in awhile, we throw in a turkey,” says Dave Eiguren, head of the Jaialdi 2005 organizing committee. “The food you see here—this is our food.”

Boise has the distinction of hosting the largest Jaialdis—Basque festivals—in the world. Idaho is home to one of the largest concentrations of Basques outside of Spain, and many as 30,000 of Idaho’s population are counted as either Basque immigrants or Basque-Americans.

Names such as Echevarria, Ansotegui, Uberuaga, and Goicoechea have taken their places next to the Smiths and the Joneses in phone books from Payette to Hailey, where Epi Inchausti (also known as “Grandma Epi”) used to serve Basque food to celebrities like Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, and even Colonel Sanders in her bar and boarding house on West Bullion Street (in the building that now houses Urban Voodoo Tattoo and Body Piercing). And today, Boise’s Euzkaldunak Club is pushing 900 members, making it the largest Basque cultural club in the United States.

Idaho Basques organized the first Jaialdi in 1987 and held it within the tan sandstone walls of Idaho’s historic Old Penitentiary. It was intended to be a one-time deal—a big party done up the Basque way. But it proved so popular, attracting more than 30,000 participants and spectators, that Idaho’s governor asked the Basque community to organize another for Idaho’s Centennial in 1990.

The 1990 festival was such a success that the organizers voted to continue hosting a Jaialdi every five years. “It’s so much fun because you get to meet dancers and hear music from the Basque homeland and from other states,” says Jill Aldape, a member of the Oinkari Basque Dancers. “And you get to see the real sports pros.”>>>



These sport pros eschew more widely popular games, such as soccer and basketball, for games that are as unique to Basque tradition as the pimiento-flavored sandwiches. They include pelota, a game of handball involving a tiny, rock-hard ball, which is played against an outdoor wall, or fronton, in isolated communities like the Jordan Valley, and in indoor courts such as the one—which just happens to be the oldest Basque pelota court in the United States—in the basement of Boise’s old Anduiza Hotel.

The sport of Basque weightlifting is not the type of thing you’d see at Gold’s Gym.

Other sports such as wood chopping, tug-of-war, and weightlifting are tests of strength and endurance that originated in the Pyrenees Mountains along the borders of France and Spain, where Basques worked in stone quarries and mines. Friendly competitions evolved over time, in a way similar to the development of rodeo in the American West.

Among those who have taken up the unusual form of Basque weightlifting in this country is Jon Arrieta, who works behind a desk for Idaho Power Company five days a week. He pursues his father’s and his uncle’s passion for Basque weightlifting on weekends.

On this hot July afternoon, beads of sweat run down Arrieta’s face as he hoists a 200-pound concrete block up onto his chest, and then rolls it end-over-end up onto his shoulders. His quilted calico vest is white—or at least it was, years ago. Now it bears gray and rust-colored stains from the many times Arrieta and his father, Jose Luis Arrieta, have lifted concrete blocks or long, hollow metal pipes.

Arrieta grunts and hoists the block up onto his right shoulder, letting it rest there just a few seconds before dropping it onto a beefy pillow. He steps back, breathing heavily for a few seconds, then bends over and wraps his arms around the block again. Onlookers erupt in cheers.

This sport of Basque weightlifting is not the type of thing you’d see at Gold’s Gym or a Mr. Fitness competition. But for the Basques, it’s as engaging as watching an NFL game on a Sunday afternoon.

“It’s part of our tradition,” explains Arrieta, signing an autograph for a Basque youngster inquiring about how to get started in Basque weightlifting. “I’m just taking up where my father left off. He brought the tradition with him when he came from the Old Country to herd sheep out of Emmett with the Little family. And my uncle won a weightlifting championship when he was nineteen.”>>>



The strong interest among Idahoans in their Basque heritage has been credited to a single woman—Juanita “Jay” Hormaechea. In 1948, the second-generation Basque started classes at the Basque Center in Boise to teach local children the Old Country dances before they were forgotten.

Intrigued by the colorful folk dances, city leaders invited Hormaechea to organize a program for Boise’s annual Music Week in 1949. She obliged, presenting “The Song of the Basques” with more than a hundred adults and children in what is commonly acknowledged as one of the first public displays of Basque culture in the country.

A sense of pride in and curiosity about their heritage inspired Boise Basques to form a group called the Oinkari Basque Dancers in 1960. That group has gone on to perform at various venues across the country, including the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, and World’s Fairs in New York, Seattle, Montreal, and Spokane.

Idaho Basques started a music group and the Bihotzetik Basque Choir. And they began taking a renewed interest in Euskara, a highly repetitive, guttural language so different from others that its origins remain something of a mystery to this day.

One of the world’s oldest languages, believed to have originated among Stone Age people in southern France and northern Spain, Euskara was spoken for centuries before it was written down. “That’s why you often see so many different spellings for the same word,” says Dave Eiguren, a second-generation Basque who spoke the ancient language at home until he was five.

As the interest in Basque heritage snowballed, restoration was begun on the Basque block at Sixth and Grove streets in Boise. Today this is a thriving ethnic community, with a market where you can buy such novelties as Sevilla-style onions and larra (shepherd’s cheese). A couple of Basque bars and restaurants serve up tapas, just as in the Old Country.>>>



The block boasts a museum that’s chockfull of mementos and pictures relating to the Basque boarding houses and sheepherders that were once fairly prevalent in southern Idaho and southeast Oregon. It also houses the scuff-marked pelota court in the basement of the 1912 Anduiza Hotel.

But the music and the dancing are always the main attraction. That is evident among the delighted crowd at the festival, as members of the Oinkari Basque Dancers step up, snapping their fingers in the air, to perform the fandango, or the jota—a fast-stepping folk dance.

Each of the dances tells a story . . . enhanced with sticks and swords, baskets and wreaths.

Oinkari means “one who dances with quick feet”—and it’s clear that the group has earned its name as the men twirl around, their fancy footwork jingling the bells strapped to their legs. It was from the Oinkari dance troupe in San Sebastian, Spain, that some of the original members learned the old dances, 45 years ago.

Each of the dances—enhanced with sticks and swords, baskets and wreaths—tells a story. One, for instance, tells of how the Basques invented salted cod, or bacalao. Another symbolizes the bringing in of the harvest, and is performed by young women dressed in white headscarves, lacy leggings, red skirts embroidered in black, and black vests and aprons. The dancers bear baskets as they weave in and out among one another. In still another dance, the great mystery called life is depicted by dancers weaving red, white, and green streamers around a pole representing the umbilical cord.

The Basques take great pride in their dancing, which, like their language, was outlawed for dozens of years under the repressive Franco regime for fear that it would incite nationalistic or separatist feelings. The Oinkaris typically end their set with a dance memorializing their long-suffering struggle for freedom.

The crowd erupts in a raucous roar when an irrintzi—a war whoop emanating deep from the throat—punctuates the air. Young dancers wearing red berets over dark, curly hair crouch down on the ground. A solitary figure swings the red, green, and white Basque flag just above their heads.>>>



“We were able to do the flag dance in the United States before they could do it in the Basque country,” says dancer Garikoitz Otamendi. “There, they were forbidden even to speak the Basque language.”

Dave Eiguren started dancing when he was four. Every Sunday, his parents would take him to the Basque Center to dance with the other children—most of them girls. “I hated it,” he says. “But our parents were strong enough to know the value of it. By the time we got to high school, dancing with the group was considered cool. We were part of something bigger than ourselves.

“We were invited to the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962—and we were bussed up to Sun Valley to dance for President Nixon at the Challenger Inn. It was an honor to think that we were representing the state, as well as our nationality.”

Boise’s Jaialdi always attracts a planeload of Basques from the Old Country. They swell with pride as they watch their dances and other traditions celebrated halfway around the world.

“They’re amazed to see the culture being kept alive through language and dance,” says Hailey resident Rose Mallory, one of Epi Inchausti’s daughters. “But then, I never expected to see something like Jaialdi either, when I was growing up. We started out just hearing the music they’d play at my parents’ boarding house. It wasn’t until my children were growing up that everything really took off.”

Mallory has attended all of the Jaialdis but one.

“It was really cool the first year, when they held it at the Old Penitentiary. The old building made it feel very authentic—like we were right in Spain. But there is too much going on now for such a small space. Of course, I try to take in as many Jaialdi functions as possible. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful celebration.”

Writer Karen Bossick, now a resident of Ketchum had her first taste of chorizo a few days after she moved to Idaho—a gathering at the old Basque Center in Boise. Folks, the Basques don’t lack for parties!


 For more on the Basque culture, see Idaho’s Basque Tables in the Summer 2010 issue.

This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.