Treasure

Jaialdi! This big Basque party reveals the heart and soul of a culture

It’s Jaialdi! If you’re not sure what that means, then hang on to your red beret. Every five years, thousands of Basques and Basque Americans — and nearly as many non-Basques — descend on Boise to celebrate Basque culture with dancing, food, sport competition and language. It is one of the liveliest and largest parties the city sees, all thrown Basque-style.

From July 28 to Aug. 2, Downtown Boise’s Basque Block and beyond will be abuzz with the sounds of Euskera (the official Basque language), hand clapping, laughter, and traditional and contemporary Basque music and song. You’ll see dancing in the streets and on stages, feats of physical strength and skill in the arena, people gathering on street corners and more. And there’s sure to be a few beer kegs tapped as well.

Jaialdi — the Basque word for festival — turns the city into a global village, this year more than ever with the coinciding of the Basque Soccer Friendly match between La Liga’s Athletic Club de Bilbao and Liga MX’s Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente, which recently moved to July 18 (Information: BasqueSoccerFriendly.com). While the game isn’t part of the Jaialdi celebrations, it will help cast an even larger international spotlight on the city.

But the six-day Jaialdi event is about more than kegs and handball, dancing and sheep-herding history. It fills Boise’s streets with the warmth of community and a love of life that is at the heart of Boise’s Basque community and — in no small part — of the greater Boise community as well.

The two cultures — American pioneers and Basque sheepherders — share a history through the 20th century in Idaho, and that also is a part of the celebration.

“I think Boise likes having the Basque community as part of the city,” says Amy Wray, one of four co-chairs organizing this year’s event. The other members of the team are her husband, Rod Wray, and Ana Mendiola and her husband, Jeremy Malone.

Wray, whose maiden name is Hormaechea, is a second-generation Basque born in Boise. She grew up with Basque speaking grandparents but didn’t learn the language or dance as a kid. Those elements of the culture became more important to her when she had her own children, she says. Then she and her family dove in.

Boise has a unique place in the world with its active Basque community that has become a vital part of Idaho’s culture and economy.

There is a city block dedicated to the culture, filled with Basque business and cultural institutions. Boise State University has a Basque Studies Program that helps facilitate exchanges of ideas, people and culture with the Basque Country. And we are home to the country’s only Basque-speaking mayor, Dave Bieter, who will “preside” over his third Jaialdi as mayor.

“It (the culture) feels more intense here, especially during Jaialdi,” Bieter says. “You walk down the Basque Block and you hear the language everywhere. I just love Jaialdi and talking with all the people. And it’s just good to see the city so alive.”

“It’s not just the Basque’s Block,” says John Bieter, a professor of history in the Boise State University Basque Studies Program and Mayor Bieter’s brother. “It’s really Boise’s block.”

So whether it’s Jaialdi time or not, Boise’s Basque presence is filled year-round with celebrations that invite the greater community’s involvement into its magic. It’s almost addictive.

The result is the Basque wannabe effect. Patti Murphy, a Boise author and writer, found herself drawn to the family feeling of the culture. Murphy, who is Scotch-Irish, sang with the Biotzetik Basque Choir for several years. She toured with the group nationally, went to the Basque Country in 2006 and performed for the Jaialdi San Ignacio mass in 2010.

“I didn’t know who the Basque were when I moved here,” Murphy says. “I joined the choir and that experience made me fall in love with the culture. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that rich, vibrant community. It’s just so much fun to watch and when Jaialdi comes around, all of us gringos want to go down and be a part of it all.”

And while Jaialdi is a big party, it’s also much more than that, says Mendiola, one of the co-chairs.

“For us organizers, it’s about continuing to promote and preserve the Basque culture we feel connected to and want to pass on to our kids,” Mendiola says.

The organizers also hope to carry on the traditions and hone the festival for a new generation, Malone says.

“We want to embrace the old and incorporate the new,” Malone says.

Boise’s Jaialdi evokes a charm of Old World sensibilities that draws Basques from around the world to the City of Trees.

“We hear that this is the way festivals used to be,” Malone says. “The Basque Country (today) is in so many ways very progressive. This festival is a connection to the root of the culture.”

Jaialdi origins

A group of first-generation Basque Americans founded Jaialdi. It was the brainchild of Al Erquiaga. Active in the Basque community, the business owner and co-founder of the Oinkari Basque Dancers had wanted to throw a big Basque festival for a long time, he says. He got the opportunity in 1987. With help from Gerri Achurra as his second in command, about 800 volunteers and representatives from the Basque Country and the community turned the Old Idaho Penitentiary into a representation of a Basque village for three days in June.

“We had about 25,000 people show up,” he says.

For Erquiaga, it could have been a one-time event, but in 1990, then-Mayor Dirk Kempthorne asked if the Basque community would put on the festival again to help celebrate the Idaho Centennial. “Of course, we said yes,” he says. Erquiaga stepped aside, and Achurra and Dave Eiguren stepped up to lead the event at the Old Pen that June. But pulling a Jaialdi off every year would have been insane, Eiguren says. “So we decided it would be every five years.”

That’s when Jaialdi became part of the annual Feast of San Ignacio (St. Ignatius), a celebration of the Basque patron saint, and moved to the Basque Block at 6th and Grove streets and Western Idaho Fairgrounds (now Expo Idaho). On non-Jaialdi years the San Ignacio celebration seems pretty tame in comparison.

This is the seventh Jaialdi, and it marks a turning point for the event as this new group of organizers takes over.

“It’s been my passion for a long time,” Eiguren says. “We used to do this whole thing with a post office box and letterhead stationery. That’s not how it’s done today. We need new blood and ideas. ... Progress is the best thing that ever happened to us. I’m proud to pass it on.”

Basques take root in Boise

Basque history in Idaho is a story of an immigrant population surviving and thriving. Most of Boise’s Basques emigrated from Bizkaia, near the Bay of Biscay. The Basque Country is located in the western Pyrenees and spans the border between Spain and France along the Atlantic coast. The Spanish and French Basque populations share a heritage but differ in some of their traditions. Both will gather in Boise during Jaialdi.

The Basques’ path to Boise looks like a chain, John Bieter says. One person would arrive, find work and success, and be followed by friends and family, creating networks that kept that flow going. By the early 1900s, the Grove Street area was peppered with Basque boardinghouses, such as The Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House that is today part of the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in the middle of the historic Basque Block.

Basques lived in boardinghouses when they weren’t working with the sheep herds. This communal housing offered friendship, familiar food, language and culture to people far away from home.

It was difficult at first, says Basque museum director Patty Miller.

“Initially, there was the struggle for acceptance and identity, and there was prejudice against the Basques,” Miller says. “But over time, they showed themselves to be hard workers and good citizens. We owe that to our forefathers. But you can almost pinpoint the turning point to the 1949 Music Week performance.”

The organizers of Boise Music Week asked the Basque community to create a performance of Basque music and dance. Juanita “Jay” Hormaechea, who is considered the mother of Boise Basque dancing, gathered the older Basque people who knew the songs, and she taught the kids the dances. Together, they presented “The Songs of the Basque.”

The performance sold out two nights at Boise High School. They did it again the following year, and it sold out again.

“That was the coming out party for the Basques,” Miller says.

They rehearsed in Hyde Park. Each person would bring 25 cents to help rent the hall. That’s when the community decided it needed a meeting place. So they decided to build what became the Basque Center at 6th and Grove streets.

“It was a total grassroots thing,” Miller says. “They sold bonds to each other. A lot was done with volunteer labor. They held dinners and dances to pay it off.”

By 1951, the center was complete, and the members had founded Euzkaldunak Inc., the organization that supports the center, which is used for weddings, funerals, community dinners, dances and other functions. It’s where the Oinkari Basque Dancers, the Biotzetik Basque Choir and musicians rehearse. And during Jaialdi, it’s a central location for making connections.

Creating community is very much in the Basque DNA, Miller says.

“We’re very social people. Even in the Basque country, people live in neighborhoods and their ethic is auzolan, ‘The work of the neighborhood,’” she says. “They would come together to bake bread or to wash clothes or help someone harvest. In town, land is valuable so people live in small houses and apartments. They meet in the plazas. They play cards on the balcony and handball on the church walls.”

That community culture is what Boise Basques have created here, she says.

Oinkari led the way

The Boise community has now embraced the Basques and their culture, and the Oinkari Basque Dancers are one of the most respected and active Basque dance groups in the country. When the group started formally in 1960, it was one of the only dance companies in town.

Basque dances echo the ancient Basque stories and traditions with twirling skirts, bright red sashes, athletic leaps, snapping fingers, lively whoops and hollers, and intricate footwork.

From the littlest child to the oldest adult, dancing brings people closer to their culture. Along with music, Basque dance is the chief export to the greater Boise community. The Oinkari Basque Dancers and musicians join in all sorts of Boise community celebrations and provide a colorful entry for non-Basques to join in the fun.

It’s also the entry point for Boise’s Basques to connect with their heritage. Kids as young as 4 can start dancing with the Boiseko Gazteak, which means young people of Boise. By age 15, if they continue in dance, they join Oinkari. They can dance with Oinkari as long as they want, and some dancers continue to perform into their 30s.

Erquiaga danced in the 1949 Music Week show. He learned the dances from his father, who would clap out the rhythms and demonstrate the steps in the kitchen of the family’s farm house in Meridian.

“My dad was a great dancer,” Erquiaga says.

Ten years later, Erquiaga, along with Delphina and Diana Urresti, Toni Murelaga, Simon Achabal, Clarine Anchustegui and Bea Solosabal, traveled to the Basque Country to learn the traditional dances straight from the source. There they met a group called Oinkari, which translates to dancing feet. They taught them the steps and songs, and in return, the Boise Basques, at their suggestion, named their group after them in tribute, Erquiaga says.

They brought the music back in their heads and hummed tunes to musician Jim Jausoro, who wrote the songs down. Jausoro was a Boise Basque legend who played for the group for many years until he died in 2004.

Once Oinkari started performing, it became the most visible part of the Basque culture and gathered support from the greater Boise community. In 1962 and 1964, Oinkari represented Idaho in the World’s Fairs in Seattle and New York. They raised funds for their travel with broad support from Boise and were a hit wherever they performed, Erquiaga says.

In 1964, the group took a side trip to Washington, D.C., for a chance to dance inside the U.S. Senate Rotunda.

“It was so exciting,” Erquiaga says. “We got there and the Idaho contingent met us, but there was no one else there to watch. I had Anne Boyd there and she could do the best irrintzi (the high-pitched Basque cry of celebration). I told her to do it and she did, and people came out of their offices to watch us. You should have seen how fast they came.”

Today, most people in Boise — Basque and non-Basque alike — have seen them perform, and maybe even joined in on a jota (Basque dance).

At Jaialdi, you’ll see dancers from across the West and from the Basque Country. Festa’ra (pronounced fest-a-ra) is the big splashy Basque dance show at the event at the Morrison Center on July 31.

Artist and dancer Maite Iribarren-Gorrindo is producing the event and promises something different this year.

“I wanted it to be more theatrical and less of an exhibition,” Iribarren-Gorrindo says.

She is working in a group of giant puppets operated by the Basque group Irrintzi Erraldoi Konpartsa Kultur Elkartea, who will be seen all throughout the festival to weave together the performances by Oinkari and Ortzadar, a dance troupe from Pamplona-Iruña.

With a recorded soundtrack as a base, the show will run two hours, she says. At past Jaialdis, Festa’ra has run up to four hours.

Iribarren-Gorrindo and her sister moved to Boise from Gardnerville, Nev., in 2002. They started an art business, Ahizpak (the Basque word for sisters), that focuses on Basque imagery, graphic design, jewelry and decor.

“My sister married a Boise Basque and we jumped in headfirst,” she says. “We feel like family.”

Iribarren-Gorrindo spent a few years living in the Basque Country following her heart when she fell in love with a Basque national.

“There’s this circle we keep making from here to there. I think that keeps the culture here from getting stale. We keep meeting each other and loving our roots and keeping each other in tune,” she says. “It’s funny, the sheepherders came here first and now two generations later their daughters are returning.”

Basque culture still thrives

The Basques are a small segment of world culture, and the Basques of Boise an even smaller slice, yet locally, it is a rich and vital part of the city’s culture that reflects a continuing renaissance of people exploring their ethnic roots, John Bieter says.

It’s happening here for a reason, he says.

“It’s a convergence of a whole bunch of things,” Bieter says. “The culture has matured and relaxed and been accepted. We now have a third and fourth generation that can ask the question of identity.”

The renaissance coincided with the ethnic revival that started in the 1970s with the groundbreaking television miniseries “Roots,” which spurred many African-Americans and other ethnic groups to explore their heritage.

“It’s that balance between what makes you an individual in this modern world and feeds our craving for community at a time when we’re feeling increasingly isolated,” he says.

The BSU Basque Studies program is one of several in the West. It facilitates an exchange with the Spanish Basque country, and it’s where many non-Basques learn about the Basque struggles under the oppressive Franco regime in the 20th century that fueled the diaspora.

“In any given year, we have 600 to 700 students who take at least one credit in the program, and the majority of them are non-Basque,” he says. “It’s an entrance into all kinds of global issues.”

During Jaialdi, the Basque Studies program produces a symposium that brings together Basque academics for lectures, discussions and presentations on topics that affect Basque Americans today.

This year’s theme — “Joan-Etorri: Going Forth and Going Back” — marks the 40th anniversary of the BSU Basque Studies Abroad Program in Onati and the publication of “Amerikanuak: Basques In The New World” by William A. Douglass, a seminal book about Basque immigration in the West. Douglass will give a keynote speech during the symposium.

Jaialdi lives on

The future of Jaialdi lies in the next generation of Boise Basques, and it’s imperative that it continue, says Amy and Rod Wray’s son Alex. Alex, 22, graduated from Notre Dame earlier this month, returning just in time to dance with Oinkari during Jaialdi. After that, he will spend the next two years in the Basque Country studying at a Basque language academy.

“It’s critical that it continues, otherwise the Basque culture will fade,” Wray says. “Jaialdi is this great unifying force because you meet Basques from all over the world. Since the last one we’ve been planning how we were going to make this one better and bring more people to Boise. I plan to be on the board of Euzkaldunak (the Basque Center). I want to continue to be very involved.”

Dana Oland is a former professional dancer and member of Actors Equity who writes about performing and visual arts for the Idaho Statesman. She also writes about food, wine, pets, jazz and other aspects of the good life in Boise. Read more arts coverage in her blog at IdahoStatesman.com/ArtsBeat.

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