Usurbil has splendidly combined Basque tradition and modernity, while remaining a town committed to creation. Nowhere better reflects the cultural explosion that happened in Euskal Herria during the 1960s and nowhere better reflects the effect of that explosion.
The Harria Hitz route seeks to showcase the role played by Usurbil in the recovery of contemporary Basque culture by means of different elements to be found in the town centre.
You are now in front of the monument to cider. It is the work of Gotzon Huegun, the sculptor from Lasarte-Oria. The sculpture that has stood in this small square since 2007 features three elements related to cider: the apple, the bottle and the class.
Cider has not only been extremely important in Buruntzaldea, but also in the whole of Gipuzkoa. This beverage made out of apple juice is deeply rooted in Basque culture and society and is related to the Basque Country's important maritime history. Usurbil is a town located on the banks of the River Oria and this river played an important role in the history of Basque shipbuilding. Many ships left from them at the time when the Basques were a maritime power. Basques have a rich maritime history, but it might have not been as rich if it had not been for the cider. In fact, as cider was the main tipple of Basque crews, the theory has been developed in recent years that it might have been used to avoid scurvy.
Leaving theories to one side, there is no question about the importance that cider production had in Dejando. Udarregi, the versolari or Basque troubadour, perfectly captured the relationship between cider and the people of Usurbil:
Asiera eman du
Juan Joxe Udarregiyak.
Batek ainbat deretxo
Daukagu guk biyak;
"Pello the Miller began; now Juan Jose Udarregi's response. Both of us have as much right; our schools are the cider houses."
Nowadays, the apple continues to thrive in Usurbil, impregnating the Basque culture with the flavour of cider.
Plaza de la Liberad (Askatasuna Plaza – Freedom Square ) is decorated with ceramic figures, the work of Carlos Zabala "Arrastalu", the artist. These figures reflect the customs and everyday life of Usurbil, along with some local characters. You can see a couple of txalapartaris [txalaparta players], the well-known brothers from Usurbil - Jesus and Joxan Artze -, by the bowling area.
Jesus and Joxan Artze brought the txalaparta back from oblivion and took it out of its traditional sphere into modern life . They took an aspect of traditional Basque culture and turned it into part of contemporary culture, away from pure folklore.
The Artze brothers playing the txalaparta
The txalaparta is a percussion instrument from traditional Basque music. It consists of horizontal planks on two stands and which is played using four sticks. This instrument is said to date back thousands of years, even though that has not been proven. This instrument, which has been passed down since ancient times, even though we do not know the exact time, continues to thrive in Usurbil. In fact, the txalaparta is believed to have been traditionally linked to the world of cider and the farmstead. In many towns, when the cider was ready for drinking, the txalaparta was used to announce that to the local residents. In the same way that the txalaparta can be said to be part of today’s Basque music, cider and the cider houses have survived to a certain extent thanks to Usurbil.
You have now reached another of Usurbil’s murals. This painting, which is now totally damaged and defaced, is the work of Alejandro Tapia, the painter from Usurbil. Tapia was one of the founders and members of the Ur group. This group of painters was created a year before Gaur by Javier Arocena, Carlos Bizcarrondo, José Gracenea and Alejandro Tapia, all from Gipuzkoa, in order to stimulate a creativity persecuted by Franco’s regime.
This Herri Batasuna mural is an exception within the career of this prize-winning and renowned artist. Murals are usually part of street art and living exponents of different social thinking and movements. In this case, Tapia’s mural epitomises the situation of Basque society and Usurbil in 1985. It is a work of art produced in 1985 during the campaign launched by Herri Batasuna "Euskal Herria alaitsu eta borrokan kementsu" (Euskal Herria happy and millitant) and was known for capturing an era and a political struggle, both in Euskal Herri and abroad. Not just that, it was also seen to clearly capture what was happening in Basque society from the time that mural was painted until 2009.
In 2009, in the context of the change in the Basque Government and during Patxi López’s term in office, Basque Government's Ministry of the Interior ordered that the work of art be deleted. They defaced a mural that was part of Usurbil’s heritage and of all Basque, as they saw political and moral obstacles instead of a work of art.
You are in Mikel Laboa square. For some time, there was a slide in this square at different levels. Jose Luis Zumeta designed its layout and slide in around 1975. At the initiative of Usurbil Town Council, the square has been named after the well-known Basque singer since 31 May 2009 .
The plaque dedicated to Laboa by the town is on one side of the square. It is an artistic iron plaque in the shape of a guitar, the work of Jose Luis Elexpe "Pelex", the painter and sculpture from Usurbil, and which was unveiled during the 2009 tribute. The square is also home to the sculpture by Juan Jose Aranguren "Ikimilikiliklik", which was also in memory of Mikel Laboa.
The dialogue between the Zumeta mural and the square in memory of Mikell Laboa brings us to the relationship between Basque art and Basque singing. The decade of the 1960s saw the renaissance of Basque culture and music could not stand on the sidelines of that explosion. That cultural restoration spurred on by Usurbil gave momentum to getting different creators from very distinct sectors of Basque culture to work together. Examples of that work are the logo designed for the Ez Dok Amairu, the work of Remigio Mendiburu, a member of the Gaur group, and the very name of the group of those singers and musicians, which was the contribution of Jorge Oteiza, a driving force of the Gaur group.
Ez Dok Amairu was set up in autumn 1965. This group worked on new Basque music building on the culture’s earlier music. They were fertile and highly creative years. The highly productive solo careers of many of the members of Ez Dok Amairu - Lourdes Iriondo, Xabier Lete, Benito Lertxundi, Mikel Laboa… - are also undisputed.
Mikel Laboa had a close relationship with Usurbil. On the one hand, the covers of the majority of Mikel Laboa’s records were designed by Jose Luis Zumeta. On the other hand, the partnership between Mikel Laboa and Joxan Artze, the writer and musician from Usurbil, was really fruitful. Artze, apart from being one of the founders and ideologists of the Ez Dok Amairu group, set up with the group the "Baga, Biga, Higa" show and, after the group split up, he immersed himself in the "Ikimilikiliklik" show, along with some members of the group, including his brother Jesus, Mikel Laboa and Jose Mari Zabala. Artze revolutionised poetry, taking it to the stage and fusing it with avant-garde creative elements. Furthermore, Joxan Artze is the author of Mikel Laboa's most memorable songs (Txoria txori, Ama hil zaigu, Zaude lasai, Geure bazterrak).
Mikel Laboa sings “Gure Bazterrak” with lyrics by Joxan Artze
The large mural that embellishes the back of the Usurbil Basque pelota court is the work of Jose Luis Zumeta, a local artist. The ceramic mural you can see before you is 16 metres wide and 9 metres high. It is the only one that has survived of the two ceramic murals that Zumeta produced during his artistic career. The local council commissioned the work from the artist and it has been here 1973.
Jose Luis Zumeta was one of the founders of the Gaur group, along with Jorge Oteiza, Eduardo Chillida, Remigio Mendiburu, Nestor Basterretxea, Rafael Ruiz Balerdi, Amable Arias and Jose Antonio Sistiaga. This group emerged during Franco’s dictatorship with the aim of restoring relations and dialogue with the international avant-garde. It sought to connect the present with the creation that had been violently disrupted by the Spanish Civil War. Its main objectives were to show that Basque art existed and to highlight the need to give it impetus. They aimed to achieve the artistic literacy of society and raise awareness so that society would embrace culture and give it momentum. The group was short-lived, but it became a benchmark of the artistic creation of Gipuzkoa and Euskal Herria in the 20th century. Some of the artists that made up the group reached out beyond the borders of Euskal Herria and achieved global fame and recognition.
Both the tribute to Udarregi and the founding of the Gaur Group can be seen as a response to the harsh conditions imposed on Basque culture by the dictatorship.
You are now at the sculpture honouring Udarregi. This sculpture commemorates Juan Jose Alkain Udarregi, the versolari or Basque troubadour who was born at the Uztaetaburu farmstead in Aia in 1829 and who spent his life in Udarregi. Even though he created and improvised verses, he was an illiterate Basque speaker. This did not prevent him from taking part in the Basque cultural production of his time. He invented a technique to record his verses, using a code made up of lines that only he could understand. This sculpture features one of his writings conserved on the wall of the Artikulaaundi farmstead.
This sculpture was erected in May 1966 to mark the festivities organised in Usurbil in memory of this versolari. It is the work of Remigio Mendiburu, one of the main figures of the school of contemporary Basque culture. Even though this artist mainly used timber, this piece shows that stone and metal also had its place in this work.
The year in which the tribute was paid to Udarregi, Euskal Herria was under Franco's regime and Basque culture was totally oppressed. That being so, huge obstacles were faced when organising cultural acts. The tribute to Udarregi was the pretext to organise festivities that featured different Basque activities. It was the first time that an event of these characteristics had been organised and was a respite in the heyday of Franco's regime.
The tribute to Udarregi was a meeting point for numerous Basque artists and creators, including Remigio Mendiburu himself, who produced the sculpture, and Jorge Oteiza, the author of Quousque Tandem, an essential work in the endeavour to revive the whole of Basque culture. Beyond the individual work, these two artists belonged to the Gaur group as they were aware of the importance of team work.
This square is the hub of the today's town centre. It is defined by the church, the Basque pelota court and the town’s beautiful timber and stone historical buildings. Squares are places where the community gathers and that is the Dema Plaza’s role in Usurbil. Yet it is not a usual square as we know them, but rather a square designed for competition.
Contests involving stone dragging by men and oxen, those highly tradition spectacles in the Basque culture, are held in the competition squares (dema plazak). These contests or wagers consist of clocking up the largest number of lengths dragging a stone in a set time. At 38 metres long, it is one of the longest competition squares in Gipuzkoa and the stones used in the contest can be seen along one of its sides. A heavy stone is dragged by oxen, men or women over an attractive geometric designed surface made up of round pebbles.
Stone dragging by men clearly depicts a sentiment to found in all Basques. It is often said and heard that we carry a great weight on our shoulders: the weight of the past, the weight of the commitment to the people, the weight of concern about the language, the weight of the responsibility of protecting and reviving culture, etc.
In 1966, in this very square, an initiative was launched that was strictly linked to Basque culture and Basque identity: the tribute offered to Juan Jose Alkain “Udarregi”, the versolari or Basque troubadour. The sculpture honouring Udarregi dates back to that time.