It is twelve years ago this evening that I first saw Aviron Bayonnais play rugby. It had been a matter of chance that I had discovered that, a few miles from our holiday destination, a club of whom I had not previously heard were playing Ireland’s international team as part of Ireland’s preparation for the 2007 World Cup.
It was a one-sided, bad-tempered match, but it was a special occasion. Seeing the national team play in the sky blue of Bayonne was an unusual sight, but the abiding memory of the match was the capacity crowd who stood at the beginning of a match to sing an anthem that was trivial and inconsequential in its lyrics, but solemn and passionate in its rendering.
Since that night twelve years ago, the sound of La Pena Baiona has been a transcendent moment. It conjures the atmosphere before kick off in the Stade Jean Dauger. It conjures late summer’s evenings, when the sky is a deep blue and the air is warm. It conjures a mood that is mellow with the smiles and laughter of those standing around and filled with anticipation as the first bars of the anthem begin. There is a moment of transcendence when 15,000 voices join together. Of course, the ensuing rugby match will probably not live up to that moment of anticipation, but in that music there is something that transcends what follows.
Oddly, the tune, which is from a song called “Greek Wine,” is not from Bayonne, nor from the Basque Country, nor does it seem to have Basque of French connections. The song that is known as “Vino Griego” in south-west France, is known as “Vinho Verde” in Portugal, and as “Phile Kerna Krassi” in Greece, is actually an Austrian song, sung by Udo Jurgens, the Austrian winner of the 1966 Eurovision Song Contest, who in 1975 sang “Griechischer Wein” (Greek Wine).
The experience of hearing La Pena Baiona, and watching the intensity of the expressions of those singing it, suggests that it is neither lyrics, nor the music to which they are sung, that imbues a song with a particular quality, but instead it is a combination of the composition and the words and the performance and the mass of associations that they all evoke.
Bayonne played their final pre-season friendly in Basque sunshine this evening, the stadium would have resounded with the anthem, and, perhaps, some may have found the song a moment of transcendence.
Allez, allez! Les bleus et blancs de l’aviron bayonnais . . .