The festivals of Zumarraga revolve around the ezpatadantza, a sword dance of medieval origin, which in the 18th century was prohibited by the Bishop and later by a decree issued by the King.
Today, one still does not know what is special about the ezpatadantza of Zumarraga. It has been said to be slower that the Gipuzkoan versions, to be a variation on the zortziko time, and that what is special is to dance before the image of Our Lady. But what is clear is that it enchants everyone.
The ezpatadantza is known to have been danced at La Antigua before 1539. Its tradition is so deeply rooted that many inhabitants of Gipuzkoa visit La Antigua year after year on 2 July. When you get to know the people of Zumarraga you realise that it is impossible to separate Zumarraga from the ezpatadantza and 2 July.
There is evidence from 1576 onwards that it also began to be danced in the parish church of Our Lady of the Assumption. This performance can be enjoyed on 15 August every year.
The ezpatadantza would not exist were it not for the dantzaris (dancers)
The ezpatadantza is made up of a captain, three atzendaris or azkendaris and between eight and ten rope dantzaris.
The captains are chosen by the dance company through a vote. The dance calls for agility. It consists of eight and a half minutes of points, scissors, prances and promenades before the azkendaris take their turn by dancing on their knees before the image of Our Lady.
At one point, the ezpatadantza nearly died out for lack of dancers. But the insistence of the authorities in preserving the tradition meant that professional dancers were recruited. Some acted as "masters" of the young dancers. Today the Irrintzi dantza taldea dance company puts on the performance. They begin rehearsing during Holy Week to ensure that everything is ready.
The txistu (Basque flute) and the small drum are the heartbeat of the ezpatadantza
If we were to take the txistu and the small drum away from the ezpatadantza, it would be like a silent film.
The Bishopric, traditionally reluctant towards secular music, wanted to keep the txistu players out of the church, because the sounds invite one to dance. But it is so deeply rooted that it was seen as a lesser evil.
For many centuries, it became a municipal job although that is not the case today.
As in the case of the ezpatadantza dancers, many inhabitants of Zumarraga have encouraged knowledge of the txstu to prevent it dying out. After the last municipal Txistu players retired around 1970, the town council reached an agreement with the Banda de Txistularis Antzinako Ama.
Someone remarked, "it is difficult to believe that it is possible to get such harmonies out of that disagreeable whistle, out of a simple, primitive instrument".