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Basque in the glow: Kern County club prepares for its Memorial Day weekend Basque Festival

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You know your event is good when it draws huge crowds without a whisper of promotion. And although the Basque Festival is full to bursting each year, newcomers are always welcome.

The festival, put on annually by the Kern County Basque Club at its South Union Avenue clubhouse, is back this weekend with dancing, handball, a card tournament and that famous food. The festival takes place every Memorial Day weekend and sees more than 2,000 in attendance over the two days.

"It's all word-of-mouth," said Louis Iturriria, the club's president. "It's amazing; you get there and (think) 'Wow, there are a lot of people here.'"

The weekend kicks off with the 8 a.m. Mus tournament on Saturday. The Basque card game is played with two teams of two, and the first-place team will take home $500. Don't expect to just learn this game the night before, though. Teams come from all over the state to compete, so the tournament is serious business. 

One big part of the festival is pelota, or handball. Saturday local athletes will play, and both days will feature games played by four pelota professionals from the Basque Country, who often tour and play at American Basque festivals in addition to playing for their league. Both days will also include music performed by musicians from Nafarroa, a region in the Basque Country.  

Sunday starts with a 10 a.m. Mass by Monsignor Craig Harrison. It will be a traditional service but some of it will be conducted in Basque.

"It's very important within the families to try to keep the language going," said Joey Iturriria, the club's vice president and Louis' cousin.

Mass will be followed by a lunch ($25) of barbecue lamb, beans, lamb stew, salad, bread and cheese. The lamb, Louis Iturriria pointed out, is all domestic.

"Of course, it's not a Basque meal without a glass of wine," Louis Iturriria said. 

Later in the evening, guests can get some Lukainka, a Basque sausage sandwich, or a ham and cheese sandwich for $8.

"It's amazing to think how many sausage sandwiches we sell on Sunday," Louis Iturriria said. "People line up and wait an hour for them."

In between the two meals will be performances by the club's "klika," similar to a marching band. Not all Basque clubs have a klika, but the Kern County club is one of a few in California that does. The group's junior and adult dance groups will also perform.

"It's one of the highlights because the families like to watch them," Louis Iturriria said. "They dance on the court. It's packed. It's like a two-hour performance."

At the end of the night on Sunday, there will be a dance with music by Amerikanuak, whose members come from California and Utah, including one member from Bakersfield.

The festival has become a tradition for the community, and die-hard fans always know when it will be held.

"Talking to people in Bakersfield, they go out of town for Memorial Day weekend," Louis Iturriria said. "But it works for us because we have Basques from all over coming to Bakersfield."

The crowd that gathers is always a good mix of locals and out-of-towners, the cousins said. Many come from elsewhere in California, and some come from Nevada and Utah. It's not just the Basque community that turns up for the festival, either.

"There are definitely non-Basques that love it," Louis Iturriria said. 

The festival typically raises around $15,000, which helps the nonprofit club hold events throughout the year and maintain its clubhouse, which is one of the largest in the country, the cousins said.

The Basque community in Bakersfield is uniquely large and makes Bakersfield special, they said, explaining that they often hear from people who have moved out of the area and complain that there are no Basque restaurants in their new towns. 

"In Bakersfield, everybody knows Basques are prominent," Louis Iturriria said. The festival "is a way for people to learn more about our culture. It's a lot of fun."

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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