I used to go to record stores–back when there still were record stores–with the sense that my life could change depending what I stumbled across. One such moment was discovering cantu a tenore, a style of vocal music from Sardinia, which I first heard at a listening station in Tower Records in 1996: the album was S’amore ‘e Mama by Tenores di Bitti. Of course, it wasn’t so much the particulars of my life that changed in hearing this (or any other powerful recording), as it was my ear, and my sense of possibility. The guttural sonorities of cantu a tenore were unlike anything I had experienced in music before, although they reminded me of sounds I had heard in the natural world, in particular the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cows. Sardinian singers evoke these ambient animal sounds in a way that is startling and beautiful. I call it “startling” because, to a mainstream listener (I’ll punt on trying to define “mainstream” here) the sounds of livestock probably occupy a separate mental category from “music,” and if one is familiar with the loose concept of bel canto singing (an operatic style favoring smoothness or legato, lightness, and agility) the bleating of sheep could be seen as its diametrical opposite. How interesting to consider that Italy, which gave us bel canto, also gave us cantu a tenore. I call it “beautiful” not only because of the visceral appeal of its sonic “mass,” but also because the voices sustain a sort of rhythmic, melodic, and timbral contrast that gives me the same rush I get from more formal contrapuntal music: at times it’s like hearing a bit of Bach somehow waft up from the grounds of a farm.
After ’96 I would always check for the “Sardinia” section whenever I stopped in a record store, and if I found such a section, it was usually stocked with the recording I already owned. Through the sort of physical-world-sleuthing that was necessary in those days, I did gradually expand my collection to five or six albums, but at some point I had to concede that there just wasn’t much to do as an American fan of Sardinian polyphony: no new releases, no local performances, and practically no one in my circle of acquaintance who had heard of it. So I stopped checking for “news.” But just the other day some fortuitous web browsing led me the best Sardinian-polyphony news I’ve come across in a decade. There’s a group of American singers, Tenores de Aterúe, who have taken the adventurous step of studying and performing traditional cantu a tenore, and their footage on YouTube sounds great. (Where’s your website, guys?) In reading a little about their background, I enjoyed the story of a 2008 ephiphany, when one member who had dreamed of learning Sardinian music found a video of Tenores di Bitti demonstrating how each voice part in cantu a tenore sounds by itself, and then in ensemble. This video became a sort of Rosetta stone that exposed the workings of the music and opened the path for a group of experienced but non-Sardinian musicians to actually learn it. I encourage you check out Tenores de Aterúe on YouTube and see if they might be performing near you (I’ll be doing the same). Here, I wanted to post that revealing Tenores di Bitti video, as it’s probably the best short introduction to cantu a tenore one can find (replete with charming features like the onlooker who appears in the background near 3:50, and of course, some great singing).
When I sent it to my classical voice teacher, she emailed back: “This just blew my mind.” Specifically, she was amazed at how these musicians create — in a way that appears relaxed and free from vocal strain — a completely different set of sounds from those we work to produce in “mainstream” Western vocal practice.