The Cantu a Tenore

The cantu a tenore is a very popular poetic-musical practice of central-northern Sardinia. It is a polyphonic singing style with four voices: bassu, contra, boghe and mesu boghe. The main feature of the "tenore" is the presence of the guttural voices of bassu and contra, tuned between them in a fifth interval, which gives it a unique and inimitable style. The boghe is the soloist of the band, who sings the main musical line, while the other three parts follow him in accord, supporting his song with guttural tones. If we exclude some peculiar songs, in the vast majority of examples the boghe is also the only one to actually pronounce the lyrics, while the other singers pronounce nonsense syllables, turning their voice into a musical instrument, into chords and timbres. The term tenore (or cuncordu, cussertu, cuntratu, cunsonu, depending on the local wording) defines the entire quartet, but the term can also be used to only define the supporting trio of guttural voices. The term, therefore, does not correspond to the same word in Italian, by which we mean an individual singer with a specific vocal register; the Sardinian term is the collective name of the band of singers and could better be translated as "coro [choir]", because it is indeed a very special kind of choir.

The cantu a tenore belongs to the world of oral tradition. It is the main instrument for the musical interpretation of poetry in the Sardinian language: the boghe chooses the poetic text to be sung from the ones he learned orally or drawing from the great poetic repertoire of oral and written poetry. He interprets it in an new way, employing the different canons that tradition has built over the years. Given the metric forms of the poems, they will be proposed in boghe 'e notes, a sa sèria, a sa lestra, a boghe' e ballu, a mutos or gosos (if they are sacred texts), or in other varied modalities, specific to the individual communities. One of the features of Sardinian cantu a tenore is that, in each town, it takes on a specific local flavor, called "moda [fashion]" which distinguishes it and which makes it one of the elements of the identity of its community. Although it is a mostly homogeneous scene, both from a musical and cultural point of view, the local variations represent a wealth of expressions to which the singers themselves and their communities give a great value. The peculiar features of the various modas may concern the types of songs, their macrostructures, melodic fragments, and timbral connotations of the individual parts (such as, for example, the possibility of using or not the guttural sound in certain traditions or songs), as well as the functions that the song takes.

Safeguarding the practice of cantu a tenore, therefore, means safeguarding the various modas of the numerous towns in which this tradition is present and active. Starting from these considerations, shared by the community of singers, comes the very name of this safeguarding project, called “MODAS”.

As if to counterbalance the stylistic fragmentation of local modas, cantu a tenore does not (if not very rarely) employ the local dialects but a common language, the language of Sardinian poetry from central and northern Sardinia: "Su Logudoresu"..

The cantu a tenore has a place in the life of a community and accompanies its rites, the less formalized ones, which also are the more heartfelt and organized ones; indeed, it has many functions within the communities in which it is practiced. Among these, it is useful to underline the above-mentioned interpretation of local and Sardinian poetry, the support music in the garas of improvised poetry, the support music during the dances, the prayer during the paraliturgy rites of the saints' festivals or, in some towns, of the Holy Week, and also the love singing in the serenades (even if this function is slowly fading away). 

The contexts and places in which cantu a tenore is expressed are the traditional ones of convivial events such as parties and dinners with friends, the bar (su tzilleri), the private cellars (sos magasinos), the narrow alleys of the historical town centers, the squares where the children meet, the town festivals and the ones in the countryside sanctuaries, the rites of the saints and, in some places, the churches, the sacristies and the Holy Week processions; there are also new contexts, such as the stage of the folklore events and festivals, the song reviews managed by the singers themselves, the rehearsals of organized bands, the courtyards of high schools, the bus stations of the main towns, where commuter students meet, local radios and televisions that host more or less popular tenores (the bands).

The musical culture of cantu a tenore has developed, and has been transmitted, through the oral tradition, as a musical poetic expression of the wider Sardinian agro-pastoral culture, defined by the term "Pastoralism", and was commonly found in large areas of the regional territory. In the last century, as it happened all over the world to local cultures and, in particular, European ones, both pastoralism and cantu a tenore have undergone a decisive shrinking due to the technological, economic, social, and cultural revolution that marked the century. The area that could best preserve the cultural and social practices of pastoralism is the interior of the island, an area in which pastoralism is still widely practiced and still represents the main source of income and sustenance within the community. The area in which cantu a tenore is practiced is the same one, to which we can add some small sections of northern Sardinia.

The economic change and, therefore, the social structure of the towns of central Sardinia brought a new situation: today, the singers come from all social and working categories of the communities, ranging from the shepherd to the doctor, from the blue-collar worker to the teacher, from the craftsman to the employee, to the student. Luckily, among the most consistent singers, that is, among those who more often can make their songs heard, there are many young people and even boys, which bodes well for the future of cantu a tenore.