What Is The Canto A Tenore Of Sardinia?

The Canto a tenore (tenor singing) is a traditional singing style of Sardinia and is considered an Intangible Unesco Heritage since 2008. This form of art has several features that make it unique on a worldwide scale and is thought to be of ancient origins: the performing voices are said to represent the sounds of animals and shepherds, which have in turn always represented a huge part of Sardinian identity and culture.

The metaphor of the voices and the animals indeed comes from old tales and is probably one of the last traces of rites (songs) where people celebrated the victory of humanity over nature, represented by men taming animals – in this case, the shepherd with sheep and cows.

The Canto a Tenore is still widely performed and loved by the masses, especially in the Barbagia and Montiferru areas, and it’s not hard to witness some groups showing their skills during village festivals and celebrations.

In this post, I will highlight the main characteristics of the Canto a Tenore of Sardinia, and suggest where to go to listen to the performances.

canto a tenore
Pietro lavena, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Canto A Tenore Elements

The Canto a Tenore is always performed by four people, exclusively male, whose voices must have specific characteristics.

Su Bassu

A guttural voice that resembles the ox’s sounds, su Bassu is the base of the Tenore songs. It has the vital function of emitting stable, long, and low notes, and forming the first layer of the song.

Sa Contra

Sa Contra is a voice with a higher pitch – similar to a sheep’s cry – and has the role of cooperating with the Bassu with non-sense syllables, forming a rudimental rhythm for the song.

Sa Boghe

Literally, “the Voice”, is the leading sound of the performance. Sa Boghe is the one singing the lyrics/poems and guiding the other three members. He decides about the rhythm and the variations in the song. It represents the shepherd who tames the animals and wins over nature.

Sa Mesu Boghe

The only member who constantly changes notes and sometimes keys, he has the role of giving “movement” to the song, with adlibs, variations, and other tricks, so that the performance is always fresh and entertaining, never boring. It represents the lamb’s cry and is the most high-pitched one.

Canto a Tenore
Rafael Brix, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Canto A Tenore Themes And Styles

The usual themes of the Canto a Tenore are religious, satirical, political, but they can widely vary depending on the audience and occasions. Many tenores (the groups of performers) often have their shows during the summer festivals and the religious ones, but it’s not uncommon (especially on the mountainous areas of Sardinia) to see groups of four men having random show-offs in their bars (zilleris) after a few drinks: the Canto a Tenore is really a loved and deeply-rooted part of the culture.

The majority of tenores perform poems or traditional songs, which are handed down both verbally and in written form (depending on the area) and touch a huge variety of themes, from prayers to old diss tracks made to mock the landowners!

The main types of songs are boghe ‘e notte, boghe ‘e ballu, muttos.

Boghe ‘e Notte

This is the most melancholic and slow style among the three, and also the most common one. It consists of an exchange between the Boghe and the other three members, similar to a sad, slow chat between them. Its name (voice of the night) probably comes from the fact that it was the style used to serenade the girls during the night.

Boghe ‘e Ballu

This is a much more lively, fun rhythm to listen to and is often used to accompany the traditional dances. It’s the younger generations’ favorite style. In this type of song, the accompanying voices’ role is more important than the leading one, and the whole performance relies on rhythms and variety of sounds.

Muttos

This is actually a sung version of the traditional muttos, poems about love or politics which are performed, on some occasions, with the help of the Tenores.

Where To See Canto A Tenore Performances

As I said, many Canto a Tenore performances just spontaneously start inside the bars, but there are of course festivals where you can see the most famous and skilled tenores. Here’s some of the groups and where to see them.

Tenores di Neoneli

They were founded in 1976 and still are one of the most famous quartets on the island. Unfortunately, only one of the original members is still performing, but this hasn’t changed the love and great skills of the group.

Coro Supramonte

Orgosolo’s tenores, they are widely known and perform in various festivals, both religious and pagan.

Tenores di Bitti

They are divided into two groups (Mialinu Pira and Remunnu ‘e Locu) and are probably the most famous group on the Island and have toured several places, both in Europe and internationally. They perform in most of the traditional festivals in Sardinia and, since the Canto a Tenore is a unique form of musical art, they are often invited overseas both for performing and for anthropological studies.

Many groups will perform during their village’s festivals (like the Patron saints’ celebrations) and during events like Autunno in Barbagia. If you are curious about this special musical art, you should definitely try to be in Sardinia during either of the events.

The Canto A Tenore Museum

If you can’t visit the island in that one of the festivals where you can listen to the performances, there is another way to explore the world of the Canto a Tenore: there is a Multimedial Canto a Tenore Museum in Bitti. The place is very well designed and is a great way to know everything about this unique tradition and its main characters.

Both locals and tourists can get a good grasp of the Tenores’ routines and skills, and several scholars have visited the Museums to deepen their knowledge about Sardinian folklore and music – especially because this is one of the forms of art that’s still widely loved and performed, despite the fast globalization and loss of identity that’s showing in most of the world’s societies.

The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and from 2:30 to 5:30 pm (winter opening hours) and from 3:00 to 6:00 pm (summer opening hours). Admission is €2.50.

If you have literally no way of getting to Sardinia, here’s your last resort: many famous Tenores have a huge list of recorded tracks. You can try and buy some CDs or check some videos on their YouTube channels!

Further Readings

Make sure to read these other posts:

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