The canto a tenore, typical from Barbagia region in the center of Sardinia, is a male polyphonic vocal style with a great charm, one of the highest expression of the vocal art in the Mediterranean area.
Immediately it sounds primitive and strong. It is not a chance that many scholars thought that this way of singing originated in the prehistoric ages by imitating the nature sounds: the four voices echo the ox bellows, the sheep bleating, the wind whistling and hissing. The origin is still mysterious, but for sure this is a millennia form of art.
Four are the voices: boghe (the soloist), mesa-oche, contra, bassu. The lead voice (boghe) sings the main melody and stands the song, while the other three voices are rhythmic accompaniment characterized by non-sense syllables. Performing this accompaniment the singers use a guttural emission of the voice, which surprisingly shows many analogies with the primitive vocal music of Oceania and Africa. Using this guttural timbre and particular tuning jumps, tenores can sing an enormous repertoire: muttos, ottave, battorinas, terzine, dances and improvised rhymes. The very peculiar harmony and poetic texts, the guttural voices and the characteristic tuning jumps make immediately recognizable this particular way of singing.
The Tenore “S. Gavino” from Oniferi is considered by music fans and ethno-musicologists the most prominent example of this vocal art. There are many points that make them so special: the canto a tenore is still well alive in Sardinia performed by many groups, most of them are old singers performing traditional texts. Their young age and the fact that three of them are brothers, is a first approach to notice how their sound, harsh and ancestral, is in fact very homogeneous. Their perfect tuning and their powerful sound is very rare today, because this skill needs years of practice and passion to be performed at its best. And in this sense Oniferi are the best young heir of the tradition and one of the very few promises for the future of this vocal marvel.
In the last years they’ve been touring extensively Europe (France in particular, where their CD Su Banzigu sold more than 2000 copies), the USA and Taiwan where they guested in a festival about traditional polyphony.
Another matter to be pointed is their accuracy in choosing lyrics this makes Onferi the foremost group in the new-traditional scene in Sardinia. Their texts are often oriented to contemporary arguments : social and working troubles, drug abuse, sex, today’s life difficulties, ironic and funny stories, some “philosophical” consideration about life…and sweet rhymes about love.
Both in dancing (lestru, dillu, passu torrau, ballu thoppu) and slow (boche seria, boch’e notte) forms, the lyrics, by famous poets such as Montanaru or from unknown contemporary authors, make the repertoire of Tenore S. Gavino an important vehicle of literary transmission. The oral transmission of poetry is another important point in Sardinian traditional culture from centuries, as well as the skill of improvising lyrics.
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.