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Musical Heritage of Sardinia

  • Cantu a tenore (Pastoral songs)
  • the launeddas
  • cantu a chiterra
  • goigs


M
any will have heard of the UNESCO World Heritage List of the many historical, archaeological, and cultural sites—physical places—in the world that need protecting and saving. Perhaps lesser known is UNESCO’s more recent ICH (Intangible Cultural Heritage) list of the oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, and traditional craftsmanship that represent the peoples of our planet. Some of this heritage is on the verge of dying out (many minority languages, for example) and some is simply getting mushed up by globalization. The items on the list so far include such things as the whistled language of La Gomera Island in the Canaries; Kutiyattam, the Sanskrit theater, practiced in the province of Kerala in India; and in Italy, as of 2013, 4 items: (1) Sicilian Puppet Theater, (2) the tradition of violin making in Cremona, (3) the processional gigli (spire floats) at various places throughout Italy, and (4) The Sardinian pastoral songs known as cantu a tenore



The cantu a tenore is a form of polyphonic singing performed by a group of four men using four different voices called bassu, contra, boche and mesu boche. The style is characterized by the deep, guttural timbre of the bassu and contra voices. The singers stand in a tight circle; the solo singers chant a piece of prose or a poem while the other voices form an accompanying chorus. The song form is typical of the region of Barbagia and other parts of central Sardinia. Performances are often spontaneous and done in local bars but also occur at more formal occasions, such as weddings and religious festivities. The canto a tenore covers a large repertoire; the lyrics may be either ancient or contemporary poems on present-day issues such as emigration and politics. Thus, the songs are both traditional as well a continuously updated part of that tradition.

The launeddas (photo, right) is a characteristic folk instrument, perhaps easiest to describe as a triple clarinet; that is, there are three single-reed canes glued together at the mouthpiece end and played simultaneously to produce distinctive harmonies. It is an ancient instrument; indeed, a 4,000-year-old statuette exists of a musician playing the instrument. The technique of playing is distinctive in that it employs what is called “circular breathing” (as do some other folk instruments in the world, such as the Australian aboriginal digeridoo; as well, western instrumentalists (primarily in jazz) now experiment with the same technique on modern wind instruments. Essentially, it entails collecting enough air in the cheeks to keep the air-stream going through the instrument while you quickly inhale more into the lungs through the nose, thus keeping an uninterrupted tone going. (The same thing is achieved on bag-pipes by the use of an air-bladder.) The instrument is played during religious ceremonies and dances and, musically, involve extensive variations on a few melodies.

The cantu a chiterra is a more recent tradition; the guitar, itself, is an import from Spain in the 16th century, when much of the western Mediterranean was part of the vast Spanish Empire. The Sardinian guitar has developed somewhat differently from the classical guitar (itself not standardized until the late 1800s) and presents differences in shape (the size of the “bouts,” which give most modern acoustic guitars their typical hour-glass shape), in tuning (the Sardinian guitar is generally tuned somewhat lower than a classical guitar), and the number of strings (four- and five-stringed guitars are common in addition to the familiar six-stringed instrument). (For more on guitar history and construction, see The Guitar in Naples.) The guitars usually display characteristic folk painting or other ornamentation. The traditional playing technique employs the thumb to play the main melody while the index and middle fingers play accompaniment. Recently, the use of a plectum (pick) has become common. Song festivals and contests are quite common in the north of the island and singers are judged on their singing as well as on their own guitar accompaniment. Many of the songs are very old folk songs and the presumption is that the songs were around well before the guitar was imported and incorporated to produce a new tradition.

Goigs (religious song derived from the Catalan) (See this separate entry.)


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