Article by Dan Nosowitz first appeared in Atlas Obscura Magazine online on October 8, 2019
A fiercely unusual musical style from a fiercely independent island.
On an island in the Mediterranean, there is an incredible musical style unknown to the vast majority of the world. Because describing music often ends up as a series of references to other music, here’s what that style, cantu a tenòre, evokes: one part barbershop quartet, one part traditional Mongolian drone, one part political punk, and one part bar band. It’s also one example of an unusual vocal strategy, one that almost doubles as a wild anatomical experiment, that appears in scattered places around the globe.
Cantu a tenòre is Sardinian throat singing, and it’s very, very cool.
To talk about cantu a tenòre, we first have to talk about the human voice—a truly amazing musical instrument, capable of an astonishing range of sounds. But it has the same weakness as all breath-powered instruments (including woodwinds and brass): You can only play one note at a time. Except sometimes your voice can play two.
The human vocal apparatus is made up of two vocal cords, which is sort of a misleading name. They’re not strings, really, but more like flat, folded, mucous-covered membranes, which can be constricted and vibrate at varying speeds as air pass between them to produce sound, either spoken or sung. This is the only vibrating tissue for most speakers and singers, but among the group of people who have learned how to throat sing, there’s another option.
A little higher up, there are two vestibular folds, sometimes called “false vocal cords.” These are, like the regular vocal cords, mucous-covered infoldings, but they aren’t ordinarily used for making sound. Instead, they’re kind of like guard membranes that keep food and water out of the airway while you’re eating and drinking. Throat singers have figured out how to control the muscles in these folds, and can constrict or relax them to produce noise as air passes by them. It’s almost a body hack that creates harmonies out of some internal bits that few know can even produce sound.
The Sardinian tradition is a rarity among rarities.
Vibration of the vestibular folds can be done either with or without vibration of the regular vocal cords. “You can sing with only the false folds but it will not become throat singing any more,” says Giovanni Bortoluzzi, who, along with Ilaria Orefice, runs the Sherden Overtone Singing School, the first and probably the only school for Sardinian throat singing in the world. You end up instead with a growl, which may be familiar from certain varieties of heavy metal. It’s particularly common in death metal, and is sometimes referred to as “monster voice.” But if you can sing or speak—using your regular vocal cords—while vibrating your vestibular folds, you end up, incredibly, harmonizing with yourself. The vestibular folds will vibrate at one octave lower than whatever tone you sing. That specific difference in pitch is consistent, and even the most experienced throat singers can’t change it.
There are multiple ways of manipulating these false folds. That harmony is called a subtone—bassu, in Sardinian—but there’s also something called contra, which is made by tensing the false cords. You don’t end up with two simultaneous tones, but anything sung is … changed. Bortoluzzi calls it “metallic voice,” and it’s kind of hard to describe. It’s a sound that can’t be produced in any other way, but it’s immediately noticeable as something unusual.
Throat singing shows up in various musical traditions, the most famous of which is probably Tuvan, or from a remote Russian republic bordering Mongolia. For some reason, it seems to appear most often in the native music of cold-weather communities: the Sami people of Scandinavia, the Inuits in Canada, and among Buddhists in Tibet. Sardinia seems to be an exception to this rule; its climate is as Mediterranean as you can get. This makes the Sardinian tradition a rarity among rarities.
Anyone can learn throat singing, says Bortoluzzi, though it takes a keen ear, both for external and internal sounds—those you hear with your ears and those your body makes. He says it usually takes about a week to teach the technique, though some find it easier than others. “The Sardinians, they have it in their blood, so it’s very easy to teach Sardinians,” he says. (Bortoluzzi, unlike Orefice, is not Sardinian, though he has spent a great deal of time in Sardinia.)
It’s not known when cantu a tenòre first emerged. It’s first attested, says Orefice (as translated by Bortoluzzi), in the 15th century, though it’s likely much older than that, possibly thousands of years older. Even though Sardinia is so unlike many of the other places that are home to throat singing it seems unlikely that it came there from somewhere else. Sardinia, like much of the Mediterranean, was conquered and reconquered throughout history—by the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and more. But Sardinia has always been a little bit separate from those empires, with a little bit more autonomy than its history might suggest. Even today it is a little bit separate from the rest of Italy.
For example: All of the various languages of the Italian kingdoms—including Neapolitan and Venetian—were shunted to the side in favor of standard Italian during the unification of the country. Of those languages, Sardinian—a romance language, but not comprehensible to Italian speakers—is the most widely spoken today, and a majority of Sardinians can speak it.*
Bortoluzzi says that given how fiercely independent Sardinia is, it is all the more unlikely that throat singing, something so fundamental to Sardinian culture, could have been introduced. Instead it might have just been independently discovered or evolved, the same way it was in Canada or Tibet. One thing Sardinia does have in common with all of those other places, from Scandinavia to Tuva: wide open spaces. Throat singing, says Bortoluzzi, is associated with herders and shepherds, possibly as a way to communicate over long distances, because the sound carries very far.
Cantu a tenòre is a fairly rigid form. It is exclusively a capella. It is almost always sung with four members. And it is always, always sung in Sardinian—never Italian. This came in handy in the past, given that Sardinia was often under the control of some far-off power. “During the Inquisition they used to sing revolutionary lyrics in Sardinian cantu a tenòre in a way that the Inquisitors would not understand,” says Bortoluzzi. Rebellious or otherwise forbidden political messages could be inserted cleverly into songs that might appear religious—a way for Sardinians to thumb their noses at their oppressors.
If not political in nature, cantu a tenòre lyrics tend toward the hyper-local—often poems about townspeople. “There are many many poets in Sardinia, and the poems become music,” says Bortoluzzi. That local element is important, and cantu a tenòre groups are traditionally named after their hometowns.
The name cantu a tenòre translates as something like “singer and accompaniment.” Of the four singers in a cantu a tenòre group, three harmonize as an accompaniment (in lieu of, say, a guitar or drum or piano) and one sings over that. The bassu sings with that subtone, producing the lowest sound and, an octave above that, the third-lowest. The contra, using that “metallic voice,” sings the second-lowest tone, in between the two bassu tones. The mesu boche usually sings suspended fourths above the bassu, before laying on the major third (if you know your music theory).* The three singers together are the tenòre, and they are basically singing power chords, like in punk music.
The boche, the last of the four, is the lead vocalist, and the only one to actually sing lyrics; the tenòre are all singing the same nonsense syllables, like “beem, bam, boom.” The boche’s melodies are often improvised, feathery and vaguely Semitic-sounding. The harmonies are fairly restricted, and they are always, says Bortoluzzi, in a major key, which leaves them sounding a little bit like Tuvan barbershop.
The group tends to sing very close together physically, often with their arms wrapped over each other’s shoulders. There is a real intimacy there. Bortoluzzi says that there is often debate about what makes a good or authentic group, but some things are unassailable. “They all agree on one thing, and that is that to perform cantu a tenòre, you must be very close friends,” he says. Most cantu a tenòre groups are all-male, and none are all-female, but women are not discouraged from singing, even the bassu part. Mixed-gender groups are not unheard of, though it can be difficult to find a female throat-singing teacher.
Over the past few centuries, cantu a tenòre has become drinking and dancing music. In the recent past, you would often, says Bortoluzzi, find a cantu a tenòre group in a local bar, singing for friends. (This is not so common anymore.) To many older Sardinians, this is the true form of cantu a tenòre, in the same way that punk really ought to be played in a low-ceilinged venue that smells defiantly of old beer.
The stubbornness of Sardinians about their musical form is not unusual for Italy in general; just try asking a Roman how to make a cacio e pepe. But that rigidity and a lack of global visibility for Sardinia has meant that, even as Tuvan throat singing became somehow famous in the 1990s, cantu a tenòre has stayed local. Bortoluzzi mentions a concert for which Tuvan throat singers came to collaborate with Sardinian throat singers, only to run into a brick wall of tradition. “The Tuvan group accommodated a lot in terms of pitch and the choosing of the rhythm and stuff like that,” he says, “but the cantu a tenòre group was very stubborn. ‘Oh, we always sing like that, you should follow us, this is the Sardinian way.’”
Bortoluzzi and Orefice’s school started in 2016, and teaches workshops in addition to putting on performances. They have, says Bortoluzzi, more than 100 students, most of whom are in their 30s and 40s. “Not so many young people are interested, for now,” he says. But there are some signs of change. Young groups, such as Tenore Su Remediu de Orosei, are stretching the form, sometimes adding instrumentation and influences from outside Sardinia. (This song has a distinctly Southern-sounding slide guitar.)
As with any other very old tradition, there’s a balance to be struck between remembering the way it’s been done for centuries and exploring new ground. Either way, cantu a tenòre feels ripe for global discovery.
* Correction: This story originally stated that Sardinian is not taught in schools. It is, but fewer young people speak it than in the past. The story was also updated to further explain the tone the mesu boche sings.
Article by Dan Nosowitz first appeared in Atlas Obscura Magazine online on October 8, 2019