Avid followers of the extraordinary cutting-edge vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, featured in "Classical Beat" three weeks ago, will want to hear the equally brilliant male vocal quartet Tenores de Aterúe (trans.: Singers from Elsewhere, from the Sardinian) in concert. This astounding ensemble produces enthralling vocal effects, such as singing two notes per voice, combined with the re-creation of stunning folk/ethnic music from faraway Sardinia. I’ll let the founders of the quartet tell the story.
By Doug Paisley and Carl Linich
When we first heard recordings of Sardinian cantu a tenore, a vocal quartet technique that involves harmonic throat singing in parts, it sounded more like instruments than human voices. "Wouldn’t it be great to try singing that someday," we said - but how? We had no teacher, knew no one from Sardinia, and we couldn’t even tell what those Sardinians were doing with their voices. It was like an ocean of sound that had no beginning or end, no top or bottom.
Our idea of learning Sardinian songs remained a fantasy until 2008, when Carl Linich discovered a video on YouTube by the Sardinian group, Tenores di Bitti, with each voice part sung in isolation, and then together with the other parts. It was our Rosetta Stone. Now we knew what to do. We found two other singing friends, Avery Book and Gideon Crevoshay, who were also interested in trying it.
Our first song came from the website of Tenores di Bitti (www.tenoresdibitti.com), where we found the complete text to their recording of "Ballu Dillu." We gathered at Gideon’s house in Brooklyn and started trying to make some sounds. It was not easy, and it took a while before we had something that sounded much like what we heard, but we kept working and gradually it started to come to life. The biggest challenge was the distance that separated us. Avery, who was living in Ashville, N.C. at the time, had the farthest to travel.
However, despite the geographic challenges, we managed to meet periodically and work up quite a few Sardinian songs.
In January 2011, we gave our first performance in Williamstown under the name Tenores de Aterúe. We posted a video of our performance on YouTube, and were quite surprised when, a few days later, the video started getting hits - hundreds at first, and then thousands - all from Sardinia. We received a message from Omar Bandinu, one of the singers in Tenores di Bitti, who had written an article about our performance in the Sardinian newspaper, L’Unione Sarda. Native Sardinians from around the world posted comments expressing astonishment ("I’m stunned") and appreciation ("This is the best gift you could have given us.") Tenore singers from small villages in Sardinia chimed in, offering encouragement and suggestions on how to improve. Our video was even featured in a documentary about cantu a tenore that aired on Italian television.
What is cantu a tenore?
Designated a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005, cantu a tenore is a form of polyphonic singing that is traditionally performed by a group of four men using four different voices: bassu, contra, boche (oche) and mesu boche (mesu oche). The deep, guttural timbre of the bassu and contra voices produce ringing overtones, which are expanded by the mesu boche. This rich aural texture is essentially a canvas for the boche, who is the main soloist and sings almost all of the text. 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 at more formal occasions, such as weddings and religious festivities. Canto a tenore covers a large repertoire; the lyrics are sometimes ancient, and sometimes contemporary poems on present-day issues such as emigration and politics. In this way, the tradition has remained alive and something that still connects closely to Sardinia’s past and present in equally strong measure.
This past August we gave a workshop on cantu a tenore vocal technique with the singers in Roomful of Teeth and performed with them at Club B10 during their residency at Mass MoCA. We have given concerts throughout New England and in New York City, where we recently met Isabela Masala from the Sardinian-American cultural organization, Shardana USA. She wrote of our concert on Facebook and within a few days received a message from a well-known and respected tenore group in Sardinia called Tenores di Silanus Santu Larettu who proposed a cultural exchange: they hope to host us in their village to study and perform with them, and in return, we would like to host them for a tour in the US. This exchange would be critical to our own development: We feel that the only way for us to gain a deeper understanding of cantu a tenore is to spend time with living practitioners of this difficult art. Our broader hope is that this cultural exchange will bring greater appreciation for the cantu a tenore tradition both here and in Sardinia, where (the singers tell us) it is often misunderstood and neglected.
On Friday, Nov. 30 at 8 p.m., Tenores de Aterúe will share this unique style of singing with listeners in a performance at St. John’s Episcopal Church, located on Park Street in Williamstown. Admission is by donation. Proceeds from the concert (which also includes music from Corsica and Italy) will go toward funding our first study tour in Sardinia.
To hear a sample of the
vocal quartet’s unique singing style, please visit YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIN4uFnIUKY.