Voci ancestrali dalla Sardegna DVD
Aditi Image AZ 82504
Part One: 1. Un Ojada a sa Pache (Cantu a Isterritas); 2. Boche ‘e notte; 3. S’Andira; 4. Sos Muttos; 5. Ballu Dillu; 6. Battos Turritas e unu Caddone; 7. Anghelos Cantade a su Vizzu ‘E Maria; 8 . Sas Grobbes de S’Annunziada; 9. Ballu Lestru.Tenores di Bitti started in 1974, the members being Cossellu, Tucconi, Bandinu and Sanna - all of whom are now in their seventies, I would guess. Various personnel changes over the years have resulted in the present group: Daniele Cossellu - mesu oche (leader); Piero Sanna - oche; Mario Pira - bassu; Pierluigi Giorno - contra. Here's an example of what they sound like on the familiar Boche ‘e notte song.
Part Two: 1. A Tenore Singing; 2. The Voices; 3. The Repertoire; 4. Learning to Sing; 5. The Story of Tenores di Bitti; 6. The School of A Tenore.
The present DVD is the first in this format for the Sardinian cantu a tenores tradition, of which Tenores di Bitti are considered to be the foremost exponents. They are also slightly unusual in that they include items from the Coro tradition of sacred songs in their repertoire - these were more usually performed by semi-religious 'confraternities', as part of the sacred rites of the Church throughout the year. The DVD indicates that these groups are rarely performing these days.
Now - to move to the discursive for a moment - in the tradition of English folk songs you will encounter dozens of 'floating verses'. These are verses which occur frequently in many different songs, and tend to set the scene, or express an idea, rather than tell the particular story of the song concerned. Quite a number of songs are comprised of nothing but 'floaters', yet have settled into a set form which persists through both time and geographical area.
If you wished, you could quite easily write a 'new' song - a few years of listening to traditional songs will have furnished you with a fund of 'floating verses' - start with an 'As I roved out one May morning ...' verse, stick an 'In the middle of the ocean there shall grow a myrtle tree ...' somewhere in the middle, and end with 'Go dig my grave both wide and deep ...' Then you can add a few more in between, and you'll have a 'new' song which will probably make about as much sense as most traditional ones of this sort do.
For some reason, there seen to be far more of these songs in the broader European tradition than is the case in these islands, which gives rise to the practice of 'improvising' songs, which we can read about in the sleeve-notes of so many Mediterranean area CDs. This sounds most impressive to us, yet it isn't really improvising in the way we understand it - it's simply doing what I described in the previous paragraph, but doing it 'on the hoof' so to speak. And I guess that it's not so difficult if you have hundreds, rather than just dozens, of well-known 'floaters' in your head, and you're used to the idea of doing it, live!
The practice is widespread in Sardinia, and the verses concerned come both from the tradition, and from local and national poets, from as far back as the 16th century. As Tenores di Bitti's leader, Daniele Cossellu, explains on this DVD, this is the basis of the cantu a tenores songs they sing: the verses are not generally in any particular order, and the refrain/chorus parts are usually comprised of meaningless syllables - so everything works!
Regular MT readers will have seen numerous reviews I've written about other cantu a tenores groups1, and may have gathered the idea that I'm not particularly fond of the quartet from Bitti. This is not at all the case, but I think that many of these other groups are more exciting, more approachable, than are Tenores di Bitti, and that readers without any previous experience of the genre are likely to find them an easier starting-point. From an English perspective, I might suggest that a newcomer listened to Sam Larner rather than Harry Cox: both are superb, but Sam's rather more approachable!
If a single word were required to describe Tenores di Bitti's approach to the cantu a tenores songs, it would be 'serious'. Daniele Cossellu is certainly very serious about the tradition and the group, whereas Piero Sanna - the other oche (lead singer), who's probably about the same age - talks more about the enjoyment he finds in singing, and about the people he learned from. The two younger members - Mario Pira (bassu) and Pierluigi Giorno (contra) - seem to be a little in awe of the leader, Cossellu.
The Larner/Cox analogy continues in the actual singing of Daniele Cossellu and Piero Sanna; both can sing either the oche and mesu oche parts. Piero Sanna sings the oche (lead) part most frequently in the songs on this DVD, and does so in a very typical way. The most noticeable aspect of the genre is the way in which the songs move up or down a semi-tone from verse to verse, and you can hear Sanna make these changes quite clearly and obviously. Cossellu, on the other hand, seems to disguise his changes - not using the lead phrase in a line, for instance - so that it can come as a surprise when the verse ends in a lower or higher key. Like Harry Cox, his singing is more subtle, and you have to pay full attention to understand (and enjoy) what he's doing.
The DVD comes in two parts: the first is a live 50-minute concert performed in Turin; the second a series of interviews with the group members. In the first part there's a good deal of explanatory talk about the tradition between the songs (with English subtitles), and it's inevitable that quite a lot of the second part is just a reiteration of the same information - but there's much else here, and it's good to get the point of view of the other members of the group.
As I've indicated above, a Tenores di Bitti performance is a serious experience, and I would suggest that (as with Harry Cox) you'll need a good deal of previous experience of the genre to enjoy it fully. But there's absolutely no doubt about the quality of what's on offer here. It's available now from Felmay: http://www.felmay.it/shop/item.php?id=9953 for €20, and should be being carried by Proper in the UK shortly.
Note: I would suggest having a look at some of these reviews for an overview of the genre. All five can be found in the Italian Reviews section, and all the titles begin with the word 'Tenore'.
Rod Stradling - 23.5.12