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Spotlight on the Arts: The throats of Sardinia



When you hear an impressive new singer, you might
think of that singer as having “nice pipes.”

It’s not just the pipes, however; it’s the chords, or rather,
the folds that matter. Stretched across the larynx,
the vocal folds are the little pair of mucous membranes
that phonate when air moves through them, thus
enabling each of us to have a “voice.”

We actually have two sets of these mucous membranes,
but we rarely utilize the second pair, also
known as the vestibular folds, the ventricular folds, or
even the “false” vocal folds. When the false folds are
activated, they tend to vibrate at a much lower frequency,
yielding a more guttural sound. You might accidentally
come across the use of them when you’re clearing
your throat in the morning or screaming at your dog for
defecating on the rug.

Several cultures around the world make use of these
false vocal folds in musical traditions—for example,
the chants of Tibetan monks and the throat-singing of
the Tuva people of southern Siberia. This peculiar style
of vocal utterance is not uniquely Eastern; it’s also an
integral part of the musical culture of Sardinia.

Cantu a Tenore (or Canto a Tenore) is a style of polyphonic
singing characteristic of the Barbagia region in
this small Mediterranean island off the western coast
of Italy. It typically consists of four male voices, with
one soloist, or boche, and three
back-up singers, mesu boche,
contra and bassu, and the songs
are passed down from generation
to generation in an oral

What makes these Sardinian
singers so fascinating is their
combined timbre, or color of the
overall sound. Each accompanying
voice represents different
sounds symbolic of the pastoral
history of Sardinia, with the
deepest voice (bassu) representing
the lowing of cattle, the
middle (contra) the bleating of
sheep, and the highest (mesu
) imitating the wind.

Both the sheep and the cow are imitated by way of
throat-singing, which utilizes both the true and false
sets of vocal folds. In performance, the soloist (boche)
chants about modern day politics, relationships and the
weather, while the cow, sheep and wind all accompany
in sets of non-sense syllables (e.g. bim-bam-bom). The
overall musical effect is remarkably unique. In 2005,
UNESCO decided to add Canto a Tenore singing to the
Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

As is the case with oral tradition, the question is how
to keep this special style of performance alive. With the
decline of pastoral culture in Sardinia and the emigration
of younger generations to more urban settings, the
older generations might feel at a loss as to where their
cultural heritage is headed.

Spotlight on the Arts is a reflection on the world
of performing arts in both historic and contemporary
contexts. Each entry features an individual or group of
performers that use captivating mediums to communicate
with their audiences. To find examples of Canto a Tenore
music, visit

The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center is scheduled
to be completed by December of this year, and will feature
many acts that challenge the way we see and think
about performance.

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