Sonos: Sounds of Sardinia


Ivan Moody


"I first discovered Sardinian music in 1988 during the Italian portion of the European tour. Our Milanese promoter made a cassette from his ethnomusicological collection which I listened to in the car en route to a concert. I was astonished by what I heard and have spent the intervening years looking for more recorded examples of this music."

Frank Zappa, 1993 (Quoted in the insert notes to Intonos )


Frank Zappa's quest would today be less difficult. A number of commercial recordings of Sardinian music have been made since the date of this observation (see discography below, though availability of the discs listed is not guaranteed).

The music of Sardinia is very varied. The best-known vocal style, a tenore, is exemplified by the singing of the Island's most famous group, the Tenores de Bitti. Bitti is in central Sardinia; this repertoire originates in the regions of Baronia and Barbagia, slightly north and east of the centre.

A tenore music is performed by a group of four singers which have a specific nomenclature: the boke (soloist), the bassu (who intones the tonic), the contra (singing the fifth above) and the mesa'oke, who sings the octave above the tonic. The accompanying singers constitute su concordu, "the choir"(1). The melody is begun by the boke, the remaining voices entering when the tonality, modulations (diatonic, called scalate) and rhythm of the melody have been established. Sardinian singers perform standing in a circle, their arms normally resting on each other's shoulders in order to amplify the vibration of the sound - and thereby aid tuning - as well as symbolizing what the musicologist Gian Nicola Spanu calls the "closed and corporative character" of the Italian confraternities. Each village has, in fact, its own gruppo, which is indeed at once closed and corporative.

It should be noted that there are also pieces in the Sardinian repertoire which are clearly related to the music of Corsica, employing the far more classical tonal and cadential procedures of the neighbouring island. (I am grateful to the Sardinian musicologist Roberto Mileddù for sharing with me his observations on this matter.) One of the few pieces recorded on the discs listed below to step, at least partially, out of the Sardinian disregard for classical western tonal logic is the Magnificat de s'Incontru on Winter & Winter's second volume of Voches de Sardinna (1998).

There is a specific vocal colour associated with this repertoire. Ethnologist Bernard Lortat-Jacob notes that "If the voices singing the highest notes (boghe and mesa boghe) are very like Mediterranean voices, high-pitched, tense, very resonant and nasal, the two others, singing the lowest parts (bassu and contra) are specific to this type of song. The voices are pushed down into a low register, and are not very nasal: a special technique is needed to bring out the upper harmonics."(2)

As to the origins of the Sardinian sound, Gian Nicola.Spanu speaks of an "asperitas vocis, nell'effetto cacofonico di una emissione vocale dura e dissonante." (3) In fact, cacophony is not the result of this "asperity of the voice", this "hard and dissonant vocal emission". Rather, it takes us into another world of sound in which certain preconceptions must be put aside. Spanu offers the following historical considerations on the subject:

"Oltre alla coincidenza calendariale, bisogna infatti considerare come quesot tipo di canto polivocale si è sviluppato principalmente nell'Italia meridionale e insulare, una zona che nell'alto medioevo ha gravitato per lungo tempo nell'area dell'Impero Romano d'Oriente, e anche in epoca più recente (secc. XV-XVI) ha accolto varie ondate migratorie di popolazioni greco-albanesi, particolare che suggerisce l'ipotesi di un lascito culturale bizantino nel rituale, nella conduzione e nella forma stessa della salmodia polivocale." (4)

From these observations, Spanu goes on to discuss in greater detail the relationship between Sardinian polyphony and Byzantine chant. He finds a clear correspondence between the way in which the "general physiognomy" of Sardinian music recalls that of eastern chant, one voice intoning the principal melody and guiding the evolution of the others. While there is much to be said for the idea that there may be a connection between the way in which the ison, or drone, is employed in Byzantine chanting, it should also be made clear that the sound of the Sardinian repertoire is quite different. Spanu writes that the eastern model was "readapted" to the model of the religious confraternities of Italy, reflecting also the "closed and corporative character" of the groups which maintain the traditions in Italy today.

The secular a tenore repertoire includes a number of different genres, examples being boghe'e notte or a sa serie (slow tempo, dealing with serious themes), muto, or muttos (love poetry), grobes, goso, gotzo, or cantu religiosos (religious hymnology), anninnia (lullaby), and dances such as the ballu, su dillu and su passu torrau.

Religious music, as is the case in Corsica, still employs Latin texts, and the singers' understanding of them is very approximate. Bernard Lortat-Jacob's magnificent anthology of Holy Week music includes settings of the Miserere from Cuglieri (in the province of Oristano), Santu Lussurgiu (Oristano), Castelsardo (three different versions for different occasions), of the Stabat Mater from Cuglieri, Aidomaggiore (Oristano), Bonnanaro (province of Sassari) and Castelsardo. There is also a Jesus from Castelsardo , whose text runs "Jesus a Petro ter negato/Miserere nobis/Christe exaudi nos", and one piece in the Sardinian language, Sa novena. Complementary repertoire, with further pieces in Sardinian, may be found on Winter & Winter's anthology Voches de Sardinna  2, with excellent accompanying photographic documentation but no texts or commentary. Pinuccio Solinas’s astounding collection of six discs includes no less than eight versions of the Miserere (Alà dei Sardi, two versions from Nughedu San Nicolò, Nulvi, Pattada, Perfugas, Pozzomaggiore and Cheremule), and eight of the Stabat Mater (Alà dei Sardi, Berchidda, Castelsardo, Ittireddu, Laerru, Mores, Nughedu San Nicolò and Pattada), and a large number of other sacred pieces. The collection includes a brief introduction and, importantly, all the sung texts with translations in both Italian and English. This set is a major contribution to the discography.

The texts of the secular repertoire vary greatly. Improvisation means that they reflect the ideals and political concerns of the Sardinian people. There is also secular music of another kind, whose natural outlet is found in poetic-musical duels (something similar occurs in certain regions of Brazil), and the natural forum for this is the village festival. Cantos a Kitera provides an excellent, superbly documented anthology of the cantadores who participate in such competitions, and it is worthwhile quoting here what the Italian musicologist Paolo Scarnecchia says of this repertoire: "By now, we are so accustomed to idintifying Sardinian ethnic music with the polyphony of the canto a tenore that we have almost forgotten that the northwest region of the island uses a different musical form, unique especially in its expression and execution. If the first represents social harmony (even more than it does musical harmony), the second, instead, is driven by individualism and competition."(5) Fine examples of secular music may also be found in Solinas’s collection; particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of Bellos Prodigios, whose text is in Castilian.

A tenore music (in particular the dances) has also given rise to an instrumental repertoire, specifically that of the region of Barbagia, usually performed on the diatonic accordion. There exists, however, a separate instrumental repertoire related to specifically Sardinian instruments, the most famous of which is the launeddas, a reed instrument with three pipes, a relative of the ancient Greek auloi and the Roman tibiae, and as far as its construction is concerned, not without connections to the clarinet-like instruments of Egypt and northern Africa. (6)

Excellent examples of traditional instrumental repertoire may be found on Sardaigne: Les Maîtres de la musique instrumentale (featuring Dionigi Burranca, Luigi Lai, Aurelio Poreu, Raimundo "Mondo" Vercellino, Pietro Poreu, Francesco Ligas, Silvio Falqui and Cesare Pisu ), Al Sur ALCD 157 [1995].

The Sardinian guitarist Gesuino Deiana, in his 1997 anthology Pintaderas, takes hold of various traditions of his native island and transmutes and transforms them into something new: as with all the musicians recorded on the discs listed below, he has grasped the paradoxical truth that tradition, in order to live and survive, must also be creation.



1. Orthography and terminology varies: one may also see sa boghe (literally "the voice") and, correspondingly, Mesa boghe, or Voche and Mesavoche. In the Castelsardo tradition of religious music, one finds falzittu, bogi, contra, bassu.

2. Notes to Polyphonies de Sardaigne, Le Chant du Monde LDX 274760 [1992]

3. Spanu, G.N: "Il Canto polivocale della Settimana Santa en Sardegna alla luce della tradizione liturgica medievale", in Medioevo: Saggi e Rassegne, 18: 167

4. Ibid., 169.

5. Paulo Scarnecchia: "The Three Tenors", in Cantos a Kiterra, booklet p. 39, Amiata Records ARNR 0399 [1999]

6. Giulio Paulis: "I nomi delle launeddas: origine e storia", in Sonos: Strumenti della Musica Popolare Sarda, ed. Gian Nicola Spanu, Nuoro, 1994, p.137. The essay also includes a discussion of the origin of the name launeddas.




Vocal music

Sardaigne: Polyphonies de la Semaine Sainte

Enregistrements de Bernard Lortat-Jacob

Le Chant du Monde LDX 274936 [1992]


Polyphonies de Sardaigne

Enregistrements de Bernard Lortat-Jacob

Le Chant du Monde LDX 274760 [1992]



Tenores di Bitti

New Tone 129806727 2 [1994]


S'amore 'e mama

Tenores di Bitti

Realworld CDR W60 7243 8 41885 2 8 [1996]


Voches de Sardinna [1]: Tenori de Orosei - Amore profundhu

Winter & Winter Basic Edition 910 021-2 [1998]


Voches de Sardinna [2]: Cuncurdu de Orosei - Miserere

Winter & Winter Basic Edition 910 022-2 [1998]


I Canti della Civiltà Contadina

A cura di Pinuccio Solinas (6 CD set)

CD1 Su Tenore Logudoresu

CD2 Canti di Quaresima; Canti di Risurrezione

CD3 Canti di Lavoro; Grida; Cantigos de Ammuttiu; Tarantismo; Rivisitazioni

CD4 Canti di Natale e di Questua; Canti di Ringraziamento

CD5 Ballos a Cantigu; Canti di Carnevale; Cantos de Chentina; Altri Canti Profani

CD6 Sa Missa Cantada; Canti Mariani in Latino; Su Rosariu Cantadu; Gosos; Altri Canti Sacri

Pinuccio Solinas, 2001. Contact:



Instrumental music


Sardaigne: Les Maîtres de la musique instrumentale

Dionigi Burranca, Luigi Lai, Aurelio Poreu, Raimundo "Mondo" Vercellino, Pietro Poreu, Francesco Ligas, Silvio Falqui, Cesare Pisu

Al Sur ALCD 157 [1995]


Pintaderas: Made in Sardinia

Gesuino Deiana, guitar

Womad WSCD007 [1997]


Cantos a Kiterra: Canti dalla Sardegna

Amiata Records ARNR 0399 [1999]



Further information

Further information may be found in the excellent book Sonos: Strumenti della Musica Popolare Sarda, ed. Gian Nicola Spanu, Nuoro, 1994, and in Tenores by Andrea Deplano (Cagliari, 2nd edition, 1997). This latter also contains an extensive discography (particularly valuable for older recordings) and a glossary. On the Internet, there is a useful series of pages with photographs and recordings by Giacomo Serreli:

Other useful links are: - dealing with Sardinian folk music in general. - Ortobene Chorus, Sardinia (the Italian text is to be preferred!).





© Ivan Moody 2001, 2002, 2003

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 Revised 15.05.2005