If Sardinian culture is a treasure trove full of discoveries, the tenore singing is arguably its most precious gem.
It is a very ancient form of singing performed by four male voices whose origins are lost in the mists of time.
Its characteristics are so unique that it has developed over the centuries (perhaps even millennia) according to its own evolutionary path, largely unrelated to the tonal music tradition of Western “classical” music.
To understand what is meant, it is enough to listen to a piece, perhaps performed by a group from Oliena.
The practice of tenore singing, which has been included in UNESCO’s Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity since 2005, is still alive, cherished, and widely practiced in central Sardinia; and in Oliena, there are many men of all ages who perform in public and private for the sheer pleasure that this activity brings to those who practice it, as well as those who listen.
The tenore, which is the group of four people who perform the songs, is made up of sa vohe (the lead voice), su basciu (the bass voice), sa hontra (the counterpoint voice), and sa mesu vohe (the voice with the highest pitch). The distinct deep, liquid, and metallic sounds produced by bassu and hontra give the tenore its unmistakable timbre that can be immediately recognized even by newcomers.
Each village has its local variants, and Oliena also has its own peculiar ways of singing (modas). Some of them, almost disappeared, but jealously guarded by a few elderly people, are studied by the younger generation who want to recover them and add them to their already rich repertoire.
Many intellectuals and musicians from around the world have been fascinated by this expressive form. Some of them, like Gabriele d’Annunzio, have promoted performances of these groups outside of Sardinia, others like Peter Gabriel have produced and distributed their albums, and still others like Frank Zappa have used the sounds of tenore singing in their own compositions. There are also renowned filmmakers, such as Werner Herzog, who have included tenore singing in the soundtracks of their films.