The A Tenore song has developed within the pastoral culture of Sardinia. It represents a very specific form of guttural polyphonic singing performed by a group of four men using four different voices called bassu, contra, boche and mesu boche. One of its characteristics is the deep and guttural timbre of the bassu and contra voice. It is performed standing in a close circle, where the solo singer sings a piece of prose or a poem while the other voices form an accompanying chorus. To be able to hear simultaneously their own and the other singers’ voices and reach entire harmony, the singers hold one of their ears closed.
Most practitioners live in the region of Barbagia and other northern and central parts of Sardinia. Their art of singing is very much embedded in the daily life of local communities. Often it is performed spontaneously in su zilleri (local bars), but also at more formal occasions, such as weddings, sheepshearings, religious festivities and the Barbaricino carnival.
The Gosos, an ancient form of A Tenore song which is still practised in some villages today, is already mentioned in the Gosos de sa Figumorisca, dating from the early seventeenth century.
The A Tenore song encompasses a vast repertoire that varies from region to region. The most common melodies are the serenade boche ‘e notte (‘the voice of the night’) and dance songs such as the mutos, gosos and ballos. The lyrics are either ancient or contemporary poems on present-day issues, such as emigration, unemployment and politics. In this sense, the songs can be regarded as both traditional and contemporary cultural expressions.
Like many oral traditions, the A Tenore song is especially vulnerable to changes in the socio-economic structure, such as the decline of the pastoral culture and the increase of tourism in Sardinia. The diversity of forms and repertoire is slowly decreasing. There is a tendency to perform on stage in front of (tourist) audiences, which affects the originally very intimate way this music was performed. Furthermore, many young people emigrate from the rural areas, making the transmission of the A Tenore songs within the villages increasingly difficult.