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Worldbuilding and the Cantu a Tenore of Sardinia

2nd of January, 2021




I've been giving my imagination some exercise recently by doing some worldbuilding. I draw maps and imagine how a set of distinct ethnic groups might have developed a shared in history on that landmass. One of my recent better ideas was the musical tradition of a monotheistic collection of fishing communities in the north. A small ensemble of drummers, flautists and vocalists follow a set of culturally understood rules and take it in turns improvising. Like a chess game, the openings of these pieces are well worn and understood, but as the piece develops the performers end up performing new music every time as one by one they make new choices and explore new positions.

Here, on this record, five men perform Cantu a tenore. The small ensemble here consists of a lead, who sings a lyrical text, and four others who sing nonsense syllables in various registers to produce a polyphony of not just different pitches, but of different stages of intelligibility. I don't speak Italian, but I speak a language just similar enough to Italian that I can detect the distinction between the text of the lead, fully intelligible to the intended audience of Italian speakers, and the nonsense that surrounds it. I notice, barely, how the nonsense speakers move fluidly between improvisations that resemble spoken Italian and those that don't.

The full of extent of the discrete streams of sense and nonsense in this music are inaccessible to me, and any trace of them at all would be undetectable to someone unfamiliar with romance languages. The problem with the sort of worldbuilding I described is that I inevitably have to give these people a landmass the size of Europe to play out their lives, as though it were possible for a giant geographical region to have a such a cultural monolith. There's no reason to expect that this tradition of musical game I described, if it were real and not a part of my made up world, would be practised by more than a few thousand people. Barbagia is an insular mountainous region of Sardinia, one of the least densely populated areas in Europe. The economy is based on agriculture, sheep breeding, and winemaking. The Sardinians from this area were known by the ancient Romans by the pejorative latrones mastrucati, which means "thieves with a rough garment in wool". There are an unusually large number of centenarians, which may owe to the fact that their diet consists of an unusually high proportion of beans, greens and whole grains, and that they invented Cantu a Tenore. The population of the region appears to be about the same as my postcode area.