The singers from elsewhere

The singers from elsewhere

An American quartet is the toast of Sardinia for mastering the island’s vocal stylings

BRATTLEBORO — The Tenores de Aterúe is a quartet of four American singers, each with a background in folk polyphony and early music, who perform from the island of Sardinia in Italy “cantu a tenore,” a form of polyphonic singing.

On Jan. 19, Tenores de Aterúe will appear for the first time in Brattleboro, when the group performs a concert of cantu a tenòre at 118 Elliot at 7 p.m.

“Sardinian cantu a tenòre is a unique style of music which uses harmonics in a very special way,” says Avery Book, a member of the quartet who grew up and still lives in Vermont.

“All four of us in Aterúe were drawn to vocal polyphony. We had previously explored the folk traditions from areas such as the Balkans and Georgia, but Sardinia developed polyphonic music in such a special way.”

Book says that every polyphonic music claims to be the oldest, but the truth is no one knows the origins of cantu a tenòre.

“Some Sardinians claim it originates in ancient Roman times, but many theories have evolved about its history,” he elaborates. “What seems clear is that the music emerges out of the pastoral life of Sardinia, which is the second largest island in the Mediterranean, with over a million people living there.

“The island still remains predominantly rural. The ancient traditions of cantu a tenòre are best preserved in the remote interior parts of the island.

“The song form of cantu a tenòre is typical of parts of central Sardinia. The lyrics are sometimes ancient, but may also be contemporary poems on present-day issues such as emigration and politics, and they are connected to the island's rich poetic tradition.”

Unique ensemble

Tenores de Aterúe, formed in 2008 to study and perform traditional songs from Sardinia, may be the only ensemble outside of Sardinia dedicated to singing cantu a tenòre.

The group has also studied and performed songs from the paghjella tradition, a highly improvised, impassioned song form from the island of Corsica. Over the years, the Tenores have been in-demand performers on stages throughout the U.S., Canada, and Sardinia.

Along with Book, the singers of the quartet include Doug Paisley, Carl Linich, and Gideon Crevoshay.

In December 2016, Tenores de Aterúe released a self-titled album of cantu a tenòre music recorded at the Old Meeting House in East Montpelier. This quartet is also the subject of an upcoming feature-length documentary, Aterúe: the singers from elsewhere, filmed in 2013 and completed in 2017, which documents Aterúe's 2013 study trip to Sardinia.

This year, Tenores de Aterúe is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Linich writes about the quartet's origins on Tenores de Aterúe's Facebook page, saying they were “in 2004, when my good friend Doug was singing in a choir that I directed in Williamstown, where Doug lives.

“This choir sang traditional folk polyphony from Georgia in the Caucasus, which had been my primary musical interest for many years. However, both Doug and I liked many other kinds of music, and we often discussed them.

“We were especially interested in Sardinian cantu a tenòre singing, which we thought was incredible. 'Wouldn't it be great to try singing that someday?' we said, but how? We had no teacher, we knew no one from Sardinia, and we couldn't even hear what those Sardinians were doing with their voices. It was like an ocean of sound that had no beginning or end, no top or bottom.

“Our idea of learning Sardinian songs remained a fantasy ... until 2008. I discovered a wonderful video on YouTube by Tenores di Bitti, which showed us each voice in isolation and then together with the other parts. It was our Rosetta Stone! Now we knew what we had to do.

“We found two other singing friends, Avery and Gideon, who were also interested in trying it. Avery was really the key to making our quartet happen, because he had taught himself how to do the guttural throat singing - and that was before he ever imagined that he might use it for Sardinian songs!”

Big in Sardinia

Book explained to The Commons that initially the four men were getting together simply to learn how play this music for themselves, but soon they went public.

“In 2011 we had our first concert,” Book says. “When we posted our own concert on YouTube, we got hundreds of hits from Sardinia. They were enthralled, because they were used to Middle Eastern men singing in this style. We were the first Americans to perform their music.”

Soon Tenores de Aterúe's video went viral, getting more than 50,000 hits on YouTube.

“Sardinians wanted to see us live, and invited us to come to Sardinia,” Book says. “For the next couple of years, we toured locally and worked to raise money for what turned out to be a 2013 tour of Sardinia. It was an incredible three-week trip.”

Book says the main goal on the tour was to learn the music and meet the musicians, a few groups of whom they already knew from Facebook.

“The trip changed how we performed,” he says. “We worked with local musicians, learning their styles of singing by jamming with them. The locals also gave us new material to perform.

“In a typical visit to a town, we would meet a group of musicians, talk in some piazza, and then go to a bar or someone's house to sing together. You see we had become minor celebrities in Sardinia. There were articles about our visit in the local papers.

“Sometimes we were pulled into music festivals, but mostly we just were hanging out in someone's uncle's house, singing until 4 a.m. Often friends were invited over to join us in singing.

“This is music with a lot of improvisation and the songs are done differently all the time. It is not something you can teach. You just pick it up from hearing it done, and when you're ready you jump in and ride the wave.”

Distinctive village styles

The group had much to learn on this tour, since each village in Sardinia has its own style of performing cantu a tenòre.

“Locals would perform only the style of their village,” Book says. “Each was able to appreciate other styles but not do it. However, since we were outside this tradition, we had the latitude to explore many different styles, which made us special to the Sardinians.”

Book says that Tenores de Aterúe's name is something of an inside joke.

“All the groups in Sardinia take their name from the town they came from,” he explains. “Since we were not Sardinians, the locals said we came from elsewhere. 'Aterúe' means elsewhere in Sardinian.”

Although the group so far has been able to make only the one visit to Sardinia, they still keep meeting Sardinians.

“We do two to three tours per year, on which we often meet interesting people,” Book says. “Sometimes at one of our concerts someone will come up to us afterwards and exclaim, 'How do you know this music? I am from Sardinia and have never heard it anywhere else.' Last year in Toronto, a whole bunch of folks who used to live in Sardinia trekked over an hour to attend a concert of ours, which was a great experience for us.”

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