May 12, 2023
IN SARDINIA: An Unexpected Journey in Italy – a Sardinian playlist by author Jeff Biggers
by Molly Donovan
Among the many bronze statuettes in Sardinia, there is a 3,000-year-old bronze singer, found at the Nuraghe Santa Lulla near the village of Orune, that has always fascinated me with its intense pose. Other bronzes featured the three-reed launeddas instrument from the Nuragic period in the Bronze Age, sounding between a bagpipe and a flute, and still popular on stages today. In effect, these bronzetti were like ancient albums for me, left behind for us to interpret.
Music is inextricably entangled in any journey in Sardinia––traditional, folk, dance, jazz (a lot of jazz), pop, sacred and religious, rock, rap, classical (including the greatest master of the mandolin) and opera. The mega pop/rap star Mahmood, who has won the San Remo musical festival twice, often reminds listeners of his Sardinian roots––his mother––and has even recorded songs in the Sardinian language.
As I worked on this book over the years, first based in the port of Alghero, and then commuting back and forth between Sardinia, the city of Bologna, and the United States, there was always an album or a track in the background that served as one of my maps.
Here’s my playlist for In Sardinia
Like an invocation, the lead song on legendary jazz trumpeter Paolo Fresu’s extraordinary album, Sonos ‘e Memoria, a musical journey into the Sardinian soul, features the haunting voice of Sardinian diva Elena Ledda, with Mauro Palmas on mandola, and Fresu on trumpet. It’s a powerful and beautiful entry into the diversity and richness of Sardinia’s musical traditions. Director Gianfranco Cabiddu’s film of montage with the musical accompaniment appeared at the Venice Film Festival in 1995.
Featuring the effusive voice of Sardinian singer Maria Giovanna Cherchi, one of the most popular vocalists today with a broad range of traditional, folk, sacred, popular, jazz, dance and contemporary music, Duru Duru is an infectious folk song popular at circle dances.
No Potho Reposare (also Non Potho Reposare)
Quite possibly the most famous traditional love song in Sardinia, this recording is an unusual performance, showcasing the moving tone of Luigi Lai, the maestro of the launeddas, the ancient reed instrument that dates back to the Nuragic civilization in the Bronze Age.
Spunta la luna dal monte
Tazenda, one of the historic ethnic rock groups in Italy, founded in Sardinia in 1988 with beloved singer Andrea Parodi, made this pop song famous at the San Remo music festival in 1991.
Ballate a ballu tundu
Dance the round dance, as this title enjoins, the Tenores di Bitti group has been instrumental in taking the traditional quartets on stages around the world. Produced by Peter Gabriel, and acclaimed by Zappa, among so many other musicians, the Tenores have produced several important albums. There is also a wonderful multi-media museum in Bitti, not far from Nuoro in the Barbagia region, that walks listeners through the intricate polyphonic process of the cantu songs. The lead voice, sa oche (or oghe or boghe) weaves the poetic text, while the guttural bassu and contra harmonize their rhythmic sounds, and the fourth mesu oche answers with the steady murmur of the wind. The powerful cantu, like the cuisine and wine, has remained vibrant all across Sardinia, especially in the rural areas, as if the soulful songs are a natural part of the daily bread.
With the mixtape chops of Bessie Smith, Lila Downs and Maria Carta, contemporary singer Claudia Aru is one of my favorite jazz, pop and folk singers in Sardinia. Her original songs, including “100 Concas,” a riff on a Sardinian expression about the island’s infamous variations of opinions–ie, 100 heads, 100 caps, as the saying goes–is a riveting anthem to the island’s diversity.
Singer, songwriter, poet–and even city councilor in the rough corridors of politics in Rome–the great folk singer Maria Carta holds a hallowed place in Sardinian and Italian music, especially during the folk revivals in the 1960s and 1970s. A French critic compared her to Joan Baez, Amália Rodrigues, Irene Pappas. This folk ballad from the northern Gallura area is one of many unique tunes, and languages, that Carta took to a new level in Sardinia and on global stages.
Bides tue su mare
Coming in second place at the San Remo music festival in 1968, Marisa Sannia went on to become an important singer-songwriter and interpreter of traditional, folk, pop, and contemporary songs in Sardinian, Italian and Spanish, and an actor on stage and in musicals.
Among the many popular rap and hiphop groups, Sa Razza is one of the pioneers and one of my favorites. Based out of Iglesias and Cagliari and quite popular in the 1990s–and still today–the group openly invoked their country’s ancient poetry traditions, as they adopted an urban hip-hop look and style and rapped in their own Sardinian language. They have tackled issues of social justice, and the realities of economic struggle for youth and much of the island. This song samples some of the cantu a tenore with a rap overlay.
Canço’ per a tu
Since we lived in Alghero, we were lucky to see singer-songwriter Franca Masu perform her stunning range of jazz, traditional and contemporary songs in Algueres’, the Catalan dialect still vibrant in the northern port. Acclaimed for her jazz singing in various languages, including her work with American jazz bands, Masu made an intentional decision to reclaim her Algherese roots. “By choosing Alguerès,” she said, “I have become a world reference.”
In su monte gonare
This is a beautiful rendition of a 19th century folk song popular with choirs, performed by tenor Francesco Demuro. In the tradition of Mario de Candia from Cagliari, the most celebrated tenor in Europe in the mid-19th century, Demuro has performed in operas on some of the top stages in the world, hailed by the New York Times as the “rising Sardinian tenor” for his role in “stepping in and saving” La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
From “Ammentos” to “Làntias,” Elena Ledda is one of the most original interpreters of music in Sardinia, Italy–Europe She’s worked with jazz greats like Paolo Fresu, Lester Bowie, Don Cherry, as well as orchestras and bands from across the world. She’s a treasure.
Concert in G Major for Two Mandolins
A virtuoso from Cagliari last century, Giuseppe Anedda was hailed as the “Paganini of the mandolin,” who brought that instrument into classical music alongside Igor Stravinky and other world-famous composers and performers.
One of the historic rock bands from Sardinia, Kenze Neke rocked like the Clash, covering social issues, including Sardinian independence. This song looks at the Pratobello rebellion in 1969, when shepherds and villagers in the Orgosolo area protested the government’s plans to use an area as a shooting range for NATO. The victory for Orgosolo, and the shepherds, became a powerful story in the narrative of resistance in the Barbagia mountain region.
Piero Marras is one of the popular singer-songwriters in Sardinia over the past several decades, whose songs have been performed by folk musicians to Tazenda to Andrea Bocelli.
Contami unu contu
With his soprano sax and bass clarinet, Enzo Favata is one of the notable Sardinian jazz musicians on the international scene over the past decades. His great work draws from traditional and original scores, including his Caroline Sonore della Sardegna album.
Su patriotu sardu a sos feudatarios
Officially enshrined by the autonomous government as the “anthem” of the island in 2018, this hymn is a stirring call for rebellion against feudalism, taken from the 18th century poem by Frantziscu Mannu. I picked Maria Carta’s rendition, though it has been sung by folk, pop, rock, rap, jazz––virtually every group on the island.
Menhir is another pioneering rap and hiphop group, in Sardinian and Italian, coming from the Nuoro area. A critic praised their “megalithic musical identity, characterized by percussive and imposing rhythms,” a reference to their name drawn from the Neolithic stone monuments on the island. This song deals with the reality of immigrant and emigration for Sardinians.
The Silence of Your Heart
We begin and end with Paolo Fresu, with Dino Rubino, Marco Bardoscia, and a timeless jazz ballad.
Jeff Biggers is an American Book Award-winning historian, journalist and playwright. Based part-time in Italy since 1989, he is the recipient of the David Brower Award for Environmental Reporting, the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year for Travel Writing, a Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, and other honors. Author of ten books of cultural history and investigative reporting, his work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon.com, and on National Public Radio and Public Radio International.
Molly Donovan is the former Marketing Assistant at Melville House Publishing.