Heritage HT CD 20
I should come clean right away and admit that I know nothing whatsoever about Sardinian music other than what is included on this disc. Come to that, after repeated listening I am still not sure that I really know very much more - although I do know that I like this very much.
Featured are three singers, recorded commercially in Milan in the early 1930s - Antioco Marras, Pietro Testoni and Gavino De Lunas - and the idiom (say the booklet notes) is "the basic 'mutu' style; that is, a solo vocal accompanied by guitar". To try to give some idea of what that style sounds like, Antioco Marras's sides typically go something like this: the guitar (played by Lazzaro Zedda) provides a light though quite propulsive rhythm, mainly arpeggio chords, but interspersed with runs on the bass strings. Over this base comes Marras's voice, soaring and piercing. He sings a few verses, his voice seeming - as is so often true in all the best vocal music - to be expressing the pain of his experiences or even his very existence (a few lyric transcriptions provided bear this impression out). Suddenly, the guitar bursts into an extraordinary, fast-driving fingerpicked solo, and it is this, almost as much as the vocals - which no doubt are the centrepiece of the record - that I find the most engaging feature of Marras's records.
The second singer, Pietro Testoni is accompanied by Bachisio Senes, whose playing reminds me very much of a flamenco guitarist - darting little runs interspersed with full-chorded flourishes across the strings, and bursts of rolling finger-plucking. Indeed Testoni delivers his song not at all unlike a Spanish cantaore - full throated, rubato and melismatic. There is surely a connection to flamenco here? Mind you, the photograph of this pair that appears on the front of the booklet suggests nothing of the flamboyance and self-possession of flamenco performers - it is the very image of the boys just off the boat and out on the town - the raw features, the ill-fitting suits, the defiant postures.
Gavino De Lunas's records are more like Testoni's than Marras's, although the initial impression of his first track is quite different again - his delivery perhaps more like a European folk singer, the tune underlining that impression to some extent, as does the fast accordion that accompanies his Ballo Centrale Cantato. The flamenco connection suggests itself again on some of these tracks, but to a much lesser extent. Nicola Cabitza's guitar runs on, say Serenata Amorosa may owe something in technique to that quarter, but little in their musical composition, as he scatters half-tone after half-tone. De Lunas' vocals also hint very slightly at the influence of operatic tenors (like on Tempus Passadu, for example), but I might in fact be getting my influences the wrong way round - maybe vocal traditions like this helped to form the operatic style. I did say that I didn't really know what is going on here!
This remarkable anthology is another of the results of the discographical researches of Paul Vernon (compare Heritage's African reissues reviewed in the last Musical Traditions), who again provides full discographical information and historical notes. As I am sure I have observed in these pages before, the treasures that were stored up for us on commercial recordings in the first half of this century never cease to amaze me, as does the fact - scarcely any less - that there are record companies in the 1990s prepared to take the risk of reissuing them.
Ray Templeton - 18.8.98
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