Notes on a Small Island
Sardinia isn’t just about beaches, as summer brings a host of jazz events, thanks to the island’s love affair with music. Alex Rayner reports Some places come with a soundtrack. In London, you’d pretty much expect any pasty barman to rattle off a Clash song, were you to hand him a Telecaster. In Salzburg, the bin men almost certainly whistle long passages from Mozart’s Requiem, in unison, while collecting up the bags. Parisian cabarets ring with Piaf-style chanson, while Berlin pounds to the sound of thumping techno.
Elsewhere, the link between the notes and the locale is a little more opaque. Take Sardinia – this predominantly rural island has a population similar to that of Sheffield, and is known for its upmarket marinas and rugged coastline. However, to most people its musical identity is fairly indistinct.
Yet Sardinia manages to support nine annual music festivals. Not only that, but most of these events specialise in jazz and blues, booking some of the world’s greatest players, to perform in some of the most incongruous and delightful locations.
“There have been jazz festivals in Sardinia for the past 25 years,” explains Enedina Sanna from the Musica sulle Bocche event. “Jazz has found rich soil here. Improvisation is common in our popular arts, like poetry and music. Jazz is imported, but its characteristics are no stranger for a Sardinian ear.”
The island bears few similarities to classic jazz and blues cities like St Louis, Chicago, Detroit, or New York. Yet it does share some characteristics with the mother of all jazz destinations, New Orleans. Like “the Crescent City”, Sardinia has had both French and Spanish rulers, and it retains a Creole-like language – peculiar to the island – which combines Latinate elements with pre-Roman words. Sardinia maintains some autonomy from its parent nation, while New Orleans is especially known for its independence.
The island also has a rich and distinct folk music tradition, with its own form of polyphonic singing and an indigenous type of pipe, the “launedda”. World music enthusiasts, such as Peter Gabriel and Andy Kershaw, have made field recordings on the island. And like New Orleans, Sardinia is a tourist mecca, making it an easy sell to touring musicians, and a good place to raise box office money.
Perhaps all this accounts for the prevalence of improvised music. “There is an increasing number of good jazz musicians who were born on the island,” says Sanna. Foremost among the local talent, is Paolo Fresu, a jazz trumpeter, born here in 1961, who has gone on to record for the likes of the Blue Note label. In 1988, he founded the Time in Jazz festival.
This event, taking place near Olbia, in the Berchidda region, takes advantage of Sardinia’s rural landscape. As with many Sardinian festivals, Time in Jazz holds concerts in country churches, rugged valleys and beside lakes. It also hosts attendant painting, sculpture and photography exhibitions.
Part of the thrill of Sardinian festivals lies in the mix of landscape and live concert. In 2005, Michael Nyman performed a memorable piano recital on a picturesque beach in the north of the island, while Patti Smith sang in the seaside hamlet of Santa Maria Navarrese. No smoky clubs or drinking dens here – jazz remains an odd accompaniment to Sardinia, yet in this mismatch lies its charm.