Canaries: The hunt for La Gomera’s odd whistling language
One look at La Gomera and it’s obvious that there’s no getting anywhere as the crow flies.
This island, a speck of land off the coast of West Africa, forms part of Spain’s Canary Island archipelago and is scored with deep gorges that spread out from its center like spokes of a wheel. The roads that climb in and out of these steep ravines are winding, treacherous things better suited for rally drivers than for camera-happy day trippers.
Recently I flew to Tenerife and hopped over to La Gomera on one of the ferries that shuttles daily between the two islands. Gazing at the harsh terrain, I marvelled at the hardiness of those who lived here before the highways snaked across the island. If getting from the capital and main point of entry, San Sebastián, to the southern resort Valle Gran Rey is a challenge in a rented car, what must it be like on foot? I didn’t have the time — or energy — to find out.
Apparently, the ancient Gomeros didn’t have the time either. Their solution to the land’s endless hills and valleys was El Silbo Gomero, a language that’s whistled, not spoken. Silbo likely developed before the Spaniards’ 15th-century conquest of the island as a greeting or emergency signal.
Over time, it evolved into a complex language, with four “vowels” and four “consonants” that allowed the islanders to express complex thoughts and ideas over long distances. The whistles, which sound something like bird calls, can travel up to 2½ miles.
In the age before telephones, Internet, fax machines and paved highways, the islanders used Silbo for both daily communication and important news. By passing messages along, neighbor to neighbor, they kept up to date on island happenings and were able to send for a doctor or a priest in case of emergency.
I knew that Silbo was once an important part of life in La Gomera, but I wondered if it really existed outside history books. Now that everyone carries a mobile phone and has easy access to e-mail, could Silbo survive? I aimed to find out.
My first stop was the Hotel Jardín Tecina in Playa Santiago, where every other Wednesday night there’s a Silbo show for tourists. OK, so it’s not Silbo “in the wild,” but at least I’d hear an example of the language.
I was expecting a simple showcase of pretty sounds, but I was totally unprepared for what I heard. Silbo is much more than a code of whistles; it’s a complete, if chirpy, system of communication.
In the demonstration, a whistler was given the task of communicating obscure messages to a second whistler. Once, an audience member hid a watch and the first whistler had to explain to the second where to find it. Another time, the message was to locate a certain man in the audience and to tell him to kiss his wife. Both messages were delivered and understood perfectly.
My waiter, Carlos, laughed. “Do you like the show?” he asked. I said that I did, and he kept laughing.
“I wish you could understand what they’re really saying,” he said.
He pointed to the first whistler. “He’s telling the other one ‘No stupid, you’re looking in the wrong place. Don’t be such a moron!’ The other one told him to shut up and go to hell.”
I’d never heard insults that sounded so much like songbirds.
Carlos said he learned Silbo in school. Like many of his friends, he understands a lot of it although he can’t whistle much.
Excited at having found someone who really uses Silbo — and not just at tourist shows — I pressed for details. “When do you use it, what do you say?” I asked.
“Whatever you want. You can call to your friends across the plaza, or let them know where you are in a crowd. At work, I can send a message to someone in the kitchen without having to go in.”
The next day I met expert Silbo-er Juan Cabello to get a private lesson in the language.
“Hola, Sarita,” he greeted me in Silbo. The whistle followed the rhythm of the words in Spanish, putting emphasis on “HO-la” and “Sa-RI-ta,” the way Spanish speakers do.
He demonstrated how I should use my hands to help whistle.
“Put your pinky in your mouth, and use it to fold your tongue,” he instructed. “Now use your other hand as a megaphone to direct the sound” — he cupped his left hand beside his mouth — “and blow!”
I tried, and all I had to show for it were wet fingers.
“It takes practice,” he said, consoling me. “You can’t learn in just one day.”
Juan learned to whistle from his father, who learned from his. “I use it every day,” he said. “It’s my mobile phone, my fax machine and my Internet.”
Juan’s wife and kids know Silbo, too, and he’s taught schoolchildren across the island to whistle.
Silbo was almost lost in the mid-20th century, he said. Francisco Franco, head of the Spanish government, banned it after the Civil War, and modern technology all but wiped it out. Now, La Gomera is making a concerted effort to resurrect the language, making it a mandatory class in primary schools and an optional class at the secondary level.
“We’re very pleased with the classes and the students,” said Eugenio Darias, a Silbo teacher and director of the island’s Silbo program. “Some of them are quite good and can understand almost everything. We don’t have to worry now, because Silbo will be saved.”
Kids aren’t the only one with a rekindled interest in Silbo. Though few studies have been done on the language, its origins and its history, that could be changing, Darias said.
“Last year we hosted the first-ever International Congress on Whistled Language, and people came from all over the world. There are parts of Mexico, Turkey, Greece and maybe Morocco where people use a form of Silbo, though it’s not as developed as what we have on La Gomera. The congress was the first step, so we’ll see where it goes from here.”
— Sarah Andrews is a freelance writer living in Spain.