In La Gomera, Canary Islands, "El Silbo" Lives On

No 83

On the island of La Gomera, off Morocco’s Atlantic Coast, a jaunty whistle travels on the trade winds that cut through pendent cliff towns and reverberate against sheer mountain walls. Attached to this high-pitched sound is a specific message. That’s because it’s an expression of silbo gomero, also known simply as el silbo, a form of communication that has been used by residents of La Gomera since before European settlers arrived in the 15th century. (Silbo is Spanish for “whistle.”) Long before radios and telephones, shepherds and farmers whistled across the hilltops to warn of fires, announce events, and tell their neighbors to bring over a bottle of wine.

La Gomera lies in the heavily touristed Spanish Canary Islands. While the resort-dotted coasts of neighboring Tenerife and Gran Canaria are party hotspots, La Gomera keeps to itself with a permanent population of only around 20,000. (The easiest way to get there from the bigger islands is via ferry, a 45-minute journey that is just long enough to dissuade many a casual traveler.) The island abounds in microclimates and varied geography: black-sand tropical beaches, desert plateaus, verdant cloud forests, fern-filled valleys, and soaring mountains.

The range of altitudes might explain why the island’s early inhabitants developed their own long-distance form of communicating. But it might not. El silbo essentially mimics the sound of Castilian Spanish, using a few whistled syllables. Before the arrival of the Spanish, though, it sounded different. Did settlers arriving from Africa bring the language with them, or was it born out of topographical necessity? A definitive answer does not exist. This much is true, though: Farms extend from the bottom of La Gomera’s rich, volcanic valleys and scrabble up terraced, treeless mountainsides, and it is easier to whistle across the high terrain than to shout or be constantly climbing up and down.

Today, el silbo is ‘spoken’ in mountain towns, like Chipude, and shepherds use it for issuing commands to their livestock. Cell phones have made it less essential than it once was. In fact, el silbo is more likely to be heard echoing in school hallways. Responding to a worrying decline in speakers, the Spanish government made the language compulsory in primary and secondary school in the 1990s. A new generation can thus connect with their cultural heritage through whistling, whether they choose to herd livestock or not.  

Credits

  • Director & Cinematographer - Angello Faccini
  • Editor - Pablo Paloma and Angello Faccini
  • Production Manager - Carmen Triana
  • Assistant Camera - Pablo Paloma
  • Sound Recording - Oriol Bonalas
  • Sound Design - Anxo Villar
  • Colorist - Yulia Bulashenko
  • Music - Antonio Ponce de León
  • Executive Producers - Darrell Hartman and Oliver Hartman
  • Text - Greg von Portz

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