‘Fiuuuuuuu! Son! Son! ” Eugenio Darias whistling, on a slope just outside the capital San Sebastián, points with his finger at the top of a mountain miles away. “Look, do you see that little house up there? My grandfather used to keep sheep there. Every morning at five o’clock we would collect bags full of grass and take it there,” says the 70-year-old resident of La Gomera. “Before we set off, we whistled that we were coming.”
Darias puts his finger between his teeth and lets out a long, sharp tone. The sound is carried for miles along the ridges and fissures. The good listener knows exactly what is meant.
Because Darias doesn’t just do anything. This is The Silbo Gomero, the best preserved flute language in the world, compulsory in the curriculum of students on the Canary Island of La Gomera, next to Tenerife. “This language is part of our identity,” says retired ‘master whistler’ Darias. “That must never be lost.”
The history of the special whistle goes back to the time before the Spaniards pacified the island of thirty kilometers in diameter in 1489. The way in which the original inhabitants, the Gomeros, communicated with each other turned out to be stronger than the population itself. The Spanish settlers adopted this important part of their culture, while they themselves eventually merged with the Spanish population. The basis of the whistling language, where the sounds of the words are whistled, was based on Spanish. Mainly out of necessity, because on the volcanic island with its black beaches and many impassable deep canyons, the whistling language was the way to ‘talk’ to each other over long distances – up to five kilometers away.
Francisco Correa receives us in the education center of San Sebastían. As a coordinator, the 51-year-old teacher is responsible for the education of The Silbo Gomero. “Everyone on La Gomera should be able to understand the language, but not everyone is given the ability to produce the right sounds,” explains Correa in an empty classroom. “That has always been the case. My eldest son Javier, aged sixteen, cannot, but my son Roberto, three years younger, can. You need a certain talent for it, which also has to be developed.”
Correa tells about his childhood in the town of Agulo, where his ancestors lived from agriculture and livestock. “There was simply nothing else here. I come from a traditional family with nine children. Almost everyone mastered the whistle language. When we had to come home, we were told with a whistle. You could tell who it was from the tone,” says Correa. “But we were already one of the exceptions back then. Others stopped using the language on a daily basis.”
During the Spanish dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975), The Silbo Gomero to die a quiet death. Not only because the regime tried to suppress all languages other than Spanish, but especially because in the same period life on La Gomera took on a different dimension with the arrival of tourism. There were other sources of income. Correa: “The elderly especially allowed their children a better life than they had had themselves. And The Silbo Gomero symbolized the hard life on the land.”
Yet it was the same tourism that brought the language back to life in the 1980s. The staff in restaurant Las Rosas created an attraction in the town of Agulo with their whistles. Slowly but surely, the 22,000 residents of La Gomera learned to revalue their own heritage. Musician Isidro Ortiz started teaching flute language to young people in his native village Chipude, which led to the language being made compulsory in schools in 1999. Even children without great flute skills are now taught to understand the language.
Fabián Cordobes Ventura puts a finger between his teeth and whistles. “Learned at school,” says the 33-year-old resident of the coastal town of Agulo. “It’s not easy. It takes years to learn it well. It’s nice to be able to let tourists hear. Just say a sentence in Dutch and I’ll whistle it.” And then ‘I love the Netherlands’ resounds through the mountains: “Fiu fiuu fiuu fiuuuu!”
The Silbo Gomero is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In addition to the tourists, various film makers have now discovered the special language. For example, the Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu released the crime film made on La Gomera in 2019 The Whistlers from. Teacher Correa taught the actors to ‘whistle’ in Romanian. “That was proof that our language can also be understood outside of La Gomera,” he says with pride.
According to Correa, compulsory education in the whistle language on La Gomera has suffered a lot due to the corona crisis. “Normally as a teacher you can help the young people to put their fingers between their teeth correctly, but now you can only tell.” Although corona has also provided an advantage. Due to the lockdown, the teachers were forced to teach online Silbo Gomero to give. A lot has been digitized at an accelerated pace. Correa: “In this way the whole world can now learn our whistle language.”