It goes like this: French musician writes song for his mum based around whistling language known as Silbo from island of La Gomera. The song gets translated by French teachers on the island. Kids love it, massive buzz, breathes new life into the language. French musician’s album Silbo, while featuring only one whistling track, gets loads of attention.
But Féloche, the musician in question, deserves it.
The song Silbo opens with the words:
“There’s a place where people speak like birds
On the island of La Gomera, we hear the echo of el Silbo.”
The chorus continues:
“It’s an island in heaven, where people whistle, too.
The most beautiful song of the most beautiful bird, it’s Silbo Gomero.”
“It’s not a touristic song, it’s about a people, their traditions and poetry,” says 40-year old Féloche, his eyes gleaming with childlike enthusiasm.
“They talk using whistling, it’s magical, incredible.”
Only a few words in the song are performed in Silbo Gomero, an ancient whistling language unique to La Gomera, an island in the Canaries which is home to just 30,000 people.
“I say ‘Catarina, Catarina’,” says Féloche, “it’s the name of my mother”.
Féloche picked up a bit of the language from Bonifacio Santos, a political refugee from La Gomera who was his mother’s lover in the early 80s in Paris.
He remembers how, When Féloche was around seven years old, Bonifacio would look up to the fourth-floor flat they shared in Clichy and whistle to show he was back. There were none of the interphones now common to most Paris apartment blocks at the time.
“At the house, days were great,” says the musician. “He was like a hero. He knew secret languages, Silbo, also he knew how to fight the lucha canaria. He made great food.”
“And here I am, little giant, ready to whistle in the wind
The two or three words I’ve retained are flying towards you.
Gomero! Bonifacio!” the song continues.
Santos was an activist in The Canary Islands Independence Movement (CIIM) and found political asylum in France in 1981 when Socialist François Mitterrand won a triumphant victory in the presidential election.
Féloche says he imagines the island as a paradise, a protected place, just as his step-father wanted it to stay.
As Santos couldn’t return to his native La Gomera, Féloche travelled there as his messenger when he was just 11.
But he was disappointed to hear that children of his own age didn’t share his vision.
“They said ‘We are not Canarian, we are not Gomeros, we are Spanish’,” he recalls. ”They wanted to be Spanish and forget all the traditions.”
The song brings those traditions alive.
It talks about the guache (goatherd), who whistles to get invited to dinner, a spicy traditional dish known as “mojo”, the lucha canaria – traditional wrestling – and the guagua bus network.
Santos died in 2009 and the song was written simply as a tribute to Féloche’s late hero.
“It was just a souvenir for my mother and when she heard it she was very moved. I didn’t want more,” the singer explains.
He didn’t even think people in La Gomera would hear it, let alone understand it.
But when the song was released a year ago in France, it struck a note with a student from the Canaries here in Paris who passed it on to her family back home, who passed it on to two French teachers in La Gomera.
Féloche has ended up skyping and emailing schoolchildren on the island and recently went back there. He was given a near hero’s welcome. French daily Libération made a fascinating documentary of the trip.
“This song was like a bridge, like an echo and they sent me also a lot of emotion,” he says. ”Because now Bonifacio is recognised and this is not a dark period, this is something to be celebrated and also something from their history. [These children] have their own history.”
The history and origins of the language are not altogether certain but are thought to go back to the 15th century when the first European settlers arrived in La Gomera. The island’s inhabitants – aboriginal Berbers from north Africa known as Guanches - used whistling to communicate.
The sparsely populated and mountainous island lent itself to whistling which can travel up to three kilometres – much further than shouting. So it was far easier to whistle than walk over hills to pass on a message.
During the 1940s and 50s Silbo was widely used, helping locals to avoid Franco’s police.
Just like modern-day SMS it can pass on short messages over long distances and with all the nuance and intonation of a spoken language.
You can say a lot of things, depending on “how you attack your phrase and the length of the sounds,” says Féloche. “You can even recognise accents and people’s individual voices.”
With the arrival of television and tourism in the 60s, however, Silbo fell into sharp decline.
“It was seen as a thing of the past, as anti-progress,” as Kico Correa, who supervises teaching silbo in La Gomera’s schools, told French daily Libération.
But when democracy returned to Spain in the late 70s and the Canary Islands got regional autonomy, people were keener to develop regional identity on the islands. Silbo is now a compulsory part of the school curriculum and joined Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2009.
Kico Correa is now working on trying to extend Silbo’s reach, adapting it to English.”
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