Many things have changed:
In earlier times the men, women and children whistled to warn of the arrival of the Guardia Civil, to say that dinner was ready, or simply to vent their frustration about the neighbours. And then the whistling outside in the open air was almost completely silenced.
Today as a stranger and visitor one waits in vain for the sound of whistling in the countryside. If you wish to hear El Silbo you must address the Tourist Information office who will then organize an “exhibition”. If you have booked a package tour then it will certainly include a visit to a local restaurant with entertainment provided by a whistler.
What is shown here is a game with which children in school learn the whistled language. The restaurant manager, a kind of circus director, exchanges objects belonging to the guests, for example a pair of glasses or a hat. The waitress who has observed the swap whistles for a colleague who then enters the dining room. Obeying whistled commands, he returns the objects to their rightful place.
You could, at first glance, be enraged by this display. Silbo Gomero as entertainment, as a circus trick, an attraction for tourists to earn some money? Tramping all over the island for weeks, hearing nothing, and then this! All the images created in your imagination and carefully bookmarked by Youtube simply vanish.
Everything that had been associated with Silbo, the existential need to communicate over great distances, the whistle in accordance with nature, the echoes fo the whistles in the raviens and valleys - all gone.
Once this disappointment has been overcome and you carefully listen, you can hear a masterful skill which has grown in this new context. The location in which they are whistling, the here and now, has fundamentally changed the whistling. No large distances have to be crossed, there is no need for complex rituals establishing contact, no whistling in the vague and uncertain hope that someone somewhere will hear it, no misunderstandings, no cliffs, no echo.
Of course this display should serve to illustrate that Silbo Gomero can be used to actually communicate. The whistling waiter however has developed an artistry which is only possible in this new situation and setting. Communication is incredibly fast and many more things can be expressed in the whistles than are necessary for the simple transmission of messages. The naked information can be enriched with much twittering: the aesthetics of the display are emphasized. Because the listeners can't understand what is being communicated anyway, they are simply attending an impressive performance or sound and voice.
And the master whistlers? They are performing themselves -almost every day, for the cameras of international TV stations and journalists.
Folklore or art form?
It is often the case that phenomena which are in danger of becoming extinct, provided they posess an aesthetic [core/kernel], are revived and refined as art forms. This is comparable to what has occurred with yodelling or Alpine horns.
Why should anyone whistle today?
If you ask five masters why anyone would want to whistle today you will get five different answers. These will range from “Sorry, I don't understand the question. I also teach my children to read, write and play football...” to the comment that whistling makes the whistler immortal, as he is bound for all eternity to the master.
We will now watch a video. The master whistler Kiko Correa will whistle a monologue. The text is not his own: it was written by us. He is standing in the theatre in San Sebastian de la Gomera and performing for the camera. The text reflects the situation of the whistled language and the Silbador himself. If you pay attention to the subtitles, you will notice the astonishing accuracy with which Spanish can be translated into Silbo.
The monologue runs like this:
To some questions there are no clever or easy answers.
That may be sad, but it happens to be true.
The Silbadores have come down from their mountain villages.
Many have left the island, drawn by the hope for a better life.
Their dreams led them into the distance.
Going away means that something is lost.
But something always remains.
and do with it whatever you wish.
Visions and profits.
A circle is the only geometric form which is defined by its centre. First the centre, then the radius.
When we no longer possess imaginations from which we can return, relieved, to every day life, then life itself becomes a nightmare from which we cannot escape. What arrangement have you made with happiness?