el silbo

Notes – «There are no birds in the nests of yesterday» by Roland Dahwen Wu

Last week in Seattle, I had the pleasure of speaking to three classes about my very first video work: «Ya no hay pájaros en los nidos de ayer» («There are no birds in the nests of yesterday»). Special thanks to Michael Harper for bringing me to visit his classes and screen the film. 

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Notes - el silbo gomero by Roland Dahwen Wu


On an ephemeral Sunday in August, I arrived by ferry to the island of La Gomera. I disembarked with no plan, no contacts, without even a complacent reservation for a room for the night, with nothing but a pauper’s camera and an irremediable desire to hear with my own ears the whistled language of the island: el silbo gomero.

Three years earlier, I first learned of this improbable linguistic miracle in a small book, which referenced a whistled language from a distant geography with an aviary name: the Canary Islands. What seemed most unbelievable was not that this language could exist, but that it could still exist in the doldrums of today.

And so, after three years of adrift illusions, of inevitable obstacles, of incredulous and cruel grant committees, I saw at last the callous and volcanic cliffs, the arid ravines, the beaches of black sand, the flamboyan trees, the cerulean waters of the harbor of La Gomera.

In a haphazard way, I asked the townspeople how to meet whistlers, and I received contradictory answers: Nowadays, there are no longer whistlers here, and There’s only a few and they’re not like before, and There are whistlers, but they won’t pay you any mind, and Almost everyone whistles here. At last, a woman took pity on me and introduced me to a member of the local government, who gave me the telephone numbers of the three most respected whistlers of La Gomera. The first two were responsive but unavailable: one was away in Asturias, the other was hospital bound. The third answered without care or kindness, saying that he lived in Agulo, in the north of the island, and if I wanted to pass by the next afternoon, he would be there. With the brief farewell of an old sailor, he hung up, leaving me with only an imaginary town and his name: Lino.

Only now do I understand that this telephone call changed the course of my life.

The next day, I hitched a ride to Agulo with an Uruguayan whose name and good character I remember well. In the undisturbed silence of two in the afternoon, I asked the proprietor of an empty restaurant how to find Lino’s house in that town without street names or house numbers. He indicated with a wave of his hand: Lino’s house is easy to get to but it’s difficult to tell you how. I began walking in the direction of his ambiguous wave, and I was convinced that the town had ceased to exist: there was no one there.

In the end, I peaked over a patio wall. A woman looked at me, with my block-of-ice backpack and the longitude of my innocence, and she sighed: Ay muchacho, come with me. Without a word, accompanied by a pack of her tiny dogs, she led me to a sequence of houses that shared a slender courtyard. She said, Lino lives in one of these, but I don’t know which. She shouted: Isabel, and received no answer from the mute windows. Then she called: María, who appeared from a doorway and said: Isabel isn’t here, she’s not at home, she’s gone to visit her children…No, no, we aren’t looking for Isabel, we’re looking for Lino. Which door is his?That one, second in on the left. Then she said—That’s Lino’s door, and left with a meager goodbye.

Lino answered the door with the same brusque grunt with which he had answered the phone. Barely offering a word or a chair, he sat in his living room, watching television with his wife Angelina, and I felt the first pangs of disillusionment: I had come all this way for nothing; I had no legitimate right to believe I could accomplish anything; this marvelous language no longer exists.

I recounted to Lino, who did not seem to be listening, the story of why I was there, of the years of yearning, of the friends and grant committees that dismissed me. And then something changed in Lino, and I still do not know why. He asked his wife, Angelina, to watch TV in the other room, he was going to talk with este muchacho, and he began to speak.

What he said is in this film.

I harbor many memories and details of this time, too many to recount here. I must note that this film owes everything to the few people who believed in me, and the many who assisted in large and smalls ways. It seems unnecessary to say that this film would not exist without the generosity and kindness of Lino and Angelina.