More meditation than documentary, Roland Dahwen Wu's short film There Are No Birds in the Nests of Yesterday centers on Lino, a master of a linguistic magic trick native to the Canary Islands called Silbo Gomero.
El silbo, as it’s known to locals, is a whistled language—or, to be precise, a whistled version of Spanish—and it represents one iteration of an ancient technique innovated independently by speech communities around the world as a means of communicating over distances. In places where travel is arduous or shouting doesn’t carry, most any spoken language, from Turkish to Hmong to Yoruba, can be translated into whistles that carry through forests, across ravines, and up and down mountains. These whistled codes can be used for everything from asking for a water delivery to slipping under the radar of an occupying army.
They’re also an art that, like thousands of other languages, is gradually dying with its users. “We had to whistle for necessity, not pleasure,” Lino explains at one point. Grave and unsmiling, the grizzled Canarian seems to take it as his duty to pass on what he knows about el silbo. That this tuneful register sprang up in a locale sharing its name with a bird is a poetic coincidence not lost on Roland. He intersperses his conversations with Lino with verse by the Canarian writer Pedro García Cabrera. One stanza reads:
Whistle to me more, much more
So that I may hear the first letter
Of the dawn, spelling syllable by syllable
The lines of my veins
Whistling is something Lino knows by feel; he’s not concerned with explaining how it works as much as relating stories from his life. When Roland asks Lino how the sounds are physically produced—how whistlers use their mouths and forefingers to generate the ear-splitting blasts he’s been demonstrating all day—he merely responds, without a trace of irony, “Like this,” and demonstrates again.
El silbo’s origins are lost to history, and its future, like that of thousands of languages, is uncertain. But through the film’s melancholy ambiance, there are glimmers of hope: children are shown practicing their whistles as Lino talks, evidence that this ancient technique might persist even as modernity renders it obsolete.