On a bright, airy day in spring, as you amble along the paved streets at the city’s outskirts humming some tune, with the delicate blooms wafting their fragrance unto you, the chirping birds reciprocating your happy vibe, the air fresh and cool in its wisps of refreshing delight and you happily at leisure, you finally realise what the good life actually feels like. And then it escapes of you- a soft, hearty trill, one that is an impromptu expression of joy and delight, a soothing, melodic whistle! And why should it not? After all, whistling is an art and like all other arts stems not just from your creativity but also from a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment, eulogising perhaps the zest of life itself. Exploring therefore the nuances of this peculiar art and its manifestations in various facades of life and culture is something that is a pursuit truly worthy of the artisan experiences of existence.
Surprisingly though, for an art so deeply ingrained into cultural mediums and in life itself, not much is known about the origins of whistling. Even outside the purview of something stemming from the soul, whistling is also a form of communication. With quite a few whistled languages still in usage in some parts of the world, whistling is much more than what we tend to make out of it. For us, it can be a exercise in leisure, one that stems from our idleness. For someone else, it can be an outlet of their creativity and a harbinger of their identity. For still some other, it is a way of conversation in daily life. Regardless however of what it means to whom, whistling indeed remains a very potent medium of expression- whether it be of joyous expression, of sad longings or even of haunting melodies.
But even when it comes innately to some of us and is an acquired craft for most, as an art whistling quite alludes to the application of technique. There’s some particular way in which the lips needs to be pursed and the air blown in to create that note of whistling melody that indeed is music to the ears. And indeed, there’s also different whistling sounds created with different position of the tongue and the mouth, of course all with varying intensities. How else would you explain the many whistling languages then, that rely on quite some couple of differentiated whistling sounds to make for a language of its own? The answer lies in the variations that whistling can come across in, with slight modulations here and there of the pitch and the length as well as the technique that helps in putting so many thoughts across with what looks like just an elementary mode of communication.
The many types of whistling also assume tremendous significance not just in cultures where reliance on the art is crucial to their everyday existence but also in broader cultural connotations. Especially in music, the art takes on varied forms such as pucker whistling, roof or palatal whistling, finger whistling, bottom lip whistling, hand whistling, teeth whistling and fingerless whistling.
Pucker whistling happens to be the most common form of whistling and also the most basic one. You can either just blow out air from your mouth for pucker whistling or choose to blow in and out alternately. There of course arises the problem of breathlessness in the former case while the latter sees an inconsistent quality of the tone which is why only small variations in the degree of the pucker is adhered to for maintaining purity of tone.
Palatial whistling on the other hand relies not on the teeth but rather the roof of the mouth and the tongue to produce a whistling sound. Finger whistling, as the name suggests, involves a technique that needs the insertion of fingers into the mouth to shape its opening for a whistle that is produced forcefully and is therefore considerably loud.
Then there’s also hand whistling, that involves cupping your hands together and blowing the air into it. One rather interesting type of whistling tactics is throat whistling that does not even require you to open the mouth. By forcing the air between the tongue and back of the throat, throat whistling can be practised. Likewise there’s teeth whistling which is somewhat even difficult for it requires the whistler to draw air through the central incisors. And then there’s bottom lip whistling that produces a piercing whistling sound by specifically pinching the bottom lip at the center.
There’s however another style of whistling that is more notorious than musical for its long association with proclaiming such admiration that is often deemed as negative. Known as wolf whistling, this is considered specifically distasteful today as it is seen as a precursor to sexual harassment of women. There also had been the prevalence of a certain transcendental whistling in China that functioned as a yogic or transcendental exercise. Not to forget the shrill catcalling whistle used often to express disapproval and which understandably does not find itself included in the ambit of such pursuits as soulful as music.
Coming back to music therefore, the many melodious alleys that the art of whistling have find its way into have seen this wonder way of expression weave its magic into some really popular numbers throughout history. Take for instance the 1989 single Patience by Guns N’ Roses, the final Otis Redding rendition (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay, One Republic’s Good Life or the theme song of The Andy Griffith Show ‘The Fishin’ Hole as also Mark Snow’s title theme for The X-Files. Modern day chartbusters like Kill Em With Kindness by Selena Gomez, rapper Kanye West’s All Day, Bruno Mars’ Lazy Song also prominently feature the melodies of whistling for such numbers that are essentially enjoyable and soothing. Deserving special mention of course is John Lennon’s Jealous Guy even when it wasn’t the legendary musician’s most popular of songs as well as the 1967 novelty hit record “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman”.
Closer home, we have Bollywood classics like Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai, Yeh Shaam Mastaani, Main Koi Aisa Geet Gaoon, Dil Toh Paagal Hai, Main Hoon Naa, Chand Sifaarish and a host more that have turned into all the more favorites as much in their weavings of the whistling element as much for their music and tune.
Diverting however from the musical indulgence of the soul and concentrating more on its evolutionary profile as a communicating medium, the art of whistling has been as commonly encountered in the everyday realm. The most prominent region of the world, the whistling language of which has found global prominence is the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. The language called Silbo Gomero is based on Spanish, and is also the only whistled language in the world that is fully developed and practised by a large community that has led it to be inscribed in 2009 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Similarly, Turkey has its own ‘bird village’ Kuskoy that which also communicates the Turkish dialect but as Kuş dili, in whistling renditions. For the Yupik Eskimos in Alaska, it again is whistling that makes part of their call out for commands for hunting. Greece’s whistling language is the Sfyria, which however is one of the most endangered in the world.
India also is no stranger when it comes to such languages that dwell mellifluously in the whistling art. The country has its own whistling village nestled in the land that is the abode of the clouds. The Kongthong village of Meghalaya however contours on the art of whistled languages in a somewhat different way. In this lush, natural hamlet that is home to some 600 people, every child has his or her name composed as a whistling lullaby by their mother! Quite unique already in its whistling might, the Kongthong village is also remarkable for rendering each of its inhabitant a unique whistling identity as well.
Equally unique is Vietnam when it comes to the language of whistles and tunes for a purpose more exclusive to life than to communication. The Hmong people residing at the foothill of the Himalayas rely on the melody of the whistling airs to weave the magic of love in their delicate dwelling in courtship. Though very much rare today, the language has been for long a really enticing means to romance, as young boys would saunter through neighbouring villages on moonlit nights, whistling away lovelores to entice their beloved. Needless to say, the romance of whistling sure takes on the dreaminess of something as eloquent as the fantasies of love, calibrating a devotion and admiration that sure is a far cry from the uncherished advances of some wolf whistler. It’s quite a wonder how a singular adherence in artistry can lead to such pursuits that rest on similar grounds but are so different assertions in practice. It only is the appeal of this quaint competence of singing feels out of thin air that makes whistling the all encompassing medium of expressing emotions that it so efficiently is!