What is common between the Khasi hills of northeast India, the pastures of the Canary Islands and grasslands of the Black Sea region in Turkey? These three completely unconnected areas are bound by an audio thread. People who live here use sounds to communicate that borrow from nature. One of the three (we could find) express something even more distinctive. Every person’s name is a tune created by the mother in utero, as a unique, lifelong aural identification that binds them to their families for life, passing away into oblivion after the passing. The tune is also believed to provide lifelong protection from misfortune.
Sing me a name
In the northeastern State of Meghalaya, Kongthong village distinguishes itself with a unique feature for which it is now seeking a heritage tag. Around 60 km from Shillong, along the lush green Khasi hills, this village is nested between the Sohra and Pynursla ridges. The population of a few hundred people are distinguishable by an unusual feature, each member of the community has a name specially sung out for him or her by the mother. During her pregnancy, the close bond with the unborn child expresses itself by creating a unique tune for the baby. As soon as the child is born, people around start to sing it along with the mother so the infant can learn to identify with the sounds and notes that are mostly drawn from nature, whistles or calls.
Legend has it that many moons ago, a man was once saved from thugs by taking refuge in a tree and calling out to his mates using special sounds. Since then, sounds from nature have been used to create unique names for every newborn. Mothers have the privilege of creating a unique tune for their child during pregnancy and this lullaby-like melody called “jingrawai lawbei” in the local language, become the child’s name for life, passing into oblivion once the person dies, never to be sung again.
These caller-tunes of the past are particularly effective to communicate with people on the slopes of the region, where sounds can carry far. Each name is a short string, from a few seconds to a minute-long. This musical identity also plays a part in courting rituals, and every summer, on a full moon night unmarried men sing their tunes and selections take place in which the delivery of melody is an important factor.
My name is Eeoooww!
The use of these sounds has been the subject of several scholarly studies, and the film director Oinam Doren has made a 52 minute long film documenting the practice, titled ‘My name is Eeoooww’. Link: https://raifilm.org.uk/films/my-name-is-eeooow/ that was presented at the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival in Bristol in 2017, and won many awards.
As can be heard in this interview with Doren, he found the lure of the practice irresistible when he first heard about it from a friend. Catch the trailer here with a candid interview with the Director who struggled with several issues while filming in Kongthong: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9VuhroVqOM
Finding links: Khasi Hills, Canary Islands and the Black Sea
While researching for this post, we also came across other traditions where sounds like whistles and birdsong are used to convey messages, especially over long distances, but the use of song-names seems unique to Kongthong and surrounding villages. Interestingly, both examples of similar languages were found among communities that live in hilly regions and practice cattle farming.
The emagazine Aeon featured an essay about El Silbo, an endangered language from the region of La Gomera in the Canary Islands of Spain. El Silbo or Silbo Gomero uses a reduced set of whistled phonemes. As mentioned before, the terrain of La Gomera is very similar to the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya where sounds such as these can carry far along the hillside and into the valleys. Here is a link to the film about La Gomera: https://aeon.co/videos/a-rare-language-of-whistles-echoes-less-and-less-across-the-island-where-it-was-born?preview=true
Interestingly, a similar tradition has also been observed in Kuskoy, a remote mountain village high above Turkey’s Black Sea coast, where residents communicate through a series of whistles that strongly resemble the sounds of birds. It is any surprise then, to discover that the human hearing has evolved to a super-sensitivity to ‘hear’ sounds between 2.5 and 5 khz, sounds in a very narrow range, a range that fits exactly, the sounds of birdsong, Gordon Hampton writes. The predisposition to use natural sounds in these endangered languages seems particularly precious when we think of the precarious state of the human-environment interface in present times. Listen to his conversation with Krista Tippet about ‘silence as a presence of everything’ here: https://podcasts.apple.com/in/podcast/on-being-with-krista-tippett/id150892556?i=1000448088842
And, Xhosa, a language also written about by Trevor Noah, TV host and author of Born a Crime, that uses clicks. Here is an instruction video on how to make different click sounds that we thought you may enjoy.