THE MISSING LINK
In all the world’s seas, humpback whales have, for thousands of years, nurtured bonds with the men who live on the coastal areas where they live, and these bonds still exist today.
Throughout the World, we observe how humpback whales wish to approach men, to spend time with them, to swim with them, to exchange their music with them, their sound … everywhere except in the Caribbean…
To understand this, we must look back in history where we realise that the links that whales have with the first tribes are several millennia old.
When agricultural Europeans began visiting and writing about the North in the 10th century, they were mesmerized by Aboriginal peoples’ relationships with whales. Medieval literature depicted the Arctic as a land of malevolent “monstrous fishes” and people who could summon them to shore through magical powers and mumbled spells.
Even as explorers and missionaries brought back straightforward accounts of how individual whaling cultures went about hunting, butchering, and sharing a whale, it was hard to shake the sense of mysticism. In 1938, American anthropologist Margaret Lantis analyzed these scattered ethnographic accounts and concluded that Iñupiat, Inuit, and other northern peoples belonged to a circumpolar “whale cult.”
Lantis found evidence of this in widespread taboos and rituals meant to cement the relationship between people and whales. In many places, a recently killed whale was given a drink of fresh water, a meal, and even traveling bags to ensure a safe journey back to its spiritual home. Individual whalers had their own songs to call the whales to them. Sometimes shamans performed religious ceremonies inside circles made of whale bones. Stashes of whaling amulets—an ambiguous word used to describe everything from carved, jewelry-like charms to feathers or skulls—were passed from father to son in whaling families.
To non-Indigenous observers, it was all so mysterious. So unknowable. And for archaeologists and biologists especially, it was at odds with Western scientific values, which prohibited anything that smacked of anthropomorphism.
Along some of Alaska’s coast, the rocks are covered with petroglyphs of men and whales. These were carved by shaman whalers as part of the rituals whereby they gained the secrets of the sea and offered thanks for its bounty.
In archaeology, such attitudes have limited our understanding of Arctic prehistory, says Erica Hill, a zooarchaeologist with the University of Alaska Southeast. Whaling amulets and bone circles were written off as ritualistic or supernatural with little exploration of what they actually meant to the people who created them. Instead, archaeologists who studied animal artifacts often focused on the tangible information they revealed about what ancient people ate, how many calories they consumed, and how they survived.
Hill is part of a burgeoning branch of archaeology that uses ethnographic accounts and oral histories to re-examine animal artifacts with fresh eyes—and interpret the past in new, non-Western ways. “I’m interested in this as part of our prehistory as humans,” Hill says, “but also in what it tells us about alternative ways of being.”
The idea that Indigenous people have spiritual relationships with animals is so well established in popular culture it’s cliché. Yet constricted by Western science and culture, few archaeologists have examined the record of human history with the perspective that animals feel emotions and can express those emotions to humans.
Thus the Tinglits of North West America, South East Australian Aborigines, Kaikoura Maori, Mayumba people in West Africa, Hawaiians, Polynesians and many others have been able to forge powerful links, based on respect and interaction with these whales.
– Respect because these whales were considered as being part of the family by the first peoples; the Tinglits especially consider them as such and eating whale flesh is likened to cannibalism; or as gods: the Hawaiians call them “Koholas” or goddesses of the sea who are surrounded by a huge aura of Mana, pure energy; guardians of spirituality.
– Interaction, because whale song is found in the shamanic chants of peoples who have listened to them for thousands of years, but also, one can find human melodies in whale song … (see The search for the lost Kalinagos music)
The lost link of the Caribbean
In the Caribbean, the pre-columbian peoples certainly had these same links with humpback whales, and these whales considered these people as their family, until 1492 …
In 1492, the arrival of Europeans spelled doom for these these civilizations, Kalinagos, Caraibes, Tainos, Arrawaks, these people were gradually exterminated or assimilated, their culture and their spirituality destroyed. The whales experienced this genocide of their “family” as a trauma. Since then, a real defiance has formed when faced when these “new” humans which now populate the Caribbean.
Pierre Lavagne de Castellan
Taino’s rock painting (Dominican Republic 4000 years ago) representing a humpback whale.
This whale’s posture cannot be observed from the surface, this position, arched, pectoral rest, is characteristic of a whale during socialization. The person who painted this whale around 4000 years ago therefore must have observed it under water …
Léa Lavagne de Castellan with a family of sperm whales during our research in inter-species communication, outside the Agoa sanctuary.
OUR MISSION IS TO RECREATE THIS BOND
Musical interaction with the humpback whales of the Caribbean is the key to renewing the dialogue with these animals… re-creating the link.
The three areas of work:
- On a daily basis, the Shelltone Whale Project team practices interspecies communication with humpback whales in Guadeloupe using the Shelltone to gradually establish a musical dialogue between whales and humans. Playing music daily with whales allows us create a special relationship with them and thus approach them, and reconnect on an intimate level.
- At the Petit Bourg School of Music, we are in the process of creating an orchestra of young musicians who will learn whale music, which we will then take to sea to play with them. Learn More: School of Music.
- We will meet musicians and scientists from other Caribbean islands where humpback whales live, in order to initiate multidisciplinary exchanges.
Learning whale music at the music and dance school in Petit Bourg.
- This year, the music school of Petit Bourg, in collaboration with the Shelltone Whale Project, is offering its students singing and whale music sessions.
- Each student in this “formation” plays the instrument he usually works on, Pierre Lavagne de Castellan teaches the students the melodies of the whales. Students must compose their own piece inspired by whale songs.
- The idea is that in the long term, young musicians will be able to play with humpback whales on a catamaran specially designed for interspecies communication, using music as a medium of communication, we hope to reconnect people and whales in Guadeloupe and throughout the Caribbean.
Guadeloupe is thus on the way to becoming the first island in the world where children play music with the whales that inhabit its waters, interspecies communication raised in art… A sharing and mutual recognition that is intended to last from generation to generation….
Pierre Lavagne de Castellan in Maui Hawaii, playing music with whales together with David Rothenberg et Dan Sythe.
THE SEARCH FOR THE MISSING MUSIC OF THE KALINAGOS
We know that humpback whales have been inspired for thousands of years by the music of the men who live on the coasts of the areas they frequent. They have therefore built their musical repertoire in collaboration with these men. They then use this repertoire to transmit from generation to generation the proteodic songs, which they use for the functions we develop here. However, in the Caribbean, the pre-Columbian populations, Tainos, Arrawacs, Caribbean, Kalinagos… have almost all been decimated. Only in Dominica do descendants of this population remain. The trauma of the invasion of their territory, the genocide they suffered and the colonization they subsequently experienced, caused them to lose most of their culture, including their music.
However, humpback whales have preserved this music, which they transmit, play and still use to convey proteodic songs from generation to generation.
One of the goals of the Shelltone Whale Project is to find this music in the song of Caribbean whales and to give it to the Kalinago people living in Dominica.