Waterfalls are plentiful on Bioko Island., where the average annual rainfall is about 120 inches. (Truelsen photo)
Chapter 59: Bubi Telephony
(According to Rev. Mariano Montolíu, La Guinea Española, numbers 10-X-29, 25-X-29 and 10-XI-29).
Anyone who has lived with the Bubis has admired the enormous ease with which they communicate ideas at a distance with rudimentary apparatuses, whistles, etc. The feat is well known to all, but how is it done?
Is it that they have customary, stylized signals or in reality they actually speak to one another? Yes, friend reader, yes -- they really talk among themselves and communicate ideas and news word by word over great distances, as we have experienced many times.
But how is it done? We turn first to descriptions of their typical instruments.
The Bubis have three speaking instruments: the mpototutu or motutu, the sikèkè, and finally, the flute, chapele or mbeaño.
The mpototutu or motutu is their bugle for orders. It is a four-inch-long, hollow cone with an ordinary hole at its thin end. On the surface, there is an orifice where the player places his lips. To use the motutu, they grasp it at the top with the right hand and blow across the surface hole, opening and closing the small hole on the end with the thumb. It is the Bubi’s most powerful speaking instrument, as it is used to give orders, and in war, to stimulate the combatants. It has only two notes, depending on whether the small end hole is open or closed, which makes it the most imperfect with regard to locution.
To make this apparatus they cut a stick of golden color or light yellow that they call bololo. They part it lengthwise in two pieces, hollow the pieces out, join them with copal resin (bajola), and wrap them securely with thin ropes or cover them well with lizard skin.
The mpototutu and motutu have the same form, but the first is better made and, therefore, more powerful.
The other speaking instrument is the sikèkè. This is the neck of a calabash, and works by applying the lips to its top part while inserting two index fingers in the bottom. The sikèkè is an admirable instrument for communicating, and with the movement of the fingers one gives different tones. With the sikèkè friends salute one other over long distances and maintain animated conversations, communicating their news. This instrument is difficult to play, because it is necessary to blow with great force and requires dexterity.
The mbeaño is a flute made of heavy, strong cane that one finds at high altitudes. It consists of a tube open on both ends, with six holes in the middle. In one end, they make a small incision where they direct air to play it. Although it has a beautiful sound, for them it is not more than an instrument of entertainment and they never use it in dances.
According to the Bubis, this flute may be played only two months during the year, in the months during the yam harvest until clearing begins for new fields, because if one plays in other times, the leaves fall from the new yams before their maturity.
For the greatest variety of sounds, it is the instrument most perfect for locution, as with it they can tell long stories and histories. With the mbeaño they entertain themselves in the nights. They play it moving their fingers very quickly near the mouth, ending the musical phrase in a low, soft and harmonious sound. The flute is not only a musical instrument for the children and young people, but also for the old ones.
One day I found myself in Balacha asking questions about using these instruments, and an expert gave me many explanations and examples so that I could understand, adding: “One can also speak Spanish with this.”
“Let’s see,” I said. “Talk to me in Spanish to see if I can understand something.”
He gave me these sounds: la-sol-sol-la-mi. It appeared to me that I heard the Spanish pitch, but I understood nothing. I asked him: “What did you say?”
“I said: ‘I want oranges.’”
“But if you say, for example, ‘I want jackknives (1),’ how would you say it?”
“Oh, one can’t distinguish with this naranja from navaja,” he replied.
According to my own observations, there are three factors in this curious telephony that make intelligible sounds to the ears of the indigenous. They are: syllabic number, verbal twist, and phraseology. In their instruments, they are able to reproduce these three essentials with enough exactness.
Syllabic number: The syllabic number of a word or phrase can be imitated, simply, with the number of sounds or accents (strikes) that an accustomed ear can distinguish perfectly without counting mentally, as with our telegraph. Still, be cautioned that many times when a vowel follows two consonants they rapidly intercalate a sound to emphasize that consonant’s presence. As an example: Alofonoso for Alfonso. In words that begin with two consonants: Mba, mbeano, the first consonant constitutes, really, one syllable. In many words, such as in Bubi the word nna (sound), and nná (name), the difference is only in their accentuation. The same happens with the words oncho (world) and bajmma (mutes). In Bubi telephony, these are treated as three syllables, the accent falling over the mute vowel that conceals itself in oncho, between the o and the n. These same words, in other districts, have well expressed syllables. Thus, elsewhere they say rina (for “sound”) and riná (for “name”). In addition, for more clarity when using a sound apparatus, they do not use some ellipsis that they have in normal conversation.
Accents: These are the second factor. In speaking of them, we exclude those accents that modify vowel pronunciation. This applies to the syllables that they pronounce with great force, since these can be expressed with any apparatus. And, of course, the indigenous languages have many accents: There are words with two and three accents. This joins forces with the greater or lesser celerity with which they pronounce certain syllables and even words. Thus, in the word ebelo (time), they pronounce the e a little elongated, and the other, or belo, they say rapidly, although the accent falls on be.
Tonal language: They say that in China they talk as if singing. I have never heard Chinese, but I am inclined to think that in the Chinese language one will find that singing to be similar to the language of these indigenous. Their language has a pitch for each particular word, and if they don’t say that word in its own pitch, it appears they lose its meaning. Thus, for example, the word sokó (news) must be pronounced with the tone (sol-la); if one says (sol-fa) soko, it instead means “ramrod.” The same happens with the word Potó (God) and potó (thank you). Potó (God) has this pitch: sol-fa, and potó (thank you) this other: fa-sol.
Clearly, those of us working in these areas don’t become grammarians or reach perfection in their language. At times, some of us speak to them in their language, and they graciously answer that they don’t understand Spanish. Of course, they had heard our tone and they had figured that we spoke to them in Spanish. But, paying closer attention to the pronunciation of our words, they then could understand what we said.
In our language, we don’t have verbal tone, only tones within phrases, which vary greatly according to our pronunciation emphasis and the state of our animation, while in the indigenous language the tone of the phrase is much more fixed and invariable. They shout, accelerate the pronunciation, throw in their interjections; but, fundamentally, you hear the same tone from them.
Who has not observed that tone so characteristic with which they say to us in African English: I not know, that corresponds in music to mi-sol-fa. I not know, and similar phrases, they say with the same sing-song. In my view, this may be the reason the subtleties in our most artistic music, that which enraptures us, do not strike them in the same way. In hearing such music, they will not reach that state of placidity, that supplicant or amorous state, perhaps because their phrasing does not modulate according to the state of animation, but only according to the words that one says.
Instead, while certainly at times they enter warlike or highly animated states, they express their emotional state through how fast or slow they speak and with shouting. This explanation omits what is spoken, but always the words one speaks will be the greatest revelation of his emotional state.
All of the elements in vocal conversation of which we have spoken are not so perceptible in their artificial conversation. Without the use of pronunciation, the most expressive element of all, they must use other exaggerated means.
In addition, one must be advised that to communicate ideas one makes with his customary words and phrases, in translating to another language, the idea may not communicate well word-for-word. Thus, for example, if we had called to someone, a little late, and wanted to tell him to go quickly, they will not say to him as we would say: “Quickly, man!” but, rather, they will say: “You are very, very late,” o ombi lomolomo (sol-la-la-mi).
When they tell a story, they always tell it by set paces, following the same thread. To this, one must add that these languages do not have that great diversity of expressions and words found in ours.
In addition, they have many useful expressions, quite varied among the different Bubi districts, that help them express what they want to say. And they never begin to talk until they have heard the attention signal from the other interlocutor. This is the same as we do in our telephony. After each phrase they give a signal that they have finished, unless it is a generally understood question or proclamation.
When a word is something rare, they give an explanatory phrase. Thus: if they ask for ink, they ask for ink for writing; if they say “cane” on the motutu, they say “cane that one walks with,” etc. If one tries to call to someone, if the first name is easily confused, they will add the last name.
But, they don’t have something for pronunciation? In Bubi instruments, which are wind instruments, there is a distinction between strong and soft consonants; but in their speaking instruments, they don’t have such distinction. Thus, for example, these two names: Sieritché and Moatitché, la-sol-la, la-sol-la. They distinguish Sieritché as it passes softly from the “la” to the “sol,” while Moatitché attacks the three syllables as saying: tu-tu-tu.
Nonetheless, I don’t believe that I completely investigated how these curious apparatuses function. To best understand, one must have one of the instruments in hand and in front of his face. However, it is quite certain that the Bubis communicate the news, whatever it may be, with such instruments.
(1) . [Navaja is Spanish for “jackknife” and naranja is “orange.” -- Trans.]