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Welcome to One of the World's Last Matriarchal Societies

Travel to Kihnu, a small island off the coast of Estonia, and you’ll immediately notice that the island’s dirt roads, rock-strewn beaches, and tiny villages are bereft of men. Its inhabitants are mostly middle-aged women; they zip across the island astride vintage motorcycles, clad in traditional woven skirts and head scarves.

Kihnu is one of the world’s last remaining matriarchal societies. Its economy is reliant on the island’s fishermen, who leave home for months at a time to sail the Baltic Sea. Their wives are left behind to work in the fields, raise the children, and essentially run the island. They’re also responsible for passing down centuries-old traditions to the island’s younger generations—a challenging task thanks to a faltering economy and a dwindling population.

It’s easy to romanticize Kihnu’s pastoral shores, which attract European tourists during the summer months. However, the small community lacks industry and opportunities for adolescents. According to Visions of Kihnu, a short documentary that was screened at last year’s Estonian Documentary Film Festival & Competition in Toronto, young people often leave Kihnu to seek higher education and never return. Therefore, aspects of the island’s rich cultural heritageelaborate weddings filled with ancient rituals, and bright, hand-woven traditional dresses, for example—are in danger of dying out.

However, officials have taken steps to ensure that the island’s legacy is preserved. The Kihnu wedding has been named a UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. And the recently renovated Kihnu Museum celebrates local history, notable residents, and the customs and conventions that make Kihnu unlike any other island in the Baltic region—or for that matter, the world.

[h/t Al Jazeera]

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Hulton Archive, Getty Images
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At One Swiss University, You Can Now Major in Yodeling
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Switzerland’s yodeling tradition began in remote Alpine meadows, but now, new generations of students can opt to learn the folk art in a college classroom. The Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts has become the nation’s first university to offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees in yodeling, according to The Local.

Lucerne University has offered folk music degrees since 2012, but it took the department several years to find a qualified yodeling teacher. They finally settled on Nadja Räss, a famous Swiss yodeler who runs her own academy in Zurich. Under her tutelage, three to four incoming students will learn to yodel-ay-ee-oo while also taking classes in musical history, theory, and business.

Yodeling is today performed on stages, but it was once used as a method of communication among Alpine shepherds. By alternating falsetto notes with natural singing tones, they were able to communicate across mountains and round up livestock. These lyric-less cries developed into songs by the 19th century.

Today, the technique is no longer just for shepherds. Yodeling is undergoing a musical revival and occasionally enjoying five minutes of YouTube fame.

In 2014, Swiss officials announced that they intended to submit Alpine yodeling for consideration to UNESCO’s World Heritage list, along with traditions like mechanical watchmaking, typography, and managing the risk of avalanches, according to The Telegraph. Due to current guidelines, countries can only supply one entry each year. At least Switzerland’s yodelers will now have new opportunities to study their craft as they await their chance to shine on the international stage.

[h/t The Local]

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Chris Ford, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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The Magical—and Endangered—Whistling Language of Oaxaca
Chris Ford, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Chris Ford, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

In the rugged cloud forests of northern Oaxaca, Mexico, the Chinantecan people communicate in one of the world's most unusual languages—not by speaking, but by whistling.

In the clip below, spotted by Open Culture, Dr. Mark Sicoli of Georgetown University and David Yetman of the University of Arizona visit the region as part of an episode for PBS's In the Americas with David Yetman. Their quest is to find out how many people still speak (or rather, whistle) the tongue, which is used to communicate across the hills and valleys of the mountainous terrain. Along the way, they discover how the language has been involved in the community's rites of passage, town meetings, gender norms, and cornfields. They also get a beaming crowd of schoolchildren to whistle "I'm tired," and witness a whistled conversation about a taco. Perhaps not surprisingly, the language is in danger of dying out—unless the youngest generation can save it.

As special as the language is, the Chinantecan whistlers of Oaxaca aren't alone: 42 examples of whistled human tongues have been documented, in the Amazon, Turkey, Greece, and the Canary Islands, to name just a few spots. The languages are usually found in places with high slopes or thick forests, where regular spoken communication is tricky. Whistling, it turns out, isn't just for the birds.

[h/t Open Culture]

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