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World Whistlers Convention 2018: sex, lies and roller skates

2018 is the second year that Maya Sebestyen from Sydney, Australia will be competing in The World Whistlers Convention (WWC). But it’s the first time she’ll be competing on roller skates.

Hosted during Japan’s Golden Week at the Kawasaki Gender Equality Center — just outside of Tokyo — the WWC is a bi-annual symposium, concert and competition that welcomes whistlers from all around the globe.

Maya first found out about the competition in 2016, “I was Googling whistlers and ended up in that part of the Internet where strange things happen. Once I saw some YouTube videos, I kept digging and I found out the competition was pretty soon and I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’”

She ended up coming seventh in her category. This year Maya is upping the stakes by not only competing in the general contest (whistling one classical and one popular song), but by competing in the Allied Arts section, where competitors must whistle and perform another special skill. Hers? Roller dancing — a talent she developed while doing roller derby in Shanghai.

“I’m not aiming for the finals. I’m not quite at that level. I want to lay down three solid performances. And not fall off the stage.”

“I like whistling because it makes me happy. I’m not classically trained. I’m self-taught. Most people are here. There’s not that much training or information on the Internet. Coming together like this is a good opportunity to share tips and tricks with each other. You probably don’t have a lot of people in your day-to-day life who are interested in whistling or listening to whistling, so having that common interest brings people together from all over the world and makes them happy to meet each other.”

However the competition isn’t just for recreational whistlers like Maya. California native Carole Anne Kaufman is a two-time world champion whistler who recently published her Masters thesis titled, ‘Heresy to Artistry: The Upward Mobility of Musical Whistling Through Rhetorical Reframing’. She hired a vocal coach to hone her classical piece ‘Ave Maria’ — “She’s helping me learn where to breathe. Competing is a way for me to prioritise improving my technique.”

Known as the Whistling Diva, Carole Anne sees whistling as an art form in need of wider recognition, “Whistling has been considered low culture.” However she understands why it’s not popular, “Because whistling is the lost child of music, no one gives a crap, so nobody teaches it. There’s no infrastructure.”

Maya also points out that there’s nothing written for whistling like with other musical instruments, “…which I think puts it on the back foot. An effect of that is the quality is not as strong because there are less people doing it.”

Carole Anne adds, “The other thing is there’s a frequency of whistling that can be very uncomfortable to the ear. With the actual tonal qualities of whistling, there is a micron between an amazing whistler and a bad whistler. The problem is, unlike singing, you hear a bad note it’s uncomfortable. But if you do bad whistling, you can hurt somebody’s ear.”

The judges this year include pianist Rika Mori, whistlers Kimiko Wakiyama, Akiko Shibata, Ryosuke and Geert Chatrou (who was one of the six whistlers profiled in the prize-winning documentary ‘Pucker Up’ by Emmy Award winners Kate Davis and David Heilbroner). In regards to the quality of this year’s contestants, Geert says, “I think this year is the best year in a long time. A lot of very good whistlers. It’s very hard to judge.”

2018 is also the first time in a long time that there is no women’s division, which not everyone is comfortable with. Carole Anne says, “I do a special women’s division [at The Masters of Musical Whistling festival] because I want to make sure that there is a woman who can say she is the world champion.

“Music for children is gendered. If you don’t represent something, children don’t realise they can do it. So if you only see male trumpet players, then trumpet gets to be for boys. And if you only see female flautists, then flutes are for girls. So my assessment is that it’s a very linear relationship. At the IWC [International Whistlers Convention], you see fifty men and five women. I’m not a mathematician, but I’m going to say the averages are not the same. Basically when you hear the world ‘whistle’, you hear the word ‘he’ after it.”

With this in mind, it’s encouraging when the results are announced and four out of the top six finalists (including the overall winner YOKO from Tokyo, Japan) are women. The room is abuzz with excitement. Contestant Emily Kehmeier says, “It feels awesome. I’m very happy about that. At the California competition, only one woman placed. It’s amazing and well deserved. The people in my top choices were women too.”

Geert says, “This is the first time there is no women and men competition. This is the first time everybody is together. I prefer that because whistling has nothing to do with sex.” YOKO was a clear choice, “She was number one for me and all the other judges. Her musicality combined with a really big range — three octaves, I think — it’s the whole package. The songs she chose were a perfect choice for her whistle.”

“For the rest of the finalists there were a lot of differences [of opinions]. And who came in the finals and not.”

Up on the winners’ podium are two other familiar additions — Maya in third place for Allied Arts and Carole Anne with the Special Award (an award given to those who have helped promote the world of whistling in the past year).

Maya says, “I’m so happy. It’s a bit of a surprise. There are so many talented whistlers that it’s such an honour to go home with a trophy. It was just so much fun. This is the cherry on top.”

Maya Sebestyen, after her award-winning Allied Arts performance. Photo credit: Danielle Marks.