Jingrwai lawbei.

Agence France Presse reports on an interesting form of musical language:

Curious whistles and chirrups echo through the jungle around Kongthong, a remote Indian village, but this is no birdsong. It’s people calling out to each other in music — an extraordinary tradition that may even be unique.

Here in the lush, rolling hills of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, mothers from Kongthong and a few other local villages compose a special melody for each child. Everyone in the village, inhabited by the Khasi people, will then address the person with this individual little tune — and for a lifetime. They have conventional “real” names too, but they are rarely used. […]

Kongthong has long been cut off from the rest of the world, several hours of tough trek from the nearest town. Electricity arrived only in 2000, and the dirt road in 2013. Days are spent foraging in the jungle for broom grass — the main source of revenue — leaving the village all but deserted, except for a few kids. To call out to each other while in the forest, the villagers would use a long version lasting around 30 seconds of each other’s musical “name”, inspired by the sounds of nature all around. […]

The custom is known as “jingrwai lawbei”, meaning “song of the clan’s first woman”, a reference to the Khasi people’s mythical original mother. […] The origin of “jingrwai lawbei” isn’t known, but locals think it is as old as the village, which has existed for as long as five centuries. The tradition’s days may be numbered, though, as the modern world creeps into Kongthong in the shape of televisions and mobile phones.

Thanks, Kobi!


  1. Stu Clayton says:

    I don’t see the increepment of mobile phones as working against this tradition. On the contrary, the musical names can be made into ringtones.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    + 1

  3. This is a totally cool idea, and I wish it were adopted more widely. Each person to have their own theme tune.

    Unfortunately in our culture not everyone is musical. Imagine if your parents gave you a dumb tune like “It’s a Small World After All” and you were saddled with it for your whole life..

    The Sami people have a related concept, though not quite the same, called joik: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joik

    It also reminds me of the naming customs of the Ents in LotR. Tolkien was very interested in Finnish traditions. I wonder did he ever look at the Sami?

  4. Stu Clayton says:

    This sounds interesting. I wonder what it means:

    # The Sami verb for presenting a joik (e.g. Northern Sami juoigat) is a transitive verb, which is often interpreted as indicating that a joik is not a song about the person or place, but that the joiker is attempting to evoke or depict that person or place through song – one joiks one’s friend, not about one’s friend (similarly to how one doesn’t paint or depict about a flower, but depicts the flower itself). #

  5. There are lots of examples of these names being sung here and here

    The Khasi word that seems to be used for the clan’s first woman is Iawbei not Lawbei. Confusion has arisen somewhere between an upper case I and lower case l maybe?

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’ve just been looking to see where Kongthong is. Gosh! Places don’t get a lot more remote than that.

  7. My dad used to call us when we were out of sight in shops etc by whistling like curlew.

    Cuts through any other noises and can’t be confused with anything else.

  8. Fascinating! Azeb Amha described something quite similar for Oyda in Ethiopia, using whistled tunes as names. Unfortunately she doesn’t seem to have written it up.

  9. This is a totally cool idea, and I wish it were adopted more widely. Each person to have their own theme tune.

    An interesting mathematical question: how long would the tune have to be for everyone to have their own? Remember that not everyone has perfect pitch, so a tune that went C-D-C-G would not be distinguishable from one that went F-G-F-C; and assume that the average person can whistle in a range of two octaves.

  10. Stu Clayton says:

    Define T(N, r) to be the number of tunes of length r that begin on the tone N, where N and the other r-1 notes are in the 2-octave range from middle C up.

    Under your assumption that transpositions are indistinguishable, the number of distinguishable tunes of length r over the two octaves is the same as the number of tunes that start on middle C, which is T(C,r).

    There are 12 tones in each octave above and below middle C. We have, sort of,

    T(C, r) = 24^(r-1).

    Each tune in the two-octave range above middle C is a transposition of one in the two-octave range surrounding C.

  11. Stu, what about tunes that start at the lowest point of the range and go to the highest, or vice versa? Or more generally tunes that include notes more than 12 tones above or below the starting point? Those couldn’t be transposed to start on middle C and stay within the two-octave range centered on middle C.

  12. Stu Clayton says:

    Yes, thar’s why I slipped “sort of” in. All I have established is a crude upper bound

    T(r) << 24^r

    That number is for people with perfect pitch. The number of transposition equivalence sets is much smaller.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    24⁷ is 4,586,471,424, which is not enough; 24⁸ is 110,075,314,176, which is enough for quite some redundancy.

  14. Stu Clayton says:

    How Westoeurocentric we have been, ignoring the quarter tones !

  15. Lars (the original one) says:

    Well, actually if we want to keep within Western tradition, the sequence of notes should belong to some major scale; in each of the 7 different major scales that include c0, there are 15 ‘valid’ notes from c0 to c2 inclusive. (The minor scales don’t add anything as they are subsumed under their relative major scales — since we don’t have any conditions that the sequence of notes has a melodic connection to a given key, major and minor are equivalent).

    7 notes now give even fewer combinations, and 8 notes is sort of barely enough maybe — keeping to C major only gives us 2.5 billion, even ignoring the fact that sequences with a smaller range are counted multiple times, and such short sequences could easily belong to several different major keys so it’s hard to know how much extra the different keys give. My Concrete Mathematics is in storage… but since I am not Donald Knuth, it would probably be quicker for me to write a program to generate all the combinations and count them than to try to get a closed form expression.

    9 is more than sufficient, though. Even with the constraint that there should be exactly one c0 and one c2 note, we get 58 732 611 912 sequences in the C major scale alone.

  16. That is a lot shorter than I expected! Thanks to everyone for feeding my idle curiosity.

  17. How Westoeurocentric we have been, ignoring the quarter tones !

    I suppose we could hypothesise a world in which everyone has their own unique trombone Leitmotif, but that would just be silly.

  18. If notes can vary in both pitch and duration, as in jingrwai iawbei, the length of tunes required is even shorter


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