By Antonio C. Hila
Tuklas Sining: Essays on the Philippine Arts
Of all the arts, music is regarded as the most
universal in its appeal and acceptance. This
universality, however, does not mean that music is
without individual character. Each country has its own
kind of music that embodies the total experience, the
collective consciousness of its people. Music,
therefore, is the collective expression of the musical
genius of a particular people.
Such is the case of Philippine music
which today is regarded as a unique blending of two
great musical traditions – the East and the West.
Being innately musical, the Filipinos, from the earliest
to contemporary times, have imbibed these traditions
and have woven their musical creations along these mainstreams of musical thought. Through time,
Philippine society has witnessed the evolution of music expressed in different forms and stylistic nuances.
A people gifted with a strong sense of musicality, the Filipinos turn to music to express their
innermost feelings. Hence, every song they sing, every instrument they play, every music they make is a
direct, almost spontaneous reflection of their hopes and longings, frustrations and fulfillment, failures and
triumphs – Antonio C. Hila
ndigenous music before the colonial era was largely functional. Expressed either instrumentally or vocally or
a combination of both, music was deeply integrated with the activities of the natives. The ancient Filipinos
had music practically for all occasions, for every phase of life, from birth to death.
This type of music is largely retained and practiced by about 10 percent of the population
concentrated mainly in three regions: Northern Luzon, the Central Philippine islands of Mindoro and Palawan
and the southern islands of Mindanano and Sulu. In Mindanao and Sulu, two musical and cultural traditions
may be noted – the Islamic, consisting of such groups as the Maguindanao, Maranao, Yakan, Tausog and
Samal, and the pre-Islamic which is composed of the Bagobo, Manobo, Bukidnon, Tagakaolo, Bilaan,
Mansaka, Subanon and Mandaya, among others.
The understanding of Philippine ethnic music is premised on an appreciation of indigenous
instruments which are used in the various ritual and secular activities of these two peoples and which are
generally grouped into the aerophones or wind instruments; chordophones or stringed instruments;
idiophones or percussion instruments struck with a mallet, or against each other, or against another object
like the hand; and membranophones or percussion instruments using animal skins or membranes.
A few differences may be noted between the instruments of the Northern and Southern
Philippines. These differences lie primarily in the manner of construction, the style of playing them and the
sound they produce. By and large, however, instruments found all over the Islands are strikingly similar.
The aerophones are best represented by the many types of bamboo flutes that are found all
over the country. The lip valley flute found in the North is called the paldong, or kaldong of the Kalinga. In
the South Maguindanao call it palendag, the Manobo, pulalu. This flute has three holes on one side and
fourth hole on the opposite side.
There is also the popular nose flute, which produces soft and soothing sounds heard clearly in
quiet late afternoons. The northern tribes call this kalleleng (Bondotc and Kankanai), tongali (Ifugao and
Kalinga) and baliing (Isneg). In the Central Philippines, it is known as lantuy among the Cuyunin, babarek
among the Tagbanua and plawta among the Mangyan.
In addition, some aerophones are composed of several bamboo tubes of different lengths, like
the Kalinga saggeypo and the diwdiw-as, a panpipe common to Igorots. The diwdiw-as is made of five or
more slender bamboo tubes tied together. The upper ends of the tubes are open and into these a performer
blows without his lips touching the instrument. On the other hand, the six saggeypo tubes are left untied and
may be played by a group of people. The simultaneous blowing of the pipes results in harp-like sounds.
The Maguindanao, meanwhile, have the suling or ring flute, so called because the blowing
end is encircled with a rattan ring to create mouthpiece. The Tausog have a six hole single-reed sahunay,
with its characteristic cone-shaped pandan-leaf bell.
Chordophones also bound in many parts of
the Archipelago. These include the bamboo zithers, the
Spanish guitars, the bamboo violins and the lutes.
The zither is a stringed instrument made from
a single bamboo section, around three to four inches in
diameter, with a node at each end. Serving as strings,
however, are raised narrow strips of the outer skin fibers of
the bamboo itself, with the ends still attached to the body of
the instrument. Small wedges are placed beneath the strings
to produce different tensions – and thus varying pitches – as
the player plucks the strings.
Variations of the zither can be found all over
the country, like the Ilongot kolesing or the Ibaloi kalshang, the Negrito pas-ing and Ifugao patting; in the
central Philippines, the Tagbanua play the pa’gang, while the Mangyan have the kudlung. The southern
zither is called tawgaw (Bagobo).
Two-stringed lutes knows as the kudyapi among the Bukidnon, hegalong among the T’boli or
the kadlong or kudlong in Central Mindanao are characterized by a boat shape or an elongated oval
between 40 to 45 inches long, and have tightening rods made of wood and frets of beeswax and two-wire
strings tuned in unison – one serving ad drone, the
other providing the melody.
These long “guitars” or boat lutes are
carved in soft wood usually to represent a mythical
two-headed animal, the naga (serpent) or crocodile,
or perhaps the modified head, body and tail of the
sarimanok, a cockerel-like bird. The kudyapi is alos
known as a “speaking instrument” because it figures
prominently in courtship. It is also used as an
accompaniment for dances.
Examples of chordophones using bows
are the three-stringed gitgit of the Tagbanua, the
spike fiddle called duwagey of the Bilaan and the
biola of the Tausog, which is similar to the European
violin used to accompany songs.
Perhaps the greatest number of indigenous musical instruments belong to the idiophone
group. In particular, some of these idiophones are the jew’s harp, suspended beams, bamboo buzzer,
percussion sticks and gongs.
The jew’s harp is a very thin slit of bamboo or brass with a narrow vibrating tongue in the middle longitudinal
section. Placed between the lips of the player, its tongue is made to vibrate by striking the projecting end of
the instrument with the thumb or by pulling a string attached to it. The mouth of the player acts as the
resonator, and as the shape of the mouth cavity changes, the pitch and quality of the sound varies. This
enables the player to communicate message with his instrument. For this reason, the jew’s harp is a favorite
of lovers and is played by both men and women. It is thus considered a “speaking intrument”.
The jew’s harp is found in many tribes. The
Maranao call it kubing, the Tingguian, kolibau, and the
Tagbanua, aru-ding. The jew’s harp of the South usually have
handles carved with various serpent designs and other scrolllike patterns, and sometimes punctuated by head bangles and
tassels as in the Maranaw kubing.
Suspended beams like the kagul may be found
only in such groups as the Tiruray and the Yakan of Mindanao.
The kagul consists of five logs ranging from two to two-and-ahalf meters long which are shaped and pointed at the playing
end. It is played by two people: one plays in the middle of the
log a repeated rhythmic pattern or ostinato, while the second
player beats out a melody at the pointed ends of the other logs. The logs are tuned relative to each other.
Another idiophone, the bamboo buzzer is known variously as the balingbing or bunkaka
(Kalinga) and batiwtiw (Central Philippines). The bunkaka, as the name implies, is a bamboo tube which is
open or split at one end. Sound is produced by striking the split end against the palm. This instrument is
played alone or in groups as a form and diversion or to drive away evil spirits along a forest trail.
Percussion sticks are common to the North and South, like the Ifugao bangibang, and the
Mangyan kalutang. The bangibang is a row of sticks played only in the rituals for curing very serious illness
and in death ceremonies. The instrument is composed of
sticks measuring from one to two-and-a-half feet long with
diameters ranging from one to three inches, hanging from a
string which also serves as a handle. A stick is used to beat
them in rhythm. Sometimes, however, only two sticks are
used, which are played by striking one against the other.
The well-known gong is found throughout the
tribes in varying forms. All gongs in the South have a boss, a
deep or shallow mound resembling a kettle or a pan on the
top middle portion of the gong, the rims of which angle
slightly inward. They may either be suspended or laid
horizontally in a row. In the North, a flat gong called gangsa
is widely regarded as the most valued instrument. The
agung, a large gong with boss, is known to both the
Tagbanua of Palawan and Mangyan of Mindoro. The
Magindanao also use a gong called agung, which is played
like a brass tom-tom by striking the boss or knob with a
padded and rounded stick.
In the South, the gong may be used as a
rhythmic counterpoint to the drum (Tagbanua), as an
accompaniment to an ensemble of gongs called the
kulintang (Maguindanao and Maranao) or with other agungs
(Bagobo) producing an ostinato rhythm and melody to
accompany the dances.
The kulintang, or gongs in a row, is basically a
melody instrument played by a single performer as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble. It consists of
eight gongs placed horizontally in a frame and tuned to a flexible pentatonic or five-tone scale. Among the
Islamic peoples of the South of the kulintang ensemble, where it is the primary melody instrument supported
by the dabakan (A conical drum), agung, gandingan (four suspended narrow-rimmed gongs), babandil
(small gong, sometimes the last gong of the kulintang) – all of which act as drones constantly repeating a
particular rhythmic pattern for the duration of the music. The kulintang player acts as the central player and
makes various improvisations on the chosen mode moving in progressively ascending and descending steps
of sounds. Usually, three types of rhythmic modes are utilized, namely, the duyug, sinulug and tidtu. The
dabakan starts with the music, announcing the mode, while the other instruments follow.
The kulintang ensemble is often considered as the most cultivated of the region’s musical
expressions. Aside from being a medium of entertainment and hospitality, the kulintang also serves as a
vehicle for social interaction and group solidarity and for learning ethical principles.
Other idiophones of the South include the gabbang or bamboo xylophone of the Tausog of
Sulu, and the edel or log drum, a plank idiophone made of molave wood suspended and beaten with sticks
and used by the Tabakaolo, Bilaan and Manobo.
Probably the most important and best known membranophones of the North are the two
conical drums of the Ibaloi – the sulibao and the kimbal. The sulibao has a higher pitch than the kimbal and
is played with a padded stick. Usually, however, these instruments are joined by two other pairs of
idiophones in the sulibao ensemble, namely, the kalsa and the pinsak, which are two flat gongs, and the
palas which are two short iron bard handled by a single player. Similar types of drums exist in the South
such as the dabakan of the Maguindanao and the dadabuan of the Maranao. In addition to these conical
drums, cylindrical types of drums are exemplified by the tambul of the Maguindanao and the gimbal of the
Like the instruments, vocal music expresses and transmits in a concrete and vivid manner a
great variety of the thoughts, beliefs, customs, lifestyles, temperament and way of life of the indigenous
peoples. Singing is a main component of life among them. There will be songs and singers, singing solo or in
leader-chorus style with or without accompaniment, with or without the benefit of words (the latter includes
whistling, a highly developed musical from among the Maguindanao of Mindanao).
Solo and leader-chorus singing is done in the North, notably in such groups s the Bontoc,
Ibaloi, Kalinga and Negrito. In the South, on the other hand, while unaccompanied singing seems to be the
predilection of a majority of the indigenous groups, a kind of singing done with instrumental accompaniment
is practiced among certain groups, like the Tausog, who sing with their gabbang (bamboo xylophone) and/or
Both types of singing – the leader-chorus and singing with instrument – may be found in the
Central Philippine groups such as the Mangyan and Tagbanua, where often singing is done with the flute
(Tagbanua), the guitar or violin (Mangyan), either solo or as a group with a soloist-leader.
One may be observe a highly divergent and seemingly endless variety of styles and traditions
of singing in the northern, central and southern Philippine indigenous communities. For example, the Kalinga
of the North generally sing in short phrases frequently broken by rests or stops; the Maguindanao of the
south sing in long melismatic phrases; the Mangyan sing mostly in a monotone with turns at the end of
Viewed as a whole, certain patterns and
characteristics of singing emerge among these groups. First,
improvisation seems to be the rule in song creation. In fact
the quality of the song and the singer if often measured by
his/her ability to improvise fluently and creatively. Second,
there is generally a low and limited range of notes (more or
less an octave) and within this range, a great number of
uncertain pitches, speech-like sounds, slides, shakes,
tremolos or trills are often added to bring about some
flexibility and richness in the singing despite the narrow
range. Third, melodic ornamentations such as the glissandos,
slides and tremolos are not only accessory but principal
elements in music because they may even determine the
structure of a song. Fourth, since everyone is a singer, there
is a greater variety of voice quality due to differences in age,
sex or cultural factors (e.g. the Manobo sing in a more
relaxed manner and with more embellishments than the
Tiruray). Fifth, a wide variety of scales may be observed. The
scale, however, is, often treated as a flexible structure upon
which equally important elements are embedded to adorn the
scale and render it less obvious. Sixth, while decrescendos
and crescendos (gradual decrease and increase in volume,
respectively) and up and down movements may be noted in
the singing styles of some groups especially in the South, a
syllabic chant-like monotone singing prevails in many groups. Chanting utilizes the vocal range of a singer
which is most consistent with his natural speech melody. This is the reason why sometimes it is difficult to
discern whether a particular enunciation is sung or uttered. Seventh, there are no exact time elements that
limit the existing vocal forms. Songs create an impression of remarkable rhythmic freedom, with the rhythm
and speed of singing often governed by the language and text of the chants. The frequent use of tremolos
and long-held notes highlight the fact that there is no effort to reach a climactic utterance or a strong
rhythmic drive. Eighth, a large number of reiterated and marked accents on one vowel (eee ~ 000 ~ uuu)
may be noted in the singing of the song texts of the chants. Ninth, in the leader-chorus type of singing,
instead of harmonic chords, a leader may simply give an introductory, monodic "intonation" which the others
follow in a quasi-canonic manner, making use of imitation and singing in unison.
There are many different vocal forms with specific names and uses, each one with a particular rhythm
of its own. Songs mark every stage of human development from birth and infancy to adulthood and death,
night and day, and many occasions in the cycle of natural events and the flow of human activities whether
personal, social, economic, political, spiritual or cosmic. Songs that pertain to the life-cycle of an individual
are the Kalinga appros, sung for half a day after the child's birth and the luguh maulud of the Tausog,
which is sung to celebrate the birth of Mohammed. There are many kinds of children's songs such as the
Kalinga kawayanna for the tying of the child's first necklace; the Maranao bakbato and the Tausog lia-lia.
There are countless lullabies, among which are the chag-ay sa maseypan of the Bontoc the iyaya of the
Mangyan, the binua of the Badjao. There are also the adolescent songs - the Bontoc ayegka, sung for
visiting friends and the Maranao kasingbaga~kanada~tudatu ago kanbaibai, group singing by boys and
There are genealogical chants, courtship songs by adolescents and love songs for adolescents and
love songs for adults - the Kalinga ading, the Tingguian inegegkak si labago and the Tausog sindil, a dialogue song described as a song of insinuation. There are songs related to marriage like the Tingguian ricepounding song imma-isa-i-isa and the nan-sob-oy (Sagada) which is chanted at the conclusion of the
wedding ceremonies. The Maranao sarongkawit is a girl's song of displeasure on a marriage proposal,
while the lakitan tells of a boy's request that his mother propose marriage to a girl he fancies.
And of course, death and the spirit world bring to the fore a big collection of songs on death and the
burial rituals, like the Maranao dikir, a funeral or wake song, and the an-nako, a Bontoc song for funerals
occasioned by natural death. The lbaloi too have their ba-diw, which uses a leader-chorus type of singing
during "death watches", centering on the character and activities of the deceased and the hope of gaining
favors for the living from the spirit-relatives.
Besides songs relating to the lifecycle, there are also
work songs. These include the Bontoc ayoweng, a field work
song and the soweey, a song for rice-pounding; flalok to
sawa, a Bilaan harvest song which helps harvesters forget
the heat and thus work faster; hunting songs; narrative songs
for entertainment and relaxation during the evenings and also
for the entertainment of visitors, such as the tenis-tenis, an
impromptu Samal song of four-line stanzas with an a,a,a,a
rhyme whose words often joke or chide those present, or
simply tell stories; songs for the blessing of a new house;
songs for debates, pleading of cases or for plain conversations; didactic songs based on the Qur'an for the Muslims;
feasting songs; songs for dancing; battle songs; songs for
curing boils and stomach ache, for preventing sickness in the
community, for chanting in the presence of a person who is
fatally ill or for accompanying the administering of a
massage; not to mention countless epics and legends that tell
of heroic exploits which are sung in all the important
celebrations such as during wakes, weddings, weeding time,
but most especially during harvest time. There are other
songs of broad social utility such as the ltneg oggayam
(ballad), the salidum-ay (which is sung even by school
groups today) and the dalleng of the Tingguian.
As a whole, the ethnic songs serve as a vehicle for the expression not only of these peoples' thoughts,
dreams, recollections and desires, but also of matters that otherwise may not be acceptable in speech or
ordinary conversation. The response, if there is to be one, must also be rendered in song because traditional
methods of communication depend not only on speech and memory but also on song.
Nature has played a great role in shaping up the music technology and aesthetics of the various ethnic
musical traditions. Ethnic musical instruments are primarily objects of nature as they consist mainly of
bamboo, wood, shell, animal skin and metal; just as many of the melodies and rhythms of tribal chants
imitate some aspects of nature's sounds and movements.