Behind the March of Time

Words by Pauline Miranda | Illustrations by Tej Tan

Filipinos are a musical people. Take a walk through the streets and you’re sure to spot a handful of commuters, earphones plugged in to block out the buzz of the city during rush hour. Shops, restaurants,
and other establishments are filled with music, blaring latest tunes or whispering soft ambient music, all to set a mood. Catchy, LSS-inducing songs underscore advertisements, both commercial and political. Even sitting at an office desk, neck-deep in work, is made more bearable by tapping at the keyboard to the beat
of a favorite song.

Music has been a part of our lives for longer than we can imagine. Our history as a people is so heavily tied to it. Music, in a sense, is a narrative, reflecting the circumstances and stories of the times. It is only fitting then, that we look back at the history of the country to discover the history of its music.

Ethnic traditions

Even before the arrival of the Spaniards, the country was already rich in folk tradition, especially in music. Music of the ethnic groups often accompanied dance, and were performed at a variety of events, ranging from the sacred to the mundane.

Songs of the ethnic groups covered themes that still resonate with the current times: love, life, and death. ‘The natives also used music to pass down and remember their history, with many of their songs featuring gods, legends, strong warriors, and even stories of harvest.

Many of the northern Luzon ethnic groups used gansas and gongs as accompaniment for their songs and dances. ‘The Igorots, for example, perform what is called a head dance, moving in a circle as they beat the flat-top gansa. Made of iron, copper, and a small amount of gold, the gansa, formed into a shallow pan, is then hung or held to be played.

In the south, Malays and scholars and rajahs from Sumatra, Malacca, and other nearby countries came  to conquer and settle in areas of Mindanao, bringing with them Islam and Malayan culture. Unlike the tribes of Luzon, the indigenous groups of Mindanao share a common ensemble of instruments. The kulintang, composed of various drums and gongs, is used by the Mindanaoan groups for a variety of celebrations.

The kulintang features small gongs arranged horizontally on a wooden rack. The gongs are played by striking the knobs, called a boss on top of the gongs with wooden beaters. Traditionally made of bronze, the gongs feature patterns inspired by nature. A common design is a geometric rendering of a sun, with the boss serving as its center and rays extending out from it across the top of the gong.

Other instruments in the kulintang ensemble include the agong, babandil, and dabakan. The agong, a pair of large, wide-rimmed, kettle-shaped gongs suspended vertically from the ceiling or a stand, is played with the hands or using short, padded sticks. In contrast, the babandil is a single, narrow-rimmed gong with a low boss, struck usually at the rim. The babandil is used to keep the rhythm of a kulintang piece. The dabakan on the other hand is the only drum in the ensemble, made of wood from coconut or jackfruit trees. It bears a single head, shaped like a goblet. The body of the drum is intricately carved with leaf and vine patterns—a common design in Mindanaoan art and ethnic pieces.

The wedding feast is one of the most common occasions where Mindanaoans use kulintangs. In the center of a room, Moros perform a series of dances, flailing and twisting their torsos, arms, hands, and wrists accompanied by small footwork. The bridegroom and his friends, meanwhile, watch the festivities as they lounge at the side, on mattresses and cushions laid out around the room. The feasting then begins, backed by the clanging of the kulintangs. The Subanuns of Zamboanga, on the other hand, end the celebration of a chief’s marriage—a week-long festive affair—dancing to bells and drums.

Introduction to the west

‘The Spaniards arrived on our shores surprised that the
people already had some degree of civilization, and, in terms of culture, a rather sophisticated one. Antonio de
Pigafetta, a historian on one of the Spanish expeditions, for example, talked about the native women playing drums, gongs, cymbals, and a kudyapi.

One such episode tells of the natives’ hospitality, by sending Pigafetta an elegant boat called a prau, adorned with a blue and white banner on its golden bow. The praus carried natives greeting them with songs played on drums and gongs. 

Miguel de Loarca, a Spanish conquistador, also noted that the early Filipinos used music to spread their literature. The Spaniards took advantage of the Filipinos’ affinity with music, through the institution of the Spanish system of instruction headed by the various religious orders. Saints and religious figures replaced the heroes and warriors in the natives’ songs, and the merry cacophony of ethnic gongs and drums turned into more solemn hymns on the organ.

Slowly, natives were taught to play Western instruments: the organ, the flute, and eventually the guitar and violin. The sounds that were once foreign soon became familiar, thanks to the instruction of schools, colleges, and churches.

Forming a musical bridge between the tribal and colonial was the rondalla. Stringed instruments have also been used in ethnic music, making the shift to more western instruments like the guitar, violin, and  bandurria an easy one. The Spanish rondalla was later made into a more Filipino ensemble with the use of native Filipino materials like wood from narra and kamagong, and the addition of more strings to the original Spanish 12-stringed instruments.

Years of colonial influence reflected in the music, as the Filipino rondallas’ repertoires also grew. From performing simple folk tunes, kundimans, and serenades (from which the rondalla took its name), the
rondalla began to cover a wider repertoire including classical music. This also prompted the growth of the ensemble, including the bass drum, snare drum, cymbal, triangle, tambourine, and kettledrum.

By the end of the Spanish colonial era in the early 1900s, hundreds of rondallas have been organized all over the country. The tinkling tunes of the string band were a mark of every celebration, as each note added an aural sparkle to the town festivities. Memories of fiestas and old town weddings almost always come underscored by the rondalla’s bright, trembling melodies.

The Filipino musical identity

‘The rise of modernism in the West came with the transformations seen in society, from the advancement of technology, to the changes in the social and economic spheres. Rising from the effects of war, humanity was set towards progress, and this shift in view and priority prompted a shift in the mode of artistic expression as well.

In the Philippines, modernism in music was
characterized by “a departure from the traditional
practice of preceding periods,’ as noted by National Artist for Music, Lucrecia Kasilag. Modern music veered away from the classical and romantic styles. Kasilag is known as a leading figure in modern music, with her  compositions reflecting what may well be considered the cultural identity of the country.

Her compositional philosophy is described as one with an East-West flavor. Her “Toccata for Percussions and Winds’, performed first in 1959, adapted the toccata, a piece meant to display a pianist’s skill and technique, for the indigenous gongs and percussion from Mindanao, alongside other orthodox Western instruments. Meanwhile, her “Divertissement for Piano and Orchestra” used rhythm from singkil—a Maranao dance based on the Ramayana—and Muslim chant, and incorporated the kulintang, agong, babandil, dabakan, and gandingan.

The 1980s ushered in another period for music, reflecting the socio-political climate of the time. Postmodernist music often made references to the period’s social, economic, linguistic, and political systems. Original Pilipino Music (OPM) was known even outside the country. Though most used and incorporated Western instruments and sound, OPM contained a unique Filipino flavor.

Today, Filipino music has become more commercial and globalized, following international trends and sounds. Traditional, ethnic music, on the other hand, has remained in the far regions and is not as widely known as it was then. Indigenous people still practice some of their musical traditions, though a few of these have gone from tradition to tourist attraction.

There is a clamor for support for the arts, especially OPM. Many new, young artists are emerging each with their own sound and influences, though most are markedly Western and global. But in many aspects of life today, there is a steady re-emergence of trends of old, thanks, perhaps to a growing social nostalgia or a romanticization of the past. It is most evident in fashion and design aesthetic, but it won’t be surprising to see it soon bleed into music as well. It’s only a matter of time before Filipino artists will rediscover the sounds of decades—and maybe even centuries—past.