April - May 2008
Himig Pinoy

Living rhythms

[photo by Padma Perez]

BAGUIO CITY — Minutes after Manny Pacquiao beat Erik Morales last year, gongs could be heard ringing joyously throughout this northern city. Last Sunday, when Pacquiao wrested the World Boxing Council superfeatherweight belt from Juan Manuel Marquez, Baguio’s foggy communities were silent. Yet it may hardly been because residents here were less appreciative of The Pacman’s efforts this time around.

Even last year, pattong, or playing the gongs, could not have been for Pacquiao. Pattong is simply not done for individuals without relations in the community — even if that individual happens to be the “Pambansang Kamao (National Fist).” More likely, the gongs were brought out by some families here to announce a victorious bet made over the fight and to invite neighbors to partake of celebratory drinking and eating.

This glimpse of a day in the life of Baguio’s residents is just one example of how indigenous music remains alive and well in the 21st century. And while that may be news to lowlanders used to hearing Western-style tunes, it is a fact of life for those still close to the communities of their forefathers, and who live and breathe the music of their people.

Alex Tumapang, for one, grew up to pattong in his ili (home-village) in Tanudan, Kalinga. He describes indigenous music as “very natural. It is based on our environment, on our feelings. It is very raw.”

But it is also music that has been nurtured and treated with respect. Now 35, Tumapang says that as little children, they were not allowed to play with the gongs because these were heavy; the grownups were afraid the children would drop the treasured instruments and damage these. So Tumapang says he and his playmates would pretend to play the gongs whenever they trooped down to the river to swim and play. They would hold a river rock in each hand and strike these together, trying to imitate the rhythms they had heard the grownups play.

When canned sardines arrived in their village, the children fashioned their own miniature gongs from the oval cans. At weddings the adults would encourage them to bring out their sardinas cans and play a few rounds for everybody. Tumapang says he and his friends had “idols” — grownups that could move impressively while playing the gongs or dancing — and they imitated them the best they could.

In Tumapang’s ili the children were encouraged to learn and appreciate the rhythms. He says he and his friends were about seven when they were finally allowed to play the gongs at weddings and at podon, or peace pacts. The elders paid close attention to the way the children struck the gongs — sometimes out of concern for the gongs themselves, which were precious possessions.

[photo by Padma Perez]

Later on, when Tumapang spent more time working in the fields or watching over crops with his brothers and sisters, he also learned how to play the kulittong (bamboo guitar) to pass the time. They took out the spiral wires that held their notebooks together and straightened these for the strings, which they attached to a wide bamboo tube. When he moved to Tabuk for high school, Tumapang was hired to play the kulittong on the air for Bombo Radyo. Another young Kalinga who was talented with the flute joined him on air. They taught each other what they knew of each instrument, and so Tumapang also became adept at the flute.

Today Tumapang is an active member of the Cordillera Music Tutorial and Research Center (CMTRC), which organizes workshops and performances aimed at popularizing and teaching the music and dances of the indigenous peoples of the region.

“Indigenous music is new!” he jokes. “Nobody said anything was indigenous before. It’s only recently that everything has become indigenous.”

INDEED, WHAT is now called “indigenous music” was once also known as “ethnic music,” and is sometimes regarded as a distant relative of “world music.” CMTRC itself was organized at a time when the term “indigenous” became attached to a global movement for the recognition of rights to territory and self-determination.

Thus, to call music indigenous is to recognize that it belongs to a people and to a place. This makes it a must to give open acknowledgement of indigenous sources as a matter of respect in an age where music is often treated as a commodity.

[photo by Padma Perez]

Place, people, and the practices that bind them together will always be part of what makes music indigenous. Community celebrations and rituals at weddings, peace pacts, and prestige and harvest feasts will not be complete without music. In Baguio, whenever smoke is seen rising from a cluster of houses on one of the city’s hills, locals say, “Where there is smoke, there is cañao.” And as everyone knows, where there is a cañao, there is sacrificial meat to be shared, tapuy or rice wine and other spirits — and music and dance.

Jason Domling, a 26-year-old Cordilleran who works with Tumapang at the Center, says that when he organizes a performance — especially a big one — he usually asks for at least a chicken to be sacrificed beforehand, backstage. This palpably changes the air of the performance, he says, because they feel lighter, happier, and more comfortable. But he also says this is a matter of choice; some people will prefer not to go anywhere near rituals, and that is all right, too.

“Even without ritual a performance could still be indigenous,” says Domling. “As long as the music and movements really originate from the place that the performers say they are presenting.”

“In the ili people recognize different rhythms on the gongs by their village of origin,” says Ruel Bimuyag, a Center colleague and fellow Cordilleran. “Or sometimes, we just hear the gongs playing and we can guess where the players are from.”

Bimuyag, 28, grew up in Asin, in the outskirts of Baguio City. But he managed to remain in contact with his Banaue and Hapao ili in Ifugao and became involved with his peoples’ music partly because the Catholic school he attended had a cultural program that revolved around music and dance for Ibaloi, Kankanaey, and Ifugao students. He also says that it was through the ritual healing done by elders during four bouts of illness in his childhood years that he was able to discover and nurture his cultural heritage (aside from enabling him to recover from ailments that conventional medicine could not treat).

Bimuyag says that ritual has both tangible and intangible elements and even when they are performing onstage, they still incorporate traces of rituals that are imperceptible to lay audiences.

Outsiders may also be unable to tell as well when the music can no longer be classified as “indigenous.” Observes Domling: “Sometimes, people will hear indigenous instruments being played onstage, and they think that’s indigenous music without realizing that what’s being played may have modern elements in it already. I think that (performers) can use indigenous instruments to play other (kinds of) music but they should say that it’s fusion then. They shouldn’t call it indigenous.”

[photo by Padma Perez]

Domling himself has experience in creating what he calls “indigenous fusion music.” He orchestrated the simultaneous playing of 108 gongs in Baguio, with boys beating a gong each while young girls danced. It was a sight to behold and the music they produced thundered with palpable pride. These days, whenever Domling runs into the children who participated, they always ask him whether there will be a repeat performance.

ANTHROPOLOGISTS DEFINE music as a communicational practice that organizes sound through melodies, rhythms, pitch, timber, duration, and loudness. Indigenous music, then, is this form of communication that belongs to a sphere of practice in a particular culture, community, and environment.

Yet the act of recording, producing, and selling musical artifacts such as CDs has severed music from communities and from ritual. This has opened the gateways for immense changes in the ways that indigenous music can be heard, played, and created.

In academic circles, there is a notion that indigenous music must be “traditional.” Domling, who traces his roots to Sagada even though he grew up in Baguio City, allows, “Indigenous music comes from the ancestors. It is passed on to succeeding generations and taught hands-on, orally, through practice. You don’t learn it from written texts or musical sheets.”

Domling himself says that although he participated in traditional dance performances in the Catholic elementary school he attended, it was actually in high school that he developed his ear for the music of his ili and learned to discern rhythms and melodies he heard played on different occasions. He says the elders took notice of him and approved of the way he held himself while dancing or playing the gongs.

Bimuyag, though, remarks, “I think it’s a misconception to say that indigenous music is only old traditions. This disregards new things coming out of indigenous communities.”

“Indigenous musical pieces were composed before and then they were used from generation to generation, so they became tradition,” he points out. “If we make new compositions now, coming from our roots, and if they are accepted and used by the community, then they will also become tradition in the future.”

To Bimuyag, traditions at one point were also innovations. If a new rhythm or melody has community approval and acceptance, and if a community uses it over time in their celebrations and rituals, then it could still be considered indigenous, he argues. It would boil down to the source of the music, and the social fabric of the music — the contexts in which it is played.

[photo by Padma Perez]

Tumapang, meanwhile, comments, “You cannot put a limit on peoples’ creativity.” He says that the feeling and emotion of the player have a lot do with what makes music indigenous when playing the flute or the kulittong.

“With the flute or the kulittong, you cannot judge someone as good or bad,” he says. “It’s not proper. You can only say that someone knows how to play, because every one has his or her own style and different feelings come out of you each time you play. Also, with these individual instruments you can never repeat a piece and make it come out identical every time. It changes with how you feel. It’s like extemporaneous speech.”

In the meantime, indigenous music is being transformed in other ways. For instance, in the past, women were not allowed to play gongs. Nowadays, in community celebrations, it is not unusual to see an elderly woman pick up a gong, and, with a mischievous smile on her face, rally other women around her to play. Community members know this is “not done,” but nobody stops the women.

Still, there are certain limits to change. A flute made to the Western scale, for example, cannot play indigenous melodies, and vice versa. Tumapang and company are also adamant that people who borrow indigenous music for their own purposes should not “bastardize” it. It should be treated with respect, say the three Cordillerans.

All three are helping make sure of that through their work at the Center. Their commitment to their ili music has even taken them abroad, where they have performed with other Cordilleran musicians and dancers.

But Bimuyag has an extra-special reason to keep alive the culture — and music — that more than once nursed him back to health. He and his wife Irene, who is from Kalinga, have a young son they have named Sapi Kabbigat Yawi, or Sky for short, and they aim to complete for him the rituals that accompany the growth and development of a child in their respective communities. These rituals, says Bimuyag, will foster in Sky a unique sense of belonging as a member of both Ifugao and Kalinga communities, and will create for him a wealth of goodwill for his future.

Bimuyag stresses that music will play a vital part in cementing the relationships that these rituals establish. After all, indigenous music is, as he puts it, “we” music — music that belongs to a community.