7 Things You Need to Know About Kulintang Music
This is an edited version of an article originally published on INQUIRER.net
My Kulintang journey began in 2012, during which I heard more kulintang music over a short period of time than I'd heard during 26 years of living in Manila. Around the same time, I met several souls that are deeply into the music. Growing up in the Philippines, there were different perceptions of kulintang music that made it difficult to access, let alone hear and play it, unless you really look. I was fortunate to have a little exposure to it during high school, as we had to learn bits and pieces of our cultural arts, but outside of that it was all pop and mainstream music by international artists on the airwaves.
Hearing it a lot seemed like a voice talking to me. When practitioners say “talking gongs,” they’re not kidding. The gongs really talk to you. What seemed to be voices of our ancestors have drawn me closer and closer to its melodies; hence, my drive to continuously learn more about it. Sixteen kulintang pieces later, I’m in - and I realize there are a few things people need to remember about Kulintang music.
1. Kulintang Music is Filipino
It isn’t Muslim. It isn’t Islamic music. It’s Filipino. Pre-colonial Pilipino, for that matter. While similar instruments can be found in different Southeast Asian countries, the melodies of kulintang are based off of traditional chanting, vocal music and boat-lute music that were eventually translated to the Kulintang ensemble. This used to be how our ancestors communicated with each other. They are actual voices, and each of the patterns in a piece are conjugations of each other, as if speaking a language.
2. Kulintang Music doesn’t come from just one cultural group
We know that there are over 7000 islands in the Philippines. Yup, that’s how diverse the country is. In the Southern Philippines alone, where kulintang is mostly heard, has several Kulintang-playing ethnic tribes including Maguindanao, Maranao, Tausug, Sama, T’boli, the Blaan, Manobo, and Bagobo, among others. Think of it as rock and roll, where each band is composed of different instrumentalists. Some three-piece bands choose not to have lead guitars, while others choose to have 13 band members playing all kinds of different instruments. A kulintang ensemble can either have three agongs or two; some include the gandingan while some don’t. Some pieces are rhythmic, while most are very melodic.
3. Kulintang music is not part of any religious practice
Just because you hear gong chimes through kulintang, that doesn’t mean it’s Islamic. While it’s been heard pre-Spanish occupation, it has nothing to do with Islam. Its association with Islam have become a tactic for the Spanish conquistadors to create a divide as they found it hard to infiltrate the Mindanao region. Calling Kulintang Islamic music is like calling Spanish guitar Philippine music. Know your own culture!
4. Kulintang Music is a legacy of our ancestors
Every beat, pattern, rhythm are based off of chants about the earth, the environment for healing, celebration, processions etc. This was a way of communication. A way to relate to nature and a way of life. Each piece tells a story.
5. All Gong music isn’t Kulintang
Hitting gongs does not equate to kulintang music. Kulintang is an instrument and the type of music it produces comes from many years of interpreting nature and our peoples’ environment. It’s storytelling. It is healing. It is celebrating. The melodic sounds of it tells stories of tribal peoples based on their experiences. Each pattern interpret voices chanting over the years.
6. Kulintang is a Lifestyle
It’s not just intended for theater nor for stage presentations. It could be something you do to heal yourself or others, play to entertain and celebrate. Just like our ancestors, you can use it in any form as long as you are able to communicate your work and how it relates to the origins of the kulintang culture. Immersing in kulintang music is immersing into a whole plethora of pre-colonial culture, including dances and ancient stories.
7. Kulintang is a women’s instrument
Traditionally, kulintang ensembles are composed of mostly women by many groups - among them Maguindanao, Maranao, Tausug, Sukul, Badjao, and many others. The graceful, slow and relaxed movements of playing the kulintang was associated with the splendor of females. In North America, kulintang is mostly seen being played by men and is not strictly a woman’s instrument anymore, especially contemporary kulintang players. If you are a woman and you are reading this, maybe it’s time to grab a pair of beaters and start learning.
While these are basic insights into the music, there is still a lot to learn. Even practitioners who have been immersed in kulintang music for many many years are still discovering new things and continuously learning. We have a deep, rich and colorful history - mostly untapped and never learned in school. Immersing yourself with kulintang comes with a bigger responsibility - more than we know and more than we think we know.
Lydia “Lady” Neff is a performing artist born and raised in the Philippines, now based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She studied at Coastal Dance and Music Academy and has performed with Dancing Earth, Kularts and Jay Loyola Dance Collaborations, Alleluia Panis Dance, and toured internationally with Parangal Dance Company. As a kulintang practitioner, she has performed with San Francisco Kulintang Project and Kulintronica and produced Gongster's Paradise, the largest kulintang festival in the west. She's also co-founder of House of Gongs, which offers Kulintang, Tagalog and Eskrima classes. As a writer, Lydia’s goal is to open up dialogue within the diaspora about arts and culture and what it means for us living from a distance to the motherland.