Made from bronze in the old days, kulintangs are now poured into shape from molten padlocks. The constant efforts of the Philippine government to subjugate and control the Southern Philippines contributes to the continual destruction of one of the last remaining symbols of resistance to colonization. The kulintang is an indigenous instrument predating even the Moslem religion. With very few narratives that are distinctly from the islands of the Philippines, the kulintang stands as a testament to a group’s desire to maintain its cultural identity and values.
My love affair with the kulintang began while photographing Philippine folk dancing. At first, the notes that I heard were foreign, shrill and ear-splitting. But as time passed and I watched the singkil being performed again and again, those shrill notes evoked in me curiosity. What is the origin of these metal pieces? What is their story?
My search led me to eventually take a class with Master Danongan Kalanduyan. I loved the class because it introduced me to a Filipino culture I did not know. As a side note, I had to go to the land of milk, honey and baseball before I could learn about an indigenous Filipino instrument. Seems awfully perverse that the schools in the Philippines do not teach anything about the kulintang or the Igorot kubing. Both forms were taken to be OTHER in Manila.
What is the ensemble cast of a kulintang? Let’s discuss my favorite – the gandingan. The gandingan is made up of four hanging gongs that form the base for the music. I personally like it because I get to beat things with my left and right hand. But the coordination that is required to keep in time with the rest of the instruments is just outstanding. When I first tried to beat it, the beats I played sped up, slowed down, paused, sped up again to catch the train, and then stopped because of confusion.
My other favorites were the agongs. Two large gongs in the shape of bowls. Depending on where you hit the gongs, you created different sounds. There is a lower tone agong and a higher tone agong. It seemed I had more of a match with playing the agons because I could count and keep time. But as I learned later, keeping time for thirty seconds is absolutely different from keeping time for two minutes.
Then there is the bambadir or the timekeeper. Well, obviously, this was not my favority because for me, time is relative. Depending on how you look at it, slow time can be fast time. Yup, I learned that form physics. But in the music world, time must be kept. Otherwise, chaos and disorder reign. I remember, I was doing the bambadir and I was so off that someone who was reading a book asked me to stop playing.
The last instrument is the drum. Playing the drums means a consistent and timely set of patterns. In learning to play the ensemble, I learned very quickly that I march to my own little music which is set on a relative time scale. For the life of me, I could barely, barely reach the end of the song with the drums.
In the first concert that I played in, I ended up playing what I lovingly call air kulintang. I looked like I was hitting the instrument, but I was really playing the air and hoping I looked like I knew what was going on. It takes a certain amount of dedication and obsession with the kulintang to be able to make it sing. There is memory for the pieces for sure, but there is also an overarching reach for perfection.
As a photographer, I needed to play the kulintang to understand its various moods and emotions. It is only through interaction that I can try to capture the kulintang’s song.