A Career in ‘Roots’ Music

 Bernard Ellorin (right) with Taalao Manandao, a Sulu Kulintang Master

Bernard Ellorin (right) with Taalao Manandao, a Sulu Kulintang Master

Bernard Ellorin was 10 years old when he tagged along with his mother, Dina Barros Ellorin, to a rondalla class of the San Diego-based Samahan Philippine Dance Company that she was attending more than two decades ago. Rondalla refers to a string band with a distinctively Filipino sound, perfect for the festive, lilting melodies that accompany Philippine folk dances. The band is composed mainly of banduria players, accompanied by rhythm and bass guitarists.

 The precocious boy fell in love with the strains of the Filipino banduria, a 14­-stringed musical instrument indigenous to the Philippines. His mother signed him up and Boomer, as his friends call him, became the youngest student in the rondalla class. Bernard has been hooked on Philippine ethnic music ever since.

Today he is Dr. Bernard Ellorin, with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. Now 34, the young man with brooding good looks leads the Kulintang Ensemble of the dance company, currently called the Samahan Filipino­American Performing Arts and Education Center.

Samahan is a term in Pilipino (or Tagalog) which means “working together in the spirit of camaraderie.”

 Bernard (seated at the Kulintang) with the Samahan Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble performing a Maranao dance (Photo by R. Profet)

Bernard (seated at the Kulintang) with the Samahan Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble performing a Maranao dance (Photo by R. Profet)

The organization, founded by the late Lolita Diñoso Carter, Ph.D., in 1974, is one of the leading performing arts groups in the United States dedicated to preserving the Philippines’ cultural heritage through ethnic dance and music. Highlights of Samahan events planned for 2016 include a Philippine Cultural Festival at San Diego’s famed Balboa Park in June and a Gala Concert at the Joan Kroc Auditorium in September.

Kulintang is the name of a musical instrument featuring a row of gongs set on a wooden platform, traditionally used by tribal groups in Mindanao in southern Philippines, for rituals, ceremonies, weddings and other social occasions. A smaller version of the kulintang, called the sarunay, is used by new students learning to play the instrument.

When Samahan obtained a grant from the U.S. National Endowment of the Arts and commissioned a San Francisco­based Filipino ethnic artist, Kulintang Master Danongan Kalanduyan, to travel to San Diego and conduct kulintang workshops, Bernard was one of the pioneering students who attended the classes, held twice a month between 1994 and 1998.


Bernard Ellorin said he was so focused on his passion for Philippine ethnic music that he decided to study it all the way: from his undergraduate work through his doctoral studies.

Recalling the days when he got started, Bernard said, “I was taking piano lessons then; my Mom wanted our family to be involved in music and the arts. It was also a time when I began to feel I needed to know more about Filipino culture.” He was then going to Silvergate School in Point Loma, San Diego, where he was the only Filipino student in his class. By then, he also knew he wanted to pursue a career in the arts, specifically ethnic music.

Bernard recounted how he was always impressed by the different dance performances of Samahan. His sister, Nichi, performed with Samahan for more than ten years and later also danced with Bayanihan , the Philippines’ national dance company. Bernard’s mother, Dina, has served as president of Samahan’s Board of Directors. Dina currently acts as interim executive director, succeeding Carmen Galang, Ph.D., a former Samahan parent, who served as pro­bono executive director for almost five years. A professor of nursing at San Diego State University and a member of the rondalla band, Dr. Galang volunteered selflessly to lead Samahan and continue the legacy of her friend, Samahan founder Dr. Lolita D. Carter who passed away in July 2011.

Today Bernard leads the rondalla band players, working with Samahan’s musical director, Frederick Embalsado, and artistic director­choreographer, Ruby Chiong. “Boomer can play all the music in the repertoire even while he’s sleeping,” joked Dr. Juanita Caccam, a long­time Samahan volunteer who was Bernard’s first banduria instructor. Dr. Caccam, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry and considers music her avocation, continues to teach in the rondalla class. Boomer also conducts kulintang workshops under the auspices of Samahan.

 The Samahan Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble at the Travel Show, San Diego Convention Center (Photo by R. Profet)

The Samahan Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble at the Travel Show, San Diego Convention Center (Photo by R. Profet)

During performances, the rondalla band provides musical accompaniment for the dances originating from the Luzon and Visayas Islands, as well as the Cordillera Mountains, home to the ethnic groups (collectively called the Igorots) living in the mountainous region of Luzon. For the Igorot dances, the gangsa, a flat gong, is also used. The Kulintang Ensemble, named Pakaraguian, takes over to provide complex gong and percussion music accompanying dances from the predominantly Muslim region of Mindanao Island. (Pakaraguian is a term from the Maguindanao tribal group, which means a “celebration of music and dance.”) For this segment, Bernard and his band don colorful costumes reminiscent of maharajahs and sultans to match the dazzling garb worn by the dancers and musicians from Cotabato, the seat of Maguindanaoan culture.

Bernard said he was so focused on his passion for Philippine ethnic music that he decided to study it all the way: from his undergraduate work through his doctoral studies. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and his master’s and doctorate from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He also completed a one­ year program at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City, where he studied various Philippine musical genres.

“I wanted to see how music is conceptualized by a culture,” Bernard said. He participated a number of times in the Mindanao Tribal Tour, a field study excursion in the kulintang arts. Sponsored by KulArts of San Francisco, the tour included interaction with master artists from various tribal groups in Mindanao. As a Fulbright Research Fellow and an Asian Cultural Council grantee, Bernard also conducted research in Tawi­tawi, Mindanao and Sabah, Malaysia to study traditions shared by maritime cultures for his master's thesis and dissertation.

Through actual experience, research work and field studies, Bernard has observed that music, as created by a culture, is constantly evolving. Through it all, he has developed a deep understanding of the role of music and dance in a culture and the role of culture in music and dance.


 Daisy Amos Laag

Daisy Amos Laag

Daisy Amos Laag, a native of San Marcelino, Zambales, holds a bachelor's degree in Mass Communication from the University of the Philippines, Before immigrating to the US, she was editor of Subic Bay News, the official publication of the former U.S. Naval Base, Subic Bay, in the Philippines. She received in 1985 the U.S. Department of Defense Thomas Jefferson Award for “professional excellence in journalism for the Armed Forces of the United States of America.” She and her husband, Eduardo, currently reside in Southern California. Daisy has written a memoir, "Mother's Dream, From Subic Bay to San Diego: One More Immigrant Story."