Dancing with the Kalinga: Homage to a Brave Past

 Kalinga Treasures Trade Fair (Photo by Michael Gonzalez)

Kalinga Treasures Trade Fair (Photo by Michael Gonzalez)

[In 2017, the author travelled around the Philippines on a Fulbright grant to study the impact of globalization on indigenous and artisan crafts. This is part of an ongoing series about the experience]

We arrived at Tabuk City, Kalinga Province shortly before midnight after a 12-hour drive from Manila with Fe, my friend and our hardy driver, Roniel. Fe, an ethnomusicologist, was going to collect a few more chants as part of her lifelong work on music cultures. I, was on my first excursion outside Manila on a Fulbright grant, to investigate the effects of globalization on indigenous weaving and craft cultures. We were to meet up later next day with two other intrepid students of culture, Rod Hall and Nik Ynchausti, who flew into Tuguegarao airport, a mere two-hour flight from Manila on good weather.

The road to Tabuk, Kalinga in February was still verdant from the last monsoon. Road trips however arduous it may sound, give you the opportunity to appreciate the beauty and potential of the countryside. It was a road I was familiar with up to Nueva Ecija until it splits, Northeast towards the highway to Baguio and Northwest towards Kalinga. Provincial road traffic is awful at the city/town center where anything with wheels from motor or pedal bikes, carabao-drawn carts, and tourist buses, compete for a lane in an otherwise narrow two-lane national highway. It eases up past the town, and the air cleared free of diesel and smog from trucks and tricycles. You know then that it will be a long stretch of rice fields before the next town.

As our vehicle sped past the rural landscape towards the Cordilleras, you can feel the vibrancy of Philippine culture and its economy. The verdant hills and farm fields, the cluster of government housing at the town's outskirts, and a parade of produce trucks headed south to Manila seem to give evidence to progress. Gold, extracted by a few multinationals, is a major export. With great leadership and collective participation, there is still much to hope for— indeed, as most Filipinos have been wanting for so many decades.

 From left to right, a cousin, Felis, Rod, author, Nik and Fe at the trade fair (Photo courtesy of Michael Gonzalez)

From left to right, a cousin, Felis, Rod, author, Nik and Fe at the trade fair (Photo courtesy of Michael Gonzalez)

Tabuk City, a rising major urban center northwest of the older Tuguegarao metropolis, was bustling with construction and preparations for the upcoming Tabuk festival of trade, culture and Kalinga foundation day. During this week, the city showcases Kalinga’s economic reputation as Cordillera’s rice granary and source of farm products such as coffee and ginger. Products galore from wood work to fashion are lined up for sale along the main street as evidence of this prosperity.

As the only other City in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), Tabuk is emerging as an economic and cultural center outside of Baguio, the other City. The concept of CAR is to leave the development of its ancestral domain with little interference from the national central government, historically known for its ‘imperial’ attitudes towards its provincial constituents. Kalinga are proud of their solidarity and struggled hard to keep their independence and cultural integrity from Manila’s imposition. Manila’s proximity to Baguio show signs of over-development in that city. Tuguegarao, a city that exhibits a similar unmitigated, haphazard and poorly adhered to development standards, foretell an ominous signature of progress with traffic jams that imitates Manila’s and soon, Baguio’s notoriety. In comparison, Tabuk’s traffic was light, its central boulevard spacious and wide open. I sensed this even during darkening light of dusk, from the fresh scent of evening dew and the uniform silhouettes of trees that lined the highway, that this was a tree-lined avenue to the city. This pleasant drive was confirmed on our way next morning to collect our friends from the Tuguegarao airport. [The road to Tugegarao was unremarkable beyond the all-weather national highway that made for a comfortable ride.]

The Tabuk Grand Zion Hotel seems like an odd name for a Kalinga hotel were it not for the imposing edifice of the Iglesia Ni Kristo temple across the street, but it was comfortable enough to get a good night’s sleep after the long road trip. A rooster crowing in the morning reminded me that the place was still provincial. Fe’s Kalinga friends, Godfrey, Joe and daughter, Felis joined us for a rice-and-eggs breakfast where I was re-introduced to Kalinga coffee. I remember my aktibista college friends who have been to Kalinga on cultural exposure trips during the Marcos years, boast about the coffee’s qualities - strong and brave, just like its growers. I also remember their advice should I ever find myself in the Cordilleras, coffee is always served as the norm for greeting guests. I mentally tell my gut to brace for many nights of Kalinga coffee.

 Kalinga fashion (Photo by Michael Gonzalez)

Kalinga fashion (Photo by Michael Gonzalez)

Felis, Joe and Godfrey were from the Pangsiw clan of the Mandukayan, a subgroup of the Kalinga-speaking peoples. They pride themselves to be musicians and for having been Fe’s resource persons for studies on Kalinga music. Felis herself studied for a Masters in ethnomusicology in Manila. But they were anxious to honor my request to meet weavers first, so off we went to see their grandmother, herself a weaver and who learned the craft from her mother. Apo Onang, now 78 years old, is an aunt of Felis’ mother from the Tanudan village. Apo Onang said she learned from her mother when she was very young. Her fine noble features were outstanding as is her gentle yet commanding presence. In my mind, here is a lady of substance. A woman of Kalinga culture, she had an armful of tattoos to show for it. She told her story (translated into Tagalog by granddaughter Felis):

Apo Onang learned to weave from mother, as did her other sisters, but some of them who became educated stopped weaving. All the women learned to weave. The men on the other hand, wove only baskets. Her clan, the Mandukayan have their own designs for skirts, loin cloths, or head bands. They wove home grown cotton before which they got from neighboring villages who grew them. When they migrated to the city, all this changed. Now they weave using commercial polycotton. She tried teaching Felis, but Felis finds it hard learning by verbal transmission.

The Pangsiw menfolk are musicians and who make their own bamboo instruments. To Kalinga Joe Pangsiw and his musician brothers, a good sound, a beautiful music is, mabaro. This, I imagine is the perfect assembly of harmony and rhythm. It is said that Kalinga music and dancing is primarily a way to talk to spirits and to celebrate community. The Pangsiw brothers wanted to play the gangsa gongs to celebrate our presence but a recent death in the community would have made it inappropriate. The loud and piercing sounds of the gangsa would have been disrespectful and disturbing to the spirits. Instead, Joe took out the bamboo instruments. Played well, the sounds when played in ensemble, are more mellow with gentle tones like a bubbling brook. Joe tried teaching me how to play the kullitong (kolitong), a bamboo zither with five fiber strings. The five strings correspond to the number of gongs the Kalinga play as a standard. Each string is equivalent to a gong. Gongs are played in ensemble. In this construct, the zither replicates the gongs as a solo instrument. The kullitong is constructed from a two-feet length of 3-4 inch diameter tube, cut at the nodes, from a bamboo specie unique to the Cordillera. One node is punched open, so the sound could resonate outward. A slight crack is made on a one side to create additional tonal qualities. The larger the diameter of the tube, the deeper the sound. Before the bamboo completely dries, five bamboo "strings" are slit and lifted from the skin of the bamboo. They approximate 1/4 inches wide. The strings are then tuned with bamboo bridges about 1/2 long by 1/4 inches high and slid upright under the strings. The pitch of the string varies based on the distance from the other end of a similar bridge. The closer the bridges are together, the higher the pitch. A kullitong tube then would be strung with these five strings throughout; two strings are closer to each other at the bottom and the three other strings spaced evenly at the top. Joe gave me a signed five-stringed kullitong.

 Kullitong made by Joe Pangsiw

Kullitong made by Joe Pangsiw

To play the kullitong, the bamboo tube is rested on the belly to hold it upright. Both hands pluck the strings. The tube rests on the heels of both palms while the right and left thumbs play a steady rhythm and the rest of the fingers plays the tune.

 Playing the kullitong (Photo by Michael Gonzalez)

Playing the kullitong (Photo by Michael Gonzalez)

As a guitarist, playing the kullitong with both hands was uncomplicated for me, but I struggled with the syncophated beat. I settled to play the tabbatab, a bamboo gong, similarly constructed like the kullitong but with fewer and wider fiber strings that are meant to be struck. I struck with a stick to beat a rhythm.

 Rod and Fe on a roll. (Photo by Michael Gonzalez)

Rod and Fe on a roll. (Photo by Michael Gonzalez)

 Dancing to the tabbatab. Author is on the far right. (Photo courtesy of Michael Gonzalez)

Dancing to the tabbatab. Author is on the far right. (Photo courtesy of Michael Gonzalez)

I joined the dancing that was in progress, the brothers Jose, Fred and Godfrey, played the bamboo gongs. The older women danced barehanded, using their hands and extended arms to follow the rhythm of the beats. We danced in a circle. Felis, Joe's daughter, also drummed on the gongs and coached me how to dance-- jump and a slight bop up and down according to the beat. There we were, me and the three brothers, a nephew, Joe's daughter, her mother and an aunt and Fe, jamming on a Kalinga beat. Later Rod joined us, his tall figure bopping up and down to the beat. On signal from the leader, the circle stops and then go counter clockwise. This happened several times, alternatingly. At the end of the song, we all came together in the center of the circle and we left our gongs bunched together, upright and standing as if in celebration. The feeling was truly celebratory and with a communality induced by dancing in a circle.

Finally, Godfrey, obviously the singer among the brothers, gave a thank-you hymn. Sang in the Mandukayan dialect, just on tonal quality alone, what I felt was a superb rendition of high tones with smooth and a low aspiratory tonal singing, almost in a whisper, almost as if weaving, in talimbat style, where several tunes softly slip in and out of the main melody.

Thirty-five years and many harvests ago during the 1980s, the valleys and hills of the Cordillera from Bontok to Tabuk were threatened to extinction by the construction of the Marcos-sponsored Chico River Dam Project, a World Bank funded mega-hydroelectric dam that would have flooded the population centers, ancestral homes and the centuries-old heritage of these Cordilleran communities forever. Faced with a worldwide protest by environmental and urban activists, academics, and the Cordilleran peoples themselves, World Bank withdrew the project. The murder of the leading Cordilleran activist, Macli-ing Dulag, a Kalinga elder was the last straw. Philippine Army soldiers with long arms came to his village and fired shots at his home, killing him and wounding others. Every April 24th, the people of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), the other ironical outcome of this protest, celebrate and honor its truly genuine hero, and keep alive the anti-dam consciousness amidst stirrings of building new ones.

 The Chico River

The Chico River

Most of my early research has been in Southern Tagalog observing fisher folks, farmers, and healers. I always envied my colleagues who were in the field north of Baguio and Sagada, the furthest north I have been. During the tumultuous years of the 70’s skirmishes between the communist New Peoples Army, the Philippine Army, and the Igorot resistance were always on the news. Kalinga and many mountain territories were battlegrounds.

Thirty-five years ago, Tabuk and much of Kalinga would have been underwater. When the opportunity to go to Kalinga, with no less a Kalinga expert musicologist, I could not resist the invitation. I have relished the experience ever since, fortunate for having knowledgeable friends and indebted to the resistance of Macli-ing Dulag and the courageous Cordilleran people have who have bestowed us, lowlanders, the opportunity to share the blessings of their wonderful land and heritage. Better yet, we danced with the Kalinga.

 On the road to Lubuagan, Kalinga

On the road to Lubuagan, Kalinga


 Michael Gonzalez

Michael Gonzalez

Dr. Michael Gonzalez has degrees in History, Anthropology, and Education. A professor at City College San Francisco, he teaches a popular course on Philippine History Thru Film. He also directs the NVM Gonzalez Writers' Workshop in California. http://nvmgonzalez.org/writersworkshop/index.html


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