Utom Unfolds T’boli Myths Through Music

The Utom Ensemble (Photo by Fides Enriquez)

The Utom Ensemble (Photo by Fides Enriquez)

"What if… we let the music tell the story rather than the music support the moving images of a story?”

In answer to this query, Florante Aguilar created his most recent composition, “Utom.” It is constructed in eight movements telling the legend, through music, of how Lake Sebu was formed.  

Utom is a T’boli musical concept in which instruments are used to depict the sounds of nature, describe an event, and evoke the sound of the divine. “As animists, the T’boli believe that everything in our universe is a manifestation of the divine, and art and music are the ‘voice’ of the divine,” says Aguilar. Thus, when narrating T’boli mythologies, the music is very powerful.

Though the T’boli musical expression contains broader meanings, in western classical music terms, the closest comparison might be programme music.

Aguilar’s concert is supplemented by short film footage emphasizing key points of the legend.  Due to the strong oral tradition of the T’boli, it is possible to get many different versions of this legend. He chose the one based on the journal The Sounding Pantheon of Nature: T’boli Instrumental Music in the Making of Ancestral Symbol (International Musicological Society) by Manolete Mora. This version was told to Mr. Mora by Manudal Andal, a T’boli storyteller who was also his guide.  The story involves the conflict between a demigod Lemugot Mangay, who is sent to seduce the Princess Boi Henwu, and Kludan, her servant.  The roles in the film accompaniment were gracefully portrayed by Quinn Fowler, Isa Manon Musni, and Earl Alfred Paus.

Joel Ganlal, T’boli culture bearer, healer, and master artist in t’nonggong drum, s’loli flute, hegalong lute, and dance, was the Special Guest in “Utom.” He has performed internationally with the Helogong Cultural Troupe and for projects by the National Commission for Culture and Arts in California, New York, and Taiwan.

Caroline Cabading, a kulintang musician and educator who currently leads the traditional kulintang ensemble “Kultura Kapwa” and the kulintang-jazz ensemble “The Autonomous Region,” speaks of her experience of training with Ganlal: “One of the emotions that I miss the most from having the honor of touring professionally with Danongan Kalanduyan for twenty years, was the pride I felt knowing that I was backing a Rock Star. And I mean that in the best way that one can mean that. I was proud to be Filipino, proud to be representing our culture in one of its most empowering pre-colonial forms.  Playing the traditional drumming pattern of the t’nonggong for Joel Ganlal, I felt that feeling again of backing a Rock Star.”

Cabading also speaks of her experience with performing kulintang music in a manner which is a uniquely Filipino American expression. In a Behind-the-Scenes video by Fides Enriquez, Cabading says, “I do feel very happy and proud that I came into it (“Utom”) with a skill set that is not ignorant, that I actually understand how these gongs love to be played…and not as just in hitting the gongs or strumming the instruments, but also in your posture of how you present it--that bringing in all of that training and interpreting how it can be in this composition.”

(Video by Fides Enriquez)

Cabading further describes Florante Aguilar’s composition as “really a Filipino American composition in the sense that it is derived or influenced by traditional T’boli music but is a our own musical creation as Filipino Americans…it’s an example of our own unique expression as Filipino American ‘tribe,’” a term attributed to Danilo Begonia, a retired San Francisco State University professor who taught a course in Psychology of Filipinos in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

The musicians in the “Utom” ensemble, each one a stellar performer, play a variety of instruments within and outside their individual specialties.  Witnessing the musicians rotate to play the various instruments was a stimulating part of the program.  Nick Galang, a percussionist, music producer, and DJ born in Manila, played agung, t’nonggong, kulintang, and ocean drum. Greg Kehret, widely versed in classical performance, punk, funk, hip hop, and Afro-Cuban music, has also collaborated with Aguilar on The Harana Kings album, ASWANG and related projects. By day Kehret directs the Media and Accessible Design Lab at the LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco. He plays bass, kulintang, sludoy, hilet, and ocean drum. Sage Baggott is a third generation drummer raised in the Bay Area and Austin, Texas. He has performed with Orquesta la Moderna Tradición, Cuban percussionists Jesus Diaz, Roberto Borrell, flamenco performers La Tania, Chus Alonso, Jesus Montoya, to name a few. In UTOM, he plays cajon, bombo, djembe, kulintang, agung, and hang drum.

Lastly, here are some insights about “Utom” that further deepen and broaden my appreciation of the compositions and colorful, lively creativity of Florante Aguilar, whose work I have been a fan of for several years. For “Utom,” he combined two kulintang sets and removed gongs with identical notes, leaving 12 gongs total.  He then arranged them in two arrays with six gongs at the top and six at the bottom. 

“I did this because I wanted to write a piece that is contrapuntal, meaning two or more independent melodic lines that are played at the same time--impossible to play on a single array…The first one I wrote with this arrangement is ‘Kludan’s Desire,’ where each note is written out in western notation.”

“My hope is that a non-traditional kulintang player might enjoy playing in this manner the same way a classical musician plays written music,” Aguilar adds.  

For the hegelung, Aguilar plays it in a way that comes naturally to him.  For example, being a guitar player, he uses his nails instead of the traditional small and sharp bamboo piece tied to a string that is wrapped around the forefinger. In addition, he also changes the tuning based on the mode and scale needed in order to express a specific idea.

The Utom Project was made possible by the “Today’s Most Influential Composers” award from The Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  It was commissioned and presented by Kularts.

(Behind the Scenes UTOM: Caroline Cabading, video by Fides Enriquez)

Utom-Lake Sebu Trailer, Video by New Arts Media

(A heartfelt thanks to Fides Enriquez for permission to utilize two Behind-the-Scenes videos she published (edited by Eddie Wong) featuring the composer, Florante Aguilar and ensemble member, Caroline Cabading, respectively.   Sections of this piece are culled from Enriquez’ interviews.)

Lisa Suguitan Melnick

Lisa Suguitan Melnick

A third-generation Filipina American, Lisa Suguitan Melnick is a professor in the Kinesiology division at College of San Mateo, California. She serves on the board of directors of Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc. (PAWA). Currently she is part of the planning committee for the 5th Filipino American International Book Festival (Filbookfest5) coming to San Francisco October 11-13, 2019.

More articles by Lisa Suguitan Melnick