HIMIG KAWAYAN OF QUEZON CITY, LAGUNA, STA. MESA
Excerpt from the BMI Ethnography of Quezon City’s Pangkat Kawayan
Musiko Bumbong of Pangkat Kawayan: The Glory of the Singing Bamboos of the Philippines By Janine Josephine Arianne A. Liao
A LIFETIME GUARANTEE: ELEVATING THE HUMBLE BAMBOO TUBE
Under the creative leadership of Victor Toledo, the old Pangkat Kawayan of Quezon City produced music using the bamboo instruments that were created, designed, and refined by the master himself. The current Pangkat Kawayan uses the same instruments that were made at least thirty years ago but have aged beautifully with the group. With the dedication and attention to detail evident in their quality, these instruments attest to the standard of a lifetime’s guarantee that can only come from meticulous research and production
One important aspect that I have noticed is that a major driving force for the creation of these instruments was for the bamboo instrument to be able to play a western, diatonic scale. In an article, Vic Toledo writes that the bumbong, or tuned bamboo tube, needs to play a complete scale, in tune, in order to make a beautiful sound. According to him, most bamboo instruments in the Philippines are “not tuned,” that is to say, pitches are indefinite in comparison to western tuning. This undertaking to tune the bamboo seems to stem from a very cosmopolitan outlook, indicating a desire to participate in a global music culture. It also indicates a strong local thrust in developing distinctively Filipino instruments through utilizing and perfecting bamboo instrument making and design.
Among the instruments that the Toledo makers crafted, the most unique and significant is the bumbong. These are thick in diameter and appear to be quite heavy. With a hole at the side, it appears as a thick transverse flute. However, unlike the thin flutes with multiple holes, the bumbong produces a single pitch per tube. They have a complete set of two and a half octaves. As Vic writes, it is a unique contribution of the Philippines to the world.
Another instrument that looks unique is the tipanklung or bamboo piano. It is similar to the angklung, or bamboo rattles from Indonesia. However, instead of these played separately by different individuals, the rattles are hanged on a frame and arranged like a piano, including the raised black keys. It looks like a curiosity, but once it is hanged like so, it is possible to be played by one person. When they performed for us, this instrument carried the main melody. This instrument is one of the later creations of Vic Toledo.
They also have an instrument that they call the Philippine angklung, the alugtog, which is played similarly by groups in an interlocking style. However, the appearance of the instrument features a different design, the most notable of which is the three- line staff with a black sixteenth note in the center. This appearance follows the western model and is a mark that signals its easy adaptability to western-style music.
Another form of bamboo rattles are the chord rattles. What is unique about this instrument is that each rattle is already made up of three pitches, forming a chord, which can be played by one person as accompaniment. The members who demonstrated these performed with choreography, with simple turns and forward-backward sways. They also have a marimba, whose bars are made of narra and resonators made of bamboo instead of metal. The marimbas in the group play melodies, harmonies, and obbligato fills in the music arrangements. I noticed that the senior members of the Pangkat Kawayan were the ones who played the marimba.
An interesting instrument was lying at the corner of the Pangkat center. According to Beth, it was not used anymore. It was the tunog hagdan bamboo instrument. And true enough to its name, it looks like a ladder. The “steps” are made of narra bars, and can be classified as a xylophone instrument. Beth demonstrated the instrument for us by performing the song Pipit which was arranged by Vic Toledo. This instrument is unique to Pangkat Kawayan and is said to be one of Vic’s many musical instrument inventions.
Lying at the sides of the Pangkat center were the gabbang. The gabbang is a xylophone found among indigenous people in southern Philippines. However, according to Chino, these were not tuned and were therefore not used at all.
Finally, a curiosity of a piece was the sungkit. There was only one available, and as they said, it was for aesthetic purposes, and did not function for sound at all. It was a long piece of bamboo, similar to a sungkit or a device used to get fruit from trees.
The Toledo bumbong instruments have been around for a long time and are cleaned with alcohol as they have been shared all these generations. But these are indeed of good quality – well-aged, solid-sounding, and sturdy. For minor repairs, they just apply white glue, and for finetuning, a small piece of wood is attached to the inside, and I believe this small piece can then be maniulated to alter the tuning of the bumbong.
Currently, the sets that they use are stored in the Pangkat Kawayan center, but they can be easily packed for travel. Even the tipanklung can be dissembled for easy shipping. Aside from the ones used in performance, there are still some instruments around. These spares are stored in the Pangkat Kawayan center, but some are still at the Toledos’ house. There also may still be broken sets of angklung, still untuned. Sadly, those without storage space have been thrown away.
Meanwhile, a different form of invaluable wealth can be found in the Pangkat Kawayan Center: posted on the walls are articles on bamboo written by Victor Toledo himself. One of these articles is a collection of excerpts from a Japanese book on bamboo that he translated. Another is a treatise on the history of the bumbong (bamboo tube) as a cultural item and a musical instrument in the Philippines that he co-researched with a Vicente Toledo, professor of Spanish language and music in University of Manuel L. Quezon. Most noteworthy is this article that provides direct insight into the manufacturing process that Vic Toledo had mastered. An outcome of his personal experiences, research, observations, and consultations with builders and carpenters, this article discusses in detail the process of choosing and treating of bamboo, as well as cutting it and putting the pieces together to form instruments.
First, Vic shares that it is best to cut bamboo during summer. In the rainy season, the bamboos have new shoots, and these young sprouts have a “sweet” essence that attracts bukbok (rice weevils) which damage the bamboo. If cutting bamboo during the rainy season is unavoidable, it is best to soak it in vinegar in order to counter its “sweetness” and prevent it from being attacked by bukbok. Once the bamboo is dried, wood treatments like Solignum can be used. Wood varnish – regular wood varnish, according to Vic’s son Chino – was also applied to the bumbong found in the Pangkat Kawayan Center, but Vic does not mention this in his articles. Also discussed is the use of sandpaper as a seal of sorts and how it provides better resonance, possibly due to the rough surface. This may be a unique practice to the Toledo makers.
Next, Vic warns against using old or mature bamboo. Older bamboo tubes, which can be identified by their telltale reddish tone, easily break and do not have the ideal sound. He says that the ideal age for bamboo for instrument making would be around five years, when bamboo possesses sturdy and strong fibers and a clear, bright sound. Clearly, he also cautions against using cracked, bent, or crooked bamboo tubes, as these cannot be tuned properly. He further shares that tropical bamboos have harder fibers, thus producing a bright and clear sound as opposed to bamboos that grow in more temperate regions, which in turn have softer fibers, therefore producing a softer and unclear tone.
Vic shares an interesting observation about how to tell if the bamboo is cut in the morning or at noon just by examining the “buko” or “eye” of the bamboo. He says that the buko is “closed” in the morning, but gradually opens up at noon time. He continues that that it is a trait of tropical bamboos but does not go any further to tell what this information may be used for. However, he enumerates four factors that affect the tuning of the bumbong: 1) the thickness or thinness of the bamboo; 2) the hardness and age of the bamboo; 3) the length, diameter, and the actual hole of the bamboo; and 4) the location or position of the hole for blowing into the tube. He emphasizes the importance of where the blow hole is bored into the bamboo tube as it affects the exactness of the pitch.
Chino recalls amusing stories of how his father, almost mesmerized by the beauty of the bamboos, would point at bamboos along the highway and remark if these were suitable for instrument making or not. This is truly a mark of the master craftsman who knows his materials well. In his articles, Vic mentions bamboo kalabaw (more commonly known and also referred to as kawayang tinik in the Pangkat Kawayan Facebook page). He refers to it with the scientific name of bambusa blumeana and says that is the best bamboo for making instruments. Vic recommends this species because it possesses the right thickness, ideal fiber density, and a bright sound, making it easy to tune properly. Initially, the Toledos sourced their bambusa blumeana from their hometown in Nueva Ecija, where right behind their old house bamboos grew abundantly, but for a time, they were also sourcing bamboos from Montalban.
Bamboo, however, is not the sole material for the Toledo instruments. Narra wood, for example, was used for their xylophone slabs, particularly the marimbas. Chino explains that slabs made from narra wood give a good sound and at the same time, are sturdy and do not break so easily. According to him, they also tried yakal, but it had no sound at all. Yet bamboo is still a necessary material for the marimbas, as it is used as resonators to amplify the sound of the slabs. A quick glance shows these bamboos to be of uneven length. The main reason for this is that the nodes, and not the length or entirety of the bamboo, are the ones tuned to the slabs. This is why, according to Chino, bamboo tubes are cut from node to node. In fact, when bamboo tubes don’t have a node – as seen in some of the bamboo resonators – their bottoms are sealed off with an artificial cover to simulate a node so that they can be tuned to the necessary pitch. For some of the lower pitches, tuning the tube is not as important, but the tube is still necessary for increasing volume. As for the other resonators, some are there just for aesthetic purposes, in order to fill in the gaps in between the actual bamboo resonators.
When asked about what the main innovation contributed by his father and grandfather could be, Chino said that it is not in the instrument design, but rather in the process of making the instrument. Truly, the meticulous process is astounding in itself and is the main reason for their quality and durability. As his son Chino would say, Vic Toledo’s efforts in perfecting bamboo instrument making and design stem from his passion in treating the bamboo not as a toy or souvenir but an instrument built to last a lifetime.