Las Piñas Bamboo Organ
“BMI Project: The Las Piñas Bamboo Organ” By Juliet R. Bien
INTRODUCTION AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
To date, the Las Piñas Bamboo Organ is the oldest and the largest in the Philippines, and possibly the world (Tagle, interview, 9 February 2020). This musical instrument is the one and only functional organ made of bamboo and is actively used in liturgical services. What sets this apart from the other existing church organs is not only the material from which it is made but also its endurance because it has been around for more than two hundred years. The bamboo organ of Las Piñas is a cultural treasure, the only one of its kind in the Philippines.
At one point in the history of music, the organ was considered as the “king of instruments” because of its many musical characteristics together with its often grandiose presentation in churches. Its builder was not only a good musician, but also a universal genius with extraordinary talents as wood sculptor, metal-smith, painter, mathematician, and physicist. In the case of the Bamboo Organ, its builder was more than all that. Diego Cerra was also a natural scientist whose feat in curing the bamboo pipes was never successfully duplicated in decades and centuries to come. (Lauterwald, Helen Samson. The Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas, Manila: The Bamboo Organ Foundation, Inc., 102).
The Bamboo Organ was made by Father Diego Cera within the period of his assignment as parish priest of Las Piñas from 1795 to 1832. He began collecting the bamboo in 1816 and buried them in the seashore. The bamboos were unearthed in 1817 and by 1821, the organ was almost finished (Lauterwald, p.97). The long process of instrument-making required the cooperation of and assistance of local craftsmen who were already working with bamboo used for furniture and other household items (Tagle, interview, 2020). The exact date of installation is not known but it is believed to have taken place in 1824 when it was presumably completed.
The construction of the instrument was complicated because funding had to be sourced from Father Cera’s superiors and indispensable parts such as sheepskin, which were not locally available, had to be shipped. It was revolutionary and experimental at the same time because it would be made almost completely of bamboo. Historical records reveal that locals helped Father Cera in making the instrument.
In 1816, the bamboo was harvested and buried in the seashore. In 1817, Father Cera unearthed the bamboo and started constructing the instrument. Other wood types like narra, molave and kamagong were used for the mechanism as well. Simultaneously, the bellows were constructed, and sheepskin was shipped into the county. Last to be installed were the metal pipes which are believed to have come from Spain.
The entire set-up of the Bamboo Organ is like a house with several rooms installed in the wall of the Church. To access the instrument, one has to ascend the choir loft and descend a narrow flight of stairs. The organist plays from a small narrow porch as if suspended but stable with the congregation approximately fifteen to twenty feet below. The chambers are on the opposite wall unseen to the audience but can be accessed by ascending a narrow wooden 5-foot ladder which can accommodate a single person. Upon reaching the topmost step, one enters a wooden room approximately 15 square meters which houses the mechanism, a hollow space surrounded by the old non-functional pipes and the intricate network of pipes from one end to the other. The keyboard levers could be seen on the first floor of the chamber together with the pajarillo mechanism, which has to be partially filled with water to provide the bird-like sound. Going up a few steps of a wooden ladder, one can see the other side of the bamboo pipes and the reed pipes.
The Bamboo Organ is now permanently installed on the upper left wall of the parish church of Saint Joseph, adjacent to the choir loft. As a celebration of heritage and sharing the instrument with the world, the Bamboo Organ Festival, a gathering of international and local musicians is held annually during the month of February. Repertoire for the organ is dedicated in these concerts which began in 1976 and continues to the present.
CEALWYN TAGLE: CONSERVING AND MAINTAINING THE BAMBOO ORGAN
Cealwyn Tagle’s involvement with the bamboo organ began when he was a member of the Las Piñas Boys Choir when he was nine years old. Leo Renier, the choirmaster at the time, fostered his interest in the organ and encouraged him to take care of the instrument when Cealwyn was sixteen years old. Cealwyn had just graduated from high school when Mr. Renier referred him to Fr. Johann Trummer, a priest, organist, and a supporter of the Bamboo Organ Festival. Looking at the exquisite instrument as “orphaned” and exposed to neglect, Cealwyn accepted the job totally clueless of what the future had in store for him. Abandoning his desire to continue his college education, he bade his mother goodbye and left for Austria in 1988 to be an apprentice in organ making for four years. Fr. Trummer looked after Cealwyn, Armando Salarza (current Las Piñas Bamboo Organ resident organist), and other scholars from Las Piñas during their stay in Austria, and it was him who made their studies possible.
Cealwyn’s interest in his new “job” fueled his desire to be in this field because of the country’s lack of experts in organ conservators. His exposure to the European culture’s utilization of organs in churches could have also increased his interest to promote the presence of organs in the numerous churches in the Philippines. After his four-year stint, Cealwyn stayed for two more years in Germany and worked for the company of Helmut Allgauer Orgelbau, where he was exposed to various fields in organ building. Here, his initial exposure as an apprentice was challenged with the intensive all-around work in the company. Cealwyn considers this period fortunate because, Orgelbau’s company being small, he was always assigned to the difficult task of voicing the organs the company made. While improving his skills in woodworking, installations and repair, voicing enabled Cealwyn to hone his aural skills and craftsmanship. All these experiences have helped him in maintaining the Bamboo Organ and have also equipped him with the necessary skills needed in setting up an organ manufacturing company for himself upon his return to the Philippines.
Cealwyn came back to Las Piñas and was immediately assigned as the administrator of the Bamboo Organ. As administrator – a position he still holds to this day – he is tasked to conserve, repair, and maintain the organ. From the nine-year-old chorister during the 1970’s, Cealwyn is now in his 40’s, a family man – married with three children – and the custodian of a 200-year-old natural cultural treasure, a post he never imagined occupying in his wildest dreams.
Cealwyn believes that Father Cera was sent to the Philippines primarily as an instrument-maker and secondarily as a parish priest. Father Cera most probably grew up as an organ builder before he was sent to the seminary and could have been sent to the Philippines to repair the organ at the Manila Cathedral. Aside from this, Father Cera also built the Baclayon Church in Bohol, whose flat façade feature is his signature style. It is also worth noting that Cealwyn is a direct descendant of Calixto Lara, one of the local citizens of Las Piñas who worked with Father Cera in maintaining the instrument together with his two brothers Pedro and Juan. The involvement of Calixto Lara’s family with the Bamboo Organ now comes full circle as his great-great-grandson Cealwyn is now also in-charge of the Bamboo Organ after a 200-year interval.