The Talking GongsBy Philip Dominguez Mercurio
If you’ve ever seen a kulintang ensemble, perhaps at a Pilipino cultural event, you would have witnessed the incredible majesty and splendor that kulintang music has to offer. Unfortunately, you would have also missed all the functionality kulintang music has to offer as well.
Besides its entertainment value during community gathering, such as festivals or milestones, such as weddings, one of the major “responsibilities” of kulintang music – at least in Maguindanao society -- was in sending messages between parties. This is known as apad.
Now, how could that be possible using an instrument? Apparently, according to Master Kalanduyan, the Maguindanaons have been able to fit their spoken language into their own music in much the same way that Samuel Morse created a code of clicks and pauses to represent letters in the alphabet. Each syllable has a note, so a word may have a beat, turning sentences into whole stanzas. In essence, the Maguindanao could use their songs to transmit whole sentence without having to use the vocal cord. That’s pretty impressive considering that they have been using this for centuries even before Mr. Morse was born.
For instance, Maguindanaons have used the gandingan to warn other of eminent danger. Master Kalanduyan tells of how villagers escaped arrest by playing their gandingans on rooftops to forewarn the presence of Marcos troops on the horizon. A similar story told of a brother of a thief who stole a carabao who would ring his gandingan in order for the thief to escape by the time the police arrived.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of kulintang music is simply its application to everyday life. For instance, Master Kalanduyan told us if a man were practicing alone on the kulintang when his wife was at home and he wanted to have cooked rice when he got back from work, the man could simply send her a message using the kulintang, cutting off the song he was playing and play something that said, “Please cook rice because I am ready to work in the farm.” No vocal cords necessary. Just two beaters and a preference for the kulintang.
In informal settings of apad, the kulintang players are expected to include spoken words or phrases in their songs. Master Kalanduyan mentioned that kulintang players will mimic squatters on the street, playing a tune, begging for “20 cents, 25 cents.” Obviously, for those with a knack for the music they would know it was a joke but others would never know what really was going on.
Kulintang music also was their way of revealing their feelings without saying a word. Among the Maguindanao, messages using the gandingan played a major role in relationships where interaction among those of the opposite sex was prohibited. With the help of kulintang music, interested parties were allowed to interact and express their feelings to one other which sometimes led up to some couples eloping.
Of course, not all relationships lead to positive results. For instance, if friends were telling a boy that a girl liked him but the boy didn’t like her back, the boy wouldn’t resort to telling his friends literally that he didn’t like her. Instead, he’d only have to play the kulintang to express his reasons and his friends would be able to pick it up by translating his song.
Actually, when families are not spending time playing kulintang music together, much of the younger generation is using the gongs for ulterior purposes. For instance, when a few young men have access to a gandingan, it’s not uncommon for them to gossip about people they dislike. In fact, solo gandingan players would regularly end up “chatting” with other gandingan players further away, most of the time not knowing who they are talking to, even if it’s a man or a woman. Such talk has a resemblance of today’s chat rooms where users rarely know the identity behind the other person behind the screen.
During the night, the gossip would permeate the night air so much Master Kalanduyan told us that you could here all kinds of dirty words. This type of X-rated gandingan was usually a result of young men on their “guy’s night out.” Instead of going out drinking or gallivanting, they’d “talk.”
Usually this is done in the absence of women. Then again, when Master Kalanduyan was younger, he’d take the risk of playing these dirty phrases in the presence of women, which often disgusted them and encourage them to squeeze his ear. His usual reply to their action would be, “Good. You understood it. I was just trying to check whether you knew what I was saying or not.” What a smart aleck, my teacher was.
But by golly, these people have been literally “texting” each other for centuries?
See this article,"The talking gongs" in Philippine News. Click here