Music for You from Singing Bamboos
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
THE hall slowly fills with the strains of a balitaw from the distant southern islands of the Philippines. These are joyful notes tinged with pianissimo, as though the homesick wanderer were recalling lost youth and happier days. The last chord dies away and everyone is quiet.
The next number begins with the dreamy chords of another song, Sarong Banggi (One Night). This tune rapidly climbs into an excited crescendo, as though a young girl has awakened from deep slumber to the sound of a night bird and has thrown open her window to its singing.
Now the 100-member orchestra holds the audience in its grip with a rendition of Dahil sa Iyo (For Your Sake), easily this country’s favorite love song. Soon you find yourself humming along. The notes diminish and the song is ended. But the audience wants more.
You are listening to the Pangkat Kawayan, or, as many people call them, the Singing Bamboos. Singing Bamboos? To appreciate the name, please take a closer look at the instruments on the stage. Yes, they are mostly of bamboo. Only a few are made of metal. The music you are enjoying is played on expertly crafted bamboo instruments, and by an orchestra composed of schoolchildren.
These are the wind instruments: the bumbong, the himig bumbong and the tulali or gahumay. They are played like the Western trumpet, trombone and flute—but with a difference.
The bumbong consists of separate bamboo tubes, each capable of only a single tone. The longer the bamboo, the lower the tone, and the shorter the bamboo, the higher the tone. Hence, only a single tone is played by one tube and several bumbong are needed to match the tones on the scale. This calls for perfect synchronization of all bumbong during the playing, especially in fast music.
The himig bumbong is a much longer tube, with more holes. Five to seven players are assigned to just one instrument, each player to blow just one particular tone. Again, in playing, the timing has to be perfect. For marches and fast music, the Pangkat Kawayan has to achieve superb coordination, with several players using only one instrument among them.
The flutes, or tulali and gahumay, are smaller and shorter tubes, with seven holes to a tube. They are played like the Western flutes.
Then there are the percussion instruments. One is the gabang, the Muslim xylophone. It is trapezoidal in shape, with the keyboard made up of flattened pieces of bamboo of different lengths and sizes. The longest lies across the wider end, the keys tapering down in size to the smallest piece on the narrowest end of the instrument.
The talunggating is the Philippine marimba, similar to the gabang in construction. Both are played in the same way, except that the bulky talunggating has several resonators, while the smaller gabang has none. In parades the gabang is preferred because it is portable.
The hardest instrument to construct, but the easiest to play, is the tipangklung. Perhaps you would call it the bamboo piano or harp. Actually, it is a combination of both. The keyboard consists of 36 bamboo keys attached to an equal number of bamboo tubes.
The bungkaka is the clapper. In playing it, the split end of the bamboo tube is struck against the palm of the left hand, with the prongs producing the accent and rhythm. The talunggating and the tipangklung provide the melody.
The Pangkat Kawayan also uses the drum, the gong, the triangle and cymbals. But the bamboo instruments dominate the music.
Making the Instruments
The bamboo grows wild in the countryside. Big clumps of it may be seen along riverbanks, roads and mountainsides. The young shoots make fine vegetables, whereas the spiny twigs are ideal for trellises and vines. But the long dark-green hollow stems, tapering skyward some six meters (20 feet) at maturity, have a myriad of other uses—for toothpicks, fans, seats, paper currency, bridges and houses, or for excellent musical instruments that are unique.
True, the graceful bamboo makes its own music when the wind blows. But the music coming out of bamboo instruments made by talented craftsmen, and in the hands of specially trained musicians, truly is beautiful. Yet, not just any bamboo will do!
The species ideal for music making is the carabao bamboo. It hardens well and produces fine sound. But it takes two to three years to grow the right carabao bamboo. Immediately after cutting, the long hollow stems are soaked in salt and water to remove the sugars.
Each musical instrument may be called a labor of love. There are no reference books, manuals, journals or other publications to consult in making the instruments. And there are no foreign experts to offer counsel. Rather, simple, painstaking research and a lot of time and hard work are required for fine craftsmen to make each bamboo instrument.
Precision, too, is demanded. If the bamboo is cut a millimeter shorter or 100th of an inch longer than it should be, or if the tubes are not matured to the proper degree, the tone played on that particular instrument will be off-key. The holes must be bored at the right place with great care, as the bamboo could crack with the use of the wrong fraction of strength. Many fine bamboos were damaged during the early years of the Pangkat Kawayan.
Training the Musicians
If you think that the musicians are graduates of some sophisticated school of music in Asia or Europe, think again. These are fresh-faced Filipino boys and girls, six to 18 years old.
Most of them had no musical background. What they needed to qualify for membership in the Pangkat Kawayan was a strong musical inclination and much parental patience and cooperation. First, they were taught to read notes. Later, they learned the mechanics of handling the instruments. The bamboo tubes, arranged according to the musical staff with the corresponding notes, served the children well during their early training.
Alertness is necessary on the part of the children, as they have to play the tones clearly, at the right time and in perfect synchronization with the other instruments. Hence, their eyes never leave the conductor, who makes hand signals during the playing.
According to the conductor, the seating arrangement also plays an important role in proper coordination. To the left of the conductor, we see the bass group, the low-pitched bumbongs; to his right, the horn section, or the high-pitched bumbongs. In front of the podium are the tipangklung and the talunggating.
In large auditoriums, the bass section is at the left of the podium. The horn section is in the center of the orchestra, while the tipangklung and the talunggating are at the conductor’s right. The cymbals, drums, gong and triangle are at the back.
Now, please do not get the idea that these children are still wide-eyed amateurs. Far from it. They now are seasoned players, professionals. They have played before audiences at the Cultural Center of the Philippines—the major concert hall in the country—as well as before musical intellectuals and high officials here and abroad. They played at the International Trade Fair in Osaka, Japan, in 1970, and again in Peking, China, during a state visit of Mrs. Imelda Marcos, wife of the Philippine president.
Their repertoire is wide. Besides Philippine music, the Singing Bamboos can also play Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin or Strauss. Australians might enjoy listening to Waltzing Matilda, while Americans might ask for When Johnny Comes Marching Home. If you are a lover of Oriental music, these youngsters can play that too. You may request songs from Indonesia, Japan or China and they would be happy to oblige. Their songs, too, have been recorded for those who prefer music at home.
But now the concert is drawing to a close. What is that tune they are playing? Lawiswis Kawayan. That is the song of the Whispering Bamboos. How apt! So close your eyes and listen. And be thankful that the Creator of bamboo has given mankind the gift of music.