Bamboo Organ—Philippine Musical Novelty
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN THE PHILIPPINES
ORGANS have existed in one form or another for over 2,000 years. Techniques for building them have varied, but common to all organs are the rows of pipes that are part of the sound-producing mechanism. These are generally made of wood and metal. The organ we wish to tell you about, however, has pipes primarily made of bamboo. A total of 832 of its 953 sound-producing pipes are bamboo. The others are metal. In addition, there are some pipes that are only decorative.
How does the bamboo organ work? The principle is the same as for other pipe organs. Two types of pipes are used, and wind is pumped into them to produce musical sounds. Flue pipes—with half-circle holes close to their points of connection with the console—produce sound in much the same manner as a flute. Reed pipes—with a vibrating element inside—produce sound in a manner similar to a clarinet or a saxophone. The fact that most pipes are made of bamboo gives this organ special acoustical characteristics.
Building the Organ
Construction of this bamboo organ was begun in 1816 by a Spanish missionary, Diego Cera. Why was bamboo used? Considering the relative poverty of the area, perhaps the need to use inexpensive materials was a factor. Moreover, the maker of the organ no doubt desired to use appropriate local materials.
In 1816, bamboos were cut and buried under the sand of the seashore for about a year. Those that survived this exposure to insects and the elements were considered of durable quality and used in building the organ. Over the next several years, the various parts of the organ were put together. When the bulk of it was finished in 1821, it was proclaimed “the finest and the first of its kind in the country.”
Life for the bamboo organ has not been easy. The year 1829 saw earthquakes in the town of Las Piñas where the organ is located. The roof of the building that housed it was destroyed, and likely the organ was exposed to the elements for a while. In 1863 an exceptionally strong earthquake caused more damage to the organ. Some pipes were replaced, but insects ravaged these over a period of time. In 1880 another catastrophic earthquake badly damaged the building housing the organ, and a typhoon struck before the building was completely repaired. By then various pieces of the organ were scattered about.
Some repairs were attempted over the years, but one such attempt resulted in permanent damage. A repairman sawed off portions of the bamboo pipes in order to apply some tuning valves. This permanently changed the instrument’s pitch. And, despite the repair efforts, the organ continued to deteriorate.
The organ also endured war. Las Piñas was the scene of skirmishes between Filipinos and Spaniards during the late 1890’s, and between Filipinos and Americans during the Philippine-American War. Nevertheless, despite its deterioration, records from 1911 to 1913 indicate that visitors came to see the organ.
The years 1941 to 1945 brought the second world war to the Philippines. During the Japanese occupation, the organ received attention from the Marquess Y. Tokugawa, a relative of Emperor Hirohito. He arranged for partial repairs, but after that very little was done to the instrument for many years.
Then, in the 1970’s, a clamor arose for its restoration. Of the hundreds of bamboo pipes, 45 were missing, and 304 were not working. A bird’s nest was found inside one. Could anything be done to get the organ back to performance standard?
The restoration project was started in March 1973, a reputable foreign firm being entrusted with the work. The pipes were shipped to Japan, and the rest of the organ was shipped to Germany. There, a special room was built to simulate the climate of the Philippines. In this room the restoration work proceeded.
The goal was to keep things as close as possible to the original design. Finally, the repairs were finished. Pipes repaired in Japan were flown to Germany. The complete organ was reassembled and tested. Then, on February 18, 1975, it delighted the ears of a German audience in a one-hour concert.
Soon afterward the organ was packed into a dozen crates, and all 12,400 pounds [5,626 kg] of it was shipped back to the Philippines through the courtesy of a Belgian airline. It received a grand welcome in Las Piñas, the town where it would be housed. Thirty thousand watched a parade complete with floats depicting episodes from the history of the instrument.
By May 9, 1975, the bamboo organ was ready for its inaugural concert. A German organist was featured along with Filipino musicians as the bamboo organ was reintroduced to the Philippines.
Do you appreciate the gift of music that our Creator gave us? Would you like to hear something a little different? If you ever have the opportunity to hear the bamboo organ in Las Piñas, you will no doubt enjoy this special Philippine musical novelty.