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A person (face unseen) holding two wooden beaters plays a musical instrument of several gongs facing upward, sitting in a wooden frame that is painted in black, green, yellow, red, and white.

  • Kulintang Kultura: Filipino Musical Musings and American Meanings

    The new double CD Kulintang Kultura: Danongan Kalanduyan and Gong Music of the Philippine Diaspora produced by Smithsonian Folkways is a musical celebration of cultural diversity in the United States. There are a number of reasons to celebrate.

    It marks Folkways’s first release of an album of Filipino music in sixty years (the previous release was in 1961 by José Maceda, the leading ethnomusicologist in the Philippines, and the Smithsonian has since acquired albums from other labels). The music of this album is quite literally “made in America.” The musicians are Filipino Americans whose identities range from first to fourth generations. The album concept was developed by Filipino American academics. While it presents the story of a particular musician and a specific music with Philippine origins, it embodies narratives of migration, heritage, and belonging that are part of the American experience.

    Album cover art with title: Kulintang Kultura: Danongan Kalanduyan and Gong Music of the Philippine Diaspora. Photo shows a man playing a row of small gongs arranged horizontally on a painted wooden frame, using two wooden sticks.

    At first glance, the title (with accompanying visual images) suggests a cultural “Other.” The main title consists of two words: the clearly non-English word kulintang followed by the word kultura, which has a readily identifiable English cognate, culture. The word kultura suggests Hispanic connections, which co-producer Theo Gonzalves confirms in the CD notes. For me, qualities in the title of the unfamiliar (kulintang) and the somewhat familiar (kultura) already offer a way forward to approach the sounds and the meanings of Kulintang Kultura and to consider its implications for the well-being of diversity in America.

    What are some of these layers of meaning? To be brief, I share only three.

    1. The recording celebrates the individual artist Danongan Kalanduyan, who brought his incredible artistry of kulintang, a melodic and rhythmic ensemble of gongs from the southern Philippines, to the United States initially as a performer and subsequently (and perhaps more importantly) as a teacher.
    2. The recording celebrates identity. The tradition of kulintang gave Filipino Americans a musical means to find a sense of Filipino-ness, a heritage with which many have minimal knowledge and experience.
    3. The recording celebrates artistry. For all his students and his many audiences regardless of heritage, Kalanduyan presented and represented an alternative sonic experience that carries its own logic, standards of excellence, established protocols, and ways of moving the listener. He not only transmitted the traditional kulintang practice of the Philippines, but he proactively experimented, collaborated, and innovated encounters with American music genres including jazz, rap, and house.

    Although my musings on meaning seem to emphasize the unfamiliar and the different, these observations resonate with themes that are very much part of American life and values: our recognition of the individual who makes a difference, how we construct our own sense of grounding and belonging, our admiration of skill and excellence, and our openness to new ideas and approaches as part of progress. All these American qualities are present in meanings that can be derived from this new release.

    In the foreground, a man in a blue dress  hirt and sunglasses, with a bronze gong leaning against his leg. Behind him are three other people, each holding a smaller gong.
    World music fusion ensemble Subla Neokulintang, with Kalanduyan in center
    Photo by Allan Bacani, courtesy of Chris Trinidad

    The individual. Danongan Kalanduyan came from a distinguished lineage of musicians and a prominent family in the southern Philippines. Successful and esteemed in his own society, he nevertheless journeyed to the University of Washington (where I first met him) to consider his music from the perspective of ethnomusicology, a foreign “way of knowing.” His thoughtful and deliberate demeanor that won him so many followers throughout his career was already evident during his university study with mentor Dr. Robert Garfias.

    Danongan became known as Danny, and later as Guro Danny—a way of simultaneously showing respect through the appellation guro or master teacher while establishing intimacy through an Americanized nickname. As part of his experience in the United States, he also learned the gong traditions of the neighboring Maranao, Tausug, and Sama Filipinos, which are included in the recording. Danny was celebrated as a musician of great skill and honored for training an entire generation of Filipino American kulintang practitioners; some of them appear in the recording.

    He was the first Filipino American to receive the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship for his artistry and his teaching, representing excellence and cultural citizenship, respectively, for a Philippine artform in the United States. This recognition affirmed kulintang as an icon of Filipino heritage and identity. He was an extraordinary personality who humanized and animated kulintang in America, justifiably dubbed the “Father of American Kulintang.”

    Belonging, Identity, and heritage. Why did kulintang become such an “embraceable” symbol for Filipino identity, especially for Filipino American youth? Visually, the ensemble is an impressive assemblage of metal gongs of various sizes, shapes, and colorful mountings. In the Philippines, its traditional practitioners are Muslim, although the music is not part of Islamic observances. However, its association with the “Muslim South” ties it to Filipino groups that successfully resisted both Spanish colonialism and American adventurism—an embraceable image for those uneasy with the colonial features of majority Philippine culture, as co-producer Mary Talusan explains (liner notes, pages 5-6). The sound and the sight of kulintang invoke a sensibility regarded as more traditionally and authentically Filipino.

    Closeup of a bronze gong with concentric, geometric patterns carved into its surface.
    Decorated knobbed gong of the Maranao kulintang, made by the lost-wax process of metal casting
    Photo by Gavis Lacanlale

    The sonic experience, excellence, and progress. Sonically, kulintang is a “muscular” music based upon driving rhythmic patterns that support the melody—composed and improvised—of the tuned gong row that floats above an energetic and percussive rhythmic matrix. Musical organization gives preference to a sequential layering of sound, rather than a homogenous, massed sound from the start à la Beethoven’s Fifth.

    An instructive example is “Sinulog a Kamamatuan” (disc 1, track 10) in which each instrument clearly enters separately, beginning with a repeated rhythmic pattern on the high-pitched single gong followed by the sticked drum. Then the melodic gong row enters with just a single pitch that gradually expands into a lively melody. Meanwhile, the set of four large gongs appear, forming a halo of low sounds against which an energetic gong pair creates a rhythmic-melodic second voice to the more elaborate melody of the gong row—all within the first twenty-four seconds! It concludes with the complete ensemble abruptly coming to a full stop—a great sensation made even more impressive by the absence of any visual conductor.

    For American experimentation and innovation, the volume and tone quality of kulintang make it readily combinable with musics from around the world. Disc 2 presents a remarkable display of creative diversity for kulintang. As one example of its expressive potential, four artists take the same traditional melody, “Kanditagaonan,” to create very different pieces. Ron Querian’s “Under the Moon” (disc 2, track 2) surrounds an instrumental “Kanditagaonan” with a soundscape of electropop that nevertheless recalls the layering of traditional kulintang performance. Noh Buddies (disc 2, track 5) features it both as sung and played melody, generating electronic rock and jazz riffs.

    Other Asian American musicians were attracted to its sonic and symbolic features. In “Jihad” (disc 2, track 4), Fred Ho combines kulintang with the repetition of the name of Allah and gradually introduces jazz instruments until the gong sounds are subsumed into a final jazz statement. “Ditagaonan” (disc 2, track 4) by the group Asian Crisis uses the melody to juxtapose kulintang and instruments from India, Japan, and Korea in a musical affirmation of pan-Asian American solidarity.

    Following eleven examples of American inventiveness and creativity, disc 2 concludes with a return to two traditional Magindanao pieces, “Binalig a Kulndet” (disc 2 track 12) and “Duyug and Sinulog a Kamamatuan” (disc 2 track 13), performed by two second-generation Filipino Americans. This final statement celebrates the continuity of heritage in and by the American diaspora.

    A woman with dark hair dyed partly purple kneels among musical instruments, including two small gongs and two drums.
    Gingee is a DJ/producer, percussionist, and vocalist known for her unique take on global bass. Her work is a reflection of the sounds and cultures she was exposed to growing up in Los Angeles as well as the musical world of her Filipino ancestors and beyond.
    Photo courtesy of the artist
    A woman in a purple blouse holds up a translucent blue fabric embroidered with a gold pattern.
    Kim Kalanduyan, California-born granddaughter of Danny, is featured on the final track of the album. Danny’s passing in 2016 compelled Kim to continue her family’s legacy of kulintang performance.
    Photo courtesy of the artist

    There are many meanings Kulintang Kultura can bring to us, depending on who we are, what background we bring, and how it speaks to us individually, be it through its history, its social symbolism, or its affect as musical sound. What does kultura kulintang, the culture of kulintang, signify for the twenty-first century? It is a transnational culture formed from all those who share the experience of kulintang regardless of geographical location, language spoken, or identities claimed. It corresponds to what American sociologist Herbert Gans has called a “taste culture”—a group of people bound together by shared preferences. This Folkways recording of kulintang as performed and innovated in America offers the possibility of expanding the reach of this taste culture.

    In various languages of the Philippines, the word mabuhay expresses joy and marks a time of celebration. Frequently translated as “long life,” it derives from the word buhay, or “life.” When shouted in public, it is the equivalent of the American “hurrah!” Kulintang Kultura is a welcome occasion to celebrate many things during a time when reasons for celebration appear hard to come by. Mabuhay Guro Danny Kalanduyan! Mabuhay Smithsonian Folkways! Mabuhay kulturang kulintang!

    Dr. Ricardo D. Trimillos is professor emeritus in ethnomusicology and Asian studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. His research includes the music of Muslim groups in the southern Philippines, Catholic folk music in the Lowland Philippines, Hawaiian music and dance, and the traditional music of Japan and is informed by themes of ethnic identity, cultural representation, and gender. He was the first chairperson of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s advisory council and helped to curate the Smithsonian Folklife Festival programs on Hawai‘i (1989) and the Philippines (1998). He is second-generation Filipino American of Visayan heritage.

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