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Mama sa Pano, Maguindanao

The Magindanaon, who are among the largest of Filipino Islamic groups, are concentrated in the towns of Dinaig, Datu Piang, Maganoy and Buluan in Magindanao province. Highly sophisticated in weaving, okir designs, jewelry, metalwork and brassware, their art is Southeast Asian yet distinct in character.

In the field of music, the Magindanaon have few peers among Filipino cultural communities. Their masters on the kulintang (gong-chime) and kutyapi (two-stringed plucked lute) are comparable to any instrumental virtuoso in the East or West.

The kutyapi is a favorite solo instrument among both Muslim and non-Muslim Filipinos, and is also played in combination with other instruments. It exists in a great variety of designs, shapes and sizes and known by such names as kotapi (Subanon), fegereng (Tiruray), faglong (B’laan), hegelong (T’boli) and kuglong or kudlong (Manobo).

The Magindanao kutyapi is one of the most technically demanding and difficult to master among Filipino traditional instruments, which is one reason why the younger generation is not too keen to learn it. Of its two strings, one provides the rhythmic drone, while the other has movable frets that allow melodies to be played in two sets of pentatonic scales, one containing semitones, the other containing none.

Magindanao kutyapi music is rich in melodic and rhythmic invention, explores a wide range of timbres and sound phenomena – both human and natural, possesses a subtle and variable tuning system, and is deeply poetic in inspiration.

Though it is the kulintang that is most popular among the Magindanaon, it is the kutyapi that captivates with its intimate, meditative, almost mystical charm. It retains a delicate, quiet temper even at its most celebrative and ebullient mood.

Samaon Sulaiman has achieved the highest level of excellence in the art of kutyapi playing. His extensive repertoire of dinaladay, linapu, minuna, binalig, and other forms and styles interpreted with refinement and sensitivity fully demonstrate and creative and expressive possibilities of his instrument.

Learning to play the kutyapi from his uncle when he was about 13 years old, he has since, at 35 become the most acclaimed kutyapi master and teacher of his instrument in Libutan and other barangays of Maganoy town, deeply influencing the other acknowledged experts in kutyapi in the area, such as Esmael Ahmad, Bitul Sulaiman, Nguda Latip, Ali Ahmad and Tukal Nanalon.

Aside from kutyapi, Samaon is also proficient in kulintang, agong (suspended bossed gong with wide rim), gandingan (bossed gong with narrow rim), palendag (lip-valley flute), and tambul.

Samaon is a popular barber in his community and serves as an Imam in the Libutan mosque.

For his exemplary artistry and dedication to his chosen instrument, for his unwavering commitment to the music of the kutyapi at a time when this instrument no longer exists in many parts of Mindanao, Samaon Sulaiman is worthy of emulation and the highest honors. (Prof. Felipe M. de Leon, Jr.)


Textile Weaver
Parang, Sulu

In Barangay Parang, in the island of Jolo , Sulu province, women weavers are hard at work weaving the pis syabit, the traditional cloth tapestry worn as a head covering by the Tausug of Jolo. “This is what we’ve grown up with,” say the weavers. “It is something we’ve learned from our mothers.” Darhata Sawabi is one of those who took the art of pis syabit making to heart.

The families in her native Parang still depend on subsistence farming as their main source of income. But farming does not bring in enough money to support a family, and is not even an option for someone like Darhata Sawabi who was raised from birth to do only household chores. She has never married. Thus, weaving is her only possible source of income. The money she earns from making the colorful squares of cloth has enabled her to become self-sufficient and less dependent on her nephews and nieces. A hand-woven square measuring 39 by 40 inches, which takes her some three months to weave, brings her about P2,000. These squares are purchased by Tausug for headpieces, as well as to adorn native attire, bags and other accessories. Her remarkable proficiency with the art and the intricacy of her designs allows her to price her creations a little higher than others. Her own community of weavers recognizes her expertise in the craft, her bold contrasting colors, evenness of her weave and her faithfulness to traditional designs.

Pis syabit weaving is a difficult art. Preparing the warp alone already takes three days. It is a very mechanical task, consisting of stringing black and red threads across a banana and bamboo frame to form the base of the tapestry. At 48, and burdened by years of hard work, Sawabi no longer has the strength or the stamina for this. Instead, she hires one of the neighboring children or apprentice weavers to do it at the cost of P300. It is a substantial amount, considering the fact that she still has to spend for thread. Sawabi’s typical creations feature several colors, including the basic black and red that form the warp, and a particular color can require up to eight cones, depending on the role it plays in the design. All in all, it comes up to considerable capital which she can only recover after much time and effort.

Sawabi faces other challenges to her art as well. In the 1970s, when Jolo was torn apart by armed struggle, Sawabi and her family were often forced to abandon their home in search of safer habitats. The first time she was forced to abandon her weaving was very painful experience as it was impossible for her to bring the loom along with her to the forest where they sought refuge. They returned to their home to see the pis she had been working on for nearly a month destroyed by the fighting. There was nothing for her to do except pick up the pieces of her loom and start again. Because of the conflict, she and her family had been forced to relocate twice finally establishing their residence in Parang. During this time, Sawabi supported her family by weaving and selling her pieces to the participants in the conflict who passed through her village. Because of her dedication to her art, generations of traditional Tausug designs have been preserved and are available for contemporary appreciation and future study. She continues to weave at home, while teaching the other women of her community. In recent years, she has had several apprentices, and more and more people have bought her work.

Sawabi remains faithful to the art of pis syabit weaving. Her strokes are firm and sure, her color sensitivity acute, and her dedication to the quality of her products unwavering. She recognizes the need for her to remain in the community and continue with her mission to teach the art of pis syabit weaving. She had, after all, already been teaching the young women of Parang how to make a living from their woven fabrics. Some of her students are already teachers themselves. She looks forward to sharing the tradition of pis syabit weaving to the younger generations. (Maricris Jan Tobias)


Lamitan, Basilan

Much mystery surrounds life. And when confronted with such, it is but natural to attempt some form of hypothesizing. In the days when hard science was nonexistent, people sought to explain away many of these enigmas by attributing them to the work of the gods or the spirits. In this way, rain and thunder became the lamentations of a deity abandoned by his capricious wife, and night and day, the compromise reached by a brother and sister who both wanted to rule the world upon the death of their father.

Many of these heavenly beings hold sway over the earth and all that dwell within its bounds. In the folklore of a northern people, a story explains why, in the three-kilometer stretch of the highest peak of Binaratan, a mountain in the region, there is a silence so complete it borders on the eerie. Legend has it that the great Kaboniyan went hunting with some men to teach them how to train and use hounds. When they reached the peak of Binaratan, however, they could no longer hear their hounds as the song of the birds drowned their barking. One of the hunters begged Kaboniyan to stop the birds’ singing, lest the hunt fail and they return home empty-handed. So Kaboniyan commanded the creatures of Binaratan to be silent in a voice so loud and frightful that they kept their peace in fear. Since then, a strange unbroken silence reigns at the top of the mountain, in spite of the multitudes of birds that flit from tree to tree.

And because they belong to this sphere, it is believed that mortal men are as vulnerable to the powers and the whims of these gods and spirits as the beasts that roam the land and the birds that sail the sky. Though they are hidden behind dark glasses, the eyes of Uwang Ahadas speak of such a tale, one that came to pass more than half a century before. They tell story of a young boy who unknowingly incurred the ire of the nature spirits through his childish play. The people of his community believe Uwang’s near-blindness is a form of retribution from the nature spirits that dwelled in Bohe Libaken, a brook near the place where he was born and where, as a child, he often bathed. His father, Imam Ahadas, recalls that the five-year-old Uwang quietly endured the pain in his eyes, waiting out a month before finally telling his parents.

Music was to become his constant companion. Uwang Ahadas is a Yakan, a people to whom instrumental music is of much significance, connected as it is with both the agricultural cycle and the social realm. One old agricultural tradition involves the kwintangan kayu, an instrument consisting of five wooden logs hung horizontally, from the shortest to the longest, with the shortest being nearest the ground. After the planting of the rice, an unroofed platform is built high in the branches of a tree. Then the kwintangan kayu is played to serenade the palay, as a lover woos his beloved. Its resonance is believed to gently caress the plants, rousing them from their deep sleep, encouraging them to grow and yield more fruit.

With this heritage, as rich as it is steeped in music, it is no wonder that even as a young child, Uwang joyously embraced the demands and the discipline necessitated by his art. His training began with the ardent observation of the older, more knowledgeable players in his community. His own family, gifted with a strong tradition in music, complemented the instruction he received. He and his siblings were all encouraged to learn how to play the different Yakan instruments, as these were part of the legacy of his ancestors. Not all Yakan children have such privilege. Maintaining the instruments is very expensive work and sadly, there is always the temptation presented by antique dealers and other collectors who rarely, if at all, appreciate the history embodied in these artifacts.

From the gabbang, a bamboo xylophone, his skills gradually allowed him to progress to the agung, the kwintangan kayu, and later the other instruments. Even musical tradition failed to be a deterrent to his will. Or perhaps it only served to fuel his determination to demonstrate his gift. Yakan tradition sets the kwintangan as a woman’s instrument and the agung, a man’s. His genius and his resolve, however, broke through this tradition. By the age of twenty, he had mastered the most important of the Yakan musical instruments, the kwintangan among them.

Uwang, however, is not content with merely his own expertise. He dreams that many more of his people will discover and study his art. With missionary fervor, he strives to pass on his knowledge to others. His own experience serves as a guide. He believes it is best for children to commence training young, when interest is at its peak and flexibility of the hands and the wrists is assured. His own children were the first to benefit from his instruction. One of his daughters, Darna, has become quite proficient in the art that like her father, she too has begun to train others.

His purpose carries him beyond the borders of Lamitan to the other towns of Basilan where Uwang always finds a warm welcome from students, young and old, who eagerly await his coming. His many travels have blessed him with close and enduring ties with these people. Many of his onetime apprentices have come into their own have gained individual renown in the Yakan community. He declares, with great pride, that they are frequently invited to perform during the many rituals and festivals that mark the community calendar.

Similar to his mentors before him, Uwang’s teaching style is essentially hands-on. He teaches by showing; his students learn by doing. His hands constantly keep a firm hold on those of his students, the gentle pressure encouraging them to tap out music from the silent bamboo blades and the splendid brass gongs. His soft voice sings praises when merited and lightly censures when necessary. And each student receives his full attention while the others persevere in learning and perfecting the art.

His younger brother, Rohas, worries about how best to preserve his techniques so that they can be passed on to others even after he is gone. For his part, he has started documenting his brother’s instruction, creating a notation system that will simplify instruction. Already he has begun using this method for training students and declares that it shows promise. However, this is only the beginning and much work is still called for if the hills of Basilan are to continue to resound with ancestral music.

Foremost among these is to give Uwang back the kind of mobility that will permit him to continue his mission to educate. He admits his dimmed eyesight makes him slightly wary of travel, as it would compel him to be constantly dependent on others. Of late, he has found it more difficult to walk, particularly when it is extremely bright and even his dark glasses afford little protection. To a man of his stature, this admission is certainly one that is very difficult to make.

Yet when asked how he felt about treatment to correct his condition, he smiles and nods his head. With possibly the same tranquil with which he faced up to both his fate and his people’s tradition, he expresses a willingness to endure whatever is necessary. And strangely, even through his dark glasses, one can almost imagine seeing a not so faint glimmer in his eyes. (Salve de la Paz)



Mat Weaver

Tandubas, Tawi-Tawi

Haja Amina Appi of Ungos Matata, Tandubas, Tawi-Tawi, is recognized as the master mat weaver among the Sama indigenous community of Ungos Matata. Her colorful mats with their complex geometric patterns exhibit her precise sense of design, proportion and symmetry and sensitivity to color. Her unique multi-colored mats are protected by a plain white outer mat that serves as the mat’s backing. Her functional and artistic creations take up to three months to make.

The art of mat weaving is handed down the matrilateral line, as men in the Sama culture do not take up the craft. The whole process, from harvesting and stripping down the pandan leaves to the actual execution of the design, is exclusive to women. It is a long and tedious process, and requires much patience and stamina. It also requires an eye for detail, an unerring color instinct, and a genius for applied mathematics.

The process starts with the harvesting of wild pandan leaves from the forest. The Sama weavers prefer the thorny leaf variety because it produces stronger and sturdier matting strips. Although the thorns are huge and unrelenting, Haja Amina does not hesitate from gathering the leaves. First, she removes the thorns using a small knife. Then, she strips the leaves with a jangat deyum or stripper to make long and even strips. These strips are sun-dried, then pressed (pinaggos) beneath a large log. She then dyes the strips by boiling them for a few minutes in hot water mixed with anjibi or commercial dye. As an artist, she has refused to limit herself to the traditional plain white mats of her forebears, but experimented with the use of anjibi in creating her designs. And because commercial dyes are often not bold or striking enough for her taste, she has taken to experimenting with color and developing her own tints to obtain the desired hues. Her favorite colors are red, purple and yellow but her mats sometimes feature up to eight colors at a time. Her complicated designs gain power from the interplay of various shades.

Upon obtaining several sets of differently-colored matting strips, she then sun dries them for three or four days, and presses them again until they are pliant. Finally, she weaves them into a colorful geometric design. Instead of beginning at the outermost edges of the mat, she instead weaves a central strip to form the mat’s backbone, then works to expand the mat from within. Although the techniques used to make the mats are traditional, she has come up with some of her own modern designs. According to Haja Amina, what is more difficult than the mixing of the colors is the visualization and execution of the design itself. It is high precision work, requiring a mastery of the medium and an instinctive sense of symmetry and proportion. Despite the number of calculations involved to ensure that the geometric patterns will mirror, or at least complement, each other, she is not armed with any list or any mathematical formula other than working on a base of ten and twenty strips. Instead, she only has her amazing memory, an instinct and a lifetime of experience.

Haja Amina is respected throughout her community for her unique designs, the straightness of her edging (tabig) and the fineness of her sasa and kima-kima. Her hands are thick and callused from years of harvesting, stained by dye. But her hands are still steady, and her eye for color still unerring. She feels pride in the fact that people often borrow her mats to learn from her and copy her designs.

Happily, mat weaving does not seem to be a lost art as all of Haja Amina’s female children and grandchildren from her female descendants have taken it up. Although they characterize her as a patient and gentle teacher, Haja Amina’s passion for perfection shows itself as she runs a finger alongside the uneven stitching and obvious patchwork on her apprentices’ work. She is eager to teach, and looks forward to sharing the art with other weavers. (Maricris Jan Tobias)



memoriam imao 300x300


National Artist for Visual Arts (2006)
(January 14, 1936 – December 16, 2014)

Abdulmari Asia Imao, a native of Sulu, is a sculptor, painter, photographer, ceramist, documentary film maker, cultural researcher, writer, and articulator of Philippine Muslim art and culture.

Through his works, the indigenous ukkil, sarimanok and naga motifs have been popularized and instilled in the consciousness of the Filipino nation and other peoples as original Filipino creations.

His U.P. art education introduced him to Filipino masters like Guillermo Tolentino and Napoleon Abueva, who were among his mentors.

With his large-scale sculptures and monuments of Muslim and regional heroes and leaders gracing selected sites from Batanes to Tawi-tawi, Imao has helped develop among cultural groups trust and confidence necessary for the building of a more just and humane society.

Selected works:

Industry Brass Mural, Philippine National Bank, San Fernando, La Union
Mural Relief on Filmmaking, Manila City Hall
Industrial Mural, Central Bank of the Philippines, San Fernando, La Union
Sulu Warriors (statues of Panglima Unaid and Captain Abdurahim Imao), 6 ft., Sulu Provincial Capitol