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From Wood to Bronze to Sheet Metal: Kulintang Instruments of the Philippines

by Titania Buchholdt 

Kulintang music of the Philippines is an ancient form of music currently practiced in the Sulu Archipelago, in parts of Mindanao Island and Palawan Island, and also in Maharlika Village, Taguig, Metro Manila.  The music is played by diverse cultural groups, both within the Philippines and throughout Southeast Asia, and it is known by different names in many languages.  Kulintang is the name of the music in the Maguindanaon language of central Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, and the kulintang instrument names used in this article are Maguindanaon names.


In the Philippines, kulintang music is usually found in communities who identify themselves as either IP (“indigenous peoples”) or as Moro or Bangsamoro (groups which had international trade agreements in place prior to the arrival of Spanish missionaries).  In general, kulintang-playing cultures were able to successfully resist the adoption of European music and culture, and instead retained the traditional music of their ancestors.

After the scholar and explorer Antonio Pigafetta arrived in the Visayan Islands with Magellan in 1521, he wrote about a kind of kulintang music that was played to initially welcome the travelers when they came ashore to meet with a local leader.  Originally derived from vocal music, the earliest forms of kulintang music were played on resonant wooden instruments.  And then, about 800 years ago, bronze gongs arrived in the Philippine archipelago through maritime Southeast Asian trade.  


An ancient instrument, the luntang is made of resonant wood known as tamnag in the Maguindanaon language.  This instrument is meant to be played outdoors.  Each log or slab of wood has a different note.  The instrument may be played by one, two, or even three people from a standing position.  


Bronze set of kulintang gongs, and a pair of bronze agung


A contemporary set of kulintang ensemble instruments, with sheet metal gongs

Mines in Borneo yielded copper ore which was necessary to make gamelan instruments in Indonesia.  This same copper ore was brought to Mindanao, where it was used by small family-run foundries to manufacture bronze kulintang instruments.  Although World War II ended the manufacture of bronze gongs in the southern Philippines, some bronze gongs, mostly kulintang (sets of eight graduated gongs) and agung (large hanging kettle gongs) still survive and are treasured heirlooms. These instruments are used with care by kulintang musicians and are valued by collectors throughout the world.


Kulintang music of the Philippines is a cultural tradition which continues today through the use of instruments of modern manufacture: the hand-hammered sheet metal gongs (agung, babendil, and gandingan) of the Maranao people, welded sheet metal gongs (kulintang, agung, babendil, and gandingan) of the Maguindanaon people, and brass gongs (kulintang) which are cast through the lost wax process in small family-run foundries.

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