Music: Sounds as a Way of Life

Songs are repositories of things we don’t see anymore. – Verne de la Peña

This is one of the most remarkable realizations that I had after having participated in a Cordillera folk song pedagogy session, Summer of 2015, at the humble covered court of Maryhurst Seminary in Lucnab, city of Baguio. Jun Felipe, one of the elders of Cordillera Music Tutorial and Research Center (CMTRC), was teaching us the melody of the song Kulkul, an Ibaloi song of call to come together. Since we were given copies of the songs in their native texts together with their English translations, it was not hard for us to understand the meaning of the songs, but some terms cannot be translated – such as the powapo and the kosele, native terms for certain endemic species of a tree and a bird.

Felipe said that the kosele have not been as visible as they were before, if not fully extinct, because the quiet vegetation where this kind of birds live is thinning out. Also, the powapo have the same status as the birds – on the verge of vanishing – as they are either being used excessively for building houses or cut to give way to more houses for the increasing population, especially in the urban areas of Mountain Province. It is only through documented accounts – in print and/or oral material – that the younger generations could get to know about the likes of the kosele and the powapo. And as what de la Peña has said, songs transform from sounds into windows to a way of life that might have been lost in time.


2015 Jose Maceda Project Series: Masterclass and Workshop on Philippine Music

The Masterclass and Workshop on Cordillera Culture and Music held last May 1 to 3, 2015 is third of the Jose Maceda Project Series, instituted by the University of the Philippines Center for Ethnomusicology (UPCE). The first and second projects of the JMPS focused more on offering the public a glimpse of Maceda’s compositions and field work but this time, the focus was on Maceda’s life of music through education and research. His famous line goes, “If you want to honor me, listen to my music.” So with this year’s project, UPCE  thought of bringing the people not only to Maceda’s music but to the inspiration of his lifelong work – research focusing on indigenous music and way of life.

For the 3rd JMPS project, UPCE collaborated with the local practitioners of Cordillera Culture and Music through CMTRC and SIMIT. SIMIT has beauty in its name such that it likens a young node emerging on an already mature bamboo to a group of young practitioners, taught by the elders, now ready to assume the responsibility and joys of practicing and sharing their music.

Contrary to immediate perception of the culturally distant members of ethnic groups, our resource people are ordinary people like us. They are people that we might have met in our daily lives – doctors, school teachers, farmers, garderners, church ministry members, little children, college students. What they have in common, and different from the rest of us urban dwellers, is their zeal of preserving, transforming, living, and teaching what they consider to be their shared own.

As a tribute to Maceda’s legacy to music research and education, UPCE has selected participants who are in the field of music education through performance and pedagogy. Students from the University’s Musicology (Asian Music and Musicology majors) and Music Education departments, together with school music teachers who are enrolled in the College’s Continuing Music Education Program, were chosen to participate in this enlightening event. The rationale for choosing these people was simple: if we want an audience who can appreciate repertoire from different cultures, we must start by educating the young minds of children not only about the right content but also the appropriate context. The school is one of the structures responsible for shaping the society, thus, making the teachers key players in this continuous process. Most teachers do have the heart but little content. They perceive that this workshop will be very helpful to their craft. Ian, a school music teacher from Antipolo, said that after the workshop, he would not only be teaching about the music with more content, but also with more context from first-hand experience.


music education students (L-R: Raph, Liza, Via, Ash, Andrei, Fides, Benedic, Aaron)
from the UP College of Music
(Maryhurst Seminary grounds; photo by Pat Rodriguez)


Apart from Sounds and Movements

On the first day of our demo-lecture series, the UPCE staff oriented the participants about the flow of the workshop – the schedule as we had planned it, segmented into gongs, bamboos, songs, and dances. As we stepped into the Welcome Assembly, Beni Sokkong, the chairman of CMTRC, tells us that the workshops will be divided according to ethnolinguistic group – gongs, bamboos, songs, and dances all together. How dazed the participants and the staff were! We have set our minds to notate and document each component of their music one step at a time, but now, we have to face a mix of everything. As a Project Staff, it was not much of a change on my part, but the participants had to strategize on how to work on the entirety.


Dr. Benicio Sokkong (right) giving an introduction to Cordillera culture, with Dr. Verne de la Peña,
Chairman of UP College of Music Musicology Department
(photo by Pat Rodriguez)


This is another important realization on our part. We came there to study their music so we had to do it according to how they saw it at that particular moment. Their way of life sees music not as how a Western-oriented music student sees its division, whether in terms of theory, literature, or organology. Afterall, I recall one of my experiences during the collection of terms for the Dictionary of Philippine Musical Terms, a project also initiated by the UPCE, that there is no exact native term for music found in the surveyed languages of ethnolinguistic groups. Instead, we have names for different songs, instrumental music, and dances, related to a life event, be it ordinary or monumental. For this particular culture and music, classification with considerations on ethnicity and sociological context is more apt than on pure instrumental taxonomy or genre classification.

As a staff assigned to documentation, I had most of my time divided between taking photographs and videos and doing errands. Yet, with the designation of the task prominent as seen on my ID card, the facilitators still call the staff to participate. “Tama na yang video (Enough with the video), ” they would often tell me. Of course, how would I not say no to being invited to ancient danc[ing] to the sound of heirloom gongs in a garden, amidst the elders and friends under the shadow of pine trees towering over a valley (VDP)? I still get goosebumps whenever I remember that blissful moment shared to us by those who own it.


courtship dance
(Maryhurst Seminary grounds; photo by Sol Trinidad)


The first two days were intense  dances, songs, and instrument making and playing. Intense participant-observer inquiry. Intense transcription and notation. Intense measurement of instrument dimensions. Intense data consolidation and discussions. These are things we could have done more easily at the College down in urban Quezon City by just inviting our group of experts, with technology more accessible to aid us in our tasks.


documenting participants (Ally and Marla) from the UP College of Music Musicology Department
learning from Shayne of youth group, SIMIT
(photo by Pat Rodriguez)


Ifugao dance: even the trees dance with them
(Maryhurst Seminary; photo by Pat Rodriguez)


Ariel of SIMIT teaches the student participants traditional Ifugao gong music as De la Peña observes
(photo by Pat Rodriguez)


Pangat Delfin dances while the participants play Eastern Mountain Province gong patterns
*Pangat is a term of respect for elders
(Maryhurst Seminary grounds; photo by Pat Rodriguez)


Local Organology: Sokkong, together with Fidel Tayawa, carves the bamboo to make a ballimbing
(more or less accurately known as bamboo buzzer)
(photo by Pat Rodriguez)




Asian Music majors (L-R: Marla, Bart, Josh, Jacque, Hannah, JR) trying out newly-made tongatong (more or less accurately known as bamboo stamping tubes) (photo by Pat Rodriguez)
Asian Music majors (L-R: Marla, Bart, Josh, Jacque, Hannah, JR) trying out newly-made tongatong
(more or less accurately known as bamboo stamping tubes)
(photo by Pat Rodriguez)


Local Organology: Sokkong tuning one of Dr. Ramon Santos‘s gangsas (flat gongs). The young facilitators cover their ears due to the loud clanking of the metal on wood.
(photo by Pat Rodriguez)

But what would be lost?

The intense walk up and down the trails, paired with catching your cold breath. The intense view of mountain ranges and terraces over breakfast. The intense food heartily prepared by the local staff for us every break time. The intense one-on-one instrumental lessons during the pockets of free time in between sessions. The intense disconnect from the busy long weekend paired with the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight (well, most of us had smart phones connected over the internet, but due to the intense activities, and the serene ambience, why wallow in flat touch screens when you could get the best of life?).


Having breakfast and pre-workshop meetings to this view (transient house near Maryhurst Seminary;
photo by Pat Rodriguez)


The things we thought to be important were actually peripheral to what they consider to be essential. During one of our nightly consolidation sessions, we came to realize that we have keep on obsessing over notating rhythmic precision, when in fact, the tone color, a very subjective element of music, is of utmost importance in instrumental music. Yet, with this fact, it does not mean that visual notation is unimportant to their culture. Benedic, one of the music education students, shared that one of the younger resource persons was interested in learning transcription.

YRP: Uy, okay yan ah! Turuan mo naman ako (mag-notate)! (Hey, that seems really great! Can you teach me how to do that (notation)?)

B: Kuya, mas astig kaya yung ginagawa niyo! Ang hirap i-notate! (What you’re doing is more amazing! It is quite hard to put into notation!)

This anecdote shared to us by Benedic somehow reminded me that man’s knowledge is very finite and that building relationships with one another opens our minds to possibilities beyond our everyday comfort.


The masterclass-workshop commenced with a cañao – a communal feast of sharing. Before the sharing of the food comes the sharing of tasks. Everyone had something to do – some play gongs, the women prepared boiled kamote, the young men killed the pig, the elders said a prayer for the event. In short, before a sharing of the glorious food had to be done, everybody had to share in the toil. Urban people are used to having things in an instant, all laid out in front of them, as much as possible, easing out the hard work. Seeing the people doing tasks lightheartedly together was something quite extraordinary to us. The concept of community is seen not only in the end triumph but also in the preceding hard work.

Elders praying (bulong) before ritual
Elders praying (bulong) before ritual
(Maryhurst Seminary ground; photo by Pat Rodriguez)


cañao essentials: tapey (rice wine), uwek (guava wood spear) with bile, gin
(photo by Pat Rodriguez)


Sokkong looking at the pig’s bile
(Maryhurst Seminary grounds;
photo by Pat Rodriguez)


Ash (music education student) doing field notes of the ritual
(photo by Pat Rodriguez)


SIMIT members do the task of removing the pig’s skin and hair
(Maryhurst Seminary grounds; photo by Pat Rodriguez)



One of the significant points during this day was Jonas, a nine year old boy, who had been playing the gongs ever since we got into the workshop grounds. To us, he sounded like a full-grown adult demonstrating prowess on the gongs but I noticed that some of the SIMIT members were correcting minor but equally important aspects such as posture. According to most of the elders that we talked to, back then, the children were not allowed to pick up the gongs because they were precious heirlooms that cannot afford to be broken. They noticed that if children do not learn to pick up the gongs at a young age, the gongs will wear away in storage and nobody will continue what they worked hard for to preserve.

Jonas leading the Asian Music majors in playing the Dinnuy-ah on the gangsa (flat gongs)
(Maryhurst Seminary grounds; photo by Pat Rodriguez)


After the bile had been read as a good omen and the cooking has been done, everyone got a share of the meat served on green plastic plates. This instance, together with Jonas’ example, has reminded me that culture is not a static being and that people make compromises between what they are used to and what is emerging. I imagined that the meat might look prettier served on leaves, but it would be quite impractical to serve them on such.


As a culmination of our learning, there was communal singing and dancing done at the covered court area. They wore their traditional costumes not only as a part of our education but also as a part of their ownership and pride. I once thought that Cordillera people only wore distinctly red woven clothes, but there were other colors than red. Same as the thought of having different subcultures within the greater Cordillera culture. Also, they let us dance and play together with the elders and young men of their group. To let us play their music is one thing. To let us play together with them is a symbol of a deeper level of sharing their way of life.

CMTRC and SIMIT members
(Maryhurst Seminary covered court; photo by Pat Rodriguez)


These things, aside from the music and dance content, although peripheral to the masterclasses, provided us context in what we were trying to attain through this workshop. Other than the rationale of learning better in situ (in site), I believe that the act of coming to the place serves as a symbol of humility and sincerity in acquiring a better understanding of their music and culture. We climbed up in pursuit of music to teach in the classroom and in performance, but we came down with more than just sounds and movements in our minds and hearts. We came down with friends and mentors who have given us the wisdom of seeing music and life in another way than we are used to. And for this, we will be forever grateful.




Dr. Verne de la Peña is currently the OIC of the UP Center for Ethnomusicology and the chairperson of the Musicology Department of the UP College of Music.

Dr. Benicio Sokkong is the founder of the Cordillera Music Training and Research Center.

The 2015 Jose Maceda Project Series: Masterclass and Workshop on Philippine Music was supported by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the UP Diliman Office of the Chancellor.

For more information and updates on upcoming projects of the UP Center for Ethnomusicology, kindly visit the UPCE website.





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