91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Stateside Podcast: Filipino-Americans carry on musical tradition

Kulintang music, native to several Indigenous tribes in the Southern Philippines, has been passed down as an oral tradition over hundreds of years. That tradition has traveled 8,000 miles overseas, all the way to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This fall, thePhilippine government gifted 5 Million Philippine pesos, or about $90,000, to the University of Michigan to further Philippine Studies. Part of the grant went toward establishing a class in traditional Philippine ensemble music.

Gean Vincent Almendras, the multi-instrumentalist teaching the course, has been studying traditional Filipino music for nearly a decade.

“Significantly, [the kulintang] is played by three Indigenous communities,” he said. “Those communities are the Marao, the Maguindanao, and the Sama-Taūsug. Although, there are other smaller minority groups that also use the kulintang in their traditional musical recreation.”

A kulintang ensemble is centered around the kulintang, a row of eight pitched gongs that carry the melody of a piece. A goblet-shaped drum called a dabakan is responsible for keeping the rhythm. The agongs, two large bass gongs, provide a bassline. The Maguindanao also include the gandingan in the ensemble. The four hanging gongs add additional texture to the music.

Four large, dark brown gongs of different shapes hang from a wooden stand. Some are more bowl-shaped, while some are flatter.
Ronia Cabansag
The agongs provide a strong bassline for the kulintang ensemble.

“There’s a lot of depth and a lot of polyphonic texture in these really ancient, archaic ensembles I think most people would be surprised by,” Almendras said. “I know a lot of people in the Philippines are like, ‘What’s kulintang?’ Because the whole Philippines is kind of overshadowed by popular music from outside influences. A lot of traditional music is very lost.”

Any Kulintang player in the United States can trace their musical lineage back to Maguindanaon musician Danonga “Danny” Kalanduyan. He was invited to the University of Washington in Seattle as an artist-in-residence, and later earned a master’s degree in ethnomusicology. Almendras regards Kalanduyan as “Master Danny.”

“I was fortunate enough to learn from. . . Dr. Bernard Ellorin, who was basically like one of Master Danny’s formative apprentices,” Almendras said. “That’s how kulintang playing kind of made its way here to Michigan.”

In performing and teaching traditional music, Almendras is careful not to misrepresent the minority communities that began the tradition.

“Of course, I would like to give the correct history of the instrument and the context from where it derives, not just, you know, say, ‘Oh, it's a cool instrument like a xylophone,’” he said. “Because I think there's a lot more baggage, a lot more weight, at least, that comes with particular instruments that come from minority communities.”

On stage, four dancers perform tinikling, a traditional Filipino dance that involved jumping between two large bamboo sticks. The dancers where white t-shirts, and long floral skirts. Behind them, the rondalla ensemble plays while seated in a row of chairs.
Ronia Cabansag
Rondalla music accompanies many folk songs and traditional dances, including tinikling. This dance requires performers to hop between two bamboo poles that other performers will slam together. Dancers must avoid getting their feet caught between the sticks.

Almendras also teaches rondalla as part of the course at U of M. The ensemble consists of plucked and strummed string instruments that have origins in Medieval Spain. In the Philippines, rondalla music accompanies many folk songs and traditional dances.

“Some people don't particularly like to attribute that as Filipino music, but it's kind of become a staple in tradition because, you know, the arrival of the Spanish is part of our history,” Almendras said.

He hopes that his students, especially those who are Filipino-American like himself, feel more connected to their heritage after learning to play traditional music.

“It's kind of a refreshing breath of fresh air to know that there's such a rich history of musical traditions that comes from the Philippines,” Almendras said.


Gean Vincent Almendras, Philippine Ensemble Music lecturer, University of Michigan


Looking for more conversations from Stateside? Right this way.

If you like what you hear on the pod, consider supporting our work.

Stay Connected
Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.