Searching for Instruments
Here is a picture of a mix & match kulintang set from one of the largest collections of Filipino instruments in the Bay Area. Notice the different stages of oxidation the gongs have.
I took this picture while visiting the collector (who is also a very good kulintang player) so that I could borrow a set of gandingan for an upcoming July performance.
The design of the kulintang is the best clue as to who manufactured the gong. Artisans tend to stick to a favorite design. This kulintang set is of the no-nonsense style; no ornamental carvings or visible weldings, just a large set of gongs with a thick casting of metal alloys to give it that serious “I am a musical instrument” look.
The Dabakan is the Drum in the Kulintang Ensemble
Pictured here are two dabakan likely made by the same artist. The drum is fashioned into a goblet shape from a single piece of hardwood, preferably the base of the tree right above the root ball. Traditionally a bayawak (Filipino monitor lizard) hide would form the drum skin, but goat drum heads are the common material nowadays. The okkir (Southern Filipino design motif) is intricate and flashy, leading the educated collector to assume that the drums are Maranao in origin.
One of these two drums was the main touring dabakan for the Palabuniyan Kulintang Ensemble, the group directed by my kulintang teacher, Master Artist Danongan Kalanduyan, and it has been the instrument by which kulintang music was brought to places such as Juneau, Honolulu, Seattle, San Diego, Albuquerque, Houston, Washington D.C., Richmond (VA), Boston, New York, and even Toronto, and Acapulco. After many years of touring, this drum was finally retired from the PKE instrument list because of an accumulation of wear and tear from the road.
SF Pinoy Jazz Fest at Birdland in Berkeley
The gandingan (talking gongs) that I mentioned in the first picture that I needed to borrow was so that I could sit in with John Calloway at the SF Pinoy Jazz Fest. I sat in with John Calloway during his appearance at the 2010 Jazz Fest that was held at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts right in the middle of that year’s Pistahan. I appeared on the song he wrote for John Santos, “Itim,” meaning “black,” a song about being Afro-Filipino. This was my crash course for mixing kulintang with jazz music.
For this year’s performance, we were set to perform at this local venue that had quite a buzz around it. The Birdland Jazzista Social Club is located across the street from North Berkeley BART, inside of a garage converted into a legitimate jazz venue complete with stage, seating, mood lighting, and a community of music lovers. The venue had already appeared in FastCompany and Forbes, and the ambitious three-day lineup that SF Pinoy Jazz had lined up for a weekend in July was to be its biggest event to date; a virtual roll-call of Filipino musicians in the Bay Area jazz community.
I was so excited to bring my new gongs that would give me the flexibility required to sit in with serious jazz musicians. I had prepared an accompanying part for Calloway’s original tune “Diaspora.” When you listen to Diaspora, you can hear the influence of kulintang music on the main melody. The arc and movement of the main melody is really of the character of kulintang playing, with a few bars of latin jazz at the turnaround incorporated for a truly dynamic chart meant for live performance.
Unfortunately, none of it was to be.
Promptly, right at the three-day festivals kickoff downbeat, at 6:00pm exact, the event was cancelled after a visit by Berkeley Police Department. All of the music prepared by the many musicians including myself, was not allowed to be played. As this issue plays out in the realm of Berkeley politics, music at Birdland is indefinitely suspended, but it seems to me that the owner is intent on re-opening this young venue, so I will update this story as it develops.