by: Ayunan G. Gunting
The modest backyards in Tugaya, a lakeshore town in Bangsamoro, are noisy in the daytime as craftsmen hammer away to make musical instruments such as the brass gongs called the kulintang (a horizontally laid out gong chime) and the agong (a suspended gong chime). Sometimes they are sawing, carving and painting tall drums called the gadur.
Although Tugaya is a fifth class municipality in Lanao del Sur, it is ironically referred to as the Industrial Capital of Lanao del Sur. The town doesn’t even make machine parts. The UNESCO has cited Tagaya as a World Heritage Site for preserving not only the traditional woodcarving skills, brassware, embedding mother-of-pearl on chests, metal-smithing, but also the backstrap looming. For centuries, Maranaw craftsmen have produced decorative jars, musical instruments, inlaid chests, kampilan or a single-edged sword and the kris, a wavy-edged dagger. The 10 to 12 ft. wooden gadur, which in modern homes is often used as a design element, is prized for the intricate okir, sinuous patterns distinctive of Maranao art. The smaller drums, called the dubakan, provide the rhythm in the Maranaw musical ensemble which includes the gongs.
Maranao artisans will tell you that those crafts are the only things they know. They’ve seen their elders forge metals using ancient methods and the same traditional tools.
The plight of the craftsmen
Salic A. Pamlian, 42, says Tubakan has 10 metalsmiths who produce gongs. There are two to three craftsmen who work on gongs per household. He and his 75-year-old father-in-law, Tambas Pandita, would produce agong and dabur for traders.
Pamlian learned the craft at 18 years old when he was strong enough to lift heavy objects and forge metal.
In ancient times, woodcarvers and metalsmiths underwent a rite of passage– a chicken was sacrificed to the god of the arts, Tominanman sa Ragon. The animal’s blood was dredged on his hands and tools. This ritual gave him the license to become a craftsman. Pamlian says that practice is unknown to his generation.
“We go straight to work,” he says in Tagalog.
Pamlian specializes in the agong, these are wide-brimmed, brass percussion instruments that provide the bass and rhythm in a Maranaw gong ensemble. Since brass is rare in Mindanao, entrepreneurs would buy sheets from Manila and provide these materials to the craftsmen. He still uses traditional metal forging and hand shaping to produce the instruments. A large agong weighing five kilos takes eight to 10 days to make on a 7 a.m. to 5 pm. schedule. The wholesale price fetches P15,000. He gets a cut of P4,500 on a lucky day. The smallest agong weighing two kilos takes two days to produce. For the price of P4,000, he and his father-in-law get a mere fraction of the amount.
These agong are sold around Mindanao souvenir shops and in antique shops in Manila at higher prices. Sometimes Westerners come over his place to buy the instruments for their collection.
“Your earning depends on your output,” Samlian said in Tagalog. Physical pain or problems with family and neighbors interrupt the work for three days. When his body hurts from the strain of lifting heavy objects, he takes muscle relaxants and pain relievers.
Meanwhile, Pandita can only produce small gongs.
Pamlian also works on the dabur and its mallet which are made from mango and jackfruit wood. The drum head is covered with cow or goat’s skin.
The Maranao drums can take a year to finish because of the intricate carving and the painting of the okir patterns. Its wholesale price is P50,000. Pamlian’s carving tools are traditional—a curved knife, the chisel, the ax, and a charcoal pencil for lining. He also concocts the plant dyes to color the okir patterns.
Pamlian also makes kris and the kampilan, using steel.
His three children, whose ages range from 14 to 9, are still too young to learn these crafts.
“They’ve got to be older and build more muscle to do this heavy work. I will teach these crafts to my sons if they are not doing well in school. They will then have a livelihood to fall back on,” he says.
Asked if the job pays well, Samilan says he’s lucky to earn P17,000 a month. Nevertheless, these crafts have supported his family over the years.
“We need money to buy raw materials. We ask from the municipal office, but nothing comes out of our talks,” he laments. The officials just want to be photographed with the artisans for publicity.
“You can’t depend on the local government for help. Artisans fend for themselves. But despite all the odds, this work gives us joy.”Salic Pamlian
I have mixed emotions after seeing their plight. I also thought they were being cared for by government agencies like the NCAA. The good news is that the road from Marawi to Wao, Lanao Del Sur has finished its construction. We may now drop by with just a 2 hour trip. Before it used to take 8 hours. This is a big deal for traders. They no longer need to go to Davao City or Bukidnon to trade. According to Lanao Del Sur Vice Governor Bombit Adiong, his priority is the infrastructure projects that would make the economy run better. If the economy is good, we can attain prosperity and peace.