The Music and Culture Throughout the Philippines

The Music and Culture Throughout the Philippines

The Music & Culture Throughout The Philippines

The jagged mist-covered mountaintops of the Cordillera (the Philippines middle-north), are home to indigenous communities that still thrive in relative seclusion. Secluded for over 2,000 years, the high mountain walls have, for the most part, peacefully separated these tribes from the rest of the modernized Filipino populace.

The Ifugao People



Nested in-between the South China Sea and the Philippine Sea, an assortment of 7,107 islands unite together as the Republic of the Philippines. With 17 distinct regions and 80 provinces, only about 2,000 of the Filipino islands are inhabited. The Philippines are clustered into three major island groups or archipelagos: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

Luzon is the largest Island, and it harbors many provinces. While its economic and political center are the largest in the Philippines, Luzon is also home to Manila; the country’s capital city. Most notably, the area is acclaimed for its ancient Banaue rice terraces that have sustained its people for over 2,000 years. “The ancient Banaue Rice Terraces in the province of Ifugao, a 2,000-year-old mountain with [many] rice terraces declared by the UNESCO as a “World Heritage Site” and generally considered as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” (Catacutan 1). The name Ifugao comes from I-pugu, literally meaning “people of the hills.”


Using only the most primitive of tools, the Ifugao carved out some of the most extensive terraces in the world. The engineering behind the ancient development is ingenious. In order to irrigate the vast rice crops, the Ifugao found natural water sources at the peaks, and discovered how to channel the water evenly so that each terrace was uniformly watered from the topmost of the slopes to the valley below.


Even today, people work the land in the same fashion as those before them, however, there are now fewer participants. Many of the native Ifugao are lured into the modernized lowlands of the Philippines- ultimately taking them away from the traditions of their ancestors. As a growing number of Ifugao leave for larger cities in hopes of a better life, less and less people are maintaing the rice terraces. Land erosion has had quite an effect on the terraces, which have been worn down through heavy use.

With the hope of persuading people to continue hand-working the terraces, the government has provided the means of farming with more than just rice. In order to drive more monetary income to the location, taro is planted, rice wine is brewed, coffee is grown in the region, and small Japanese eel-fish called “Yuyu” are farmed (later to be cooked in ginger brine or fried and then sold). 


As far as their musical culture goes, “There are substantial ethnographic monographs about their society and their chants, but organological studies of their musical instruments have not been undertaken in any detail […] Fieldwork was also conducted in the summer of 2010 to further investigate the presence or absence of these traditional musical instruments in current Ifugao culture” (Biancorosso 1). The Sachs-Hornbostel system was used to analyze the various types of instruments. (Btw, here’s a post I did on the topic.) It was found that sadly, most of the Ifugao instruments are no longer in use. Essentially, the area has seen a massive agricultural decline throughout the 20th century, and urbanization and tourism are slowly taking effect. As a result, the people have somewhat lost their ability to continue making and playing instruments. Master of Philosophy, Biancorosso believes that “the remaining few musical instruments have been transformed into objects primarily designed for public performance or sale to tourists. Attempts to revive cultural heritage have had the paradoxical consequence of introducing non-traditional instruments, in coexistence with an altered image of the past.” Despite this fact, it has been shown that gongs and certain aerophones were prominent throughout Luzon, and they were essential for various religious rituals.

As you will see in this next video, the spiritual chanting and singing of the human voice remains as a powerful catalyst. The video is raw, and beautiful. There is no narrative in this short documentary, however, I do want to warn you, animal sacrifice is highlighted in this video. Please watch with an open-mind and heart towards their culture.


Extremely important to the Ifugao people are the chants that have backed their spiritual practices for many many millennia. As the Ifugao have a Matrilineal culture, it is the women who chant together in groups as they honor the stories of their ancestors. Like in many ancient traditional civilizations, it is the old women who orally bestow their poetry and melodies upon the younger generations.

Among the Ifugao traditions are the epic “Hudhud” incantations that are chanted during the rice sowing season, harvest time, and at funeral wakes and rituals. “Thought to have originated before the seventh century, the Hudhud comprises more than 200 chants, each divided into 40 episodes. A complete recitation may last several days” (UNESCO). The chants are replete with highly expressive and allegorical language that is rather difficult to completely translate. UNESCO has dubbed it “a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage of humanity, one of the very few in the world.” The sheer volume of hero-centric images and symbols have reverberated in these chants throughout the centuries, and heavily shaped the Ifugao as a result. As the most documented indigenous group of the Philippines, the Ifugao are celebrated for their cultural accomplishments.

The TagTag planting ritual occurs when a great number of Ifugao men clad in traditional attire march along the rice terraces while chanting and beating traditional wooden planks in cadence in order to protect the rice crops from rats, pests and other evil spirits that bring sickness to the people. The ancient rhythm is sounded, and “as the prayers permeate the air, it is as if the archaic chorus harks back across centuries” (Living Asia Channel). 5 deities are summoned; 3 pigs are offered, along with 5 chickens in order to please the gods. Blood (being the most vivid reminder of life) is then smeared on the wooden plank instruments that are then used during the planting ritual. A chick is placed in a bag, that is said will lead the Ifugao men on their dance throughout the footpaths. The community members join in on the beat of the synchronized planks; banging rocks and stomping their feat. From another direction, little boys make their way through the terraces, and hit sticks upon small carved wooden slabs. As the ritual between men and boys converge, a rather musical percussion-like ensemble occurs.


During other Ifugao festivals, “The Bumayah [occurs] which is an Ifugao dance of thanksgiving to the god Kabunian. In this dance, performed by both men and women, the movements mimic those of a rooster scratching the ground. This joyful dance serves as a prayer of thanksgiving for a bountiful rice harvest” (Filipino-American Cultural Organization).

In the Kalinga province,  (also in the northern Cordillera region of Luzon) there is an Eagle Dance, (which is similar to the animist impressions of the rooster during the Ifugao Bumayah dance.)

Below is a picture of an Isneg Woman: Another one of the remaining tribes in the Cordillera Region on Luzon. The Isneg people are the earliest residents of the Apayao Province. This woman is wearing customary clothing having just performed a traditional dance.


Indigenous tribes-women and children in Apayao (wearing the Isneg Sipattal mother-of-pearl neck-ornaments). Considered the most important piece of personal adornment worn by men and women alike.


Located in the centermost location of the Philippines lies the Visayan islands which are broken down into Western, Central and Eastern regions. (Panay, Negros, Cebu, Bohol, Leyte, and Samar are the most prominent.) The people in these regions are incredibly unique with traditions and a developed musical culture of their own. In Cebu, a rather large “Sinulog Festival” occurs yearly on the 3rd sunday of every January. With an especially long parade, many different groups of people dress up in colorful costumes and dance the Sinulog. Though this parade is relatively young (organized in 1980), “The Sinulog was already danced by the locals in honor of their wooden statues in the period before the Cebuanos were baptized. Later on, after the image of the famous Santo Niño was brought to Cebu and the Catholic faith was established in the region, the dance was made a part of the yearly fiesta in honor of the Santo Niño” (Utrecht Faculty of Education).,


Today, the Philippines is approximately 85 percent Christian (mostly Roman Catholic) and it is alluring to ponder how “a small number of Spaniards converted the bulk of the Philippine population to Christianity between the mid-1500s and 1898–the end of Spanish rule” (Russell 1). When Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan encountered the Philippines while sailing in search of a western route to the East Indies (the source of spice trade), he and his men landed on Cebu. “At this time period, almost nothing was known of the Philippines, and so our sources of information about pre-Hispanic societies in the country date from the early period of Spanish contact. Most Philippine communities, with the exception of the Muslim sultanates in the Sulu Archipelago and Mindanao, were fairly small without a great deal of centralized authority. Authority was wielded by a variety of individuals, including 1) headmen, or datu; 2) warriors of great military prowess; and 3) individuals who possessed spiritual power or magical healing abilities” (Russell 1). The absence of kingship, or really any other powerful leadership allowed for a small number of Spaniards to mass-convert a large number of animist Filipinos.

The Spanish were unsuccessful in converting the small number of Muslims in the country, and as a result, warred with them throughout their 300 year colonial rule from 1521-1898. The Spaniards were also unsuccessful in conquering and converting the uncolonized mountain/highland tribes throughout Luzon (Ifugao/Isneg, etc.). In little under a century, most lowland Filipinos were largely converted to Roman Catholicism. Today, most of the country remains Roman Catholic.

The Christianization of the Visayans and Filipinos in general, is commemorated by the Ati-Atihan Festival of Aklan, the Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo, and the Sinulog festival [celebrating] the feast of the Santo Niño (Holy Child/Jesus Christ).


The southernmost archipelagos are known as Mindanao, and as of 2010 the population was nearly 22 million. Today, about 63% of Mindanao is Christian/Catholic and it is the only geographical area of the Philippines with a Muslim presence of about 10%. Islam is the oldest monotheistic religion in the Philippines, reaching the islands in the 14th century “[w]ith the arrival of Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf, Southern India, and their followers from several sultanate governments in the Malay Archipelago (the islands between Southeast Asia and Australia)” (Wikipedia- Islam in the Philippines). The rest of the population (all of 5%), still categorize themselves as indigenous, tribal or animists.


Like its counterparts in Asia, Philippine folk music is strongly associated with nature. Being a large archipelago, the types of Filipino instruments vary from region to region. Traditional Filipino music employs a combination of musical instruments belonging to the percussion, wind, and string families.

As far as aerophones go, there is a vertical chip-on-edge flute called the Bulungudyong, (Played in Northern Pinatubu Ayta). There are 3 open holes on the top of the flute, and one hole underneath.BulungudyongActually, a whole series of Filipino bamboo flutes exist all over the country. There is the Tumpong, The Tulali with 6 holes, and the Bansik with 3 holes (Similiar to the Bulungudyong; Played by the Negrito people in Zambales as a courting instrument)                         011109_181633

The Palendag, known as the “lip valley” flute is the largest, longest bamboo flute played by the Minguindanao people (southern) This particular aerophone is considered the toughest to play based solely upon how one shapes their lips around the flute in order to get a sound. “The construction of the mouthpiece is such that the lower end is cut diagonally to accommodate the lower lip and the second diagonal cut is make for the blowing edge” (Wikipedia-Palendag).


The Filipino nose flute is called a Lantoy/Tongali is usually played during meals, planting season, and festivals.


The chordophones of the Philippines are the Bamboo violin (3 stringed violin of the Aeta people/Luzon), the Butting (a bow with a single hemp string, plucked with a small stick), and the Faglong (2 stringed lute-like instrument of the southern B’laan) The B’laan are one of the remaining indigenous tribes of southern Mindanao.


The bamboo zither is called the Budlong, and a Pas-ing is a two-stringed piece of bamboo with a hole in the middle from northern Apayao people. There are also a series of lutes, for instance, the Buktot is a 4-stringed instrument made from coconut shells (originating from the Visayas), and the Kudyapi which is a 6-stringed boat lute coming from Mindanao.


The southern region of the Philippines is known for a musical repertoire called “Kulintang“: idiophonic gongs that are played as a type of percussion. The brass tones can be tuned, and forged in a series of different sizes. Traditionally in the Philippines, Kulintang is a set of 8 tuned gongs placed horizontally in an ornate frame and tuned to the Pentatonic scale. Among the Maguindanao/Maranao (primarily Muslims), the music serves as entertainment and hospitality. It is used in weddings, festivals, coronations, to entertain visiting dignitaries, and to send back or welcome those coming back from pilgrimages. Kunlintang is also used to accompany healing ceremonies and can serve as a form of communication.


Gandingan (on the left) is the set of 4 large hanging knobbed gongs, and an Agung is a large gong suspended from an ornate frame. (on the right)


Babandil are small, narrow-rimmed gongs, primarily used as the “time-keeper” of the Maguindanao kulintang ensemble.


Also considered a tuned idiophone, the Subing is a bamboo jaw harp “of the Cuyinin people of Palawan Island in the western Philippines. Despite their length of approximately 20-25 cm., the actual functioning part of the subbing is quite small with a resultantly high pitch. Subing are often tuned by a small piece of pitch or insect wax on the tongue.


There are Filipino xylophones that are important to note, called Gambang/Gabbang. Specifically, the instrument is made up of a series of  bamboo blades on a frame similar to an African marimba. This is played throughout (Yakan, Batak, B’laan, Badjao, and Taus) It can be played as a solo instrument or within an ensemble.


Luntang, also considered a type of xylophone, is a set of wooden beams that hang from a frame played by the Maguindanaon people.

Another category of instruments in the Philippines are called Metallophones. Kulintang a Tiniok translated as “Kulintang with string” is played by the Maguindanaon people within the ensemble of gongs. There is a very similar instrument played by the Maranao people called Saronay. Essentially, there are 8 various pieces, all of which are tuned knobbed metal plates strung onto a wooden frame.


As far as the membranophones go, there are quite a few different kinds. There’s a bamboo slit drum, (Agung a Tamlang) used to practice for real Agung (to refresh your memory, it’s the large gong hanging from an ornate metal frame). There’s also a goblet drum from Maranao called Dabakan.

drum_dabakan (1)

The Gandang is an cylindrical ornately pattered double-headed barrel drum (also from the Maranoa people.) It plays alongside the Kulintang ensemble and is made of wood with a membrane made of carabao/water buffalo skin on each side. It is decorated with ‘okiran’/crocodile motives and then painted.


The bamboo scraper/slit drum is called a Kagul is played by Maguindanaon and Visayans. It has “a jagged edge on one side, played with two beaters, one scarping the jagged edge and the other one making a beat. The Maguindanaon and the Banuwaen use it in the rice paddies to guard against voracious birds, using the sound it produces to scare them away” (Wikipedia- Kagul).


Both the Libbit (Ifugao), and the Sulibao (Ibanoy) are conical drums from the northern Cordillera region.


It would be rather trying to name and discuss all the different Filipino instruments, though I hope you got a good understanding of both the country, as well as the culture and traditions throughout Philippines as a whole.

Here is one last video of kids performing tribal music and dances from the Bagobo and Ifugao tribes.



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“What % of the Population in Mindanao Is Muslim and Christian?” What % of the Population in Mindanao Is Muslim and Christian? Yahoo Answers, 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2014. <>.