Sunday, 25 March 2012

Banduria and rondalla – the slowly-vanishing Filipino musical icons

        Four stringed instruments that make up a rondalla ensemble: mandolin, banduria, 
        guitar and laud/Octavina.

JPHS Batch ’65
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

MY MIND was suddenly focused on banduria - that pear-shaped, old-fashioned stringed instrument similar to the Spanish mandolin that I used to play with when I was a kid - when my eight-year-old daughter Tintin back home broke to me the big news over the phone: that she wanted to join a rondalla group being formed at school.

As a young student trying her best to boost academic standing and stay on the race for their school's top honor roll, she wanted to take up banduria-playing with the soon-to-be formed school rondalla as part of her extra curricular activities.

Of course, it was something I really wanted her to do, and her Mama (an aunt who has been looking after her since she was a toddler) has seen to it that she participated in school activities - from school modeling to declamation during school programs - while trying her best to score high marks in academics.

Earlier, Tintin's Grade 2 class adviser had wanted her to join the school drum-and-bugle corps as majorette, so she could grace the band by twirling a baton in front of the musicians while they marched around town. But I objected because I feared that her getting exposed to sunshine during afternoon practice and getting all the sweats and all that could trigger cough that could lead to her old ailment - asthma. So, I said no.

Hearing the news from her, I immediately said "yes", agreeing that she could join as one of the pioneering members of her school's rondalia. I know she got an ear for music but I never thought that this old-fashioned instrument would attract her attention.

So, shortly after talking to my daughter, I immediately went online looking for some websites that might be selling the instrument. I was curious how much such instrument would cost nowadays. I ended up talking on the phone with one of the Lumanog stores selling musical instruments, including the banduria, in Santa Mesa, Manila. The price range: 900 pesos for the cheapest make to 5,000 pesos plus for the best-quality available. With this little information, I called Tintin and promised her she's going to have her own banduria very soon.

        A rondalla ensemble performs at a cultural music festival in Manila. - Pictures 
        courtesy of website galleries

I HAD FUN playing this 14-string instrument when I was in the grade school although I was never a member of a rondalla group. When I was in Grade 4, I was already playing a five-string guitar having tinkered earlier with a ukulele, that mini-version of the guitar with four strings. Shifting to 14-string banduria was quite easy because the fingering on the guitar was quite similar to that of the rondalla although its neck was shorter than that of the guitar and the frets were narrower.

It was a relative of mine and next-house neighbor, Ate Lily (Lilia Sayno, JPHS Batch 66), who was a member of the school rondalla. Every time she attended practice session at school during weekends, I tagged along and became familiar with the "kundiman" and other Filipino songs that they played.

On my own, I easily learned how to play some of the favorite folk tunes like "Bahay Kubo", "Magtanim Ay Di Biro", "Sa Kabukiran" and so on and so forth. Ate Lily had wanted me to join their group but it was never realized because I did not have my own banduria, a luxury my parents could not afford to buy for me.

But there were times when she brought home a spare one, borrowed from a school friend and lent it to me. Together with our Lolo Ignacio who played the guitar, we played at night under the moonlight the kundiman and folk music, and some tango tunes that we learned over time to the delight of our immediate neighbors who came over to encircle us and watch. In the absence of TV and the Internet during those days in the 60s, the banduria was an ultimate source of musical entertainment for us.

These days, it is very rare for us to hear anything about the banduria, or the rondalla, as another form of cultural entertainment as we continued to be bombarded either on TV or at the malls with imported gadgets from computer games to digital toys and musical instruments. In fact, I surmised that 90 per cent of Filipino youth these days have never seen a banduria or knew how it actually looks and sounds.

Surfing the Internet one night, I came across with an item about a respected rondalla maestro who was pushing for the adoption of the banduria as the country's national instrument to "stimulate interest in its study and cultivation".

So, it's very clear that the old-fashion banduria, the toy of my youth, has already been relegated to oblivion and is needed to be resurrected to its former glory before the present generation misses hearing the tinkling melodies from its seven pairs of strings.

The old maestro, Celso Espejo, in his early 70s, a former public school teacher in Las Pinas city, has been playing banduria since he was 12. A few years ago, he set up the Celso Espejo Rondalla, composed of two generations of banduria virtuosi to generate renewed interest in the instrument and the rondalla music.

"The Philippine banduria is unique because one can actually arrange a musical score for it, whether for solo or orchestra. Overseas, the counterparts of the banduria are mostly used for mere accompaniment or background for songs," Espejo said.

The Pinoy banduria, whose predecessor was brought to the country by the Spaniards in the 1800s, was similar to the Western Mandolin. Espejo believes that the banduria was still popular and recognizable native instrument found in most regions of the Philppines.

Acutally, the banduria forms part of the rondalla, a gathering of native plucked instruments that included the guitar, mandolin, double bass and percussion. An eight-piece rondalia would have at least four bandurias and one of each of the guitar, octavina, laud, and double bass. A 30-piece rondalla has 16 bandurias, three piccolo, three guitars, three octavinas, thre lauds and two double basses. This size usually played in important social events.

One website item has described a rondalla as an ensemble of plectrum instruments - stringed instruments played with a pick made of turtle shell. Originating in Spain, it became one of the traditional forms of Philippine folk music after its introduction to the islands in the 19th century. Philippine rondalla instruments are made of native Philippine wood from langka, narra, kamagong and mahogamy.

Espejo recalled that the rondalla had its heyday in the 1960s, when rondalla competitions were featured in radio and television variety shows such as the old favorite "Hamon sa Kampeon".

"Because of its popularity, the ensemble earned tremendous public patronage then … government officials and schools vied with one another to have the best rondalla group. Big-time businessmen even sponsored their own contests," Espejo recalled.

It is ironic that senior Filipino citizens, Filipino expatriates and foreign tourists are the ones getting attracted to rondalla performances. Although many youths are interested in listening to the banduria, only few would actually want to learn how to play the instrument. As they mature, they are more drawn to playing in modern bands like rock bands.

However, although the popularity of the Philippine banduria has dwindled in its native country, there are groups based around the world, including the US, Japan, Singapore and Australia, that keep the tradition alive.

For instance in Canberra, Australia, a group of Pinoy expatriates formed the Rondanihan sometime in 2002 and from then on began participating rondalla festivals in the Philippines through the invitation of the government and performing all over the Australian Capital Territory. Supported by the Canberra Pinoy community, the ensemble continued to reap praises wherever it went to perform.

It is good to know that there are efforts being exerted to bring back interest in this humble native instrument, especially among the Filipino youths, particularly those in the grade schools. I don't know how much fun this instrument would give my daughter Tintin once she started tinkering with it, to sustain a genuine interest.

With the onslaught of cell phones - especially the touch-screens - DVD movies, iPod, games and educational shows like Dora, Bananas in Pajamas, Teletubbies New MacDonald's Farm, and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, among many attention-grabbing others, the chances of the banduria to carve a special niche in her young life like what it did in mine long time ago look very small.

But still, I am crossing my fingers, really.

        A Filipino banduria group in Singapore with young Singaporean girls as members.

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