Music of the Philippines

Friday, September 08, 2006

Music of the Philippines

Filipino music is a mixture of European, American and indigenous sounds. Much of the music of the Philippines have been influenced by the 377 year-long colonial legacies of Spain, Western rock and roll, hip-hop and pop music from the United States, the indigenous Austronesian population and Indo-Malayan Gamelan music.

Indigenous musical styles

The Philippines, being a large archipelago, has musical styles that vary from region to region. Traditional Filipino music typically employs a combination of musical instruments belonging to the percussion, wind, and string families. These instruments are usually made of bronze, wood, or bamboo.

Southern styles

Among the various groups of the island of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, a highly sophisticated musical repotoire called kulintang exists in which the main instruments used are bossed gongs not dissimilar to gongs used in Indonesia.
A pair of agungs, one of the instruments found in the kulintang ensemble

Generally, kulintang ensembles among the Maguindanao, Maranao, the Tausug and other lesser known groups, are composed of five pieces of instrumentation. Among the Maguindanao, this includes: the kulintang (strung out horizontally on a stand, serving as the main melody instrument of the ensemble), the agung (the largest gongs of the ensemble providing much of the lower beats, either coming in a pair of two or just one alone), the gandingan (four large vertical gongs aligned front to back, used as a secondary melodic instrument), the dabakan (an hour-glass shaped drum covered in goat/lizard skin) and the babendil (a singular gong used as the timekeeper of the entire ensemble). The Maranao have similar instrumentation with the exception of the gandingan which they do not have an equivalent of.

A Philippine kulintang of the Maguindanaon people with 8 gongs stacked horizontally by pitch atop a wooden antangan

List of the Traditional Instruments of the Southern Philippines:
Five main instruments of the Maguindanao Kulintang Ensemble
Kulintang - Agung - Gandingan - Babendil - Dabakan
Other Southern Pilipino non-ensemble instruments
Kulintang a Kayo - Gandingan a Kayo - Kulintang a Tiniok - Kubing - Luntang - Agung a TamlangKagulPalendagTumpongSuling - Kutiyapi

Among the Maguindanao/Maranao, kulintang music serves as their means of entertainment and hospitality, being used in weddings, festivals, coronations, to entertain visiting dignitaries and to send off those heading and coming back from pilgrimages. Kulintang music is also used to accompany healing ceremonies and particularly among the Maguindanao, can serve as a form of communication. Because the Maguindanao can convert the music into their language and vice versa, the Maguindanao can sends messages long distances using their instruments. The gandingan usually is their instrument of choice to send messages, known among the Maguindanao as apad. Apad has been used to warn others of impeding danger or to send a message to a lover. In fact, people have been known to elope with the use of such songs.
Among the Tausug of the Sulu Archipelago, The Sindil (sung verbal jousts) is a musical lighthearted style that is sung by a duo of both sexes sung in front of an audience. Teasing, jokes, and innuendos flow into the verses, the better ones being applauded by the audience. The gabbang xylophone and biyula traditional violin are the instuments mainly used. Although Sindil is a particular genre of music, the verbal jousting musical type is also found in many other parts of the country, especially among the Visayan peoples, who are ethnically related to the Tausug. Sindil are normally used at weddings and other festive events.
Other musical traditions of this region are those of the serenade form Kapanirong and the outdoor "loud" music repotoire called Tagonggo.

Northern styles

Among the indigenous peoples of the Central Cordilleras of the northern island of Luzon, music is also played with gongs, but unlike those of southern repoitoires, these gongs, called Gangsa, are unbossed and have their origins in mainland Asia. Music is usually played to accompany dance, and because of this is mostly percussion based. gong ensembled are normally accompanied by drums. The music is polyphonic, and uses highly interlocking repeated patterns.

Other styles

Other indigenous instruments include a bamboo zither, log drums, the Kudyapi two stringed boat lute and various flutes, including some nose flutes used by northern tribes.

Spanish influence

Spanish and Mexican colonizers left their musical mark on the Philippines, introducing a rich culture, Christianity and its attendant religious music. The guitar and other instruments, as well as zarzuela (a form of operetta) were popular and soon became an important part of the customs and traditional elements of the culture of the Philippines.


The Harana first gained popularity in the early part of the Spanish Period. It's influence comes from folk Music of Spain and the Mariachi sounds of Mexico. It is a traditional form of courtship music in which a man woos a woman by singing underneath her window at night. It is widely practiced in many parts of the Philippines with a set of protocols, a code of conduct, and a specific style of music. Harana itself uses mainly Hispanic protocols in music, although its origins lie in the old pre-colonial Philippine musical styles which still practised around the country (See Also Kapanirong style of the Maguindanao of Mindanao). The main instument used for Harana is the Guitar, played by the courter, although other string instruments such as the Ukulele and less frequiently, the Violin and Trumpets are also used.


The Kundiman is a lyrical song made popular in the Philippines in the early 19th century, but having origins in older pre-colonial indigenous styles. Composed in the Western idiom, the song is characterized by a minor key at the beginning and shifts to a major key in the second half. Its lyrics depict a romantic love, usually portraying the forlorn pleadings of a lover willing to sacrifice everything on behalf of his beloved. In many others, it is a plaintive call of the rejected lover or the broken-hearted. In others, it is a story of unrequited love. Almost all traditional Filipino love songs in this genre are heavy with poetic emotion. One such Kundiman that tells about unrequited love is the Visayan song Matud Nila.
In the 1920s Kundiman became a much more mainstream musical style, with many popular performers including Diomedes Maturan and Ruben Tagalog.


Spain brought the rondalla to the Philippines in the 1800’s. An ensemble of plectrum instruments, the early Philippine rondalla repertoire consisted primarily of Western European symphonic overtures and arias from operas. Its compatibility with native Philippine music allowed the rondalla to figure prominently in Filipino rural community life, providing accompaniment to folk dancing and singing as well as the featured ensemble.

As proof of the rondalla’s natural fit with Philippine music, it has been brought to other parts of the world wherever Filipinos can be found. In the United States, the Philippine Chamber Rondalla of New Jersey, Inc. is a leading proponent of Philippine rondalla music in the North Eastern seaboard.

The standard Philippine rondalla consists of the pear-shaped piccolo bandurria, bandurria, and la-ud, and the guitar-shaped octavina and mandola, guitarra, and bajo de unas (which has been supplanted by the double bass). Fashioned from common Philippine wood such as langka, narra, kamagong, and mahogany, the instruments are played with a plectrum of turtle shell. The fourteen strings of the rondalla instruments, except for the guitarra, are grouped into six tuning units – viz., F#, B, E, A, D, G. The doubling or tripling of strings produces better sound quality and volume.

North American influences

The United States occupied the Islands in 1898 until 1935 and introduced American blues, folk, R&B and rock and roll became popular.
For many years, even after the Republic of Philippines became an independent nation, most popular Filipino musicians recorded "covers" of American hit songs. Many visitors to the RP came away believing that there was no unique Filipino music sound, because they were only exposed to lounge and bar singers who were told to "sing Kano."
However, this American influence taught the Filipinos how to create and market their own performers, and led to the emergence of superstars such as Sharon Cuneta, Gary Valenciano, Lea Salonga and Regine Velasquez, as well as the "Pinay girl group" phenomenon which brought Kikay, Sex bomb, Viva Hot Babes, Jaboom Twins and others.
As a result, much original Pilipino music ("OPM") is reminiscent of earlier American popular music, which has led to a certain popularity among North American audiences who have burned out on overplayed "oldies" but still enjoy the sound. Thus Filipino performers are paying back the debt with interest.

Filipino rock

In the late 1950s, native performers wrote Tagalog lyrics for North American rock n'roll music, resulting in the beginnings of Filipino rock.
The most notable achievement in Filipino rock of the 1960s was the hit song "Killer Joe," which propelled the group "Rocky Fellers" to #16 on the American radio charts. However, despite the Fellers family (father and four sons) being of Manila origin, the song itself was written by US musicians Bert Russell (Bert Berns), Bob Elgin, and Phil Medley, so some critics contend that it wasn't truly Filipino rock.
In the early 1970s, Tagalog and English lyrics were both used, within the same song, in songs like "Ang Miss Universe Ng Buhay Ko," which helped innovate the Manila sound. The mixing of the two languages (known as "Taglish"), while common in casual speech in the Philippines, was seen as a bold move, but the success of Taglish in popular songs, including Sharon Cuneta's first hit, "Mr DJ," broke the barrier forevermore.

Freddie Aguilar, popular Filipino folk musician whose music came to symbolise the People Power struggles of the 1980's

Soon, Filipino rock musicians added folk music and other influences, helping to lead to the 1978 breakthrough success of Freddie Aguilar. Aguilar's Anak, his debut recording, is the most commercially successful Filipino recording in history, and was popular throughout Asia and Europe, and has been translated into numerous language by singers worldwide. Asin also broke into the music scene at the same time and were very popular.
Rock music became the music of Filipino protestors in the 1980s, and Aguilar's "Bayan Ko" became especially popular as an anthem during the 1986 revolution. At the same time, a subculture rejected the rise of socially aware lyrics. In Manila, a Punk Rock scene developed, led by bands like Betrayed, The Jerks and Urban Bandits.
Later Filipino rock stars include Yano, Eraserheads, Parokya ni Edgar, Rivermaya, Cocojam, and Grace Nono, each of which adopts a variety of rock subgenres into their style.

Joey Ayala, popular Filipino Neo-Traditional Artist, has been partly responsible for the rediscovery of indigenous genres in modern Filipino music.

The Neo-Traditional genre in Filipino music is gaining popularity, with artists such as Joey Ayala, Grace Nono and Bayang Barrios enjoying relative popularity within the Philippines for including the traditional musical traditions of the many ethnic minorities of the country.
Today, the Philippines is perhaps Asia's most vibrant music-obsessed country, with home spawned bands such as Aegis, Bamboo, Cueshé, Hale, Imago, Kitchie Nadal, Moonstar 88, MYMP, and Sponge Cola, among others.
There has always been a blend of rock and easy-listening styles in OPM, so it is not unusual for a single artist or group to have a wide repertoire and an equally wide range of fans. A retired businessman may find himself seated next to a teen girl at an appearance of APO Hiking Society or the lastest girl group from Makati, and outcheering her after a favorite song.

Filipino Hip-Hop

The Philippines is said to have developed the first hip-hop scene in all of Asia and the Pacific islands. The birth of Filipino hip-hop music or Pinoy Rap as it is commonly called, occurred in the early 1980s with songs by Dyords Javier ("Na Onseng Delight") and Vincent Dafalong ("Nunal"). The genre developed slowly during the 1980s but soon hit the mainstream with Francis Magalona's debut album, Yo! which included the nationalistic hit "Mga Kababayan" (My countrymen). Magalona, who rapped in both English and Tagalog became a pioneer in the genre and a superstar as a result.
The 1990s were known as the "Golden Age" of Pinoy rap and saw the beginning of rapid stylistic innovation with Francis M.'s second album released in 1992 Rap is Francis M. which is considered to be one of the greatest Pinoy rap albums. In 1994, Death Threat released the first Filipino gangsta rap album titled Gusto Kong Bumaet (I Want to be Good).
Another Filipino hip-hop artist who achieved promence in the 1990s was formerly Los Angeles based-Andrew E. who went on to found his own record label, Dongalo Wreckords as well as the successful rap group Salbakuta.
The millennium saw Pinoy rap's popularity transform from being considered a fad or novelty into a fully blown musical enterprise. Rap artists such as Salbakuta, Krook and J.O.L.O., Mike aka Jempot, Rap2 along with his brother Gloc-9 continue to top music charts.

Philippine choral music

The Philippine choral music scene has been developed and popularized by the Philippine Madrigal Singers. This choir is the country's premier chorale and has been an award-winning chorale through its existence.


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