Kulintang is a modern term for an instrumental form of music composed on a row of small, horizontally-laid gongs that function melodically, accompanied by larger, suspended gongs and drums. As part of the larger gong-chime culture of Southeast Asia, kulintang music ensembles have been playing for centuries in regions of the Eastern Malay Archipelago—the Southern Philippines, Eastern Indonesia, Eastern Malaysia, Brunei, and Timor. This article focuses on the Philippine Kulintang traditions of the Maranao and Maguindanao peoples. Kulintang is believed to have evolved from a simple native signaling tradition, and developed into its present form with the incorporation of knobbed gongs from Sunda. Its association with the indigenous cultures that inhabited these islands prior to the influences of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or the West make kulintang the most developed tradition of Southeast Asian archaic gong-ensembles.
The main role of kulintang music in the community is as nonprofessional, social entertainment at feasts, festive and harvest gatherings, parades, weddings and ceremonies marking the return of pilgrimages to Mecca. Kulintang music is also played at state functions, and to accompany healing ceremonies, rituals (pagipat), and animistic religious ceremonies. It is played informally in the home for the enjoyment of family members. Kulintang music was once used for communicating long distance messages from one village or longhouse to another. Traditionally, kulintang performers are volunteers whose only reward is recognition and prestige. Kulintang music is comprised of modes, with a prescribed rhythm for each of the five instruments in the ensemble, and compositions are passed down orally without any formal notation. Improvisation is an essential aspect of kulintang music. The tradition of kulintang music has been slowly dying as it is replaced with modern forms of entertainment.
Definition of Kulintang
Technically, kulintang is the Maguindanao, Ternate and Timor term for the idiophone of metal gong kettles which are laid horizontally upon a rack to create an entire kulintang set. It is played by striking the bosses of the gongs with two wooden beaters. Due to its use across a wide variety of groups and languages, the kulintang is also called kolintang by the Maranao and those in Sulawesi, kulintangan by those in Sabah and the Sulu Archipelago and totobuang by those in central Maluku.
By the twentieth century, the term kulintang had also come to denote an entire Maguindanao ensemble of five to six instruments. Traditionally the Maguindanao term for the entire ensemble is basalen or palabunibuyan, the latter term meaning “an ensemble of loud instruments” or “music-making” or in this case “music-making using a kulintang.”
Kulintang belongs to the larger unit/stratum of “knobbed gong-chime culture” prevalent in Southeast Asia. It is considered one of the region’s three major gong ensembles, alongside the gamelan of western Indonesia and piphat of Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos, which use gongs and not wind or string instruments to carry the melodic part of the ensemble. Like the other two, kulintang music is primarily orchestral, with several rhythmic parts stacked one upon another in a prescribed order. It is also based upon the pentatonic scale. However, kulintang music differs in many aspects from gamelan music. The greatest difference is the way in which a gamelan ensemble constructs melodies within a skeletal framework of tones, with a prescribed time interval for the entry of each instrument. The framework of kulintang music is more flexible and time intervals are nonexistent, allowing for more improvisation and greater variety of composition.
Because kulintang-like ensembles extended over various groups with various languages, the term used for the horizontal set of gongs varied widely. It is also called kolintang, kolintan, kulintangan, kwintangan, k’lintang, gong sembilan, gong duablas, momo, totobuang, nekara, engkromong, kromong/enkromong and recently, kakula/kakula nuada. Kulintang-like instruments are played by the Maguindanao, Maranao, Iranun, Kalagan, Kalibugan and more recently the Tboli, Blaan and Subanao of Mindanao, the Tausug, Samal, Sama/Badjao, Yakan and the Sangir/Sangil of the Sulu, the Ambon, Banda, Seram, Ternate, Tidore, and Kei of Maluku, the Bajau, Suluk, Murut, Kadazan-Dusan, Kadayah and Paitanic Peoples of Sabah, the Malays of Brunei, the Bidayuh and Iban/Sea Dayak of Sarawak, the Bolaang Mongondow and Kailinese/Toli-Toli of Sulawesi and other groups in Banjermasin and Tanjung.
Kulintang music is considered an ancient tradition that predates the influences of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and the West. In the Philippines, it represents the highest form of gong music attained by Filipinos and in North Maluku, it is said to have existed for centuries.
As ancient as this music is, there is no substantial record regarding the kulintang’s origins. The earliest historical accounts of instruments resembling those of the present day kulintang are in the writings of various European explorers from the sixteenth century who observed such instruments used in passing.
Because of limited data concerning gong music prior to European exploration, theories explaining when the prototypes of the present-day kulintang might have originated abound. One theory suggest that the bronze gong had an ancient history in Southeast Asia, arriving in the Malay archipelago two or even three thousand years ago, making its way to the Philippines from China in the third century C.E. Another theory suggests that the kulintang could not have existed prior to the fifteenth century because the Javanese gong tradition, from which the kulintang is believed to derive, did not develop until around the fifteenth century.
There is a consensus that kulintang music developed from a foreign musical tradition which was borrowed and adapted to the indigenous music tradition already present in the area. It is probable that the earliest gongs used among the indigenous populace had no recreational value, but were simply used for making signals and sending messages.
Kulintang music most likely evolved from this simple signaling tradition, transitioning into a period of one player, one-gong type ensembles (like those found among the Ifugao of Luzon or Tiruray of Mindanao), developing into a multi-gong, multi-player ensemble with the incorporation of concepts originating from Sunda, and finally transforming into the present day kulintang ensemble, with the addition of the d’bakan, babndir and musical concepts of Islam brought by Islamic traders.
Origin of the Gong
The kulintang gong itself is believed to be have been one of the foreign musical elements incorporated into kulintang music, derived from the Sundanese kolenang to which it bears striking similarities. Along with the fact that they play important roles in their respective ensembles, both the kulintang and kolenang show striking homogeneity in tapered rims (as opposed to the pronounced tapering of Javanese bonang and the non-tapered Laotian khong vong gongs). Even the word “kulintang” is believed to be an altered form of the Sundanese word “kolenang.” These similarities led theorists to conclude that the kulintang was originally imported to the Philippines during the migration of the kolenang through the Malay Archipelago. Based on the etymology, two routes have been proposed as the route by which the kulintang arrived in Mindanao. One is from Sunda, through Banjermasin, Brunei and the Sulu Archipelago, a route where the word “kulintangan” is commonly used for the horizontal row of gongs. The other is from Sunda, through Timor, Sulawesi, Moluccas and Mindanao where the word “kolintang” or “kulintang” is commonly used.
The instrument called the “kulintang” (or its other derivative terms) consists of a row/set of 5 to 9 graduated pot gongs, laid horizontally upon a frame and arranged in order of pitch, with the lowest gong on the players’ left. The gongs are laid face up in the instrument on two cords running parallel to the entire length of the frame, with bamboo or wooden bars resting perpendicularly across the frame, to create an entire kulintang set called a pasangan.
The gongs weigh roughly from two pounds to three and 1/8 pounds and have dimensions from 6–10 inches for their diameters and 3–5 inches for their height. Traditionally they are made from bronze, but due to the shortage of bronze after World War II, and the subsequent use of scrap metal, brass gongs with shorter decaying tones have become commonplace.
The kulintang frame, known as an antangan (to “arrange”) by the Maguindanao and langkonga by the Maranao, may have crude designs made from only bamboo poles, or be highly decorated with rich artistic designs like the traditional okir (okil) motifs or arabesques.
The kulintang is played by striking the bosses of the gongs with two wooden beaters. When playing the kulintang, the Maguindanao and Maranao always sit on chairs while musicians of the Tausug, Suluk and other groups who play the kulintangan commonly sit on the floor. Modern techniques include twirling the beaters, juggling them in midair, changing the arrangement of the gongs either before or while playing, crossings hands during play or adding very rapid fire strokes, all in an effort to show off a player’s grace and virtuosity.
Kulintang gongs are cast using the cire perdue method, a lost-wax process. The first phase is the creation of wax molds of the gongs. In the past, before the availability of standardized wax sheets made specifically for foundry use, the molds were made out of either beeswax (talo) or candle wax (kandila). The wax mold is covered with a special mixture of finely-powdered coal and mud, which is applied on the wax surface using a brush. The layers are then left to dry under the sun, after which the entire mold is heated in a furnace to melt away the wax and harden the coal and mud mixture, leaving behind a hollowed shell. Molten bronze is poured into the mouth of the hardened mold, cooled to a certain temperature, and then the mold is broken apart, revealing a new gong. The gong is refined, cleaned, and properly identified by the panday (gong-maker). Finally, the finished product is fine-tuned using a process called tongkol, hammering the boss from the inside to slightly raise the gong’s pitch, or hammering the boss from the outside to lower the pitch. The correct tuning is found by ear, with players striking a sequence of gongs, looking for a melodic contour they are familiar with.
Unlike westernized instrumentation, there is no set tuning for kulintang sets throughout the Philippines. Great variation exists between each set due to differences in the form, size and shape, and metal alloy used, giving each kulintang set a unique pitch level, intervals and timbre. Though the tuning varies greatly, there does exist some uniformity of contour when same melody is heard on different kulintang sets. This common contour results in similar interval relationships of more or less equidistant steps between each of the gongs. This tuning system, not based upon equal temperament or upon a system of standard pitches, but on a similar/certain pattern of large and small intervals, can also be found among the gamelan orchestras of western Indonesia. Though the Maguindanao, Maranao and Tausug artists technically have no concept of scale, because of the emphasis placed on the concept of “rhythmic modes,” the Pelog and Slendro scales of western Indonesia were found to be most compatible with their own varying pentatonic and heptatonic scales.
Because compositions were passed down orally from generation to generation, kulintang repertory was unfettered by an indigenous notation system. Recent attempts have been made to transcribe the music using cipher notation, with gongs indicated by a numbering system, for example, numbering the gongs of an eight-gong kulintang set from 1 to 8, with the lowest-pitched gong as number 1.
The kulintang is traditionally considered a women’s instrument by many groups: the Maguindanao, Maranao, Tausug and Sukul, Samal, Badjao and Sama, Illanum, Kadazan, Murut, Bidayuh and Iban. Traditionally, the playing of the kulintang was associated with the graceful, slow, frail and relaxed movements that commonly represented elegance and decorum among females. Today, both women and men play all five instruments, and the kulintang is no longer seen strictly as a woman’s instrument. In fact, the most well known contemporary players of the kulintang are men.
The main role of kulintang music in the community is as nonprofessional, social entertainment.  This music is unique in that it is considered public music; members of the audience are also expected to participate. Performances bring people of adjacent regions together, helping to unify communities that otherwise may not have interacted with one another. Traditionally, kulintang performers are volunteers and their only reward is the opportunity to receive recognition, prestige and respect from the community. 
Generally, performances can be classified as either formal or informal. Formal performances follow a traditional set of rules that govern playing, and usually involve people from outside the home. At informal performances, the strict rules that normally govern play are often ignored and the performers are usually people well-acquainted with one another, such as close family members. During informal performances, amateurs have an opportunity to practice on the instruments, and young boys and girls substitute other instruments, such as saronay (metallophone) and inubab, for kulintang. Informal ensembles don’t necessarily require five instruments like formal performances; they can be composed of only four instruments (three gandingan gongs, a kulintang, an agung, and a dabakan), three instruments (a kulintang, a dabakan, and either an agung or three gandingan gongs) or simply just one instrument (kulintang solo).
Kulintang music serves as social entertainment for a host of different occasions. It is used during large feasts, at festive and harvest gatherings, for entertainment of visiting friends and relatives, and at parades. Kulintang music also accompanies ceremonies marking significant life events, such as weddings and annual pilgrimages returning to and from Mecca. Kulintang music also plays a significant role at state functions; it is used during official celebrations, the entertainment of foreign dignitaries, court ceremonies of either the sultanate or village chieftains, enthronements and coronations of new leaders, and the transferal of a sultanate from one family to another.
Kulintang music is prohibited from being played inside mosques and during Islamic observances and holidays, such as the fasting month (Ramadhan), where playing is only allowed at night during the time when observants are allowed to eat. It is also prohibited during the mourning period of the death of important person, during funerals, and during the peak times of the planting and harvest season.
Kulintang music is also used to accompany healing ceremonies, rituals (pagipat), and animistic religious ceremonies. Though this practice has died out among the Maranao because of Islam, some areas in Mindanao, Sabah and Malaku still practice this ancient tradition.
Kulintang music can be used for communicating long distance messages from one village or longhouse to another. Called apad, these renditions mimic the normal speaking tones of the Maguindanao language, creating a specific message or, through the use of double entendre, a social commentary understood by nearly any adult native Maguindanao speaker. Apad is falling into disuse since it is no longer needed for communication. Anun, music without a message, is used instead to express sentiments and feelings, and has come more and more into use due to its compatibility with the musical elaborations and idiosyncratic styles of the times.
Due to the Islamic custom which did not allow unmarried men and women to intermingle, Kulintang music also played a crucial role in courtships as a rare, socially approved vehicle for interaction among the sexes. Traditionally, unmarried daughters were kept in a special chamber in the attic called a lamin, off-limit to visitors and suitors. It was only when they were allowed to play during kulintang performances that suitors were able to view them.
Musical contests, particularly among the Maguindanao, have become a unique feature of kulintang performances. They occur at almost all the formal occasions mentioned above, particularly at weddings. The Maguindanao hold unique solo gong contests, in which individual players showcase their skill on the various ensemble instruments, the agung, gandingan and the kulintang. Otherwise, the contests traditionally pit groups of performers from one town against those from another. 
Kulintang music has no set compositions due to its concept of rhythmic modes. A rhythmic mode (or designation or genre or pattern) is defined as a musical unit that binds together the entire five instrument ensemble. The combination of the various rhythms of each instrument creates music, and a change in one of the rhythms, alters the music and produces a different composition.
The kulintang player’s ability to improvise within the parameters of a rhythmic mode is essential. As with gamelan orchestras, each kulintang mode has a basic theme, which the kulintang player “dresses up” by adding ornamentation, and manipulating segments by inserting repetitions, extensions, insertions, suspensions, variations and transpositions. This occurs at the discretion of the kulintang player. Therefore, the kulintang player functions not only as the one carrying the melody, but also as the conductor of the entire ensemble. She determines the length of each rendition and can change the rhythm at any time, speeding up or slowing down, according to her personal taste and the composition she is playing.
Improvisation was a vital aspect of the traditional role of kulintang music as entertainment for the entire community. Listeners in the audience expected players to surprise and astound them by playing in their own unique style, and by incorporating improvisation to make newer versions of the piece. If a player simply imitated a preceding player, playing patterns without any improvisation, the audience members would believe her to be repetitious and mundane. Standard performance pieces for musical productions differ because young players practice before an event, and rarely rely on improvisations.
Maguindanao and Maranao Compositions
Though the variety of rhythms could result in innumerable different patterns, rhythmic modes can be generally categorized into genres according to criteria such as the number of beats in a recurring musical phrase, differences in the melodic and rhythmic groups with the musical phrase, differences in the rhythmic emphasis, and differences in the opening formulas and cadential patterns. IN the kulintang music of the Maguindanao, three to five typical genres can be distinguished: Duyug, Sinulog, Tidtu, Binalig and Tagonggo. The Maranao have only three typical genres, Kapromayas (Romayas), Kapagonor (Onor), and Katitik Pandai (Kapaginandang).
These genres can be further categorized into styles, or stylistic modifications, which are differentiated from one another based on instrumentation, playing techniques, function and the average age and gender of the musicians. Generally, these styles are termed either traditional and “old,” or more contemporary and “new.”
Old styles are slow, well-pronounced and dignified like the Maguindanao’s kamamatuan and the Maranao’s andung. Genres classified under this style have moderate tempos, are rhythmically-oriented, balanced, and lack many improvisations. They are usually played by the elders and are therefore always played first, to give due respect to the older generation.
New styles, such as the Maguindanao’s kagungudan and the Maranao’s bago, are fast, rhythmic and showy. Genres under this classification have faster tempos with an emphasis on power and speed, are highly rhythmic and pulsating, and contain a great deal of improvisation employing different rhythmic and melodic formulas not used with old patterns. “Young” musicians, specifically young men, gravitate toward this style because of its emphasis on virtuosity and individualism. These styles are usually played after all kamamatuan pieces have been played, to give younger musicians the opportunity to participate.
Tagunggo, a rhythmic mode often used to accompany trance and dance rituals such as sagayan , is not classified under one of these styles, because it is more ritualistic than recreational in nature. During the playing of these pieces, a ritual specialist dances in rhythm with the music calling on the help of ancestral spirits (tunong).
Sulu-type Kulintangan Compositions
Sulu-type compositions on the kulintangan are found among the Tausug, Samal, Yakan, Sama/Badjao, and Kadazan-Dusan. Though rhythmic or melodic differences between patterns are not identified with specific names, as they are by the Maguindanao, each group has its own musical compositions. The Tausug have three identifiable compositions—kuriri, sinug, and lubak-lubak; the Yakan have two—tini-id and kuriri; and the Dusan have three—ayas, kudidi and tidung. Though these melodies vary even within groups, one theme which characterizes the sulu-type is the exchange of short melodic phrases between the kulintangan and the agungs, where both instruments imitate and duplicate each other’s rhythms very quickly. This is clearly seen in the Tausug’s sinug and Yakan’s tini-id and kuriri compositions, where this sort of jousting becomes a game of skill and virtuoso playing.
The kulintang repertoire has no fixed labels because the music itself is not considered a fixed entity. Because it is orally transmitted, the repertoire itself is always in a state of change. Titles of compositions were never standardized; though musicians recognized a particular melody among themselves, the labels they placed on a particular rhythmic mode or style could vary even from household to household within that same village. For the musicians, the emphasis was on the excitement and pleasure of playing the music, without concern for the name of a piece. The improvisation inherent in kulintang compositions meant that modes and styles were continually revised and changed as they were passed on to a newer generation of musicians, making the pieces and any labels attached to them relevant only during a certain time frame.
Thee aspects of kulintang music made attempts to codify the compositions in a uniform manner impossible. For example, among the Maguindanao, the word binalig is used by contemporary musicians as a name for one of the rhythmic modes associated with kangungudan, but it has also been used as a term designating a “new” style. Another example concerns the discrepancy among “old” and “new” genres. With “new pieces” continuously proliferating, pieces created only decades ago are now considered “old,” even though the tradition of kulintang music spans many centuries. These differences could sometimes make discussing this repertoire and the modes and styles within it a bit confounding.
The tradition of kulintang music has been waning throughout the Eastern Malay Archipelago, and has become extinct in many places where it may have once played a greater role. The extent of kulintang tradition in the Philippines, particularly in the Northern and Central islands of the Luzon and Visayas, will never be fully known due to the harsh realities of three hundred years of Spanish colonization. Sets of five bronze gong-chimes and a gong, which make up the totobuang ensembles of Buru island in Central Maluku, have also come into disuse. Kolintang sets of bossed kettle gongs were played in Gorontalo, North Sulawesi long ago, but that traditiona has all but disappeared, replaced by what locals are presently familiar with, a slab-key instrument known as a “kolintang.” The fact that some areas were able to keep kulintang tradition alive during European colonization has caused kulintang to be aptly termed, “the music of resistance.”
Today, the existence of kulintang music is threatened by the influence of globalization, and the introduction of Western and foreign ideals into the region. Younger generations would rather listen to American music, or bicycle in the streets with other children, than spend time practicing and imitating on the traditional instruments of their parents.
However, due to the work of master musicians such as Master Danongan Kalanduyan and Usopay Cadar, kulintang music has experienced a revival of sorts. They are responsible for bringing kulintang music to the shores of the United States during the late twentieth century in an attempt to help connect contemporary Filipino American culture with ancient tribal traditions through music. They were impressed by the fact that those who were not of Maguindanao or Maranao background, and some who were not even Filipino, were enthusiastic in picking up an alien tradition from a foreign land. When either of them brought their own students, from universities such as University of Washington or San Francisco State University, to Mindanao to play the kulintang in front of their own people, a renaissance of sorts occurred. Many of the younger generation of Maguindanao and Maranao were encouraged to play their traditional music by the sight of outsiders playing the kulintang. Such appreciation on the part of the Filipino Americans of a music that exists halfway around the world is now giving a jolt of life to a dying tradition and had become a symbol of pan-Filipino unity.
Composition of Various Ensembles
The makeup of kulintang ensembles throughout the region can vary widely from group to group. Generally, ensembles consist of five to six instruments, dominated by a melody-playing gong row that functions as a lead melodic instrument for the entire ensemble.
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All links retrieved November 5, 2020.
- Kulintang Music of the Philippines.
- Palabuniyan Kulintang Ensemble
- Kulintang: A musical tradition of the Philippines
|Traditional instruments of the Southern Philippines|
|Maguindanao Kulintang Ensemble|
|Kulintang - Agung - Gandingan - Babendil - Dabakan|
|Other non-ensemble instruments|
|Kulintang a Kayo - Gandingan a Kayo - Kulintang a Tiniok - Kubing - Luntang - Agung a Tamlang – Kagul – Palendag – Tumpong – Suling - Kutiyapi|
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