World Music Instrument: The Maguindanaoan Kulintang of the Southern Philippines

A Maguindanaoan kulintang ensemble is a gong-chime collection of instruments important to the musical culture of the Maguindanao people in the Southern Philippines. Kulintang music is used for celebratory occasions such as festivals, weddings, engagement parties, and baptisms, as well as in musical competitions. Certain musical families in the province of Maguindanao specialize in this art form, passing down the tradition from generation to generation, and everyone interested in learning is welcome. Children typically learn through osmosis by observing their elders play at festive occasions. Each kulintang song is family-specific and region-specific, and well-versed musicians can distinguish between regional and family styles of playing. 

Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble | Photograph by Ernie Pena

The entire ensemble consists of five percussion instruments played by five musicians at a time.

percussion instruments on wooden rack

Kulintang | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The main melodic instrument, called the kulintang, consists of eight knobbed bronze gongs that are graduated in pitch. It sits on a wooden stand called an antangan. Each gong is supported by thin cords attached to the antangan, to allow the sound to resonate.
musician and drum

Dabakan | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The second instrument of the ensemble is the dabakan, a gourd-shaped drum that provides the rhythm to the ensemble. It is typically made from the stump of a palm tree, and the drum head is traditionally fashioned from monitor lizard skin (or sometimes snakeskin). Due to the endangered status of monitor lizards in the Philippines, goatskin is now widely used.

Babandil | Philip Dominguez Mercurio (PhilipDM) Wikimedia Commons

The third instrument is the babandil (also commonly spelled as babandir), the ensemble's timekeeper. It is a medium-sized knobbed gong. The rim of the babandil is tapped with a striker to create the sound.
Hanging gongs

Gandingan | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The fourth instrument of the ensemble is the gandingan, composed of four hanging gongs also known as the “talking gongs.” Musicians often used the gandingan to send messages, typically romantic, to other players in the ensemble or across distances.
Two musicians with hanging kettle bells

Agung | Photography by Kingsley Ramos

The last instrument of the ensemble is the agung (or agong). These are two very large gongs that provide the bass register to the ensemble.

It is a misconception that kulintang music is Islamic. Islam became the primary religion of the island of Mindanao and the province of Maguindanao in the 14th century, primarily as a result of trade between Muslim Indians, Malaysia, and Mindanao. However, before this time the Maguindanao used kulintang music for animist rituals to appease malignant spirits. 

There are other Filipino ethnolinguistic groups in the Southern Philippines that have their own distinct kulintang traditions. These include the Maranao, Blaan, Tboli, Manobo, Bogobo, Sama, and Tausug. The Indonesian and Malaysian gamelan are related to the kulintang ensemble.

This article is one in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of musical instruments that audience members encounter through Center for World Music programs. 

Unique to the Maguindanao is the use of kulintang music for courtship and in contests between individual musicians or village ensembles. On the gandingan, suitors send their love interests sweet messages through apad, tones that mimic human speech in the poetic language of Maguindanao. Messages may also be sent on the kulintang and agong. This method allows courting without public displays of affection, which is frowned upon in Muslim society.

Gong instrument competition is a modern concept popular with younger musicians. Held during weddings and festivals, such contests occur between individual musicians and/or ensembles, representing different villages. The kulintang, gandingan, and agong are all used in these competitions as musicians attempt to show their virtuosity and skills on each instrument. The winners are determined by who receives the loudest applause from the audience.

Enjoy this video of Magui Moro Master Artists.

Learn more about The Traditional Music and Dance of the Maguindanaoan People in this discussion and video presentation.


— Contributed by Kimberly Kalanduyan, granddaughter of Maguindanao master artist Danongan Kalanduyan.

For more on Kimberly, her mentor Bernard Ellorin, and Kulintang music visit A Journey Home: Kulintang Music from San Diego to Mindanao, an Alliance for California Traditional Arts funded project.