The music of the kulintang, a multi-gong instrument with a history stretching back into the 3rd Century, is rarely heard these days outside of small, isolated villages in the southern Philippines.
Those villages are not easy to visit. Because of sporadic fighting between government troops and Muslim secessionists in the area, musicologists determined to study the kulintang and associated instruments are warned that travel to the villages can be dangerous.
Luckily, Los Angeles Festival officials searching out the traditional music of Asia had to look for kulintang no farther than Reseda. There, in a garage that is also used as a martial arts studio, is the World Kulintang Institute, the headquarters for a small troupe of musicians who aim to bring the kulintang tradition to life in this country.
A five-person ensemble sponsored by the institute will play music for the kulintang and accompanying instruments at three festival events. It will appear Thursday night as one of the opening acts for the Los Angeles Philharmonic concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Next Saturday and Sunday the ensemble will be part of the free Around Town series at Descanso Gardens in La Canada Flintridge. Finally, it will play next Sunday evening as part of an Around Town bill at the Santa Monica Pier.
Among the musicians who will be playing are two of the best known kulintang players in the United States, Danongan Sibay Kalanduyan, who gives kulintang lessons in San Francisco, and Usopay Cadar, who teaches in Seattle. Also playing will be Eleanor Academia, a local singer, songwriter and musician who founded the World Kulintang Institute in 1988.
"This is a music that has been handed down from generation to generation all these hundreds of years without anything being written down," said Academia, "so, there certainly has to be something to it."
Academia, 26, mixed music of the kulintang with far more modern electronic instruments on her pop album, "Jungle Wave," released by Columbia Records in 1987. Her second album, "Global Conversation," is scheduled to be released next year.
"Some of us are involved in other forms of music, but a tradition as rich as the kulintang's should be paid attention to," she said, "especially by Filipinos who feel it is important to keep a connection with their heritage."
Musicologists believe the kulintang originated on the island of Borneo and was eventually introduced to the Philippine island of Mindanao. Although it's most closely associated with parts of the Philippines that are now Muslim, Academia said the kulintang is not, as it is often described even in that country, an Islamic instrument.
"Islam didn't become prominent in the region until the late 1300s," she said. "By then, the kulintang had already been there for several centuries."
Ferdinand Magellan's ship historian made note of the "gong music of the natives" in a journal when the famed explorer made his ill-fated visit to the archipelago in 1521. Shortly after the journal note was made, when the ship docked at the island of Cebu, Magellan was killed during a battle with natives.
The kulintang basically consists of a set of five to 11 gongs, depending on which village it comes from, sitting in a row on a wood frame. The gongs were originally made entirely of bronze but are now usually made of a mixture of bronze and the more plentiful brass.
Kulintangs are never played in duos, because the pitch is always slightly different. "After they cast each set, they break the molds," Academia said. "That way, each set is unique."
A full kulintang ensemble has several supporting instruments, including two large kettle gongs and a goblet-shaped drum.
Academia, who was born in Hawaii and raised mostly in San Diego, had barely heard of the kulintang when she was a music student at USC in the late '70s. "I had gotten into jazz, classical, R&B;, soul, pop, just about everything but the music of my own heritage, she said, "with a goal of becoming a recording artist.
"I had seen a visiting dance troupe that used some kulintang music, but it was recorded so I didn't see the instruments. And later I found out it wasn't really authentic, traditional kulintang music."
On a summer break in San Diego in 1980 she met Bayani DeLeon, a musician who specialized in traditional music of the Philippines. "He challenged me," Academia said. "He said to me, 'How can you really consider yourself a musician if you do not know the music of your own country?' "
Academia began studying the kulintang with him and in 1984 she and her younger brother, Jerome, who is also a musician and will be playing with the ensemble during the festival, traveled to Manila to further their studies. They had planned to visit the southern villages where the kulintang is still part of village rituals and entertainment, but the unsettled political situation didn't allow for that.
She traveled back and forth between Los Angeles and Manila several times to continue her studies. Last year, she received a $21,400 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to start the institute in her husband's martial arts studio. She brought in Kalanduyan and Cadar to teach a series of workshops over several months. Later grants paid for more workshops and kulintang players trained at the institute have played several local concerts.
Academia hopes that her institute will one day be able to cast its own gongs, which are still made only in the Philippines and range in price from about $400 for what she described as a "tourist set," to the authentic models that can cost up to $3,000.
She also hopes to raise money to create a notation system for kulintang songs and to set them down on paper in case the oral tradition is interrupted.
She will continue to use the kulintang in her pop music, but said she will never go the other way and try to bring modern influences to the strict regimen of kulintang playing.
"You have to keep the two completely separate," she said. "Once you start mixing something into traditional music, there is confusion.
There is something about that music that has allowed it to last this long. When you start messing with that, it can be lost."