Instruments of the Palabunibuniyan Orchestra

by Zonia Elvas Velasco
(copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved) 


DADABUAN or DABAKAN – (also d’dabuan, d’bakan) is a carved goblet shaped wooden drum with skin or rawhide cover. Danongan Kalanduyan tells me the best skin to use for this drum is lizard skin. Second best skin to use is goat or deer rawhide. The dadabuan beat keeps the tempo of the musical piece.

AGONG – (also agung) is the biggest gong with deepest rims, and gives out the bass sound in the orchestra. This is usually an instrument played by a male musician. It is not unusual for some of the bigger gongs to weigh about 20 to 30 pounds. Normally, the smaller ones weigh from 5-10 pounds, depending upon the type of metal used. Bigger gongs measure 24 inches in diameter, by 12 inches depth. 

GANDINGAN – big diameter gongs with thin rims of about 4 to 5 inches, and are usually about 22 inches in diameter. The Kulintang orchestra normally has 4 gandingans.

BABENDIR – (also babndir, babendil, babandil) The Pat Badillo collection of gongs that are used by the Filipino Folk Arts Theatre, in Dallas, come from Lanao. These are gongs which he had collected about 50 years ago. At that time, he was told that the gong was more than 300 years old. In Lanao, he said, their babendir is a cross between an agong and a gandingan. They are big diameter gongs with medium rims of about 8 inches in depth. Diameters are like those of the gandingan and agong above. 

According to Helen Tejero (faculty member at the UP College of Music), in Cotabato, the term babandil is used to describe this instrument. Here, this instrument is smaller, and naturally would carry a higher pitch. To give one an idea of its size, a Cotabato babandil used in the collection is about 12 inches in diameter, and is one and a half inch in depth.

The babendir is used to establish the timing, and is usually the first gong played for the purpose of setting the tempo.

KULINTANG (Maguindanao and Maranao) – (also kolintang (Maranao), kulintangan (Tausog)) 7 to 8 graduated gongs set on a sounding rack, usually tuned to the pentatonic scale, and is the instrument that creates the melody in the orchestra.

KULINTANG A TAMLANG – a kulintang instrument, which differs only in that bamboo is used, instead of metal.

KULINTANG A KAYO – a kulintang instrument, where wood is used, instead of metal. 

SARONAI (also SARUNAY) a small xylophone with 8 metal bosses, which is used for practicing the melody before one attempts the bigger kulintang. A similar xylophone instrument made of wood is called alotang

All the instruments, except the kulintang are traditionally played by men.

A basic ensemble usually has a minimum of the following instruments: one dadabuan, one or two agongs, four gandingans, one babendir and one kulintang

HOW IS THE MUSIC PLAYED? Generally, the babendir starts first, and sets the tempo. The dadabuan drums follow, then the agong and the kulintang interplay with each other. The gandingan act as fillers, and tempo keepers. Sometimes, the kulintang comes in last, waiting for the tempo to be established before it joins in to play the melody. Sometimes the third gong of the kulintang comes in first, acting as the babendir which sets the tempo. 

According to Badillo, the whole ensemble or orchestra is collectively called Kulintangan in some parts of Mindanao. In Cotabato, Aga Mayo Budokan says that the whole ensemble is called Palabunibuniyan.

WHICH GONG OF THE KULINTANG IS PLAYED FIRST? Traditionally, the third gong of the kulintang is struck first, then the player plays the gongs sequentially, three or four at a time. From the third gong, he might choose to go down then go up the scale. Usually he goes up and down three times. By the time he comes down after the third time, he may be ready to conclude the song.

MUSICAL PIECES. According to Helen Tejero of the University of the Philippines College of Music, “the musical pieces are usually played in sets of three following the sequence of binaligsinulog and tidtu.” The tagunggo is a fourth form and is used for rituals, like baptism, curing of the sick, etc.. Aga Mayo states that the binalig expresses sadness, the sinulog expresses emotions of anger, love and joy, while the tidtu displays the dexterity and virtuosity of the musician. 

IS THERE A MUSIC SCORE TO READ? Kulintang music is taught by oral tradition. One has to hear it repeatedly until it gets “in the blood”, then one can perform the required improvisations, still following the traditional formats.

No musical notes are written for the kulintang, which is passed on by oral tradition. However, in the past few years, the University of the Philippines College of Music, through the work of Prof. Aga Mayo Budokan, Prof. Tina Benitez and Prof. Fe Prudente, has devised a notation system composed of numbers. This method has been successful in that students are able to remember and learn music pieces through this method. For students who have never been in Mindanao to hear the traditional music of the gongs, this may be the easiest way for them to learn the musical forms. 

Of Kulintang music, experts differentiate between Cotabato (Maguindanaon) style and the Lanao (Maranao) style. There are three foremost grandmasters of this art worldwide: Aga Mayo Budokan, Danongan Kalanduyan and Usopay Cadar. Aga Mayo and Danongan both come from Cotabato. Usopay is from Lanao. Of these three master teachers, two are based in the United States – Danongan and Usopay. Danongan Kalanduyan has received an award from the National Endowment for the Arts for his excellence as a performer of this folk art. 

What are the gongs made out of? They are made out of a special alloy of bronze and iron. Older gongs are quite heavy. Aga Mayo has told me that similar weight gongs come from Borneo and are called siburnay. Present day gongs are smaller and much lighter. The ancient formula by which the original gongs were made are no longer reproducible by today’s standards. The formula has been lost. The metals are no longer available, as they were in the past.

Tuning the gongs. The gongs are tuned by beating the metal around the protruding boss to depress it down or raise it up, using a soft mallet to alter the sound. The kulintang gongs are usually tuned to the pentatonic scale. Sometimes, a kulintang master will play on two kulintang sets which he tunes to two differ
ent scales, so that he will have a variety of tones in his music.

The magic of the music of the kulintang lies in the fact that here, there is no orchestra conductor standing in front of the orchestra weilding absolute power, giving instruments the go-signal to play, or telling them to be silent at a precise point.

The kulintang orchestra is the collective artistry of all the members of the ensemble. Of course, someone sets the tempo. Of course, someone directs the general theme of the music. However, once they start, they will listen to each other, augmenting and playing in counterpoint, going from forte to piano and back, feeling each other, listening to each other, with only one thought in mind – the creation of beautiful music. And in the center of it all, is the kulintang master who creates the melodic lines, and sets the standards by which the other members of the group plays.

In that one moment of time, the diversity of their talents, and the diversity of their musical instruments make a difference. Together, by listening to each other, by augmenting the beautiful sounds made by each other, they succeed in playing beautiful music, making something wonderful! 

Strange that the lessons we learn from playing the kulintang, are the same lessons we should learn from living together, and doing for each other. This is a prime example of how diversity creates a work of extreme beauty. 

One has to experience hearing the vibrations, to tremble with the sounds of the big gongs and drums, to wait in anticipation of the fortes and climaxes, to stand in awe of the agility and beautiful improvisations of the kulintang master, and to be moved…… by the kulintang gongs!



  1. Palabunibunyan by Aga Mayo Budokan
  2. A Training Manual for the Workshop on Traditional Philippine Instruments by Kristina Benitez, Fe Prudente of the University of the Philippines College of Music and the Cultural Center of the Philippines
  3. Sounds Around Lake Lanao by Usopay Cadar, Philippine Heritage Volumes 6, pages 1677-1681.
  4. Maguindanaon Music by Helen Tejero, Training Manual for Workshop on Traditional Philippine Instruments. 
  5. Sarimanok File by Nagasura T. Madale, Philippine Heritage Volume 6, pages 1576-1581.
  6. Pangalay: Traditional Dance and Related Folk Artistic Expression by Ligaya Fernando Amilbangsa
  7. Journal of the Society for Asian Music, Vol XXVII, Number 2, Spring/Summer 1996
  8. The Muranao Kakolintang, An Approach to the Repertoire by Steven Walter Otto, 1976

Resource Persons: 

  • Aga Mayo Budokan, UP College of Music
  • Fe Prudente, UP College of Music
  • Kristina Benitez, UP College of Music
  • Edru Abraham, UP College of Music
  • Bayani de Leon, Ethno-musicologist based in New Jersey
  • Danongan Kalanduyan, MA in Ethnomusicology, 1995 National Heritage Fellow, DirectorPalabuniyan Kulintang Ensemble, Artistic Co-Director Mindanao Kulintang Ensemble
  • Potenciano Badillo, Collector and Museum Exhibitor of Filipiniana Cultural Art and Antiques since 1920.
  • Ricardo Trimillos, PhD, University of Hawaii
  • Prof. Felipe de Leon, Jr., University of the Philippines, Commissioner for the NCCA, Philippines 
  • I also wish to thank my friend Titania Buchholdt of the Palabuniyan Kulintang Ensemble for her suggestions and help in getting more information and references for this article.


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