Before Mamasapano became a blood stain on the national psyche, the only buzz about the impoverished little town came from its exquisite music.It’s not at all popular music, but the melodious high-pitched sound produced by a rarely seen and heard two-stringed instrument called kudyapi.
Mamasapano was the home of the kudyapi master, Samaon Sulaiman, a local imam who doubled as the community barber and tripled as the most famous musician Mamasapano had ever produced.
That wasn’t really saying much because it was hard for anything or anyone from so isolated and poor a place to gain any fame.
I had only heard about Samaon Sulaiman because I was assigned to do a story on him in the dry season of 2008. He had been designated a living treasure by the national government for his mastery of one of the Philippines’ most obscure instruments. Perhaps less reverently, he had also been referred to as the Jimi Hendrix of the kudyapi, a rock star in the realm of pre-colonial Philippine music.
The kudyapi is a variation of the boat lute that is found in Maguindanao.
I could not even find a specimen in Cotabato City, as I searched an antique and music shop there before I embarked on the journey into the Maguindanao interior, the territory of the MILF and private armies beholden to political families.
One of those was the Ampatuan clan, which still held sway in the province in 2008, just a year before the massacre that would bear its name.
The Ampatuan Massacre in November 2009 brought politically-motivated killing to a whole new level. A little over five years later, on January 25 of this year, Maguindanao was in the bloody headlines again, for the slaughter in Mamasapano of 44 police commandos, many of whom were killed execution-style with bullets to the head.
But the possibility of any of that had not entered my own head as I sat in a rented jeepney in June 2008 with then “100% Pinoy” program producer JC Rubio and cameraman Noel Almadrones, and bounced over rutted roads towards Mamasapano.
Turning into a barangay road, our vehicle stopped to allow several armed men to board, one of them in the front seat, the rest beside us in the back. JC and I looked at each other with fear, while feigning coolness, as the gunman in the front seat gave instructions to the driver.
The new passengers introduced themselves as members of the MILF. “Kaming magbabantay sa inyo. Baka may mga third party diyan,” said one rebel wearing shades and a wide smile.
I wasn’t sure whether to feel safer that they were there; the only reassuring thought was that there had been a ceasefire between the MILF and the government that was holding.
But that did not apply to the army of the Ampatuans, who had long not been on good terms with the MILF and whose men could be lying in wait for all we knew.
Our jeepney packed with nervous out-of-towners and beaming armed locals was slowed down by an extensive portion of the road that was flooded. We were told it was like that nearly the whole year round, the result of defective drainage that had not been repaired by the government. Like in many parts of rural Muslim Mindanao, there was little government presence in Mamasapano, and just the MILF to keep order.
We finally reached the village of Libutan, where we were the sole Christians and perhaps the first guests from faraway in a long time. We were welcomed like visiting dignitaries, with much of the community dressed in their best garb and ready to perform. Guerrillas hovered around more out of curiosity than any intent to guard us.
The trail of people ended with the kudyapi master Samaon Sulaiman, wearing a Moro turban and standing with his arms folded, his prized antique instrument made from langka wood displayed behind him on a glittering native fabric covering a long table. It was a grand introduction to the object of our quest, like a holy grail finally found in the land of its origin.
The master’s students were also there, all local kids eager to catch a glimpse of the strangers with a big camera. “We cannot let our culture die, we can’t lose this tradition,” he told me in locally accented Filipino. “I tell the children, if you do not know this instrument, you are not a true Muslim.”
In fact, the kudyapi probably predates their religion in Mindanao, as even lumads or non-Muslim tribes have their own version of the lute, also called the hegalong.
Then the master played a traditional melody on his kudyapi, his left hand moving rapidly over the frets divided by lumps of hardened beeswax, while his right plucked the two tender strings, the lower string used to provide a steady drone or humming sound. It was soothing, and, if one listened long enough, perhaps even builds up to a trance-like effect.
As an imam, Sulaiman had blessed and buried many warriors. So he said that playing the kudyapi gave him peace of mind. But he added that when he and other musicians play, combatants would pause what they were doing to watch and listen. That way, he said, music helped the cause of peace.
We recorded his kudyapi class of about ten kids, conducted outdoors under a tree. His blind assistant and former student, Ismail Achmad, guided the youngsters’ hands, while his mentor gave instructions and commented on the technique.
This music is not rendered in written notes. “When I hear the music, I commit it to memory,” said Achmad in his native Maguindanao language. And why does he like kudyapi music? “It sounds like a song from paradise,” he said, a beatific grin crinkling the skin around his white eyes.
To jog my memory of that visit seven years ago, I turned to my journal. Some (occasionally melodramatic) excerpts about that time in Mamasapano that I would have otherwise forgotten:
The power went off in the late afternoon and soon it was dark. I entertained the kids by attempting to learn their language. My mangled pronunciations amused them no end, and the dark was filled with the laughter of children.
I was in bed by 9:30pm, tired, hot and sticky. But the community jammed into the night, the kudyapi, kulintang, gandingan and agong sounds bouncing around the walls, somehow making me feel connected to them, to our common ancestors, and to Pinoys around the world and throughout history. They were the last sounds I heard before I fell asleep.
In the morning, as I was packing, a bunch of kids were watching me. One of the more outgoing said in his best school Tagalog: “Huwag muna kayong umalis. Napapasaya niyo kami.” One of the sweetest things I’ve ever heard.
We did leave because we had a plane to catch in Cotabato City, but not before I bought a newly made kudyapi from Samaon’s brother, a master kudyapi maker. The kudyapi is now displayed in my living room, a prized memento from Mamasapano.
Samaon Sulaiman would pass away three years later at the age of 54.
The National Commission on Culture and the Arts said in a statement after his death in 2011: “With his creative gifts in enriching the playing techniques, styles, sonic and melodic repertoire of the instrument, [Sulaiman’s] crowd-drawing performances here and in foreign lands, and his dedication in imparting his skills to the Maguindanaon youth,… he was truly one of the shining lights in the non-Western musical heritage of old Philippines. It will be hard to develop another one like him.”
[Entry 70, The SubSelfie Blog]
About the Author:
Veteran journalist Howie Severino visited the MILF-controlled community of Mamasapano, Maguindanao back in June 2008. During that time, there was an ongoing ceasefire between the government and the MILF, enabling Howie to produce a documentary in Mamasapano for 100% Pinoy. Howie first posted this essay in his Facebook page and GMA News Online. He permitted us to repost this in SubSelfie.com as well. The pictures are screengrabs from the documentary and you can watch it here: Kudyapi Master