Memories of Mindanao/TribuTour Snippets – Part One: Tawi Tawi

by Conrad Benedicto. Posted March 10, 2024

From 2/17/23 to 3/4/23 I participated in TribuTur, a “hands on field study custom-designed for participants to explore, discover, and draw empowerment from indigenous Pilipino cultures of Mindanao.” The tour is conducted by the venerable SF arts organization Kularts and its visionary artistic director, Alleluia Panis. The following snippets are derived from daily letters to my spouse, Catherine, chronicling this unforgettable experience.

Tawi Tawi

Enter the name “Sitangkai” or “Sibutu” into your phone. The image of the world will turn on your screen and then zoom into crescent shaped patches of land barely peeking out of the sea at the very edge of the Sulu archipelago. It is the last wispy vestiges of the Philippine Islands as they reach out to Brunei. If the ocean currents are at odds with the winds during the three-hour boat ride to these isles from Bongao, you will find yourself surreptitiously scanning the passenger cabin for the compartment filled with life vests only to realize no such compartment exists. And no, the brown jute sack on the floor is filled with fruits no matter how much you want those outlines to look like blocks of buoyant foam encased in orange fabric. Yes, the violent lurching of the wooden vessel from the waves licking at the cabin window, and the seeming lack of safety regulations you are accustomed to as an American are anxiety inducing, but what you fail to grasp is that your once in a lifetime, perhaps never to be repeated voyage across the Celebes Sea is but one instance in the thousands upon thousands of voyages over centuries that have been taken by the people of this region, whose maritime history here is vast and without peer. No, you are not taking an American state-regulated ferry across the bay, but you are, in fact, in the hands of experts.

The sweaty and cramped cargo hold. Hang on.

The vessels captained by the Sama people in this province, called Tawi Tawi, do not have the outriggers that one usually associates with Philippine boats. Here they have plied the deep waters to Brunei, Jolo, Zamboanga, Indonesia and back for generations on the “kumpit” or “lepa,” which range from large trading vessels reminiscent of galleons to the speedsters they navigate through the maze of canals in Sitangkai. Models and replicas of the traditional sailing kumpit/lepa of yore are beautiful works of art—sleek yet stable, with keels shaped like eagles’ beak and ornate bowsprits carved to look like billowing wind. The spade shaped sails are set upon the main mast at an angle, like a shield being raised. The form settles upon your imagination and you begin to dream of the voyages people here have taken, the accumulation of everything individuals might have witnessed in all those countless journeys. You ponder the effect all of that has upon the cultures and traditions of the people, their knowing, and you are filled with awe. Now you are ready to be here, to visit your hosts with the proper respect and regard. Just like the tilting earth-map on your phone, your world shifts.

A model of the lepa or kumpit of yore.

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I love geology, but I’m no geologist. So when I say that Sibutu appears to be a volcanic island, that’s not an expert assessment. But there seems to be vesicular basalt everywhere, black, sharp and filled with little air pockets. And there is a conical outline of a weathered volcano on one side from which the rest of the island formation seems to have flowed. The absolute highlight of our short afternoon visit here was a natural spring, called Kabankaban. It is a deep dark pool of chilly freshwater at the bottom of a huge crevice in the basaltic bedrock in the middle of the island, ringed by ancient mossy banyans. After repeatedly checking with our amazing guide, Al Raffy Harun, to make sure that we were truly being invited to do so, I jumped down into its depths and was engulfed breathtakingly by the land. All around the pool, the roots of the old banyans hung down from the rocky cliff—thick vertical veins of gnarled wood ending in bulb-like knobs that were enveloped within the delicate fronds of tiny green ferns. It felt like a page out of a fantasy book. And since I jumped in after asking permission, both from our hosts and with a quiet petition to the land, it felt as close to being blessed by the waters as a person could feel. Afterwards, we got a chance to simply sit by the seaside and watch youngsters, their glinting hair made blond-red by the sun, harvest the Agal Agal seaweed the island is known for while the distinctive boats of the Sama sailed by. The breeze was just right, blowing by us on its way to Brunei, less than two hours away.

Agal Agal farmer.

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After Sibutu, we went onward to Sitangkai. The captain of the boat made us all stay inside the cabin for fear of the rough seas jostling us overboard if we sat on the rooftop. This leg didn’t seem that bad though, despite Alleluia’s warning that it would be “serious stuff.” The vice-mayor of Sibutu did mention the clashing of winds and currents during this time of year and commended us for our adventurous spirit. Perhaps we were just lucky that afternoon.

The municipality of Sitangkai promotes itself as “the Venice of the South” and indeed the settlement is a maze of canals and upraised paths above the tides. Arching bridges crisscross the main waterways, which are lined with shops of all kinds. Observe the architecture, the faces of the adults busily buying and selling wares from boats or storefronts, or the children helping with chores or playing in the water, and you realize Sitangkai is connected to a long standing trading network, culturally and genetically interconnected with this region of the world.

The main artery of Sitankai.

The diversity, richness, and long legacy of Sitangkai is indisputable, but it would be inaccurate to paint it as a rich trading port. The children splashing about in the canals or running in and out of alleyways, playing with their plastic toys and looking at us American Pilipinos with those bewildered yet knowing eyes are near cousins to the ones selling sampaguita necklaces in the impoverished streets of Manila. Sitangkai has long been connected but it currently occupies a disadvantaged position within today’s global market. The long arms of the industrial system that we live in as Americans, that affords us much, reaches all the way here and so the people find themselves with all kinds of things. Mostly disposable plastic things. 90% of all the disappointing and disturbing garbage floating through the canals and coating the sea shores was not produced here. It is literally our garbage, not theirs. Sitangkai is connected to an industrial world that generates mountains of commodities, but the means to dispose of them does not exist here. So when the people are done with these things, there is no answer for what to do except what has always been done: let the sea take it.

I don’t think for one second that any of us could do better, or that no one here is actively trying to tackle the mounting refuse accumulation. In fact, Raffy informed me of the many educational programs and municipal policies Sitangkai has implemented to address this problem. There is community engagement about it, and we can be allies in the process instead of judgemental foreigners.

Welcome to Sitankai.

Also, anyone who scoffs at the municipal government’s self description as the “Venice of the South” at the sight of third world conditions is simply blinded by first world chauvinism. Sitangkai is in fact a tiny Venice in the Celebes Sea when one considers the deepness and meaning of its precious and enduring traditional arts.

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I have no personal experience with spirits. As a child I was quite fascinated by and fearful of otherworldly beings. Throughout my life, the fear in particular has faded due to a complete lack of objectively verifiable encounters. But on one starlit evening in Sitangkai, my wonder was rekindled when I witnessed a ritual dance that I believe was as close to an otherworldly encounter as I will ever have.

That night our inestimable guide, Raffy, led us past the concrete walkways above water to the edge of the settlement where all the homes stood on traditional stilts. We carefully made our way from dwelling to dwelling on wooden planks until we came upon a large wood and bamboo platform in the middle of the community. Below us, the waters increased with the coming tide. The ocean breeze was a quiet whisper in the dark.

On our way to the Igal Djinn.

We came to witness a community ceremony called the Igal Djinn. Igal is the name of the traditional dance that greeted us at every stop so far in our journey through this province. In the United States it might be recognized as pangalay, a graceful dance that echoes the movements of nature and water. The dancers wear the curves of the janggai, golden fingernails, on their hands. Igal Djinn is a healing version in which the dancers are possessed by benevolent spirits. These dancers are then able to bring healing to community members in attendance, whether these ills are physical, emotional, or spiritual.

Surrounding the center of this rickety platform, over two hundred Sama men, women, and children sat cross legged, come to bear witness to the event. The members of the Kularts tour were dispersed amongst them, some seated on rugs laid down on the floor, others, like me, standing on the edges by the outer wall of the surrounding houses. Farther out from the ceremonial circle lay the vast ocean surrounding our tiny little island, and beyond that still was the glittering dome of the cosmos.

The ceremony began with an old woman playing the kulintang, accompanied by younger musicians on the drum and agong. In what became an obvious precursor for things to come, the music was technically brilliant while befitting our setting perfectly. The melodies borne by interlocking percussion drew in the vastness of ocean and sky as they floated up into the dusk. Then the Igal dancers emerged from the nearest dwelling and began. All of them, both men and women, were taken over by the spirits, their graceful movements suddenly interrupted by a fall or a sudden stillness. Then they would dance near or with individuals who needed healing, or reenact and resolve through dance a conflict within the community.

Everyone present seemed in agreement that the Igal Djinn dancers were being possessed. But it wasn’t in the wide-eyed awestruck way that a foreigner from the United States might imagine, as if a miracle was happening. The people present agreed to what was happening rather like how we Americans might agree that when a doctor starts doctoring, or a lawyer starts lawyering, something medical or legal is happening. The dancers had a role to fulfill for a community ritual and they were simply playing their parts. And if I read the room correctly, so to speak, it seemed that there were also quite a few skeptics among the locals as well, who, like me, were not convinced that actual spirit possession was transpiring. Although the ceremony did feel sacrosanct, it wasn’t otherworldly.

Then the Purple Woman came out.

She was middle aged and wiry in her purple sawal (pants), patadjuk (headdress), and tawi (blouse). Her movements were of a seasoned and sure footed veteran at the height of her powers, like Megan Rapinoe circa 2019 on the pitch. That night she attained spiritual heights, completely engaged, and committed to her part as an actor in this communal play. It was incredible to witness a perfect melding of movement and music within the context of a communal ritual. To ask whether or not an actual spirit had possessed her or if it was merely an instance of artistic transcendence is moot, really. She attained the divine. It is impossible to describe what it was like but I did my best:

Ritual Dancer

eyes inward seeking

glistening portals for moonless night

spirits gathering

pass into, through

her procession of movements in time

the float of gong-runes bearing her

each bend each arc and turn

of phrase of night breeze of stars

beyond time

sinew and soul heart

in weightless effort

the World shifts

constellations swirl around Her

in rhythm with her part

as Vessel

that the gathered spirits might witness

their stories made flesh

Naturally, I could not stop blabbing about “The Purple Woman” the next day, and it turns out that our affable but imperturbable guide, Raffy, was also “shook” or in Pilipino slang, made “kilig to the bones” by her because Raffy knows everyone in Sitangkai and—get this—HE HAD NO IDEA WHO THAT WOMAN WAS. Also we never saw her again.

All epic journeys include events that take on mythological qualities in the mind of its participants. This one had a little mystery sprinkled on top of a transcendent act. Our very own folktale from this trip.

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There is a long standing stereotype about Pilipinos that has begun to permeate even social media these days—that our hospitality is lavish, perhaps overindulgent. Well, it’s true. If there was one reliably recurring event during our whole tour, it was being the guest of honor at a breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, linner, dinner, festival, ceremony, or show. Sitangkai even commissioned a large vinyl banner with a picture of the Kularts group and had it displayed in front of one of the municipal buildings. The kindness and generosity we were shown by our many hosts was bewildering. The food was always the best they could offer and, invariably, there was fanfare—kulintang music, igal, beauty contests, singing, whether planned or spontaneous.

There was an entire banner featuring all of us. That’s Carlo Ebio who organized everything on the ground in Tawi Tawi.

The first event we were invited to was an all grades school assembly in Bongao, which is the island you fly into when visiting Tawi Tawi. It was an endearing event complete with fashion show, dancing, and beauty pageant. What struck me during this production was the prevalence of traditional rhythms within the completely synthesized modern music they played throughout the program. It was all electric keyboard and drum, but the foundational beats were familiar kulintang patterns. After the assembly master Pah Hadjii Elingan Jana actually came to our lodging and demonstrated the gadang, a traditional bamboo instrument similar to a wooden kulintang, played by the Sama people. Within the songs he exhibited were the same rhythms and patterns I heard in the electronic music the students at the school preferred. The ancestral beats were still there, running just below the surface of innovation and modernization like an invisible current.

Igal Dancers dancing to electronic beats.

That night our group had a heartfelt discussion about our experiences and there was much talk of loss and rediscovery of culture and tradition, of preservation and evolution. It was an echo of conversations I had as a student organizer decades ago and countless others as a teacher and kulintang musician. It recalled conversations that were had during the civil rights awakening of Pilipino Americans in the 60’s and 70’s, and even further back to the colonial struggles of the Pilipino people. We have always been in a constant state of loss, rediscovery, reimagination, and change. Even in peace, change occurs.

Tribu Turistas. Alleluia Panis is seated second from left.

But communities confronting colonialism and imperialism feel this constant state of flux more acutely. The stakes are higher when culture and identity become a means of resistance, when they are bound up in the actual struggle over material conditions. I understand when people want to hold on to traditions so tightly that they view any change as negative. This also sometimes leads cultural practitioners in the United States to idealize traditional arts in their homeland as being preserved from time immemorial, but in the birthplace itself we observe these traditions in flux. We came to witness cultural and traditional practices and quickly saw that the living actual examples are more rich and complex than our ideas of them.

Among cultural troupes in the U.S. there is often talk of learning indigenous songs and dances to preserve them. This is a noble gesture but perhaps paternal and misses the point. Alleluia, who is called Manai as a term of respect and endearment by those of us who are under 55 years old, sagely nails it on the head when she says we are the ones being preserved when we learn these arts. I feel this in the marrow of my bones. How can a thirsty person floating on a raft in the middle of the ocean look at a jug of water they were given and say “I must now drink this water in order to preserve it”?

 

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As our sleek wooden ferry, the Waikiki Express, departed Sitangkai, I kept offering my seat to different people in the crowded passenger hold because I wanted an excuse to crawl up to the roof. Finally, a middle aged woman with a large leather satchel accepted my offer and I grabbed my opportunity to pretend that crowd dynamics had pushed me onto the upper deck. As we motored away, I looked back at the settlement and thought of its sprawling shape as seen from the sky—like a snowflake radiating dendrites or mycelium fanning out in delicate branches into the open sea.

A local passenger named Marvin was slightly worried by my presence at the top, especially since the spots with all the handholds were already taken. But it was a calm sunny day and soon the whipping wind cooled and exhilarated us both, making us forget our concerns. We chatted the entire way—me sharing my geological theories and him listing all of the other wonders in Tawi Tawi I had missed. I gazed wistfully at those unvisited shores receding in the distance and thought of one day returning.

Looks volcanic to me…

As our boat was about to enter the large inlet leading back to Bonggao where Cebu Air was scheduled to fly me away, we encountered a rough patch of water. Waves jostled the boat from every direction and my heart rate spiked when, like a pebble skipping across a pond, my backside thudded close to the edge of the roof deck. There was at least a foot left between me and a soggy emergency and I’m sure I could have grabbed a handrail or a hand, so it was not as exciting as it felt. But Marvin did tell me we had entered the most dangerous part of the trip. This particular area was filled with cross currents and enough accidents had occurred here that people thought of it like a gateway, where the sea was most likely to demand its toll.

Eventually we crossed the portal. The sudden calm whispered that my time in Tawi Tawi was sadly at an end. I breathed the salt sea air in, committing everything to memory as my thoughts turned elsewhere, to Cotabato.

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(To Be Continued)

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Author’s Bio: Conrad J. Benedicto is a teacher, author, and kulintang musician who studied with kulintang master artist Danongan Kalanduyan from 1997 until his passing in 2016. Conrad was Danongan Kalanduyan’s apprentice through the Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ apprenticeship program in 2007 and again in 2013. In 2018, Conrad received an individual artist grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to compose original kulintang music for his project, “Kulintang Dialect.” His album by the same name was released worldwide by Gongs Away Music in 2020. Kularts, the premier presenter of tribal and contemporary Pilipino Arts, published Conrad’s debut novel “Musalaya’s Gift” in 2021.

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