Most Filipinos know the word “kudyapì”… but what does it mean? It’s a musical instrument with two strings and a long narrow body that reminds of a boat. These so-called boat lutes come in many different sizes and designs, depending on the ethnic group using them. They are all carved out of one solid block of wood. The body is hollowed out from the back and covered with a wooden board. The frets are usually made out of pieces of wood or bamboo and glued to the neck and body by means of beeswax. In most tribal traditions, the lutes are merely played as solo instruments, in others, they are combined with bamboo zithers. That’s the Philippine boat lute!
The symbolic meaning of the instruments, however, does not refer to boats, but, first of all, to animals: crocodiles, monitor lizards, horses, roosters and herons. It can also refer to the human body and to specific carved designs that can be found on royal houses. But the story is a little bit more complicated. In former times, crocodiles used to be considered the ancestors of humans. Deceased people were often buried in boat-shaped coffins, because boats symbolized the transition from the material to the spiritual world. And many of these boat-coffins were ornamented with carvings of crocodiles or lizards. In this sense, the crocodile-shaped boat lutes also seem to represent ancestors on their way to heaven.
In the Philippines, boat lutes, nowadays, are exclusively played on the islands of Mindanao and Palawan, among at least 37 different ethnic groups, for example, big instruments by the Islamic Maranao, Maguindanaon, Talaandig and Higaonon (kutiyapi), medium-sized lutes by several Manobo and Bagobo groups, like Matigsalug, Ata and Bagobo Tagabawa (kuglung), and smaller instruments by the Tboli (hegelung), Blaan (faglung), Mandaya and Mansaka (kudlung), Tëduray (fegereng), Subanen (kutapi), and others. On the island of Palawan, they are mainly played by the Pala’wan people (kusyapi, kudlungan).
There is no proof for the claim made by some scholars that, in former times, boat lutes could be found all over the Philippines. It is true, however, that they were used on the islands of Panay and Samar-Leyte, during the Spanish colonial times, as reported by Fr. Francisco Ignacio Alcina in 1668. Nevertheless, the term “kudyapì” is also used in the northern and central Philippines where it seems to refer to small lutes with a resonating body made from half a coconut shell and with 4-6 strings – totally different from the boat lutes.
The origins of boat lutes lie in India. From there, certain construction features as well the instruments’ names (most of them deriving from Sanskrit “kacchapa,” “turtle”) first found their way to mainland Southeast Asia where they developed into the crocodile zithers of Burma, Kampuchea and Thailand. From there, they spread to insular Southeast Asia, to Sumatra, Sulawesi, Sumba, Borneo and the Philippines, where they developed into an impressive diversity of lute and zither instruments.
The first time I saw a picture of a Maranao kutiyapì was in 1975, when I wrote a term paper on the musical instruments of the Philippines for my course in ethnomusicology at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. This inspired me to go on my first research trip to the Philippines, in winter 1976-77. During my early field trips, I was only able to document a handful of boat lute players of the Talaandig, Higaonon and Tigwa Manobo tribes and, therefore, focused on their musical culture, in general.
Despite my many efforts, I was never able to find a Maranao kutiyapì player. This is especially amazing because the kutiyapì of the Maranao is clearly the most attractive of all Philippine boat lutes, with its abundance of intricate carvings and colorful painted designs. In Misamis Oriental and Bukidnon, I had two piyapì of the Higaonon made for me, but I never found anybody who was able to play them. The boat lute tradition of the Batak of Palawan is also gone forever. These musical traditions have disappeared, hardly leaving a trace. However, when I visited the Tigwa Manobo of southeastern Bukidnon, I found a rich and vital boat lute culture. This made me decide to focus on the study of Philippine boat lutes, in the years to come.
From 1997 on, I systematically tried to visit all the places in Mindanao and Palawan where boat lute music was still practiced. All in all, I collected 57 boat lutes from the Philippines. Just recently, I made my latest acquisition, a very big and beautifully decorated kutiyapì of the Maguindanaon that was made around the year 1900. But I also documented many instruments in private collections and museums, in the Philippines, USA, France, Austria and Germany, many of them from the early 1900s.
It is needless to say that I had many remarkable encounters with interesting people and amazing musicians. In 1997, when I visited Cotabato City, I met the famous Maguindanaon kutiyapì virtuoso Samaon Solaiman (2011) who had been awarded the prestigious GAMABA (“Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan,” “Living National Treasure Award”). Another GAMABA awardee that was Masino Intaray (2013), the highly praised epic singer of the Pala’wan people who played the huge boat lute kusyapì for me.
One of my most interesting research experiences was the documentation of Tasaday lute music in 2004. The Tasaday had been popularized as the alleged last survivors of a stone age people living in the mountains of South Cotabato. Many people have denounced them as a fabricated fake tribe. But, beyond any doubt, they speak a distinct Cotabato Manobo language, different from all other languages spoken in their neighborhood. And Degu Bilangan, a young Tasaday man of 28 years, was one of the best boat lute players that I have ever heard and recorded.
Presently, I’m working on a book with the title “The Singing Crocodile – Boat Lutes of the Philippines.” This handbook will discuss all the important aspects of Philippine boat lutes: historical sources from the Spanish colonial times, the process of making an instrument, the terminology in the indigenous languages, a typology of the instruments based on the detailed descriptions of 253 instruments, explanations about the symbolic meaning of the lutes, performing practices, playing techniques and combinations of lutes with other instruments.
When, in 1993, the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA) honored Samaon Sulaiman with the GAMABA award, this had a strong impact on creating a new, nationwide interest in the traditional boat lutes. Performances of boat lute masters are now featured in all major folk festivals, for example, during the 3rd Rondalla Festival “Cuerdas sa Pagkakaysa” (2011). There are now also many neo-ethnic bands, mostly in the urban areas of the Philippines, using boat lutes that are usually accompanied by several African-style djembe drums.
In 2015, I came to know Arjho Cariño Turner, a Blaan cultural advocate. Together, we set up a Facebook advocacy page called “Boat Lutes of the Philippines.” This website now has an international following of more than 5,000 people, ranging from academics, musicians, artists and cultural workers to cultural enthusiasts.
For more information on the Philippine boat lutes, visit the following websites:
Publications for free downloading: https://fu-berlin.academia.edu/HansBrandeis
Community page for boat lute lovers: https://www.facebook.com/boatlutesphilippines/