Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Listening to Country in Ifugao Country


Banaue, Philippines. Banaue is a small town tucked away in mountains nestled in one of the northern islands of the Philippines, on the same one as Manila. It is also the home of the Ifugao people, about 21,000 of them, one of the indigenous tribes of the country. Once known as fierce warriors and accomplished headhunters, the Ifugao have inhabited the hills in and around Banaue, living in huts perched above massive terraces they carved out of the mountain about 2000 years ago in order to cultivate rice. Connected by intricate irrigation systems using bamboo, the Banaue terraces were recently declared one of the eight wonders of the world by UNESCO.

Today, the terraces are still used to cultivate rice, but bamboo is replaced with plastic tubing, and huts are built from concrete and corrugated metal. Tourism also has brought change as a recent local commodity. Would-be trekkers like myself travel by the only means of transportation available, an 8-10 hour bus from Manila. Locals offer guided treks through the terraces and into nearby villages for days at a time.

When I finally arrive in Banaue, the landscape is magnificent. Broad steps are jutting from mud, lined neatly against one another forming levees and moats effectively irrigating acres and acres of mountain. I am eager to hike around. But as it had just days earlier, the weather thwarted my plans, and those of a few dozen other Westerners, clad in expensive gore-tex jackets (like myself) and wearing those goofy hiking pants with zippers at the knees (also like myself). Thick clouds of fog, and light but persistent rain made the possibility of trekking in muddy, steep terrain, and unpleasant one. At breakfast, the tourists were restless.

Having just come off a traveling tantrum involving whale sharks and a volcano just days earlier, I made a mad dash to exit tourist zone and explore the town on my own, armed with only my gore-tex jacket and the almighty ipod.

I wandered for about an hour into a contiguous village. I walked into an unmarked shack and watched a artisan carve a mask out of an empty coconut shell using a blunt chisel, a hammer, and his two feet, swollen with muscles.



I saw all sorts of houses, all perched high on the terraces, without plumbing or even doors, with only corrugated metal roofs and unenclosed cement walls as their protection from the elements. Despite the damp and the chill, children ran around barefoot. It was an interesting reminder of what can happen to a once-fierce society.

On my way back into town, I come across a crude, metal sign:

"Welcome. Matanglag bronzesmith shop, master of Ifugao Traditional Design in Silver and Bronze. 25M above."

Next to the sign is a set of primitive steps carved out of the mud with a few stones as footholds. There are no handrails, and become steeper the higher I go. I begin to dig my hands into the muddy roots on either side of the steps.


When I get to the top, I see only an outhouse, a chicken coop, and the backside of a cement-walled house. There is a clothesline in view and a few stray chickens. At this point I'm thinking there's some marketing work to develop here.

"Hello?" I utter hesitantly. Immediately, a woman comes out from the house, standing barely four feet tall with thick black hair framing her round face with a bowl cut.
"Yes, ma'am, come in come in," she says, seeming to understand the purpose of my visit. She ushers me to the other side of the house, which has no enclosing walls, windows, or doors. Along one side of the shack is a small glass jewelry case. On the other side sits her husband, perched behind a long wooden workbench with numerous tools on it. He is almost identical to her in appearance, except that his four front upper teeth are gone. He is busy working with an electric file. Their names are Roger and Luz Abul, and they are Ifugao. There is nothing else in view in the house other than a couple of large, simple, wooden chairs.

She motions me to the glass case, where there are about 20 pendants and a handful of earrings, all in bronze. There are only three or four designs, permutations of a circular shaped amulet that forks inwards. The pendants sell for $1-$5, but I like the only silver ring in the case, which sells for less than $20.00. I try it on but it is too big.

The story of the amulet is a peculiar one. According to Ifugao legend, a large gold version of the amulet fell from the sky in front of an Ifugao hunter who was resting in the forest at the time. He took it back to the village, the members of whom were unsure as to whether the omen was a good one. The tribe then conducted a sacrificial ceremony, offering up a pig as was tradition at the time. Based on a reading of the pig's bile by soothsayers, it was determined that the charm was a fortuitous one. Since then the amulet is thought to bring good luck generally, and fertility to women.

I liked the shape and also have a feeling that by the time I am ready for child-bearing, I will stand to benefit from a little extra help from the fertility gods, whoever they are. So I commission to have a ring made specially for me.

"Can I watch you make it?" I ask, having no plans until my bus leaves 12 hours later.
"Oh no ma'am, we bring it to your hotel and you pay then. It takes very much time," interjects Luz.
"Yes I'm sorry ma'am, I take very long time to make the ring," offers Roger.
Their English is quite clear, further inspiring me to hang out for a while.
"Well maybe I can just watch for a little bit?" To which they agree.

Roger pulls out a shiny lump of silver, and a crude, thin band, also of silver. He measures my finger and cuts the band. He then proceeds to place the lump in a metal tray, and take to it with a small blowtorch. He pulls out a metal mold and begins to form the amulet. I have never seen a process such as this before, and so I am inquisitive and start conversation. They respond shyly but with clear diction. I compliment them on their English, and they explain that in Banaue, the first outsiders they were ever exposed to were Western missionaries; thus many Ifugao speak English over Tagalog (the national dialect spoken in Manila), in addition to the indigenous Ifugao dialect. But evenso, I am impressed by their English compared with their fellow countrymen working at various tourist spots.


Roger and Luz are both Ifugao from generations back. He is a third generation bronzesmith, and before that, his people worked in the fields, like most Ifugao. He and his wife have a high school level education. Roger creates the molds for his jewelry himself, with "modern tools," which include the small, gasoline-powered blowtorch, and a circa 1960 Vespa-brand air compressor. His forefathers made the same molds using only clay and beeswax. The couple have four children, one of whom is studying to be a nurse, and another of whom is a law student. Their oldest son works as an engineer in Libya, and sends them highly-treasured electronics, including a cd player, a television, and a speaker. They walk 15 minutes into town to skype with him at the internet cafes. The youngest son is there, in and out, assisting his mother with house chores. He looks barely 16. While his law student son has learned to make traditional jewelry for extra cash, it appears that Roger will be the last Ifugao bronzesmith of his kind.

About twenty minutes of silence pass when Roger shyly discloses some precious information.
"I like American music," he says.
"Oh really? Who?" I ask, expecting him to mention Michael Bolton, Katie Perry, or some of the other musical geniuses I've heard blaring at the various bars, cafe's, buses, and karaoke joints.
"Hank Williams, Merle Haggard. Country music." He says, nervously.
"Really?" I am awestruck. "I love Hank Williams! I love Merle Haggard! I love all sorts of early American music!"
Roger looks up, "Yes? I play guitar and sing lots of Hank Williams and Merle Haggard in Baggio sometimes." Baggio is another mountain town, an 8 hour bus ride from there. But as a college town, it is infinitely larger than Banaue. I am stunned.
"At karaoke?" I ask.
"Oh no, no. There is open mic. Lots of people rock singing. But you know, I always get maybe the most applause with my Merle Haggard songs," he shares shyly. I look over at Luz who wholeheartedly nods her head. She starts humming "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
"Do many in Banaue listen to country?" I ask.
"Some. Well, not so many. Some," He says.

Roger explains that he began listening to Americana in 1973, coveting eight-tracks or bootleg tapes brought in from Manila. He tells me that once, he wrote Charley Pride directly because his material was unavailable in Manila. Pride responded in kind with an autographed photo and a record.

"You see, good music, the melody, is simple, but the words are good. Everyone can appreciate, even the younger generation," he explains.

I try to picture him sitting on a stage in a bar with a guitar, crooning Hank Williams, with his four missing teeth, and a smile instantly comes to my face. Luz wife puts on a Merle CD as Roger continues to work on my ring. She pumps it up when the compressor recharges.

"I think think, maybe "The Bottle Let Me Down Again" is my favorite. We discuss Loretta Lyn, the role of gospel music, and his conclusion that, "Hank Williams III is good, but Hank Williams II, not so good." I could not have said it better myself.
"I used to have to listen to a song, many times, before I could know the words. But now, my son just download!" He explains enthusiastically.

We pass a few hours like this, him huddled over his tools, me sipping an instant coffee carefully prepared by Luz. I flip through a book she shows me. It is spiral-bound and in it are downloaded pictures and short biographies of Merle, Hank, Johnny Cash, Elvis, Charley Pride, and others. Song lyrics are neatly typed, and each page is protected by a plastic sleeve. It was compiled for them by their son studying in Baggio.

At one point some of their friends from deep in the mountains stop in unexpectedly, on their way into town. They are rice laborers who hunt in the off season. With them, in a jute bag, is an injured mountain eagle they captured to sell to a taxidermist. It is still alive, but its wing is mangled and it looks spaced out. They let it wander around the workshop while they sit and lunch with Luz in the other room. It decides to hang out next to the blowtorch.

A few minutes later, another friend of the Abuls pop in. He is a French tourguide married to a Filipina actress, based out of Manila. With him today are about ten middle-aged tourists, equipped with fanny packs, socks and sandals. Some have ski poles. They do not speak a word of English and their guide translates. They chatter loudly in French and are suddenly taken aback by the injured eagle. Roger explains the situation in English to his friend, who explains a completely different situation to his clients in French, whereby Roger's friend the hunter is transformed into an avid conservationist. The French are relieved by the good news and buy three sets of earrings and a ring before leaving.

About an hour later, yet more visitors stop by, four fit-looking young Filipinos. Roger greets them and pulls out a double-barrel shotgun. The young man explains in English that Roger is the only one in town who can fix his gun, and that his farmers need it to finish up some work on one of the terraces.

All this to the sound of Hank and Merle.

On a lark, I ask if he's heard of Caleb Klauder, one of my favorite living Americana musicians based out of Portland. Unsurprisingly, Roger has not, so I bust out my ipod and play one of Caleb's albums, in which he sings a few Hank Williams covers, in addition to some of his own originals in the same genre.

Roger looks up and states emphatically,
"He is very good. Like Hank Williams. Is he dead?"
I tell him no, and he nods to indicate he is pleased by this news. Looking up from his work again, he says,
"The beating, it is very good and his singing is clear. Three chords only, makes it very easy for a bass to follow." I agree. After a few verses, Roger is able to sing the refrain with Caleb. He, Luz, and I are are smiling.
"You know," he shares, "Italians, French, they can't sing country. And many Americans I meet don't know Merle Haggard. Only geniuses like this music!" We all laugh as I wholeheartedly agree. Tucked away in the rice terrace hills of Banaue, I have found a fellow music snob.

Sadly, Roger completes my ring, and Luz polishes it for me, before handing it over, thus ending a pleasant and unexpected five hours. We exchange warm goodbyes, I take pictures, and I take down their mailing address which is comprised of only their names, the name of the village, and the name of the province. I vow to myself to mail them Caleb's CD's.

Walking back to backpacker hell I begin to mull over the past 5 hours. I think it was only when the shotgun was pulled out did it occur to me that I was in a slightly vulnerable situation, camped out in a shack above some nondescript set of steps, with no regular passersby. At one point, there were five men, an injured eagle, a double-barrel shotgun, and me. But I met the Abuls at a point in my trip where I was worn down. It was a point at which I wanted to trust someone. And, if I couldn't trust an Ifugao fan of Merle and Hank, who was assiduously making me a good luck charm, then who could I trust?

I am finally nearing the tourist zone, where I hear thumping sounds of techno pouring out of an internet cafe. I put my headphones on so that Caleb is crooning in my ears instead. I am rubbing the shiny new ring around my finger. It is beautiful, and fits me perfectly. And it has already brought such good fortune.

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