The Yakan is one of the major ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines. Among the Yakan of Basilan in Mindanao, Philippines, instrumental music is given much importance. For instance, the kwintangan, an instrument of five to seven bossed gongs laid in a row, are used for courtship and celebrations.
The technique of playing the Yakan kwintangan is basically to produce the effect of several layers of drones (nerwe) and melodies (kajah) using interlocking rhythms in an aggressive rapid tempo. This is why the Yakan kwintangan is played at high speeds and requires very supple wrists and an alert mind. This is also the reason why, unlike in Magindanaw and Maranaw kulintang traditions, which are more melodic in character, the Yakan kwintangan is performed with only five gongs, thereby achieving a more prominent effect of the melodic and rhythmic layering of gong sounds.
The other major Yakan instruments are the kayu, gabbang and agung. The kwintangan kayu consists of five wooden logs hung horizontally under a tree near a rice field. Varying in sizes with the shortest log at the bottom and the longest at the top and with the tapered ends on one side upon which the melody is beaten out, this instrument is used to serenade the palay (rice) plants from the seedling stage until the time of harvest. The Yakans believe that the resonated sounds of the instrument caress the palay plants in their sleep, encouraging them to yield more fruit.
The gabbang is a bamboo xylophone with five bamboo blades resting on a wooden box resonator. It is often used for entertainment and is a practice instrument among the young preparing to learn the kwintangan. The concept of producing music and techniques for playing both the kwintangan kayu and the gabbang are essentially the same as that of the kwintangan.
The agung, a wide-rimmed bossed gong, is used for making important announcements and providing music in connection with social negotiations, events, celebrations, and the life cycle.
One to three agung’s may be used for different functions, calling for different styles of playing. The tagunggu (a Yakan musical ensemble consisting of the kwintangan, three agungs and the gandang, a cracked bamboo tube about two meters long used as a drone) demands great skill in producing permutations and syncopations of rhythm, a wide variety of damped and ringing tones, and subtle colorations of sound.
The size and composition of the instruments of this ensemble vary, but one such ensemble is the peregeyan kwintangan ensemble consisting of the kwintangan, agung, kwintangan kayu, gabbang, gandang, tagutuk (a bamboo tube about a meter and a half long with a slit hole on one side), and the tuntungan (a long, hanging flat wooden plank above which the mouth of two clay pot resonators are suspended without touching the wood).
Peregeyan means an ensemble of loud instruments. It is heard in important rituals such as the pagkawin (wedding), pagtammat (graduation of the Quran reading), and paggunting (baptism).
Uwang Ilul Ahadas—a near-blind, but a highly gifted Yakan musician of the Bohe Bessey in Lamitan, Basilan—is the recognized master of Yakan musical instruments in Basilan. He learned from the elders in his community, the rudiments of playing the various Yakan traditional instruments. Through diligent practice and eager observation of the playing techniques by musicians in his milieu, he achieved mastery of these instruments. He can play the kwintangan, gabbang and agung as a superb soloist or he may play any of these instruments as part of an ensemble.
For the past four decades now, Uwang has been devoting his life to teaching Yakan musical traditions to the Yakan youth. Safeguarding these traditions has been Uwang’s paramount concern. Recognizing Uwang’s certainly bodes well for the continuing vitality of these traditions.
In 2000, the Philippine government conferred the title of National Living Treasure to Uwang Ilul Ahadas in recognition of his invaluable contribution to the safeguarding of Yakan musical creativity and cultural identity.