Weary, tired and caked in layers of mud, dust and dirt, our four by four rolled slowly into the village, while a small crowd began to gather, excited and amused by the sight of outsiders clinging to the back of the jeep as it bounced along the rough path.
After 5 hours in an open-topped pickup truck, I was bleary-eyed and exhausted. Deep in the mountains of Abra, in the Northern Philippines, I was hoping that the bamboo musician of Malibcong was at his home in the village, but there was every chance that after such an arduous journey, we might already have missed him.
It was raining in Bangued, Abra, when I jumped into the back of the pickup truck at 4 am in the morning. It was pitch black, but at least the rain had shaken me out of my slumber.
Michael, our driver, had pulled a tarpaulin over the rear, raising it up with bamboo sticks to create a makeshift cover from the rain as we set off along the road towards the mountains.
I was in the Philippines, in the far north of Luzon, in the mountainous province of Abra. This is a place where the rough terrain has created a fascinating cultural diversity, where different languages are spoken from village to village, and where different ethnic groups might live in close geographical proximity, but live very different lives.
While Bangued is a busy, provincial Filipino city and a centre of Ilocano culture, just a few kilometres into the mountains, things are very different. It was here that we were driving, in search of a man named Elmer Tadeo, a man famed for his talent in crafting bamboo instruments and a man respected for keeping indigenous Itneg traditions alive.
The Killing Fields of the North
I’d been in Bangued, Abra for a day or so, discovering vegetable gourd hats and searching out the cultural intricacies of a Filipino province that’s better known for election fraud and corrupt local government than it is for its tourism opportunities.
In fact, it was election time when I was in town, and the news was filled with grim headlines, as rival candidates knocked each other off brutally. I didn’t see any violence firsthand, but it was a constant in the background as fresh reports seemed to filter in daily of new killings, and the town was clearly on edge at this pivotal moment. I was told by locals that Abra has the nickname, ‘The Killing Fields of the North’, which is hardly a moniker that’s likely to attract tourists.
I was huddled under the tarpaulin with John, who was our acting local translator, and Kev, a friend from home who was having an intense introduction on his first trip to the Philippines.
In the front seat of the car, Dave Gatenby, AKA the Silverbackpacker, was the English man who inspired our search for Elmer. Dave has spent the last three years living in Abra, a place that’s taken hold of him and not let him go again.
He’d seen a lot of the surrounding area, but still, there was always more to discover here in the mountains and Elmer had proven to be elusive to pin down as he travelled all across the region.
But now, Dave was confident that Elmer was at his home in Malibcong, and it was just a five-hour drive along rough and dangerous mountain roads to get there.
With the elections looming, it was good to get out of town, and as soon as the sun began to rise the rain began to stop, and we soon found ourselves surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery.
The hills and mountain peaks stretched endlessly into the distance and the back of the pickup truck was the best place to be as the sun burst amongst the early morning clouds.
It was a serene setting, but soon the tarmac ran out and the road turned to rock and mud. We soon began to slow, as Michael the driver navigated enormous potholes and crumbling ledges that dropped away sharply, falling for hundreds of metres towards the valleys below.
It’s a mere 80 kilometres from Bangued to Malibcong, the village where we hoped to find Elmer, but now I was beginning to understand why the journey was going to take five hours.
A Pit Stop For Miki Noodles
We also had appetites to satisfy, and a pit stop was in order once the sun was up. To warm up after the cold lashing rain, it was time to stop at a roadside Panciteria for a steaming hot bowl of the local Abrenian speciality, Miki.
This hot and spicy bowl of noodles is perfect for the mountains, and it’s made with the best parts of a pig – usually the face – copious quantities of chilli and of course, a boiled egg to top it off. It’s not a well known Filipino food, but it’s one of the best noodle, or Pancit, dishes that I’ve tried anywhere in the country.
We still had a long ride ahead of us, and our next stop was a small village in a small valley, where we needed to register with the local police.
The village seemed quiet, unremarkable even, and two trucks were parked idly outside the police station.
But the tranquillity was juxtaposed by an imposing sign that offered substantial rewards for handing in weapons. And they weren’t talking about a hunting rifle or a shotgun, these were heavy machine guns and rocket launchers that the police were after.
Communist Insurgencies in Abra
It would seem that Abra was known as the killing fields of the north, not just for the election violence but because it has a long history of communist insurgencies in the mountains.
It’s quietened down massively in recent years, but the NPA – the New People’s Army – are still an active presence in the mountains here. The armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines has been waging war since the 60s, and Dave jokes that they are probably watching us from the hills as we carry on along the road to Malibcong. He’s probably right too.
In fact, when we reach Malibcong, we’ll also see the location of one of the most notorious events in local history. In 1999, a rebel leader, part of the offshoot Cordillera People’s Liberation Army – Conrado Balweg – was shot and killed in his own home by the New People’s Army, as he attempted to negotiate separate talks With the Filipino government. His own brother was supposedly amongst the assassins.
But in Abra, there are no clear cut loyalties. This is a fiercely independent region, that for most of the Spanish colonial period managed to retain its autonomy and independence.
In Bangued and along the coast of northern Luzon, the majority of the local population see themselves as Ilocano and speak the Ilocano language. Up here in the mountains, the villages are divided into a multitude of ethnicities, speaking a whole range of different languages. The broad name for those living in the mountains is the Itneg or Tingguian people, who have lived here for thousands of years.
Loyalties and divisions aren’t quite so clear cut, and many different groups have formed on the mountains, fighting for autonomy, for indigenous rights, or fighting under the guise of communism, for money and power. Despite the seemingly tranquil atmosphere and startlingly beautiful scenery, the mountains of Abra were proving to be a turbulent place.
Elmer is fighting his own battle, but his weapons are his bamboo instruments rather than hand grenades and assault rifles.
The village of Malibcong is a world away from Bangued. This is the rural Philippines in its most vivid, raw and intriguing form.
At the entrance to the village, we ask for directions from the local shopkeeper. Hanging out of his window, he points down the road to Elmer’s house.
Malibcong is a small place, but an eventful place. The shopkeeper, Ernesto, has his own unfortunate story to tell because for years he’s been paralysed from the waist down.
He was caught in a crossfire between the army and the communist guerillas and caught a bullet in his back. Since that fateful day, he spends his time making brooms, handweaving rucksacks and selling drinks and snacks out of the shop window.
His rucksacks are of such high quality in fact, that they are sought by people from all the neighbouring villages, and perhaps even by the communists hiding in the mountains too.
Elmer, The Bamboo Musician
We follow the shopkeeper’s directions and are soon parking up outside of Elmer’s house, as villagers gather around for our arrival.
Standing outside his house, Elmer seems oddly out of place in Malibcong, with his long and wild hair tied back, and a pair of dark sunglasses covering his eyes.
“Welcome to Malibcong”, he says, as we all jump out of the pickup truck, dishevelled and aching after 5 hours of driving. “How was your journey?” he asks with a grin.
Elmer invites us inside his home, where an array of bamboo instruments are laid out on the table and scattered across the room.
I’d already heard Elmer’s songs because despite being so far out in the mountains, he’s garnered quite a following on YouTube. Something he’s not even really aware of, given the lack of signal in these parts. But some videos of his music have tens of thousands of views and one is well into the hundreds of thousands.
Elmer plays traditional songs on his bamboo instruments, singing in the local language and playing his own creations and songs that have been passed down from generations previously.
Sometimes he likes to play reggae too.
A Life of Music
Elmer began his musical career when he was seven years old. His father was a musician too and taught him how to play and how to craft instruments.
But while bamboo instruments were once played in every mountain village in Abra, Elmer knows that he is the last person in the province to still craft them from scratch.
He collects the bamboo himself from the land around his village, before slowly hollowing and shaping the instruments. He has 11 different instruments in his collection, and although he’s the only artisan still producing them in Abra, many of them are actually group instruments.
The bamboo drums, for instance, are each tuned to one note, and he needs six people and six drums to play his songs.
Elmer visits different villages in the region to teach children how to play traditional music, but he complains that he gets no help or funding from the government, which is just one reason why he is the last of his kind.
Elmer complains that their culture is vanishing, but his aim to teach the next generation how to play the instruments.
Elmer is only in his late forties, though, so perhaps there is hope. He has dedicated his life to music and continues to travel around, even visiting cities such as Baguio and Manila to give cultural demonstrations, to occasionally record songs and more than anything, to spark interest.
If his Youtube video views are anything to go by, then there’s certainly a growing interest in indigenous cultures in the Philippines.
“I teach the kids the importance of culture,” Elmer says as he picks up his bamboo flute. “If you lose the culture, then you lose your identity”.
Elmer plans to turn his own home into a music classroom and to run cultural classes focusing on indigenous traditions. He also wants to embrace tourism, to give people an incentive to learn about the Itneg culture and traditions, but he realises that to happen, then they need a better road.
Elmer starts to play through all his instruments, demonstrating the nose flute and playing the guitar, before we all head outside into the street where Elmer starts an impromptu concert.
Giving myself, Dave, Kev and John all instruments, we’re given a crash course in bamboo music, and the whole village gather around to listen before we begin the long journey back to Bangued before the sun sets again.
All Words and Photos By Richard Collett