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David G. Such, Ph.D.Beni Sokkong
Dr. David Such, Ethnomusicologist — Beni Sekkong, Kalinga Instrument Maker

In the fall of 1999, David Such returned from the Philippines to his home in Spokane, Washington. He brought back with him some fascinating video and a number of marvelous musical instruments, the by-products of his summer research activities with Beni Sokkong. Sokkong, a member of the Kalinga group of North Luzon, is a musical instrument maker who has mastered the construction of about 12 Kalinga bamboo instruments and works tirelessly to preserve his group's music and culture.

For more information about David Such and his research activites or how to obtain a copy of his award winning video on the Kalinga email Such is also a recording artist. Information about his music, including his latest CD release, can be found at AIM Recording.

Pacific Ocean MapPhilippines Map
Pacific Ocean Map (left) - Philippines Map (right)


Dr. Such knew beforehand that the Kalingas were notoriously warrior like, and that their headhunting tradition is not far removed. Though the group informally abandoned headhunting in the 1970s, rumors, no older than a few years, report the taking of arms and thumbs, which some outsiders in the Philippines happily regard as a marked improvement.

Mingor Warrior detailAt the root of Kalinga society is the social category "mingor," which translates as "warrior." Mingors are not that different from male musicians in the West; both ply their trade in part to garner the attention of females. Among the mingors, however, headhunting proved a pretty good ice breaker for Kalinga women who cannot help but fall sway to the charms of a successful, ornately tatooed mingor. To ascend to the elevated and highly respected status of mingor, a male must take a head. Smiling, Sokkong posits, "it is usually done during the headhunting season." Could this mean that a mingor wanna-be applies for a permit or that a successful mingor with three heads earns a free vacation in Manila? Not exactly. Males engage in headhunting during their spare time; that is, when they are not working in the fields or burdened by other pressing concerns. And, as might be expected, headhunting is precipitated most often by long standing feuds between members of different villages.

Mingor warrior detailSometimes, feuds arise over territorial disputes, which might race to the forefront during a drinking bout. After taking a head, the mingor returns to the village with the head proudly mounted atop his spear. He dances with the head, while relating in a chant the details of the event. Not needing an especially long time to recall parts of the chant, Sokkong demonstrates.

Occasionally, mingors will eat the brain of the hapless victim or use his jawbone as a handle from which may hang a kulietong, a metal gong. Handguns — many passed along reverently within a family from one generation to the next — are adorned with human bone handles.

The reason headhunting persisted so long, despite ongoing efforts by the government to suppress this unpalatable practice, is that the Kalinga rarely take government policy seriously. Once government officials recognized the problem, they decided to bring Kalinga representatives directly into the policy making process. However, what little headway the government gained soon disappeared once Kalinga representatives banned together to support the positions of their fellow Kalingas. Once the Kalingas converted to Catholicism, the church too began discouraging headhunting, though the church met with better results. Another explanation for the decline of headhunting among the Kalinga has more to do with practicality than the efforts of church or state. The Kalinga discovered modern weaponry. To a Kalinga the advantages are obvious; for instance, guns invariably wield the same result as headhunting, but with more expedience and less mess. Once again, critical outsiders looked upon this as yet another improvement over earlier practices.


There is something more happening behind the impenetrable façade of musicians like Beni Sokkong and his colleagues than Dr. Such first imagined. Unlike most Filipinos, who are warm, friendly, and outgoing, says Dr. Such, the Kalingas are reserved, poker faced, and calmly dignified. Establishing a proper rapport took time, he said.

The most fascinating aspect of the Kalinga music is the tuning system, which turns out to be quite flexible.The selection of the tonic or main tone of the scale results not from a standard or fixed pitch, but from factors, such as the size of the bamboo that is selected and where the maker ultimately decides to cut it. Intuition or whim loosely guide the maker in shaping the length of a tube used in constructing a flute. After the initial cut, which determines the tonic, the maker measures half the distance from one end to the other. Using a hot iron rod, he measures two fingers over to where he makes the next hole. The fact that one man's fingers vary in size from another guarantees slight variations in the displacement of tone holes in flutes made by different makers.

Throughout many of the world's cultures, the key number of tones in a musical scale is five, but with respect to the Kalinga a mysterious sixth degree sometimes appears. The Balingbing — as with many Kalinga instruments — are made in sets of six instruments. Dr. Such initially assumed that the sixth instrument in a set was exactly an octave higher than the first. In other words, the five instruments in the set represent the omnipresent pentatonic scale (notable world wide), while the sixth is simply a duplication of the first, but an octave higher. If this hypothesis were true, the sixth tube of the saggeypo (a simple whistle), for instance, would be close to or exactly twice the length of the first; i.e., if one arranges them from high to low. With the Kalinga, however, this is never the case. The length of the sixth tube (and the other tubes for that matter) always varies according to "whatever": the time of day, mood, how the bamboo looks, and so on. Hence, no one set of instruments are the same in pitch, nor are the lengths of the bamboo ever duplicated exactly. Simply speaking, the Kalinga tuning system is recreated on a daily basis. Go blame the temperature.

According to Dr. Such, Sokkong has expressed desire to stabilize the system, but only because of exposure to Western influences and music in which the system of pitches stay unchanged from one performance to the next. Whether or not this takes root throughout all Kalinga groups remains to be seen. Afterall, says Dr. Such, "Sokkong is one of the very few Kalinga left who consciously preserves the craft of instrument making."