Thursday, 1 May 2008

Gitarang Tramu


The traditional music of local guitar-making in San Anton, Guagua, Pampanga


By Joel Pabustan Mallari
With Francis Eric C. Balagtas


Guitar is known worldwide as a universally popular string instrument played by plucking or strumming. The guitar is the proverbial instrument of chivalrous courtship. Pictures of swains serenading their lady loves under their balconies and accompanying themselves on the guitar are common. The word guitara or gitara can be traced to the Greek kithara, but there is no similarity in the structure or sound of the two instruments. The guitar in its present form originated in Spain in the 16th century and spread all over the world. As part of the offshoot tradition, the Philippine archipelago was once part of this evolutionary influence from Spain, since the archipelago was colonized for more than three centuries coinciding to the beginning of the guitar tradition from Spain.

In Mariano Proceso Pabalan Byron’s zarzuela “Ing Managpe” which is the first zarzuela written in any Philippine language in 1900, he mentioned the archaic word kalaskas as an example of an old musical instrument probably belonging to the guitar family. In an 1860 edition of Fray Diego Bergaño’s vocabulary collections, he listed cudiapi as a musical instrument similar to a harp, which he pointed as no longer extant during his time. Cudiapi or kudyapi is an example of pre-Hispanic native guitar in the Philippines.

Folk historians from Pampanga, claim the original century-old tradition of gitara-making is the old street of San Anton, Guagua, Pampanga called Tramu. This local street name is a borrowed Spanish term which means “flight of stairs” or “railroad”. It is in fact metaphorically compared to the railroad-like view of the pasin (fret board) of the Kapampangan-made gitara locally called the gitarang akostik, (the traditional acoustic guitar). Several name-parts of this native guitar prove the antiquity of its beginning since many of its basic parts as well as the process of production are Kapampangan words derived from Spanish. Local traditions dictate the early beginning of this industry and that it is product of in-depth ingenuity and timing. Townfolks say that it was a certain Matuang Bacani who made the initial discovery of gitara-making. It was then transferred to the older clans of the Lumanogs, which was begun by Apung Angel who became the son-in-law of the guitar pioneer Bacani, and followed by the older families of San Anton like the Garcias, Dizons, Mallaris, Jucos, Manansalas etc. after it was successfully mastered. The story goes that Matuang Bacani found an old Spanish-made guitar floating on a nearby river of Tramu. Curiously he disassembled the dilapidated unit and tried to study and copy the pattern of framework production of, the traditional Spanish-made guitar. From this he was able to replicate it using indigenous materials like milk-base glue and local karutungan (wood materials). Later it was mass produced after an increased demand from the different Kapampangan towns like Macabebe, Bacolor and San Fernando. Thus the gitara-making tradition, became a part of the history of local industry. This old town of Guagua was at one time an important trading and cultural site not only to the local Kapampangans but also to the Chinese and other foreigners during Spanish Period as its rivers like the Dalan Bapor played a crucial role in the economic and political development of the region.

This standard instrument has six istring (strings) and tarasti (frets and fret wires) along the mangu and pasin (all parts of the brasu, the fingerboard) to indicate the position of the notes of the scale. The strings are tuned in fourths, with the exception of the interval between the fourth and fifth strings, which is the major third: E, A, D, G, B, E, the lowest string being an E in the middle register of the bass clef. The industry grew rapidly after the liberation until the 1980s. Historically, toward the mid-20th century the guitar was electrically amplified to compensate for its tonal weakness. Later it became a primary instrument of modern rock musicians. In its new role it underwent a change in anatomy. In Tramu, it is said that the start of its manufacture began before the 70s, and was called “elektrik gitar”. Its folk features were abandoned in favor of a gaudy androgynous thing, thinner in the middle than a classical gitarang akostik but sprouting a pair of tinseled pago (shoulders). Fortunately, the “elektrik gitar” failed to displace its noble ancestor. Simultaneously with its degradation by rock musicians, great guitar players accompanying pulusador, mang-gosu/mangalulua, manarana, up to the present have maintained its classical and folk traditions. Meanwhile numerous modern composers, including the Guagua-based band the Whitelies, a pop-rock balladeer, the Green Department and several other homegrown talents have written concertos for guitar and orchestra.


The tradition of gitara-making in Guagua has influenced the guitar industry in Tarlac (of the Bondoc families) and the now famous “Guitar Capital”, Cebu. Traditions maintain that the pioneers of these places have their family roots from Guagua and Lubao. In Cebu, this industry favored the people greatly that even their performing arts have also evolved into a rich repertoire of songs and dances using instruments initially fashioned from bamboo and coconut shells like the subing bamboo flute. Later the introduction of guitars and bandurias further enriched their culture for music and of course the guitar industry. Unfortunately, the business died in Tarlac due to the high cost of raw materials and the increasing popularity of low priced Chinese-made guitars among Philippine local markets. This scenario greatly threatens the present manufacturers of Pampanga especially those of Guagua and Lubao (especially in San Juan, Sta.Monica, and Dau). Today, this industry still competitively penetrates some of the key cities of the archipelago in Central Luzon (Tarlac and Olongapo), Baguio, Vigan, Metro Manila. It includes the customized orders of Pop-rock singer-composer Ramon “RJ” Jacinto, and are even sold in Cebu and Davao. Among the top-favorite designs include the classic guitar of Freddie Aguilar, the “Gibson-type” and the now much in demand “Nyoy Volante-design”. Some of the body-types requested by buyers include the “ovation”, “cut-out” and their various combination. Material types may come from the traditional all wooden body finish, to the fiber-cast finish. Sizes range from the international common size “junior”, the bigger one called “senior”, “mini” or “malati”, “iukulele type” etc. Other stringed instruments manufactured by-orders include the banduria, tabina (octabina), piccolo, mandolin etc. Some gitarang akostik can have “pick-ups” to transmit its sound to nearby sound systems. Some have customized nylon-strings. The scarcity of raw materials hinders the future production and quality of this industry, since most of the present day gitaras source their materials from various hardwoods from demolished old houses, like apitong, tangili, palusapis, ipis for the manufacture of arung-arung (heel) and mangu (neck); gumamela and yantuk for the regala; and langka, kalantas and palotsina for most of the kaha or body where they go as far as Nueva Ecija to have the right wood-type needed in the production; Despite the high price of mekanika (head mechanisms) and istring gitara (which are also imported from China) they still produce a conservative average of 14,000 guitars a month (in Tramo alone) which they think is a difficult task to maintain in the near future.

(Source interviews: Yolanda Garcia, 50 yrs.old; Manuel Dizon, 46 yrs.old; Eduardo Dizon, 48 yrs.old; Bernie Juco, 37 yrs.old; Reynaldo Capati Balagtas, 67 yrs.old; Dagul Macapuno Manasala, 21 yrs.old; Dante Vandilla Mallari, 59; Noel Asuncion Lumanog, 36; and the rest of the gitara-makers of Tramu, San Anton, Guagua, Pampanga)

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