UWANG AHADAS
Musician
Yakan
Lamitan, Basilan
2000

Much mystery surrounds life. And when confronted with such, it is but natural to attempt some form of hypothesizing. In the days when hard science was nonexistent, people sought to explain away many of these enigmas by attributing them to the work of the gods or the spirits. In this way, rain and thunder became the lamentations of a deity abandoned by his capricious wife, and night and day, the compromise reached by a brother and sister who both wanted to rule the world upon the death of their father.

Many of these heavenly beings hold sway over the earth and all that dwell within its bounds. In the folklore of a northern people, a story explains why, in the three-kilometer stretch of the highest peak of Binaratan, a mountain in the region, there is a silence so complete it borders on the eerie. Legend has it that the great Kaboniyan went hunting with some men to teach them how to train and use hounds. When they reached the peak of Binaratan, however, they could no longer hear their hounds as the song of the birds drowned their barking. One of the hunters begged Kaboniyan to stop the birds’ singing, lest the hunt fail and they return home empty-handed. So Kaboniyan commanded the creatures of Binaratan to be silent in a voice so loud and frightful that they kept their peace in fear. Since then, a strange unbroken silence reigns at the top of the mountain, in spite of the multitudes of birds that flit from tree to tree.

And because they belong to this sphere, it is believed that mortal men are as vulnerable to the powers and the whims of these gods and spirits as the beasts that roam the land and the birds that sail the sky. Though they are hidden behind dark glasses, the eyes of Uwang Ahadas speak of such a tale, one that came to pass more than half a century before. They tell story of a young boy who unknowingly incurred the ire of the nature spirits through his childish play. The people of his community believe Uwang’s near-blindness is a form of retribution from the nature spirits that dwelled in Bohe Libaken, a brook near the place where he was born and where, as a child, he often bathed. His father, Imam Ahadas, recalls that the five-year-old Uwang quietly endured the pain in his eyes, waiting out a month before finally telling his parents.

Music was to become his constant companion. Uwang Ahadas is a Yakan, a people to whom instrumental music is of much significance, connected as it is with both the agricultural cycle and the social realm. One old agricultural tradition involves the kwintangan kayu, an instrument consisting of five wooden logs hung horizontally, from the shortest to the longest, with the shortest being nearest the ground. After the planting of the rice, an unroofed platform is built high in the branches of a tree. Then the kwintangan kayu is played to serenade the palay, as a lover woos his beloved. Its resonance is believed to gently caress the plants, rousing them from their deep sleep, encouraging them to grow and yield more fruit.

With this heritage, as rich as it is steeped in music, it is no wonder that even as a young child, Uwang joyously embraced the demands and the discipline necessitated by his art. His training began with the ardent observation of the older, more knowledgeable players in his community. His own family, gifted with a strong tradition in music, complemented the instruction he received. He and his siblings were all encouraged to learn how to play the different Yakan instruments, as these were part of the legacy of his ancestors. Not all Yakan children have such privilege. Maintaining the instruments is very expensive work and sadly, there is always the temptation presented by antique dealers and other collectors who rarely, if at all, appreciate the history embodied in these artifacts.

From the gabbang, a bamboo xylophone, his skills gradually allowed him to progress to the agung, the kwintangan kayu, and later the other instruments. Even musical tradition failed to be a deterrent to his will. Or perhaps it only served to fuel his determination to demonstrate his gift. Yakan tradition sets the kwintangan as a woman’s instrument and the agung, a man’s. His genius and his resolve, however, broke through this tradition. By the age of twenty, he had mastered the most important of the Yakan musical instruments, the kwintangan among them.

Uwang, however, is not content with merely his own expertise. He dreams that many more of his people will discover and study his art. With missionary fervor, he strives to pass on his knowledge to others. His own experience serves as a guide. He believes it is best for children to commence training young, when interest is at its peak and flexibility of the hands and the wrists is assured. His own children were the first to benefit from his instruction. One of his daughters, Darna, has become quite proficient in the art that like her father, she too has begun to train others.

His purpose carries him beyond the borders of Lamitan to the other towns of Basilan where Uwang always finds a warm welcome from students, young and old, who eagerly await his coming. His many travels have blessed him with close and enduring ties with these people. Many of his onetime apprentices have come into their own have gained individual renown in the Yakan community. He declares, with great pride, that they are frequently invited to perform during the many rituals and festivals that mark the community calendar.

Similar to his mentors before him, Uwang’s teaching style is essentially hands-on. He teaches by showing; his students learn by doing. His hands constantly keep a firm hold on those of his students, the gentle pressure encouraging them to tap out music from the silent bamboo blades and the splendid brass gongs. His soft voice sings praises when merited and lightly censures when necessary. And each student receives his full attention while the others persevere in learning and perfecting the art.

His younger brother, Rohas, worries about how best to preserve his techniques so that they can be passed on to others even after he is gone. For his part, he has started documenting his brother’s instruction, creating a notation system that will simplify instruction. Already he has begun using this method for training students and declares that it shows promise. However, this is only the beginning and much work is still called for if the hills of Basilan are to continue to resound with ancestral music.

Foremost among these is to give Uwang back the kind of mobility that will permit him to continue his mission to educate. He admits his dimmed eyesight makes him slightly wary of travel, as it would compel him to be constantly dependent on others. Of late, he has found it more difficult to walk, particularly when it is extremely bright and even his dark glasses afford little protection. To a man of his stature, this admission is certainly one that is very difficult to make.

Yet when asked how he felt about treatment to correct his condition, he smiles and nods his head. With possibly the same tranquil with which he faced up to both his fate and his people’s tradition, he expresses a willingness to endure whatever is necessary. And strangely, even through his dark glasses, one can almost imagine seeing a not so faint glimmer in his eyes. (Salve de la Paz)

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