The Philippine Culture in Southeast Asia

Given more than 300 years under colonial rule[1], much of the cultural exponents of the Philippines have largely been branded as “westernized” to the extent of being “un-Asian” in terms of practices, orientation and even the mentality of its people. The dominant understanding of mainstream Philippine history only traces its beginning to the discovery of the Philippines by Spain in the 1500s. The cultural shifts that took place in the succeeding centuries masked what the Philippines was like prior to the 16th century, somehow severing the connection to the old ways of life that were known to early Filipinos (Del Castillo & Medina, 1974). Several festivals in the Philippines – which are already traditions introduced by the Spaniards – even depict how the ‘indios’ (the term they used to call the natives) have been enlightened and civilized through Christianization[2], and that their defeat[3] across the archipelago should be celebrated and immortalized. By in large, these became some of the  reasons why the Philippines at the moment is alienated from its Southeast Asian neighbors that have preserved much of their heritage, both tangible and intangible ones. This, however, does not preclude the fact that the Philippines has some traditions that – with adequate understanding and appreciation – ought to be cherished around the world.

Post-colonial approaches have always been interested in unearthing what the Philippines might have been prior to the being dominated by foreign powers. But, for a country as diverse as the Philippines, coming up with a homogenized description on the ways of life of the people poses some difficulty. This occurrence of multiple cultural traits and lifestyles of the ancient Filipinos, however, should never be frowned upon. Rather, this only suggests how rich the history and culture is, and how there is no singular way in capturing the ways ancient Filipinos saw and approached life. After all, these are also the strings necessary in tying the Philippines back to the larger Southeast Asian cultural paradigm, to which it shares affinities and resemblances with.

This note is a reflection on two ancient Philippine chants: the hudhud and the darangen epic. These two chants hold vast knowledge on the ways of life of ancient Filipinos.  Being the best preserved oral traditions that are not tainted by western influences these chants present themselves as valuable living specimens that possess high authenticity and reliability in providing not only the kind of music and songs that they had, but also a scintilla about the Philippines’ earlier worldviews.  I will also draw insights from my own experiences in witnessing firsthand how these chants are performed and how the locals deem them important to their life-cycles and identities.


The hudhud chants hail from the mountainous Cordillera region in northern Philippines, more popularly known for their world-renowned Ifugao rice terraces. Key in understanding the hudhud chants is to see its relation with and its influences on the immediate cultural landscape (Guerrero, 2013). The darangen epic, on the other hand, is a lengthy oral tradition that is artistically sung and acted (sometimes even danced[4]), rather than just being plainly recited. It recounts the history of the Maranao people around Lake Lanao, predating even the Islamization of southern Philippines in the 13th century.

What binds these two ancient folk songs together is that they have both been proclaimed by UNESCO as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity, an initiative that strengthens the call for humanity to widen its concept of cultural heritage by bringing in the intangible aspects as being essential components of cultural diversity (UNESCO, 2000). The hudhud and darangen are the only two representative traditions of the Philippines that have been proclaimed as such. I am fortunate enough to have witnessed how these chants are performed in the traditional way.


Cultural Landscape: Relationship of the Hudhud and the Rice Terraces

Keeping the spirit alive by passing down indigenous knowledge to the younger generations.

As a continually evolving cultural landscape, the World Heritage-listed rice terraces in Ifugao[5] should be seen and understood in relation to its environment (mountains and forests) and the traditions of its people (rituals, farming practices, beliefs, etc.). It is interesting to note that integral to their life-cycle is a set of ancient songs called hudhud. More than a ritual song, the hudhud plays a key role in shaping and preserving the ways of life of the Ifugao people for more than 2,000 years.

The National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Philippines documented these intangible treasures as, “recited and chanted … only during four occasions: the harvesting and weeding of rice, funeral wakes and bone washing rituals…. The hudhud [is] comprised of over 200 stories with about 40 episodes each. The language… almost impossible to transcribe, is full of repetitions, synonyms, figurative terms and metaphors. Performed in a leader/chorus style, the lead chanter – often an elderly woman – recites an introductory line to set the tone, and then this is taken up by a chorus of women to the end of the phrase…. It may take days to complete a story, depending on the situation. The hudhud is a celebration of Ifugao heroes, heroines, wealth and culture” (NCCA).

When I went to Ifugao several years ago, during the harvesting month, the mixture of the picturesque rice terraces and the performance of the hudhud by women reaping rice stalks was awe-inspiring — women singing while in the paddies is not an everyday scene. In my conversations with the locals, I realized how the songs are really revered and have never been altered from how their ancestors sang them many centuries ago.

The featured image above depicts Ifugao women gathering together in a hudhud ritual. (Photo lifted from B. Capati’s presentation)

Pryer-Pereira provided insights as to how such an old and lengthy song is successfully committed to the memories of the people. She explained that “the chanters of the hudhud rely heavily on culturally constituted environmental stimuli to help them remember the chant. Objects such as rice harvesting tools, familiar bodily movements, and the songs of other chanters help to distribute the burden of chant memorization. It is only when these individual memories work together that the whole text can be recalled” (2007). It was also revealed to me by the locals that there are particular chants from the hudhud that are specifically sang for pest protection, and in guiding them in seed selection.

As I paid closer attention to the practice, I noticed that most of those who were singing are adult women. In the Philippines, the preservers and guardians of culture are, unquestionably, always the women. This, however, brings to the fore another concern: “[t]he few people who know all the poems are very old, and young people are not interested in this tradition” (UNESCO, 2008).  Efforts are currently being undertaken by the government and various organizations to bring hudhud closer to the younger generation. One initiative undertaken was the institutionalization of Hudhud Schools of Living Traditions in the Ifugao (Talavera, nd).


Songs that Breathe the History of the Maranao: the Darangen Epic

The darangen, which literally means to “narrate in songs”, is one of the oldest and longest epic poems in the Philippines.  It consists of many cycles of episodes relating to different heroes, foremost among them Bantugan, whose name means, “one who makes history.” Through his heroic tales, the epic proves that early forms of government, culture, art, music, metal work and warrior arts were already in existence before the arrival of colonizers (Philippine Star, 2005).  In fact, the epic happens to be the local rendition of early Filipinos of the Hindu Ramayana, dating much older than the introduction of Islam in the south (Ty, 2010) – an undeniable proof that the far past is not unacquainted with the concept of cultural globalization (Tan, 2009).

UNESCO further detailed that the epic comprises “17 cycles and a total of 72,000 lines, [and that] the darangen celebrates episodes from Maranao history and the tribulations of mythical heroes. In addition to offering compelling narrative content, the epic explores the underlying themes of life and death, courtship, politics, love and aesthetics through symbol, metaphor, irony and satire. The Darangen also encodes customary law, standards of social and ethical behavior, notions of aesthetic beauty, and social values specific to the Maranao. To this day, elders refer to this time-honored text in the administration of customary law” (UNESCO, 2005). The NCCA also revealed that the recorded and transcribed part of the darangen is composed of cycles in iambic tetrameter or catalectic trochaic tetrameter. Though each cycle is independent from each other, the cycles are connected to one another in a logical, cohesive progression.

Two Maranao singers recite some parts of the darangen epic. It is a powerful vocal performance.

Having witnessed how some parts of the darangen were performed by the Maranao themselves in Marawi, I can still clearly recall how the performers displayed good grasp of the lines, together with their abilities to engage the audience during the hours-long performance. The excerpt that I have seen lasted for roughly two hours, and I was told that that was only a small chapter of the epic. Henrieta Elle, a retired professor of music and dance at the Mindanao State University in Marawi, also explained to me that it would usually take almost a week to complete the cycles of the darangen and that the performance is often accompanied by heroic musical scores that use stylized brass gongs called kulintang, drums called tambor, and a kudyapi (a native  guitar-like instrument). Performers are also expected to wear their finest woven textiles called ina-ol andmalong.


Given the vastness and depth of the darangen, several aspects of it are still waiting to be unlocked and understood by scholars and practitioners. Nevertheless, current threats to the darangen stem from the fact that it is in an archaic language that is not used as an everyday medium of communication in the locality. Like the fate of the hudhud in the north, the darangen also faces an alarmingly decreasing appreciation from the younger folks. Nowadays, parts of the darangen are just performed during weddings and other special occasions. It has also been observed that there is a thinning number of people who know how to play the kulintang and kudyapi. At present, there are no living kudyapi masters anymore in Lanao del Sur.


The culture and history of the Filipino people is indeed older than what was earlier established. The richness of the old Filipino culture is carefully preserved in the oldest forms of literary works there are to find – ancient songs. The challenge nowadays is to make sense of them amidst being in the modern age.

From the north, we see how highland chants have directly dictated the ways of life and the modes of survival of the people in  harshly mountainous, uneven terrains. The hudhud compliments the rice terraces in being enduring portraits of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over two millennium. Down south, cultural diversity and religious syncretism is recognized and established through the darangen epic. This epic breathes the history of the Maranao people, providing listeners a rich amount of knowledge about their norms, beliefs, and customs as it is rendered in a melodious performance of singing and dancing. Having both these oral literatures proclaimed as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity only strengthens their importance and relevance not only to the Filipino people but to all around the world.


Bersola, C. (2011). The Hudhud of the Ifugao: enchanting chanting. The Philippine Star. Retrieved:

Del Castillo, T., and B. Medina (1974). Philippine literature: from ancient times to present. Caloocan: Philippine Graphic Arts.

Guerrero, B. (2013). Philippine world heritage sites: history of its people and their culture. 10th Cagayan Valley Regional Tourism Conference Proceedings. Np.

NCCA (nd). Intangible heritage: masterpieces of oral ang intangible heritage of humanity. Retrieved:

Peralta, J. (2003). Ifugao Hudhud: local to global dimension of the sacred. Manila: NCCA.

Philippine Star (2005). UNESCO proclaims darangen epic as masterpiece of intangible heritage. Philippine Star.

Pryer-Pereira, T. (2007). Telling tales: memory, culture, and the hudhud chants.  Swathmore University. Retrieved:

Talavera, R. (nd). The role of schools for living Traditions (SLT) in safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage in the Philippines: the case of the chants of the Ifugao.Manila: NCCA.

Tan, M. (2009). A Maranao epic. Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Ty, R. (2010). Muslims’ syncretism of the Hindu ramayana in the predominantly christian PhilippinesRetrieved:

UNESCO (2000). UNESCO to protect masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity. Retrieved:

UNESCO (2005). Darangen epic of the Maranao people of Lake Lanao. Retrieved:

UNESCO (2008). Hudhud chants of the Ifugao. Retrieved:

[1]    Three centuries of Spanish colonial rule, three decades of American control, and short periods of British and Japanese occupations.

[2]    Sinulog festival in Cebu, Ati-atihan festival in Aklan, Daro Sinulog in Dumaguete, and to some extent even the Guling-guling festival in Paoay, Ilocos Norte.

[3]    Moro-moro is a play that recounts the battles of the Spaniards against the Muslim antagonists, where the colonizers and Christianity always win.

[4]    Most of the dances of the Maranao people are based on the Darangen. The finest of these dances is theKasingkil.

[5]    Inscibed to the UNESCO World Heritage List as “Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras” , the first set of properties in the list to be designated as a cultural landscape upon inscription in 1995.


 Post by Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero

74762_10151172406852613_687399416_nBernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero is a self-confessed cultural junky. Based in the Philippines, he has delivered several talks on tourism, destination promotion and management, and the importance of cultural conservation. As a heritage advocate and consultant, he has assisted and appeared in some features by the Euronews, NGC-Asia, Solar TV, ABS-CBN Regional News Network, as well as being cited by the Philippine Star and the PIA. He enjoys ticking off as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible. So far, Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, the Preah Vihear Temple in Cambodia, and the Philippines' Apo Reef and Ifugao Rice Terraces are the best places he has seen in SE Asia.

Discover other similar posts on Bernard's blog

Seven Things You Should Know About Pilipino Languages

Let's talk about talk. We all know the importance Tagalog plays in Pilipino identity here in the States. You're viewed as "more Pinoy" if you can at least understand the main dialect of the Metro Manila region. Tagalog is the lingua franca (the default universal language) of the global Pilipino diaspora. It unites, empowers, and strengthens the Pilipino.

But you'd be amiss if you didn't give a nod to the dozens of other languages/dialects that the Pilipino speaks. In a land of 7,107 islands, with a history of influences from dozens of kingdoms, dynasties, tribes and regimes over centuries and centuries, the Philippines boasts one of the most linguistically diverse populations in the more developed countries of the world.

I can write novels about this, but here's the run-down on the skills of the Pinoy tongue (wink!):

  • There are eight recognized regional language of the Philippines: Bikol, Cebuano, Hiligaynon (or Ilonggo), Ilokano, Pampango, Pangsinense, Tagalog and Waray. Of the 170 languages spoken on the islands, these have the highest number of native and secondary speakers.
  • The official language of the Philippines is not Tagalog per se, but Filipino: It's the language used in news and official communications by the Philippine government. Filipino has had a bumpy ride toward universal acceptance since it inception in 1959 as "Pilipino", particularly by non-Tagalog speakers, since – let's be honest – it's basically Tagalog. But language evolves, and the government hopes that Filipino evolves over time, adapting more and more aspects of the other dialects.
  • The Philippine languages are Austronesian, which means they're more related to Malaysian, Indonesian, and even Hawaiian than they are to Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.
  • There are Philippine creole languages! Which is awesome. Look up Chavacano. Much like how Haitians speak a French Creole and Jamaicans have Patois, a creole of English, Chavacano is a a dialect of Spanish that arose in the southern Philippines that sounds super fun. (I showed some Latino friends videos of people speaking Chavacano and they were amazed.)
  • The Philippines has its own variant of Chinese called Lan-nang, which has its origins in the islands' trading history with China. If you're a Chinese Pinoy, your family probably speaks it. They might also call it Hokkien or Fukkien.
  • Philippine English is its own variety of English, exactly like Australian English or British English. Lots of Pinoys get heat in the US for speaking English with a Pilipino accent, when it's much more than that. It's the national language of the Philippines, for Hesukristo's sake! School is taught in English. English movies are not dubbed. English is the language of the law.
  • Taglish – mixing Tagalog and English, and switching back and forth between the dialects – is a legitimate and recognized thing, and you shouldn't be ashamed of it (no more "Marunong ko po lang mag-Taglis!"). Pinoys are masters of linguistic fluidity, and you're just as Pinoy speaking in hybrid as you are speaking in pure.

If you're one of the millions of Pinoys here in the US or elsewhere in the world that doesn't just use Tagalog and English, but maybe one or more other dialects at home, it's something to be proud of. These dialects have as rich a history as any other, and should be nurtured and supported. My home is a jumbledunk of Tagalog, English and Ilokano, and whenever I hear strangers speaking Ilokano on the street, I'm reflexively even more informal and familiar with them. Almost as if there was an even deeper level of closeness than the already-close bond of general Pinoy-ness.

Ya feel me? Good. Now you're speaking my language.

Just Travel: 7 Reasons to Journey Abroad

I’ve heard the whispers of some relatives of mine. Concerned Lolos and Lolas can't comprehend why I moved to Thailand to teach English for a year immediately after I graduated from college.

 “I don’t understand why Ryann is doing that. Why does her mom let her go [travel] alone?” a relative relayed to one of my aunties.

To older generations, I may be acting irresponsibly by gallivanting around Asia for a year. I really don’t have any other defense to offer, other than I’m doing something that allows me to help others, and further define myself as a person. The assumption that my time away from the US is a “gap year” is also a tad offensive to me. I’m not taking a year off from studying or working, because I am actually working in a secluded village as a full-time volunteer under unfamiliar and challenging circumstances. I am abroad right now because I wanted to take a risk, venture into the unknown (at least for me) and find a greater sense of independence. I would say that I’ve done all three of these things, and have grown stronger and more self-aware. This time away from home is merely another chapter in my book. It has been a fulfilling and enriching experience that I needed to have.

I’ve never heard a single soul complain that they wished they traveled less. The fact is, the older you get, the harder it becomes to travel. You’re confined to your routine. You have significant others, children, bills, chores, responsibilities and commitments. All of these things are hard to simply leave behind, so why not travel while you’re still young, healthy and open to the world?

Here are the things I’ve gained from traveling abroad. Granted, I have been working while overseas, but I take advantage of my time during the weekends and school breaks to journey to new places. I truly believe these are reasons for everyone to seek out opportunities to travel. Also, I’ve included some postcards from my trip to Indonesia this summer to accompany each reason.

1. Love for new food and flavors – Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to traveling for us Pilipinos is the food! When you’re abroad, you get to broaden your palette and introduce your taste buds to exotic (by our standards) dishes, delicacies and desserts. This alone is enough of a reason to travel, though I can think of a handful more…

luwak coffee

2. Knowledge – Just because you’ve finished with school, doesn’t mean the learning stops there. The good thing about traveling while you’re young is that you can learn without critical judgment, but with an open heart. You should learn about other cultures, lifestyles and beliefs, and expand your understanding of the world. Continue to nourish your mind. Feed it the knowledge and compassion it deserves.

East Javanese Girls

3. Appreciation – This is the time in our lives for us to really understand what matters most. When you travel, you learn more about gratitude and love, simply by seeing how the rest of the world lives. You’ll learn about the realities and environment that people face in various pockets of the world. You’ll play a witness (and sometimes an engaged citizen) to other’s struggles and accomplishments, and not just read about it in the news (not that the news depicts the whole story anyway).


 4. Friendship – It’s time to break out of your comfort zone. If you venture to a new country, it’s also helpful to try and learn the language there as well. You’ll be a big hit with the locals, as they will appreciate that you’ve taken the time to learn how to communicate with them. Even if you already have an array of friends from school and work, you'll have the opportunity to network and socialize with new friends you make along the way. When you travel, you will connect with people from all walks of life, and you can certainly have them as contacts for future endeavors.


5. Confidence – Traveling is challenging, but it’s easier than you think! Sure, it can be exhausting when you have to catch a 12-hour bus from a remote village to a major city, or if you have an overnight layover in one of the busiest airport hubs in the region. But you will learn that the world is much smaller and more accessible than you realize. There is an amazing rush that comes with traveling; you’ll get lost, hit roadblocks along the way, and your plans will change or fall through. But facing your fears head on means you’re living life.

Mt Bromo

6. New perspective – When you travel, your ideas and perceptions of life will shift, as they should! You'll realize the importance of slowing down and finding the beauty in everything around you. I’ve known too many people who have reevaluated their time in graduate school or in their first couple of jobs after college. Some tell me that they are miserable at their jobs, or feel they are perpetually stressed out and overworked. Many recognize that they are unhappy and have lost their sense of purpose, or have become just another number in the system. I fear it’s an American mentality to work so hard for money, but is that all that matters? What about happiness? It’s important to get a change of scenery and move at a different pace. When you’re stuck in a routine, life can seem bland and repetitive. Invest in your happiness and quiet your mind from all of the clutter and chaos!


7. Personal growth – During your travels, you will grow. You’ll test your limits, but also learn to go with the natural flow of life. Old habits will disintegrate as you realize how to live more purposefully. In addition, you can use this time for self-discovery and healing. Traveling is more than just vacationing, and casting away all of your worries. It can be a way for you learn more about yourself, as well as heal any emotional and mental wounds. You will identify your values more clearly, and upon returning home, be more at peace with yourself.



Photo credits: A Journey of Postcards, Philaquely Moi, JP Stamp Collecting, Stamps Book, 9teen87

Land of 100 Tongues

Language has always been something that fascinated me: the way some languages have words that can’t be translated outside of them, the nuances of languages that are perfected by little sighs or marked by guttural rumbles, others accented by the flourishes of gracefully rolled r’s and still others staccato and marching like Ravel’s “Bolero.” We are lucky in the Philippines to be home to over 100 languages, many of which range in all of those qualities. Some Filipinos refer to them as dialects, but they truly are distinct languages that stand on their own, some bearing similarity to the familiar Tagalog, others completely different from it. My grandmother knows Tagalog, Ilokano, Pangasinan, Kapampangan and Bicolano, on top of learning English upon arriving in the United States. It’s remarkable to me that one could pick up all these languages and it’s an experience I wish I had, to be able to learn them out of necessity as my grandmother did, despite not having a formal education in her life.

I have wondered if being home to 100 languages is perhaps not such a lucky thing. In college, one of the best papers that I wrote was on Philippine culture and its effects on politics during the Marcos regime. I raised the question of whether or not language barriers could contribute to a weakening unified cultural identity. Sure, most Filipinos speak Tagalog, and it is recognized as one of the national languages. But that too presents its challenges. How do speakers of the lesser known languages make themselves recognized? Do they simply let their languages die out? And for the languages that do die out, I can only wonder what histories are lost with them.

Perhaps the stunning diversity of the Philippines is also its unifying force. Even in a country as comparably diverse, the United States can’t say people speak 100 different languages here. There’s something very awe-inspiring about that, and I can only daydream of the different tales that each beautiful language can tell, unbeknownst and unlocked to those who don’t hold its precious written and spoken keys...

Spoons, Forks and the Cultures that Use Them

When I was 18, I worked at the Times Square Swatch megastore as a cashier. I was the only Filipino and only Asian there, and once in a while, I would come in with some baon from home for lunch. One night, I had some sort of fish and rice deal courtesy of my mom, which I eagerly dug into—with my spoon and fork. One of my co-workers looked at me with the most puzzled look, as if I was eating duck fetus or something (what was this, Sunday?).

"What?" I said.

"Why in the world are you eating with a fork and a spoon? And where's the chopsticks?" she asked.

This was the single most ridiculous question I'd ever heard, and not because of the (totally forgivable, honestly) cultural misconception about Pinoys and chopsticks. I replied with what I thought was an equally ridiculous question: "You never seen anyone eat with a fork and a spoon? Hahaha."

Hahaha indeed—but the joke was on me. This was my first foray into the world of having to explain eating habits that I assumed were universal. The fork's the broom! The spoon's the dustpan! But as my co-worker started calling the attention of other employees to look at me eating with both basic utensils simultaneously, I began to realize how alien and unique the Pilipino eating style is to the mainstream.

And, as we know, it doesn't just stop with the shovel-spoon. There's kamayan, the hand-eating technique employed by most of the developing world, but which has such a codified set of steps in the Pilipino culture that it might as well be considered an art form. But perhaps more defining is our lack of chopsticks.

Since the Detroit murder of Chinese-American man Vincent Chin in 1982 for being mistaken as Japanese, the countless Asian immigrant communities in America have undergone a reactive transformation, a social merger that has proved less polarizing and, quite frankly, beautiful. The decades since have seen the emergence of the term "Pan-Asianism": No longer are we simply Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, etc. in the eyes of mainstream America. We can collectively call ourselves Asian-American, and very proudly. It's something that could only have happened in the environment that the United States creates for immigrant groups. Despite differences between countries that are sometime stark and prejudice-inducing back in the Far Eastern mother continent, the world's largest and most diverse demographic has found a united identity in this term.

For better and for worse. Pan-Asianism has introduced a subconscious sharing of relatively small details with origins in individual cultures. Boba, originating in Taiwan, has become an Asian drink. Lucy Liu, Harry Shum Jr and Andrew Yeun aren't just Chinese and Korean actors, they're Asian. It's become vogue (and then not vogue, and then vogue again) to have Asian Fusion food—an amalgamation of the best things about all these culture's taste buds.

And while much can be said about the Filipino's rising image in this as well as mainstream entertainment's milieu—as dope as it is—it's important to remember and appreciate the little things about Pilipino culture that set us apart. The double utensils, the hands, and the chopsticks.

Well, the lack thereof.

Photo credit: Live in the Philippines