Kutibeng: The Philippine Ukulele

By Daniel Balaoing Valdez*


Atty. Danny Valdez with RJ Jacinto playing ukulele and singing on nationwide RJ-TV Channel 20, Dec. 5, 2010 9:35 AM.


It is true that the term "ukulele" originated in Hawaii. But that island state's history traces the instrument so named farther back in time as a musical tool named “braguinha” that was brought to its shores by early Portuguese immigrants.

But practically every nation has or must have had its own version of a small, crude four-(or less/more) stringed instrument that approximates the ukulele (nicknamed "uke" - pronounced "yook") of today. In all probability, the modern day guitar must have originated from a simple and crude instrument of an older generation.

In the Philippines, an exceptionally musically inclined country, we have at least one such instrument. In the early 50's there were a lot of these uke-like instruments being played in the rural areas or "barrios”. Using indigenous material from the "langka" (jackfruit), sampalok (tamarind) and other trees, they were wholly handcrafted or home-made. The instrument is called "kutibeng" in Ilocano - the dialect spoken in the upper third portion of the main Philippine island of Luzon.

Of course the possibility, if not probability, that there are or were other similar little instruments being played elsewhere in the country cannot be discounted. It is also possible that some of the Filipino immigrants (now constituting 15% of the local population) to Hawaii in the early 1900’s who are predominantly Ilocanos brought with them samples of the kutibeng or at least the know-how to produce it.

Five decades ago, most of the Philippine countryside at night was without electric power and hence dark. One could hear then in the stillness of the night and amidst the majestic sparkle of fireflies the beautiful sounds echoed by this cute instrument. Often played are popular Ilocano and other Filipino ditties then like "Ti Ayat ti Maysa a Ubing", "Manang Biday", "Taga Away Kami", "Pamulinawen" , "O Naraniag a Bulan","Bannatiran” and waltz classics like "Let Me Call You Sweetheart", "The Loveliest Night of the Year" and "Brahm's Lullabye".

Today Philippine ukuleles are abundantly available courtesy of prolific and highly skilled guitar-makers from scenic Cebu province in central Philippines and in Guagua , Pampanga province (the home of artistic Christmas lanterns) of Central Luzon. Many of these craftsmen turn out handmade ukes and guitars that are intended for the export and local markets. One can see handsome samples of them at Raon St. in Manila or at Sta. Mesa, Quezon City near the corner of Araneta Ave. Their price range is an unbelievable US$20-30. A customized one commands around US$50 - already of a quality at par with the world's best.

Our fascination with the uke , a.k.a. kutibeng, started during the inital ascent in the mid 50’s of rock 'n roll as played by "Bill Haley and the Comets" who preceded Elvis Presley by a couple of years. Among their hits are ”Rock Around the Clock" (their most popular), ”See You later Alligator", ”Mary Mary Lou" (see You Tube). I heard their “Shake Rattle and Roll" being played during a timeout of a basketball game in the Beijing Olympics.

As a small boy in Camiling, I recall one of my maternal uncles, a dentist, who was very proficient with the "kutibeng". In between making dentures, he tried to teach me how to play it and read musical notes but my interest then focused on juvenile pursuits like playing toys and games, river-swimming or climbing fruit trees.

Elvis was to follow shortly after the Bill Haley years with songs like "Love Me Tender", "Baby I Don’t Care", “Teddy Bear", "Jailhouse Rock". Today my focus has shifted to Burt Bacharach, John Denver, Lettermen, Bread, Beatles, Cliff Richard, the Carpenters, etc. with a current repertoire that includes "Yesterday", Bacharach's "Close to You", "Perhaps Love", Carmichael's "Stardust", Ernie Delgado's "I Miss You So", the Platter's "Harbor Lights", Irving Berlin's "White Christmas", "Christmas Alphabet", Joe Mari Chan's "Deep in My Heart", the Bread's "If" and the Carpenters' "I Wont Last a Day Without You"

My partiality to the uke is in part explicable by its being so portable it can easily fit as a carry-on item into an airplane's overhead bin. Compared with its big brothers, the guitar and the banjo, you can simultaneously pluck and strum it making it ideal for unaccompanied or solo play.

Will men eventually tire from eating artificial and junk foods? Well, at least there is now a discernible trend towards organic foods specially drinks. Hopefully, traditional or acoustic music, produced in part by the uke, will also rise to a place at par with (if not above) contemporary synthetic music.

*Author is a uke-playing lawyer who grew up in Camiling, Tarlac, Philippines