BOOK REVIEW: Bamboo Whispers — Poetry of the Mangyans
by Rose Churma
The eight ethno-linguistic tribes in Mindoro—an island south of the Luzon in the Philippines, are collectively known as Mangyans. The Mangyans are part of the 14 million Indigenous Peoples (IP) in the Philippines, who are grouped into over 100 tribes with distinct cultural identities. Among the ethnic art of the katutubo – the Filipino term for its indigenous people, the ambahan is the most important legacy of the Hanunuo-Mangyans of Mindoro. There are over 20,000 ambahan pieces collected by the Dutch anthropologist Antoon Postma who started collecting and translating the ambahan pieces since the 1960s, which are now preserved and kept at the Mangyan Heritage Center and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C.
Literally, ambahan means song. Postma defines it as “a set of impressions, with a measured rhyme of seven syllables, having rhyming end syllables, vocalized as a chant…recited for the purpose of verbalizing in a metaphorical way certain human situations…” In a social setting, the ambahan is a discourse between a speaker and responder in the presence of an audience—akin to a long poetic debate.
This book is a compilation of 100 ambahan pieces grouped in 10 chapters beginning with “Birth and Childhood” for Chapter 1 to “Sickness and Death” in Chapter 10—in essence covering a person’s life cycle. Each ambahan is shown in Mangyan script and translated in Tagalog, English and Spanish—and illustrated with a black and white photograph.
Each featured ambahan has two pages. A photograph on the left even-numbered page faces the text on the right-hand page and consists of the following formats: the Mangyan script followed by its Tagalog, English and Spanish translations. Shown below is an example of an ambahan that reflects the shared communal values that sustained the Mangyan society of centuries—the shared stewardship of the land.
AMBAHAN 141— in Mangyan script
Palay kong Kasignayan
ihasik sa giliran
Bukas sa ‘ting palayan
may ibong manunukal
This rice called Kasignayan
I’ll sow at the edge of field
tomorrow it will be filled
with birds coming in to feed
El arroz Kaasignayan
lo sembrare en el borde
manana estara lleno
de pajaros comiendo
The book’s epilogue documents the thoughts of a Hanunuo Mangyan elder who makes a plea to the younger generation to protect and be proud of their heritage. His fears that their culture may disappear are not unfounded because the Philippines’ indigenous people share two major challenges. Their ancestral lands are being usurped, their culture is misunderstood and the katutubo are treated as second class citizens. For the katutubo, land is life—and their lives are deeply rooted in the land. As noted by Ewald Dinter of the Mangyan Mission—“A hyphen in the word agri-culture provides a better understanding of the connection between land and human dignity, with culture being the union for the two to flourish.
This book is clearly a labor of love! Editor Lolita Delgado Fansler wrote in her preface that this book “is an outcome of an unconscious communal effort of many selfless people who contributed their expertise to a project that ignited their souls.” Every page of the book reflects love and care—and for this, we are grateful. It gives us hope: our Filipino culture will prevail no matter how long or how far we’ve left the home country.
ROSE CRUZ CHURMA is a retired architect who now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books, write about them and encourage others to write. Her online bookstore, Kalamansi Books and Things (facebook.com/kalamansibooks), promotes Filipiniana books and publications by Filipino-Americans. Email her at email@example.com.