"YOU have to listen to your spirit guide. Kung hindi ka makinig, there's no start and there's no end," this was how Dolores Loco Agor described what she waits for after saying a prayer (oracion) before starting to chant.
Agor is a Tboli chanter who learned from the most esteemed chanter in their tribe, Mendung S. Sabal.
She admits she was not inclined to chanting while young, having been attending school with the missionaries and thus was filled with Christian thinking. But her aunt Mendung, the first cousin of her mother, interested her in it, and though she still continues doing missionary work as her primary avocation, she has learned the art and is regarded as among the best.
The Tboli's deep belief in the spiritual cannot be separated from their lives and practices, especially their music and dances. Just as their tnalak weavers are inspired by dreams, so are the chanters, and all others regarded by the tribe as adepts.
In the book "Songs of Memory in Islands of Southeast" edited by Nicole Revel, it said that Mendung's calling came in her early teen years through a dream where her spirit guide visited her.
"During the dream, Mendung recounted, her spirit guide appeared, instructed her in the art of singing the epic and passed on to her the entire eight episodes during reams, as she lay unconscious over the course of several days. According to tradition, because Mendung learned the epic in its entirety, she was cured of her illness," the book read.
"You have to listen to your spirit guide," Agor said, that is where all the words come from.
She added that every chanting spell is unlike those already chanted before as stories upon stories flow out in an unexplainable thread.
Chanting remains prevalent among the indigenous peoples, except that... chanting is only for the gifted who start out as neophytes called into the art and are trained to become adepts.
Like in many other endeavors and skills, indigenous peoples hold special skills and talents in high regard, and see this as a divine gift.
While all children grow up seeing and hearing chants and crafts, only the talented are granted the privilege to continue.
Admitting that she still has to reach the adeptness of her aunt Mendung, who can chant about the Tudbulul for hours from evening till morning's first light. She chanted with her spirit guide Lentinum.
Agor was a late-bloomer of sorts as while she was already being mentored by her aunt in 1987 and was able to compose her first chant soon after for the graduation song for a local school that dwelt on the youth and the better future they can look forward to through education.
Her commitment to continue chanting and tell the Tboli stories that have been handed down from generation to generation and delivered by her aunt's spirit guide Lentinum came when her aunt died in her 60s in 2009.
She also admits to being discouraged by a few people around her who does not understand why a chanter needs to chant and be adept at it.
"What is the value of that song?" They'd challenge me. "But the spirit says, do not ask. Just tell them what you need."
In chanting, Agor said, everything is spontaneous. It is unlike lyrics where the same words are sang over and over again. Rather, chants take on the length and shape inspired by the spirit guide and what you get is a narrative that can be different from what has earlier been changed.
That is where the adeptness of the chanter comes out: in producing epics and legends from out of their minds just after they have said their oracion and their spirit guide has responded.
As explained by the book edited by Nicole Revel in comparing the synopsis and the narrative of the epic Tawan Sohul, an hour-long episode of Tudbulul, regarded as the original ancestor of the Tboli people, the book pointed out that the sequence of events in the chant is not always as clear-cut.
This compositional practice is actually widespread among oral traditions and is associated with the ring tradition.
"This ancient practice cuts across civilizations and cultures from around the world," the book read.
Citing Mary Douglas, a British anthropologist, known for her writings on human culture and symbolism, whose area of specialty was social anthropology, the book continued, "'The minimum criterion for a ring composition,' says Douglas, 'is for the ending to join up with the beginning... A ring is a framing device. The linking up of starting point and end creates an envelope that contains everything between the opening phrases and the conclusion."
Anthropologists have found a pattern, a criterion, but for the chanters it's all about their spirit guides and the need to listen to them, otherwise, "there's no start and there's no end. "
Published in the SunStar Davao newspaper on January 27, 2018.
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