The brassware tradition of Cotabato City
The brassware tradition of Cotabato City

Many would be familiar with the ancient musical instrument kulintang, consisting of rows of graduated pots laid horizontally in ascending pitch. We admire at its sound that have graced cultural presentations, yet are we aware of how it was made? Kulintang, gongs and even the elaborate designs of a Muslim jar are brasswares popularly made in Mindanao, particularly the oldest city in the region, Cotabato City. I visited Baranggay Kalanganan for the Cotabato Maguindanao Brassware Association Incorporated to see how a community painstakingly continues an age-old tradition, dating back to the Sultanate days, of making high quality brassware.

Brassware used for the musical instrument, Kulintang
Brassware used for the musical instrument, Kulintang
Wax-mold desing blueprint
Wax-mold desing blueprint

The day begins in the morning, when one finds workers meticulously carving the designs and patterns on a wax-mold. These are negative blueprint designs of the brassware. What impressed me is that these people doing the designs aren’t really trained in the arts. These design patterns were handed down to them and are stored in memory. They don’t have any references while doing this unless they were specifically requested for a design.

Wax and clay molds
Wax and clay molds

These wax-molds are then melded over with clay. The clays are then hardened. It would take more than a couple of hours to harden under natural environmental conditions. When the clays are hard, they are cooked over a fire for the wax inside the clay to melt. These clay-molds would then be the base for the brassware. They are only used once since they have to break them once the brass dries up inside.

Clay molds ready to be put on fire
Clay molds ready to be put on fire

While waiting for the molds to harden, there’s also the part of melting the brass, another tedious process that could take hours. Brass pieces are placed on a small cauldron, and then the cauldron is placed on a cylindrical stone burner filled with coal. A person a few feet away would fan the coal flames to heat up the burner in order to melt the brass. This takes 3-4 hours or more.

melting the brass in a coal-filled burner
melting the brass in a coal-filled burner

Once the brass is fully melted, it is then poured into the clay. They leave it to dry and harden and then they break the clay. The imperfections on the brassware are corrected and polished by using a traditional sanding method. Not everything is perfect though. Out of the 20 they could make in a day about 3-5 could be rejected.

Brass pieces that are melted
Brass pieces that are melted

This traditional method of making brassware may be rudimentary, taxing and takes time but the quality is still unparalleled to the other method of pounding the brass. It’s just alarming that this traditional method is also fast dying. Before, the community would have a lot of houses doing the brasswork now it has been reduced to a few. The cost of brass pieces are also getting expensive with dwindling supply. And honestly, despite the hard labor, the cost and demand are not always fully met. I do hope that the community would get enough demand and supply to hopefully keep the brassware art alive.

 

Stacks of newly made kulintang pieces
Stacks of newly made kulintang pieces

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