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By: Kristine Sanchez 

The word "Bilaan" could have derived from "bila," meaning "house," and the suffix "an," meaning "people," so that the term may be taken to mean "people living in houses."  Other terms that have been used to refer to this group are Blaan, Bira-an, Baraan, Vilanes, Bilanes.  Names such as Tagalagad, Tagakogon, and Buluan have also been used; however, these denote the kind of site where some Bilaan groups were located.  The Bilaan inhabit the southern part of South Cotabato and southeastern part of Davao del Sur, as well as the areas around Buluan Lake in North Cotabato.  Some Bilaan live on Sarangani Island, off the coast of Davao del Sur, although they are referred to as Sarangani Manobo.  Other Bilaan groups on this island have been referred to as Balud or Tumanao.  The Bilaan share similarities in culture and physical features with the neighboring Tagacaolo and the Tagabawa.  As of 1988, the Bilaan numbered some 250,000. 


In the 19th century the Bilaan inhabited the hilly region behind the west coast of Davao Gulf.  Their territory extended all the way into Bagobo country to the north and the westward into the Davao-Cotabato watershed.  Culturally, the Bilaan are related to the Bagobo and Mandaya as evidenced by pronounced similarities in architecture, clothing ornamentation, and socioreligious practices.  By 1910 the estimated Bilaan population was about 10,000, of whom some 1,500 lived on Sarangani.  Because of the mountainous terrain and environment, there was practically no local group organization; houses were separated by long stretches.  Whenever there was a neighborhood, the number of houses was small.  Over the years, settlers from the Visayan islands came to Mindanao and occupied the coastal plains and foothills on the western coast of the Davao Gulf, which was traditionally part of Bilaan country.  Gradually, the Bilaan were pushed deeper back into the interior, without much resistance on their part.  In the distant past, the Bilaan were actively engaged in warfare.  Along with the Manobo, Mandaya, Bagobo, and Tagacaolo, they had at one time or another reduced their neighbors in southwestern Mindanao to the status of tribute-paying "colonies" (Casal 1986:55). 

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Religious Beliefs and Practices 

The Bilaan who live in the forested areas of Davao and Cotabato are called kapil or pagan by the people of Cotabato.  In truth, however, their religious beliefs are characteristics of pre-Spanish folk religion.  The Bilaan are monotheistic in the sense that they believe that there is but one supreme being ruling the cosmos.  They also believe in the existence of th soul which upon leaving the body causes illness and death.  Their concept of heaven or kaluwalhatian is under the earth.  Kaluwalhatian has no space for planting rice or processing abaca.  It is also a place where the chasing of deer is not allowed (Causay 1975:55). 

Because of intermarriages, some Bilaan have today become Christians or Muslims (Causay 1975: 56). 

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Visual Arts and Crafts 

Both men and women wear abaca cloth for the top and bottom pieces.  The women's blouse is heavily decorated with embroidery, beads, and buttons.  The women may also wear necklaces, anklets, and numerous tiny bells hanging around their wasteline.  There may also some aromatic root or fragrant flower decorating their waste piece.  The men's jackets are sometimes more ornately decorated than the women's.  They wear their tight-fitting trousers knee length.  A long red sash is wound around their waist several times and is worn especially during certain social gatherings. 

Men and women shave their eyebrows, file or cut their incisors, and blacken these together with their tongues.  The men practice tattooing of arms, legs, chest, and back, and some still wear their hair long. 

Like the Manobo and the Tboli, the Bilaan use soft thin strips of bamboo for weaving two-tone baskets (black and natural) in varying sizes: personal carrying baskets hung from the shoulder or larger ones which serve as containers for their crops.  Another type of basket for which both Bilaan and Bagobo are known is the wild chicken trap, "an implement that most men in these groups possess" (Lane 1986: 192).  The actual trap or snare consists of a series of small loops made of long, thin, flexible, and braided rattan strips.  They are set on the ground by means of three stakes that have carved finial on top.  A woven looped rattan chain secures the prey to the stake, once it takes to the bait.  This wild chicken trap usually goes with another kind of basket: a small backpack that a hunter carries when he goes to the forest.  A small bamboo internode is sometimes fitted into it for carrying bait such as seeds, ground, corn, or grain.  Elaborately carved wooden supports, feathers, horsehair, and small bells sometimes decorate this backpack. 

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Performing Arts 

The Bilaan use musical instruments extensively with their rituals and dances.  The instruments run the full range of idiophones (percussions), zithers (bamboo tubes with strings), chordophones (wooden lutes), and aerophones (flutes and reeds). 
The odol percussion intrument is a wooden sonorant plank made from molave.  This is also known to the Manobo and Tagacaolo groups of southern Davao.  It produces drumlike rhythms when it is used to accompany the dance which is part of the odol performance.  In the old days, the odol was an indispensable part of celebrations welcoming home victorious warriors on their return.  It would usually be played by female musicians.  A player, holding two pieces of wood in their hands, squats in front of the wooden plank, pounding out an ostinato of beats with a steady tempo.  Tempo dancers, wearing strings of belts around their colorful costumes, wrists, and ankles, dance around the odol plank in a proud, erect, and dignified manner.  From time to time, they tap the ends of the plank with their wooden wands (Pfeiffer 1975: 143). 

The tangungo is a set of eight metal gongs hung on a harness, in contrast to the Maranao kulintangan which usually has eight gongs of graduated sizes, laid out on a horizontal platform.  The set consists of seven small-sized gongs, which produce a running melody, with the eight and biggest gong playing in syncopation to the rest to produce a particular rhythm.  Another kind of gong played separately is called falimak, which is of medium size and made of cast iron.  The kubing or jew's harp is known by the same name among the Bilaan, Bagobo, Bukidnon, Maguindanao, Mansaka, and Subanon.  As with all other bamboo idiophones of this type, it uses a thin bamboo filament attached to the body. 

Several stringed instruments are played by the Bilaan.  The kitara is a four-stringed plucked lute, carved out of a single piece of wood, and not played chordally or with several fingers of the left hand pressing down simultaneously on various parts of the fingering down simultaneously on various parts of the fingerboard, and with the right hand sounding multiple strings at one time, instead, the player always performs in a rapid melodic style, plucking out a distinct melody from the strings.  The kitara is wither played solo, in which case a programmatic title for a specific occasion is given to the piece played, or as an accompaniment for songs of courtship. The diwagay is a one-stringed bowed lute, also called a "spike fiddle," which is known as kagut among the Manobo and kotet among the Subanon. 

The faglong, also known as kuglong, hagalong, kutyapi, is a two-stringed boat-shaped lute.  Its two strings are of metal, with one played as a drone, and the other strummed to produce a melody using the pentatonic scale. The sluday or sloray is a polychordal bamboo tube zither having an anhemitonic tuning, on which melodic patterns are repeated over long periods.  (This is the same instrument known as tangkol to the Bukidnon, takol to the Mansaka, saluray to the Ata, and tangko to the Mangguangan.) The most common wind instrument is the finagtong, a short bamboo flute with five finger holes. Apart from the odol ceremony, the Bilaan have dance dramas and dance rituals which depict their customs and traditions.  An important, and probably the longest dance drama is the series of dances depicting the different stages of rice planting, whcih enacts to music the stages already described, namely: the mabah or plea for the gods to help a farmer choose the field to clear; the abmigo or clearing the field; the amlah or planting of the rice; and the kamto or harvest of the rice.  The admulak is a dance depicting bird hunting with bow and arrow.  The thick rainforests of Bilaan country is haven to many kinds of birds and game.  In this dance drama, three hunters hide under an amlat (bird shelter) built under trees of thick foliage, where birds flock to feed and rest.  To provide tempo, a faglong player describes in song the movements of the dancers.  All performers use a uniform dance step to keep in tune with the faglong, as they mime the movement of hunters.  They look up at the big trees, discussing the source of the calls.  They set thin arrows on their bows, slowly creeping towards a more propitious place, in order to conceal themselves while intently listening to bird sounds.  Spotting birds alight, the group becomes spirited.  A Bilaan standing as at distance imitates birdcalls, as he cups his hands around his mouth.  Alerted and assured of a prey, the dancers crawl to a vantage position, arrows steadied on their bows now oriented towards the source of bird calls.  A hunter shoots an arrow, and downs a bird.  There is excitement as they scuffle for the catch.  The bird is actually a bundle of dried leaves thrown in by a spectator at a given signal.Traditionally, whoever shoots down the first bird must cook and eat it without sharing the catch with his companions.  This is said to ensure a bountiful hunt.  In the dance drama, the two unsuccessful hunters enviously look on as their comrade eats his catch.  Suddenly, the latter gets an upset stomach, flails about, contorts, doubles over, writhes in pain, and throws up.  His confused and frightened companions try to comfort him, then rush back to the village to fetch the alamoos. The amti is a dance drama on fishing, which depicts a river fishing going through his daily routine of setting traps.  His dance weaves around the choice of spots where he can set his bubo traps, where to spread dried banana leaves for his shelter, how to lure fish into his traps, and where to spread the poison sap extracted from the roots of the tubli plant. The movements of the fisher's trap are imitated step by step in the dance sequence: the setting of traps, luring of the fish toward them, poisoning and inspecting the catch.  He builds a fire to wrm himself.  Then he goes to the water and catches an elusive fish between his legs.  He skewers the fish and cooks it over the fire.  Finally, he collects his catch in a side basket, and happily dances away with the bubo over his shoulders and his fish in the basket. 
The mihag sugon is a dance drama on gathering honey.  The Bilaan woodlands abound with beehives.  Honey is a delicacy among the people, and is gathered by many Bilaan men.  The dance drama muhag sugon unfolds with a man moving about in a walk-dance sequence.  He looks around constantly, searching for a beehive.  He is strumming a faglong, the music fast and melodic, soft but audible.  His movements are small, monotonous, predictable, and are as soft as the music he plays.  He spots a beehive, represented by a piece of tabi, an abaca cloth tied in a bundle.  He strums the faglong faster, indicating glee.  His dance steps accordingly become more expansive.  He leaps here, skips there, as he comes closer and closer to the beehive.  Putting down his faglong, he pulls out two pieces of bamboo sticks, and starts a fire by rubbing them vigorously against each other.  He lights up a torch made from dried fiber and leaves, and smokes out the bees from their hive.  He picks up his faglong, hurriedly tears off pieces of the hive and proceeds to sip the honey.  He does this several times.  Then the bees come back and attack him, making him drop the hive.  He runs, slapping his body all over to drive the bees away.  More beestings make him run faster.  Mustering enough courage, he goes back to retrieve the beehive, and runs home, still slapping off the bees and picking the dead ones off his skin.  
Another dance is the asbulong which depicts a healing ritual.  The absulong is officiated by the alamoos, also known as malong, usually female, who dances around the sick person, shouts incantations, and brandishes a handful of leaves and flowers.  With these, she occasionally strikes the sick person's forehead, arms, torso, legs and feet.  At times she holds his arms, and pulls him up in an effort to revive him.  Putting down the plants, she squats on one side of the sick and extends her left arm over his chest.  At this point, the alamoos is prepared to determine whether her patient will live or die.  With a dangkal (span of her right palm), she measures her extended left arm from shoulder to middle finger tip.  Usually, she gets three to three and half dangkal, depending on her palm span.  If her last dangkal goes beyond her left hand's middle finger, her patient will live.  The extra finger length signifies a new lease on life.  But if her last dangkal lands squarely at the tip of her middle finger, it means the sick is going to die, unless sacrifices, offerings, and prayers are immediately made to the divinities and life-giving deities.  The music of the faglong, which has ben playing all the time, is slowly drowned by the music of the tangungo which is now being played to a frenzy.  
While the shaman is measuring life, 4 to 5 young women nervously dance behind her, their fingers stiffly stretched, their hands moving from side to side while the skip and bounce from left to right.  The moral support they lend strengthens the healing powers of the alamoos.  Menfolk bring two altars with offerings in front of the sick.  The first is called maligay, a single bamboo pole 1 m tall, festooned with elaborate bamboo skewers, which feature layered shavings made by delicately  whittling, without removing, the outer skin of the stick.  The shavings are formed like flowers at the top.  Guava, makopa, and other fruits of the season, as well as filets of meat and fish, are placed on the sharp ends of the skewers.  Thesecond is called sapak (a bamboo pole 1.3 meters tall).  Its top is split into eight parts, pried open in to the shape of a funnel, on which an antique blue and white china is firmly set.  Offerings of cooked rice and betel chew are also set down nearby. 
Faglong and tangungo music continues to be played during the healing ritual, creating an atmosphere of merriment.  Feeling she has done all she can to heal the sick, and fatigued by the whole process, the alamoos motions to some men to help her lift the sick.  The tangungo strikes a lilting melody, making everybody move in quick animated fashion.  Food and betel chew from the maligay and sapak altars are given to the sick.  The tangungo strikes a lilting melody, making verybody move in quick animated fashion.  Food and betel chew from the maligay and sapak altars are given to the sick.  Though weak and unable to stand unaided, he is forced to walk and take slow dance steps.  Seeing no improvement in his condition, more food is administered to him by the alamoos.  Other participants help themselves to the altar food.  Feeling well or not, the patient slowly swaggers and staggers into the dance.  With great effort he tries to follow the tempo, falling and stumbling along the way.  But his participation is supposed to signify that the power of prayer and incantation has alerted the diwata and has helped to cure the sick. (E. Maranan/F. Prudente/R. Obusan with noted from E. A. Manuel) 

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Casal, Gabriel S. Kayamanan: Ma'i - Panoramas of Philippine Primeval. Manila: Central Bank of the Philippines and Ayala Museum, 1986. 

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Demetrio, Francisco, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, and Fernando Zialcita. The Soul Book. Quezon City: GCF Books, 1991. 

Eugenio, Damania L. (ed). Philippine Fold Literature: An Anthology. Quezon City: The University of the Phlippines Folklorists Inc, 1981. 

Landor, A. Henry Savage. The Gems of the East: Sixteen Thousand Mile Research Travel Among Wild and Tame Tribes. New York: Harper and Brothers Publications, 1904. 

Lane, Robert. Philippine Basketry: An Appreciation. Manila: Bookmark Inc, 1986. 

Llamzon, Teodoro A. Handbook of Philippine Language Groups. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1978. 

Pfeiffer, William R. Music of the Philippines. Dumaguete City: Siliman Music Foundation Ic, 1975. 

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