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).
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
Casal, Gabriel S. Kayamanan: Ma'i - Panoramas of Philippine Primeval. Manila: Central Bank of the Philippines and Ayala Museum, 1986.
Cole, Fay-Cooper. The Wild Tribes of Davao District, Mindanao. Field Museum of Natural History Publication 1970. Anthropological Series, Vol XII, No 2. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1913.
Cole, Mabel Cook. Philippine Folk Tales. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co, 1916.
Cuasay, Pablo M. Kalinangan ng Ating mga Katutubo. Quezon City: Manlapaz Publishing Company, 1975.
Dacanay Jr, Julian E. Ethnic Houses and Philippine Artistic Expression. Manila: One-Man Show Studio, 1988.
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.