The Tboli of Mindanao Philippines

A musical & cultural video journey by Alan C Geoghegan


This page is dedicated to Tboli Bamboo Zither Player GUMBAY SULAN (photo above)
click photo of Gumbay or here for additional photos


Preserving Culture, The Tboli of Mindanao, Philippines parts 1&2:




  Philippine AIrlines Sikat T'boli School of Indigenous Knowledge & Traditions




Jesse Ankoy, or Mafil, a TBoli lute player
a Tboli community fiesta by Alan Geoghegan


TBOLI DREAMING - Keeping the Channels of Culture Open By Laura Simms



A Native American storyteller in the Yukon suggested to an Icelandic novelist traveling to New York that she get in touch with me. We agreed to meet at a Greek diner on Broadway. Both writers and travelers interested in a similar process of creativity, we quickly became friends. I offered her my home while I traveled to the Philippines so she could finish her novel. In exchange, she read my coffee grinds, something my own Rumanian mother had done for me while I was growing up in Brooklyn.

Seated at my kitchen table, she upturned the drying coffee cup and asked me, "Is there something uncomfortable about this trip?"

"Yes," I answered surprised. "I feel frightened of the week I am to spend with T'boli people in the south island of Mindanao. I know nothing about them." "You will feel fear," she said, "but you will discover a treasure."

I arrived in Manila during monsoon season in early August. Manila is in Luzon, the northernmost island of the more than 7,000 islands awkwardly formed into a country by the Colonial Spanish over 300 years ago. Destroyed during World War II, it suffers the horrors of a modern day city too quickly created in a third world culture. There are no reminders of ancient history, and few traces of its colonial grace remain. What natural beauty it has to offer is hidden by pollution and overshadowed by dense poverty and overpopulation .

I was traveling to Tboli as part of a month-long storytelling tour to gather stories. At that time my only encounter with Tboli tribes had been the few paragraphs in The Philippine Handbook: "An estimated 200,000 Tboli inhabit the Tiruray Highlands, a 2,000 square-km area within a triangle bounded by Surallah, Kiamba and Polomok..."

In Manila I found that any time I mentioned my upcoming visit to Tboli I was greeted with tremendous interest, curiosity and even awe. I was shown brass bells, beaded necklaces, photographs of elaborately costumed women and treasured Tinalak wall hangings, the sacred ceremonial cloth of the T'Boli Still, I felt a growing sense of unease. Why was I going to T'Boli? Was I to add to the increased exploitation by mining, forestry and tourism? Worse, I knew nothing of their traditions or taboos. My coffee reading was of no consolation, although I often reflected on it.

I have learned from my own travels and experiences that an outer journey is an inner journey. The most unexpected occurrences are usually the most significant, and the actual map is a secret map whose contours depend on my own receptivity to what unfolds moment to moment. I considered my journey to T'Boli a quest, a pilgrimage to a way of life rapidly vanishing from our planet.

In Manila, I said to myself, "It is best to surrender to the fact that I know nothing and remain alert." In fairy tales, esoteric and symbolic stories, it is the fool who becomes the hero or heroine. Sent out into the world, she does not know in which direction to travel. So she shoots an arrow, throws a stone, or a feather.

Where it lands is the direction in which she journeys. I spent one week in Manila, hosted by the kindness and hospitality of the most lovely people in the world, surrounded by the shock of unending, miserable poverty and an unbreathable atmosphere. I looked forward to my trip south.


Upon arrival in Davao on Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, an earthy, smiling woman greeted me at the airport. She placed a brass, black beaded necklace around my neck, saying,

"Welcome. The necklace is Tboli".

The first evening in Davao, protected by an armed guard (wealthy families are often kidnapped by remnants of Marcos' rebel army), I was taken to dinner in the best Filipino restaurant. The other guests were: a real estate mogul and executives from an auto company and an oil concern; men intent on bringing the Philippines "into the 21st century." The conversation revolved mainly around a golf tournament.


Tboli dress and belt (Alan Geoghegan)

The next day our odd traveling crew began the journey to Tboli: a translator from the tourist office, the driver of the air-conditioned white van, a Tboli man returning to Lake Sebu after a market visit to sell Tinalak in Davao, and me. "It is best to travel on Saturday," I was told. "You will be less conspicuous."

Davao is advertised as the largest city in the world, spreading out for miles and miles. With the added obstruction of traffic, stray chickens and dogs, the trip was long. The urban landscape is a strange mix of palm trees, rickshaws, bustling markets, flamboyant flowers and diesel buses packed with people. World War II jeeps painted in wild colors and splattered with Christian prayers mingled with vans carrying sad-faced pigs to slaughter.

Suddenly, the city gave way to grassy hills, rice paddies and people riding on water buffaloes. The sunlight erased the memory of urban sprawl and we all began to cheer up, until the smell of burning garbage hit our nostrils and a dark cloud of ash marked the road ahead. We rode through a modern nightmare of garbage dumps adorned with ash-dyed bamboo houses and dust-covered children and cows.


As my eyes adjusted,I was amazed at the ingenuity of these houses made of trash. The translator from the tourist office explained that these people make their living from sorting out the debris. I felt in awe of their resourcefulness. Finally, we left the outskirts of the last large city behind, polluted and jumbled with every conceivable mode of transportation; sports cars, diesel busses, trucks, bicycle-drawn rickshaws, men on horseback and farmers on carabao. We rode in silence for hours over dirt roads deeply rutted from the rains.

When we came closer to South Cotabato the rains began. We stopped for lunch at an outdoor restaurant on Lake Sebu where the T'boli live, and sat under a thatched roof at the water's edge. The Tboli catch fish in a banca, a carved out tree trunk, cook them on an open fire and serve it on a thick leaf. Skinny dogs lay under our table, where I proceeded to throw fragments of fish and bread.

(left) A Tboli woman paddles her Owong through the water lilies on beautiful Lake Sebu. This postcard was photographed and donated by Vilhar & Anderson for the benefit of the Helobung Troupe Cooperative at Lake Sebu, a project to preserve local culture and arts, as coordinated by Maria Todi Wanan.

600 looked out at the lake. Small hill-locked islands with bamboo houses dotted the water. Mountains in the distance. Smells of rain and forest. An old woman at the back of a banca fished silently. Teenage boys paddling a flat boat took fish from her in a basket and brought them to the fire. Behind her were the patterned nets of new fisheries, a plan engineered by a European to increase the catch of fish on the lake. The birth of an industry. The sight of the nets sent chills down my spine. The driver had told me how quickly the ecological balance on the lake is shifting due to fisheries, mining and forestry.

(L-R, above) The late Gumbay Sulan, (bamboo zither expert), Oyog "Maria" Todi, Alan Geoghegan, Ursula Aznar and Cecille Sanchez take a coffee break during the video shoot.

Humbled, I went to the Tboli market. Crowded. Walking, shopping clusters of people conversing. The foreignness and inaccessibility of the Tboli seems startling. They stare at me momentarily, but have no interest in my presence. Only the salespeople seem to take notice of me.

The Tboli women in full traditional costume are stunning: small and Malaysian-looking in many-colored sarongs and delicately embroidered blouses, women and girls adorned with foot-long earrings, layers of necklaces, hats as large as umbrellas, stacks of anklets and bracelets: red, blue, black, white, green, turquoise. I have no reference point for these faces born out of a 25,000-year-old history of trading between Indonesia, these islands, China, Africa, Polynesia and Arabia. The words of a Maori chant come to mind: The power and the prestige, the garments of your ancestors.

There was a stirring of interest in me over the next two days, as it became known that I was a storyteller. I had attended a Tboli wedding. I was seen walking around, taking a trip in a boat on the lake. People offered to tell me stories, and a dance concert was arranged in the lower room of the Tboli guide's bamboo house. Women performed in full costume one at a time (including a beautiful swallow dance, as graceful as the most elegant Javanese court dance), accompanying themselves with makeshift drums and gongs made from parts of trees, rubber shoes and kitchen pots. In the background, a row of old men watched a television show featuring the new Spanish Miss America dancing flamenco-style.

But where were the stories? At last I was granted an interview with a princess who was a weaver. My translator was Peter Corado, a Tboli lawyer. I hoped to find a story about the origin of weaving. I know many myths from Africa and Polynesia about weaving and the origin of language, and the traditional Tinalak fabric of the Tboli was fascinating to me.

"The ceremonial clothing of both men and women, Tinalak is a deep brown abaca cloth tie-dyed with intricate red and beige designs. Natural vegetable dyes are used to stain the fibers before the cloth is woven. The cloth has great significance for the Tboli It's one of the traditional properties exchanged at the time of marriage and is used as a covering during birth to ensure a safe delivery. The Tboli believe that cutting the cloth will cause serious illness or death. If it is sold, a brass ring is often attached to appease the spirits." (The Philippine Handbook.)

A stalk of notched bamboo served as a ladder to the house of Princess Diwa Tel, alias Ye Wala. I took off my thongs and climbed up behind Peter. The floor was made of thin strips of bamboo, and through the spaces I saw the earth below. Unable to conceive of walking on what looked like paper, I froze. Peter pulled me in. I felt as though I were standing on a thread of a hammock.

Oyog "Maria" Todi-Arroz, Tboli Teacher and "culture" activist

Former Lake Sebu Mayor Bao Baay, bringing culture to new generations through native education and a Tboli museum.


The old woman was seated by an opening in the wall which served as a window. She said, "I am sick and cannot speak for a long time." I inquired quickly about the story of the first weaving. In the center of the room, I saw her loom, a half-woven Tinalak growing from its base. In baskets next to the loom were balls of tie-dyed fibers made of banana hemp. She explained in detail how the Tinalak is made and  the plants chosen, bark stripped, boiled and prepared, dyed, blessed and so on. She then told how each single pattern is dreamed by the weaver.

"Each design is new. No other person has made this exact design. They come in dreams in three ways: from the ancestors, from one's mother, and from one's own dream. The channel of the dream must be open." In order to be woven, each new pattern must be dreamed anew.

Cecille learns Tboli dance-steps with the help from Oyog "Maria" Todi-Arroz

Alan and Cecille attend a local Tboli town fiesta, Click to enlargen

"I never watch television or listen to the radio," she said. "There is an evil spirit in the television." The channel would be disturbed, clogged. Then the dreaming would not happen.

The blouses that the Tboli women wear are famous for their intricacy and uniqueness. They are red and black and white, the colors of the alchemy of the soul in fairy tales. "Some blouses take one month to finish. The ones embroidered with small seashells can take one or two years to complete."

Again and again she emphasized the importance of listening to the ancestors by keeping open the place to dream. I was very moved as she spoke.
Having seen the fisheries and the manufactured batik-like fabrics in the market the day before, I said:

"The world is changing all around you. It is inevitable. Someone will come and convince the Tboli to have their patterns manufactured to make money. What must remain for the people to still be Tboli?"

She answered in the pleasing rhythmic pattern of Tboli language. Her words were couched in the incessant hum and trill of birds and crickets from the rain forest that surrounded the house. As she spoke, I became aware of a new sound, the overwhelming metallic drone of a motorcycle which was being repaired down the road. I leaned forward to hear her words and Peter's translation.

"Women must continue to weave, to make jewelry, baskets,to sing and tell stories," she stated. Her daughter brought out her tribal clothing: necklaces, bracelets, earrings, the 13-pound brass belt adorned with Tboli bells and carved metal, an embroidered shirt, eight thick brass anklets and six wrist bracelets, the beaded wooden hairpiece and a pair of earrings which extended from the earlobe and wrapped around the neck like a collar. He put them on with the daughter's help. Transforming herself into a veritable temple, she became a visible map of her ancestors, her culture, and nature. She smiled proudly. Then she lifted her skirt and showed her tattooed calves, which would make her recognizable at death to the ancestors in the other world.


Again, the words of a Maori chant returned to me: The womb of the earth is your pillow.

"And what if these things are washed away by flood, or earthquake, or are mass manufactured for sale without dreaming?" I asked. "It may happen. What must be left for Tboli to exist?"

Now she grew quiet. She nodded. Peter, a man educated in the West, listened intently. I looked out at the forest and the houses. A horse, fleeing, suddenly dashed from behind another bamboo house. Three men chased it. The carabao tied by its nose to a log looked unconcerned. The trees moved. I felt the bamboo floor sway in a sensuous response to the wind.

I waited.

When she began her answer, she spoke confidently, looking into my eyes for the first time. I answered her with my own eyes as Peter translated. She said, "Sharing. Hospitality." On cue, the sound of the motorcycle engine stopped.

Her daughters served us coffee as she described the necessity of living together, of sharing all one has with others, whether family or strangers. The princess moved uncomfortably. I recalled the warning about her poor health at the outset of our meeting and began to thank her for her time, for her generosity, for her profound teaching. We offered gifts of rice, liquor, beads and money. Her reception of them was simple. 

She held them, acknowledged them and placed them beside a basket on the floor.

As we climbed down the ladder, I saw an exquisite old basket near the loom. She called out to Peter, "It is an old one. Made by a Mandaya woman. I traded for it in the market a long time ago." She looked so fragile, her house so flimsy. Our eyes met again, a simple human connection, not extraordinary or special, and a light went on in my mind. The subtlety and meaning of what she had just said struck me: "Sharing. Hospitality."

The drive back from Tboli to Davao was more harrowing and twice as long. Several hours into the trip the car broke down. While it was being repaired, we waited more than four hours inside an airless fast-food restaurant.

When we finally arrived in the city and climbed out of the van, our Tboli guide opened his tattered suitcase and gave me a gift: a hand-dyed Tinalak with a frog and seed pattern. Nothing that I had to offer to him or to Peter or the princess could be half as valuable, except perhaps my gratitude and respect as I write this.

T'nalak weavers, US T'boli trip 2020

Four days after my visit to the Tboli, a volcano on one of the lakes that had been quiet for hundreds of years erupted, destroying people, hundreds of houses, T'Boli artifacts and animals. 

What did I learn from my journey to this remote Filipino village? That the forms of culture & stories, houses, clothing, carvings, weaving, songs, dances, are the visible means of protecting knowledge, without which we would be less than human. They are a visible map to an invisible world within ourselves, a map that leads to no place and every place. Moreover, that if we can remember the ways to sink into reciprocal being, if the channel is left open to dreaming from that country within each one of us, we can dream all that is needed in being again. This is the treasure I brought back with me from Tboli.

t'boli weaver

The producers of the Tboli video are very grateful for allowing us to reproduce Laura Simm's article here. Laura Simms is an internationally renowned storyteller, writer, teacher & activist committed to excellent performances, & compassionate action in the world. She lives in New York City & her groundbreaking work combines ancient myth and fairytale with personal narrative. Laura Simm's web site here

Weaves of life: Preserving Blaan and Tboli Traditional Practices
by Alphonsus Luigi E. Alfonso, June 3, 2013 Philippine Daily Inquirer

Lake Sebu, South Cotabato: The Artists and Artisans of Lake Sebu, photos by Biyaherong Barat

All other photographs © Alan Geoghegan and Laura Simms unless specified. Photoshop enhancements by Alan Geoghegan

Who is the Filipino? ...Alan Geoghegan's Philippine Gallery - Ursula's Philippine Indigenous Jewelry - Tboli by Faye Velasco


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