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  • Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Society, and History by Herminia Meñez Coben
  • Remmon E. Barbaza
Herminia Meñez Coben Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Society, and History Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2009. 392392 pages.

Herminia Meñez Coben's Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Society, and History presents a fascinating study of the verbal arts, social life, and histories of ten Philippine indigenous ethnolinguistic communities, each one corresponding to the major chapters that comprise the book, namely Isneg, Kalinga, Ifugao, Kankanay, Mangyan, Subanon, Bukidnon, Bagobo, Tausug, and Sama Dilaut.

What binds these ten chapters is the "centrality of verbal art, and the central role of verbal artists, in social life," thus showing how crucial these artists are in "shaping . . . the course of history" (1). By carefully observing and recording verbal poetic utterances such as "proverbs, riddles, ritual boasts, chants, myths, epics, and other forms of verbal art" (1), Coben convincingly demonstrates how these indigenous communities not only preserve, protect, and shape their own traditions and collective destinies, but also participate dynamically in the shaping of a nation's history as they critically engage the larger world outside their territories. Furthermore, these indigenous communities not only celebrate through these aesthetic practices communal events such as victories over their enemies, headhunting forays, and the like, which an uninformed outsider would normally assume they are solely concerned with; they also confront broader issues and challenges such as [End Page 251] "ecology, gender, ethnicity, and social class" in a way that perhaps would surprise the uninformed outsider (359).

For instance, in the case of the Kalinga, Coben describes how, "by mobilizing tradition to bear upon contemporary issues," the verbal artists perform a "politicization of such communicative genres of daily life" (84). She offers the following riddle as an example of "the political struggles to protect their ancestral rice lands from destruction by governmental and corporate modernist projects" (84):


Guess what it is:

Payao ko usak-or

My rice field below,

Arak na pinacha-or

Its irrigation has gone crazy

Uray sino nga tufo

No matter what is planted,

Achi mafalin tumufo.

It will not grow.

Answer: Pipe [Suako]

In the age of environmental crises, of disasters and catastrophes, before which we proffer solutions, recommendations, and competing theories in environmental ethics and strategies in disaster risk management, Coben presents to us another beautiful example of an indigenous community's mature, balanced, and grounded (that is, to the earth on which they build their lives) stance toward the natural environment, in this case the river as the site of both life and death for the Subanon (201):

Miboat raw si Yobo

Tinayobo arose and

minangay ri dongawan

walked to the window

midongaw medolampi

to look out to the sea,

na ming'long to dagat

to the sea she looked,

minolindap to ma-asin

looked out to the sea;

misogat raw matan'n

she saw with her eyes

ki manin matag g'ndao

something like a sun

to pisi-isipan no dlangit

on the horizon of the sea

pisompayan ginalak

where the sky and the sea met;

nga raw egin so g'ndao

before the sun moved

gampalas'n maita

she could clearly see

ki sakayan raw gadiyong

large ships of war,

ki dlolan raw galila

warships at sea [End Page 252]

ginoyod na ri dagat

dragging upon the sea

biniklas de ma-asin

dragging upon the brine,

ki talo pingagongan

the sound of gongs echoing,

ki deya pidlogondigan.

the gongs of war resounding.

For their part, the verbal artist from the Sama Dilaut community expresses the way they struggle with the tension between one's homeland and foreign shores, between the calm security of the rural and the often exhilarating attraction of the city, between staying and leaving (346-47):

Katulak ni Manila

When I go to Manila

Sakayan Bangka-bangka

Aboard a banca

Pag ambal na kita tanda

When I no longer see you

Atay kun a magkubla-kubla.

My heart will pound with fear.

Tenes kinambaya bai taga Jalidua

Tenes, don't be sad (Lady of Jalidua)

Tula ni Sabah baka alarma lama

When I leave for Sabah

Kita ilu karua...


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pp. 251-254
Launched on MUSE
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