ESSAY: Samaon Sulayman, in memoriam

MANILA (MindaNews/16 Feb) — He was conferred the Living National Treasure distinction, and the State provided him a monthly stipend to allow him to persist with his art. Samaon Sulayman, virtuoso of the two-stringed lute, kutyapi (in Pilipino, kudyapi), did persist, in his gentle manner.

Until he died in 2011, he was the global avatar of that ancient Southeast Asian musical tradition.

(Photoc ourtesy of the NCCA website)
(Photo courtesy of the NCCA website; for profile of Bapak Samaon, click here)


Bapak Samaon was born in Mama sa Pano, Maguindanao in 1957. Most of his life was given to refining the Maguindanao kutyapi repertoires to the level of sublime.

This measure of excellence is no parochial claim. Local and international music scholars were stunned by his performances. His technical mastery of a demanding instrument, depth of feeling, and the sparkle of inventiveness constantly renewed the possibilities of an already mesmerizing instrument.

He was also one of the town’s favourite barbers. And he served as imam, ministering to the locals, both MILF-affiliated or not.

Samaon Sulayman is conjured for me this week, precisely because his excellence can only be produced within the complex social order of the Maguindanao.

Thinking this now, I am seized by the scale of our folly. The town of these unhappy weeks’ headline news — the same Mamasapano that provided the crucible for Samaon’s music — is reduced into mere bloodied cornfield and anonymous, abject folk easily stereotyped into fearsome Moro.

But the Mamasapano that created a Samaon Sulayman could only have an elaborate poetic life, that is to say a culture of nuance and beauty, despite the constancy of high powered guns among the battle-hardened members of community.

This much I know of Mamasapano: the 10 years of relative tranquility since the peace process begun has meant that the men who once kept to armed camps (like the destroyed Camp Abubakar), have come to live with wives and children here. Mamasapano has been a place of families, however impoverished, however ideologically mixed. Warriors and musicians mixed. Too, warriors who are also musicians.

Extracting a couple of internationally wanted terrorists from here would have, of course, endangered those families. There must have been calculations about collateral damage.

Horrified as I am about the loss of the SAF 44, and mourning their brutal deaths, I must wonder if there were a better operations plan possible. An Oplan that perhaps did not have to move 400 armed men into a village where the semi-retired MILF, and their families with histories of trauma, have not yet managed to forget the many times all out war was waged — against and by them.

An Oplan that perhaps calculated the risk, not only to the lives of the SAF troopers, but to the fragile peace that has sustained men like Samaon Sulayman.

I had the privilege of presenting the master to hundreds of thousands of Americans at the National Mall of Washington, D.C., during the Philippine Folk Festival organized with the Smithsonian Institution in two weeks in 2000. I had the rare joy of witnessing how a virtuoso communicates across vast gaps between cultures.

Total unknowing can yield to some understanding, given a high level of skill.

It is that high level of skill, it seems to me, that was missing in the Oplanning of the SAF raid. Skill, after all, demands coordination and a fine sense of network. And for lack of such skill, Samaon Sulayman now represents all that is stolen from all Filipinos.

 (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Marian Pastor Roces     is an  independent curator and institutional critic. She studies power. Her corporation, TAO  INC, holds office in Makati City. But her projects bring her to interior spaces almost all  the time. This piece was first posted on her Facebook wall. Permission to re-publish was   granted to MindaNews by Ms Roces).