What is a Rondalla?

The term rondalla refers to the native string ensemble of the Philippines, and it consists of plectrum instruments such as the bandurria, laud, octavina, mandola, guitarra, and bajo de uñas (supplanted today by the regular double bass). Although Spanish in origin, notably in plucked-string ensembles like murga and estudiantina popular in 18th-century Europe, the rondalla's development, functions, repertoire, and instrumentation prove distinctly Filipino. The Filipino people not only modified the appearance and acoustical design of the European models but also developed them to have a wider range, greater versatility, and more resonance. Fashioned from common Filipino wood such as langka, kamagong, narra, and mahogany, these instruments are played with a plectrum made of turtle shell.

Like the Philippine marching band, the rondalla has figured prominently in the Philippine community life, providing accompaniment to folk dancing, singing, and entertaining with solo pieces at various functions. For whether heard in the poignant romanticism of the harana (serenade), in the melancholic passion of the kundiman (love song), or in the lilting cadence of the balitaw, polka, and paso doble (dance music), the rondalla never fails to draw the listener into its warm, cozy ambience.

The exact origin of the Filipino rondalla is unknown, but several versions exist. The first version says in the beginning a group of young men roamed around regularly to play and sing in front of the houses. According to the second version, a group of musicians begged for alms. This group was called murza or murga, and there were similar groups in Spain and Mexico. The third version claims it was a musicians group, called comparza, playing on the stage. Finally a fourth version maintains that it was a typical music group popular among universities in Spain as the estudiantina, or tina for short. The members of the group played mandolins, violins, guitars, flutes, cellos, basses, tambourines, castanets, and triangles, and the students donned pirate costumes.

In the early 1900s, rondallas commonly played symphonic overtures and arias from standard operas. During fiestas, rondallas from varied Philippine towns would gather in one place and engage in what was called tambakan, or marathon, playing where they would show off their performing skills - an event that usually lasted into the wee hours of the morning when the participants had finally run out of pieces.

The rondalla later flourished in civil and educational institutions as well as in commercial companies. The better known groups were the Yellow Taxi Rondalla, the Manila Simbunsya Rondalla, the Teatro Zarsuela Rondalla, the Centro Escolar University Rondalla, and Juan Silos Rondalla. At the 1976 National Rondalla Competition held in Manila, about 70 rondallas competed. The Batangas Junior Rondalla composed of high school kids who performed Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture won first place in that competition.

Sad to say, however, the rondalla is a fast-disappearing art in the Philippines. It is quite heartening that Filipino-Americans are rediscovering their musical heritage, and dedicated people on both coasts, like the U.P. Alumni & Friends Rondalla, are committed to preserving the rondalla as an integral part of this legacy.

With its distinctive sound and incredible versatily of its wide-ranging repertory, this string ensemble, the rondalla, truly is a distinct contribution to the musical culture of the nation.

1978. Filipino Heritage: The Making of a Nation, Volume 9, ed. Alfredo Roces, Manila, Philippines: Lahing Pilipino Publishing.

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