Chasing GAMABAS

September 04, 2018 Travel

I went to Basilan recently for a work assignment, and we had an extra day free.

My traveling companion insisted we visit the two National Living Treasures, or the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan (GAMABA) awardees residing in Basilan. It was a difficult itinerary to arrange and I was a bit wary because of Basilan’s reputation, but luckily, our hosts from the Department of Education, led by Schools Division Superintendent, Hilda Babon, helped arranged our visits.

Up to this day, I cannot believe how fortunate we were to be given the chance to meet, not just one, but two GAMABAs in one day! And how lucky of Basilan to have two GAMABA awardees.

GAMABA is an award that recognizes the finest traditional artists of the land.  These awardees adopt a program that will ensure the transfer of their skills to others, and undertake measures to promote it.  The award is administered and implemented by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

I actually made it a travel goal to meet all of the Philippines’ living treasures. In 2014, I went to Lake Sebu to visit Lang Dulay, a T’boli traditional weaver credited for preserving the T’nalak, a dyed fabric made from abaca fiber.  A year after, I met epic chanter Federico Caballero from the Panay-Bukidnon tribe in Calinog, Iloilo when our group, TRails to Empower Kids or TREK, conducted an outreach there.

So, I was excited to get to meet my third and fourth GAMABAs. 

We left Isabela City early in the morning, after having a quick breakfast at our hotel, the Basilan Business Hotel.  It was more than an hour’s drive from there to Lamitan City, and we got to see the rest of the province, which is known for its rubber plantation.  We also passed by the new Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) government center being built there.

Our first stop was the weaving center where Ambalang Ausalin,or Apuh Ambalang,was waiting for us.  Apuh Ambalang is a Yakan tennun (tapestry) weaver.

My first encounter of Yakan weavers was in Zamboanga City in 2014, where I got my first Yakan weave, the 70 design, which they said is a rare piece.  The Yakans are originally from Basilan Island, but conflicts led them to settling in Zamboanga City.That short visit got me really interested in their weaving tradition and I didn’t think I would be given the chance to visit their homeland.

We paid a courtesy call first to the barangay officials before proceeding to the weaving center, which is actually just about half a kilometer away from the barangay hall. 

In the center, women and children, dressed in traditional attire were busy producing in their looms colorful textiles with intricate designs. I was not expecting such a busy and vibrant weaving center.

Apuh Ambalang was seated beside the entrance and we did not waste a single minute.  We had our photos taken immediately, and after that, we went around and chatted with the ladies, who gave us a quick tour of the center, plus a brief introduction.






The process starts with the paghani,or the warping process,where threads are pulled and evenly placed through a bamboo comb. The closer its teeth, the tighter the designs will be. Next is the pagpeneh, or the choosing of the thread and the making of the design.  This is done by placing counting the threads of the loom for each row and bundling each vertical row with a separate piece of yarn.  Last is the magtennun, or the actual weaving. Yakan weavers uses the back strap tension loom.

It is such a complex process so I was really amazed to see little girls practicing the art. I questioned myself and what I was doing when I was their age.  These girls are very blessed.




After the weaving center, we headed back to Isabela City to see Uwang Ahadas, another GAMABA awardee.

Uwang Ahadas is also a Yakan who made it his life’s work to preserve and promote Yakan traditional music and instruments. He has mastered the gabbang, the agung, the kwintangan kayu, and others. Kwintanganis typically played by a woman so he broke tradition by mastering this instrument. 



Despite near blindedness, he gladly accepted us and even played for us.  Who gets to have a private performance by a master? He even apologized because most of his instruments are in Cotabato City where there is an ongoing event.

The whole day was just surreal and we are extremely grateful to the people of Basilan.  I swear, I did not expect Basilan to give me my some of my most memorable travel experiences ever.  I know that there is a lot more to discover here, but I'm reserving them to future visits.

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