The Cotabato Sessions: The Sound of the Philippines Comes to L.A.


In partnership with The Los Angeles/Islam Arts Initiative to bring together nearly 30 cultural institutions throughout Los Angeles to tell various stories of traditional and contemporary art from multiple Islamic regions and their significant global diasporas.

The final event of this fall's ambitious LA Islam Arts Initiative took place on Saturday night at the Velaslavasay Panorama with a screening of "The Cotabato Sessions," a half hour-long documentary film spotlighting the indigenous kulintang rhythmic gong music and kutyapi lute string music of the Philippines and the dance performances that traditionally accompany them. Directed by Joel Quizon in collaboration with New York musician Susie Ibarra, the film features performances by the genre's master Danongan Kalanduyan and his friends and family.

"The Cotabato Sessions" is the latest project by Los Angeles-based documentary filmmaking studio Form Follows Function, an entity dedicated to creating works that present the unique spirit and stories of specific places and the impact that these places have on the lives of people who belong to them. The place that this film takes us to is Cotabato City in the Mindanao islands, an autonomous Muslim-governed area of the southern Philippines. Kalanduyan's family are members of the Maguindanaon tribe, a Philippine Islamic minority group concentrated in the region.

Ishmael By River, "The Cotabato Sessions"
Ishmael By River, "The Cotabato Sessions"

"The Maguindanaouns play some of the most refined indigenous music," Ibarra asserts. "It dates back tothe era of court music in the Philippines. A master player can play some 10 to 30 variations on a style of kulintang."

Although the Mindanao islands have been troubled by violence in recent years, the atmosphere of the film is decidedly placid. Quizon acknowledges that the production team avoided staging performances in crowded urban areas, opting instead for private homes and other quieter locations where the music could resonate more expansively. Eschewing spoken narration, "The Cotabato Sessions" lets textual captions identify the various musical sub-genres and styles that it presents as well as the spots where the players gathered.

Courtyard, "The Cotabato Sessions"
Courtyard, "The Cotabato Sessions"

Certainly the most dramatic setting where the musicians and dancers perform in the film is the extraordinary Grand Mosque of Cotabato, the largest mosque in the Philippines, with its majestic courtyards and interior spaces. "I'm still kind of shocked that we were allowed to shoot there," Quizon muses. "But we were very respectful."

Both Quizon and the film's editor/co-cinematographer Maya Santos acknowledge that the Los Angeles Filipino community's contemporary interest in kulintang and kutyapi is more scholarly than popular these days, a condition that "The Cotabato Sessions" and its companion album may begin to redress. "We found the perfect place to record the album in Shariff Kabunsuan Performing Arts Center," Ibarra notes.


The film screening Saturday night at Velaslavasay was followed by performances from the Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble and techno-indigenous electronic music artist GB.

Bitol Ishmael, "The Cotabato Sessions"
Bitol Ishmael, "The Cotabato Sessions"

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