The Las Piῆas Bamboo Organ: Centuries-Old Grandeur
Of the Music World
By Apolinario Villalobos
The bamboo organ of Las Piῆas was built in the early 19th century, particularly, from 1816 to 1824 by the Spanish missionary, Diego Cera of the Order of Recoletos. A remarkable man who got varied interests in the fields of architecture, natural science and agriculture, he became an organ builder by necessity. The stone church of Las Piῆas that he built, needed an instrument of such kind and having no fund for this undertaking, he decided to make one with the use of an indigenous material, the bamboo.
His lack of education and training in the field of music did not deter him from pursuing his project. He painstakingly selected hardwood for the frame, patiently pegging them together with dowels instead of nails to resist the high temperature and humidity of the environment.
He carved the 1,000 flute pipes with his own hands from the hardy bamboo stalks because it was then difficult to obtain materials of lead, copper and zinc alloys necessary for the parts. His ingenuity proved to be practical as the bamboo pipes resisted the moisture in the air which causes rust in iron materials. Later on, however, additional pipes of zinc-lead alloy imported from Spain were added to enhance the mellow sound of the organ.
The instrument, with its 3.5 tons of weight, remains one of the world’s largest single-manual organs. But remarkable of all, are its bamboo flutes that produce marvelous sound, an historical, musical and technical rarity.
In 1972, the private sector joined hands with the government in launching the “Himig ng Kawayan” Project to raise funds for the restoration of the centuries old bamboo organ of Las Piῆas which was damaged by a typhoon in 1880, after which, the organ remained idle. A sad description of the unique organ’s state was made by Fr. Marc Lesage, CICM, parish priest and curator of the bamboo organ, during the time.
As described, the base pipes were disconnected and only 500 out of the 832 pipes produced sound; horizontal trumpets numbering to 121 were not functioning, the dusty zinc pipes which imitated the sounds of birds were reduced to uselessness; the six stops ceased to function; and, a crack which developed in the wind chest that supplied air to the tubes, caused the volume to lose strength. Loose keys and pedals made it difficult to harmonize the notes. Still, other parts were missing.
When it was finally set for rehabilitation, the task was given to Hans Gerd Klais Orgalbau of Bonn, Germany. According to him, when he first heard it played in 1966, it sounded just basically alright. But due to years of neglect, it required immediate repair. He even added that he found a bird’s nest inside the instrument.
The instrument was dismantled and flown to Germany, and the consideration on the temperature was late in coming. The bamboo as a tropical material gave the repair group a headache. As a last resort, a special repair room had to be built, where the hot and humid climate of the Philippines had to be simulated to prevent the bamboo parts from drying and cracking. Replacements for the damaged bamboo pipes were especially made by the Yamaha-Hamamaku music firm in Tokyo, Japan. The rehabilitation of the organ was completed after two years of meticulous repair that included replacement of damaged parts and tuning to bring it back to its former glorious form.
Klais was not sure of the total cost he incurred, but estimated it to be more than 200,000 marks. It was Philippine Ambassador Mauro S. Calingo who received the totally repaired instrument in Germany. Finally, in 1975, the priceless musical heritage was again enshrined back in its “home”, the St. Joseph Parish Church in Las Piῆas City. A Filipino in the person of Marciano Jacela was trained by the Klais firm to maintain the organ.
Since 1992, Prof. Armando V. Salarza was given the privilege as its titular player. He is also the Artistic Director of the International Bamboo Organ Festival which is considered as the longest-running international music festival in the country held for one week, every February.
The bamboo organ has been declared as a national cultural treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines. Its preservation and maintenance are being undertaken by the Bamboo Organ Foundation, Inc., a non-stock, non-profit organization, which is also involved in the spiritual, social and educational uplift of the residents of Las Piῆas City. To date, it has already sent many scholars to Austria to hone their skill in playing the instrument, study church music, choir conducting, and develop skill in the maintenance of the organ. It also takes charge of the holding of the International Bamboo Organ Festival, held permanently at the St. Joseph Parish Church in Las Piῆas City.
Las Piῆas City is about 10 – 15 minutes from the Manila International Airport and Baclaran, depending on the traffic. Practically, every taxi driver knows the way to St. Joseph Parish Church where it is enshrined… just mention, “bamboo organ”.