Bullets Into Bells

"The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history... Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was."  - Milan Kundera

The finished product - bullets turned into bells

I was in Kiamba to make a special delivery that day. There had been one of those quick, stiff tropical downpours, nothing tragic, but one for which the earth was grateful. She had taken a deep breath of the rain, exhaled her petrichor and as a result everything seemed a shade greener. The land was paddied for rice on either side of the path, my destination was the thatched hut shaded by a mango grove. Young children at play in the emerging sun, stopped to take notice of my arrival, then went back into the rhythm of their game, caring very little about my approach. Once within sight, the old man had gotten up to welcome me. We got to know each other over a handful of visits and on this one I carried what I had promised him previously. I handed over the metal box, he opened it, and beamed at the shiny yellow metal that filled it.

Awellando Semblang, the tomolok, or Tboli master brasscaster

I handed over the metal box, he opened it, and beamed at the shiny yellow metal that filled it.

The metal was brass, the man a tomolok, or brass-caster of the Tboli nation. His name is Awellando Semblang, and he is one of the few remaining masters of his craft. I first met him during the R&R break of a whale survey I participated in and was introduced by Roland Tamfalan, a local Tboli painter friend who served as my guide. During that first meeting Semblang , explained the process of lost-wax casting and brought out item after brass item to satisfy my curiosity. But perhaps Semblang was even prouder to show his work, its intricate details, and how each item is unique as its mold is broken after use. He said that the tinkle of his tnoyong or hawkbells was distinctly his, and well sought after. I could feel him wax poetic in the Tboli tongue despite the interpretation. Then he fell into a lament that his craft would die with him.

Untold wealth in brass

The delivery I made that day was the result chain of events that started with that conversation. When he had said he could not teach his son his craft, I had assumed his son was more inclined towards modern day preoccupations like online gaming or social media. Semblang said they were too poor for such things, and that his son had been training under for years but there simply wasn't enough brass to teach with for his son to master the skills.

Semblang's main source of brass were old faucets salvaged from a junk shop that produced more lead than brass when melted. Semblang farmed a small plot of land for rice for which he harvested enough to feed his family plus a little more to sell in the market. He had better things to spend his money on than discarded leaky faucets, like food and fertilizer. To teach his son, he would resort to melting down brassware that he had previously made to save money. Many hours and finished pieces were wasted but it was a cheap price to be able to instruct his son further. But even that was not enough.

It was sad to watch a man so proud of his craft resign its fate to oblivion. I could feel his burden of responsibility to pass on a priceless inheritance crush him as he spoke of his inability to hand it to the next generation. He spoke with almost certainty that he was the last of his line.

He spoke with almost certainty that he was the last of his line.

The box of brass, was a steel ammo box filled with spent shells of 5.56mm rounds. This Semblang said this the best raw material for his work. When I had found this out I called Governor Miguel Dominguez and arranged for a meeting with the local Philippine Army battalion stationed in Sarangani to get some discarded brass for my new friend. But as thing turn out in the Philippines, empty shell casings had to be shipped back to the quartermaster for inventory before new ammo is released as a guarantee that the rounds are used not sold to other parties. We then called the Civil Affairs Team of the USSOCOM operating in the area as part of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement exercises to ask if they had any they were willing to part with and they responded immediately, dropping off the box for Semblang.

Semblang weighs empty shell casings he received as raw material

What I witnessed that day was hope made tangible.

His first step was to weigh the metal. 6kg. He was beside himself in disbelief at the amount of good brass he had in his hands. Then he immediately got to work, eager to see what the brass was like. The entire family broke off into different tasks depending on what he could contribute. The youngest were collecting clay from the soil and pounding it with burnt plant matter to create the mold material. Semblang's eldest and wife were preparing wax designs and coating them with the clay molds. The master fired up the furnace and melted the cartridges. As each one carried out his work, Semblang overlooked each step teaching traditions and culture by word and example. Just the way it has always been. Wax was melted away from the mold cavities, and molten brass poured in to fill the voids. Once cooled, the earthen molds are broken to reveal the little brass bells.

What I witnessed that day was hope made tangible, passed from the hands of soldiers into those of a craftsman, molten down from implements of war then molded into symbols of an enduring culture, hope that we learn that metals and men may serve antipodal extremes and that we discern which directions are of real value. That day, Tboli bells tinkled of hope.

A T'boli youth plays the kulintang, a brass percussion instrument

A T'boli youth plays the kulintang, a brass percussion instrument