A Brief History


by Loen Vitto and Laverne dela Peña

The Rondalla as a Musical Form

The rondalla is a plucked string ensemble composed of instruments belonging to the lute and cittern families. The standard rondalla consists of five sections: the bandurria, octavina, laud, guitarra (guitar), and bajo (bass).

The instruments of the Philippine rondalla have been patterned from the Spanish instruments, but through the years they have evolved to become truly Filipino.

The name ‘mandurria’ was mentioned by Juan Ruiz in the 14th century while the word ‘bandurria’ was used to describe a three stringed instrument by the writer Bermudo (1555). Other sources connect the instrument to the ancient Greco-Roman pandoura. From its Spanish model that has twelve strings, the bandurria in the Philippines has fourteen strings, to produce more volume.  It is tuned in fourths as follows: f#-b-e1-a1-d2-g2. The strings are grouped into six: f#-1 string, b- two strings; e1-two strings; a1- three strings; d2-three strings; g2- 2 strings.  The termlaud’ in Spanish literally means “the ud” (la ud) in reference to the ud, the pear-shaped and round-backed lute introduced to Spain by the Arabs in the 13th century. As for the name ‘octavina’, it is probably a variant of the Italian ottavina, a small virginal and also an organ stop. The bandurria, laud, and octavina are played using the plectrum, with the longer tones produced by a tremolo or the rapid down-up movement of the plectrum. The legato effect is produced by finely rendered tremolo. The instruments of the Philippine rondalla have been patterned from the Spanish instruments, but through the years they have evolved to become truly Filipino.

Brief history of the Philippine Rondalla

The rondalla was brought to the Philippines by Spain during the colonization (16th to 19th century) but there is no exact year when it started in the country. While the Philippines take its rondalla history from Spain, Spain’s plucked string tradition may be traced to the music traditions of the Middle East that play instruments from the family of the ud and the sitar (Persia).

Some records say that the word ‘rondalla’ came from rondo or ronda: a group of young men who went from house to house to sing and play music, with the guitar as accompaniment. Later, the term became rondalla and it meant “a group of musicians”. Documents also point that various terminologies described a rondalla: one is murza/murga which refers to musicians playing on the streets; another is estudiantina (tuna/tina for short) which is a group of student musicians based in schools; and also comparza that is a semi-professional music group (Rubio: 2257). In the Philippines, especially in the Visayas, ‘comparza’ is widely used to designate musicians who play in public gatherings and celebrations such as birthdays, fiestas, and other occasions. According to Hilarion Rubio, rondalla groups were formed because of the people’s passion for the art, thus more informal groups such as the comparza flourished. Most of the musicians were amateur, but there were also professional musicians from the marching or symphonic bands who became teachers and conductors of rondalla groups.

In the early 1900s rondalla music was in demand for American luxury shipping companies, to accompany Philippine folk dance performances presented aboard. The Comparza Joaquin (1905-1913) was one of the most popular groups that went to America through these luxury shipping lines (Rubio: 2256). From the late 19th century until the first half of the 20th century, the rondalla was part of mainstream urban culture and associated with prominent universities and social institutions. This may be partly attributed to the works of such formally schooled Filipino composers as Antonio Molina, Lucino Sacramento, Lucio San Pedro, Jerry Dadap, Bayani de Leon and Alfredo Buenaventura who have explored this musical medium in composing art music.

Some of the rondalla groups formed in the early 20th century were the Comparza Santa Cecilia (1908) led by Victorino Carreon; the Rondalla Ideal founded by Antonio Molina in 1909; the Rondalla Oriental headed by Dalmacio Samarista; as well as the Comparza Gumamela and the Rondalla Apollo organized by Jose Silos. Even cab drivers had a rondalla group: it was called the Manila Yellow Taxicab Rondalla established in 1940 by the owner of the cab company, Don Enrique Montserrat. Some of the conductors who led the group were Antonio Molina, Honorato Asuncion, and Felipe Padilla de Leon. It performed with bands and orchestras such as the Montserrat Philharmonic Band and the Yellow Taxi Orchestra and Chorus (Rubio: 2256)

Schools and universities contributed to the development and sustenance of the rondalla in terms of broadening the musical repertoire, codifying and systematizing rondalla practices. The Centro Escolar University (CEU) Rondalla was one of the oldest school-based rondalla groups on record. It was founded in 1926 by Dr. Conception Aguila and Lourdes Guzman (Patricio: 1959, 29). Although its members were high school students of the CEU, they were often invited to perform in recitals of the CEU Conservatory of Music. The University of Santo Tomas also organized a rondalla group in 1927 called the University of Santo Tomas Pharmacy Rondalla, headed by Juan Silos (Patricio: 1959, 35). The group was composed of female students studying pharmacy. In 1954, the Philippine Normal University (PNU) Rondalla was created, composed of faculty members and staff of PNU, led by Corazon S. Maceda (Patricio: 1959, 31). This group still exists today, but it is now composed of students of the university. One of the youngest university-based groups is the University of the Philippines (UP) Rondalla, founded by Edna Culig in 1995 (Santos, 2004); then revived in 2009 by Elaine Espejo-Cajucom, the same year that the UP included the bandurria as a major course in its College of Music.

Rondallas and comparzas formed by families have also sustained the music tradition, especially in the province of Bicol where they have flourished. Among these families are the Relativo family who founded its group in 1960, the Reonal family in 1974, the Aldecoa family, the Llorin family, the Barrio family, and the Solares family. Some of the members of these family rondalla groups have joined and have won at the National Music Competitions for Young Artists (de la Paz, 2004).

Local government has equally played a part in the growth of the rondalla as it would give support to performances and invite groups to community events it organizes. In Negros Oriental namely, the Dauin Rondalla, the Canlaon Senior Citizens Rondalla, and the Tanjay Rondalla are promoted by their local government. They have been given the title of official music group that perform at gatherings and affairs of the community (de la Paz, 2007). Another government-supported rondalla group is the Rondalla Marikina, who was one of the Philippine representatives in the  Smithsonian Folkways exhibition in 1998 (www.folklife.si.edu).

In the second half of the 20th century, one of the most important events that shaped the Philippine rondalla of today was the competitions. One of them is the Hamon sa Kampeon in the 1960s. A competition for various forms of music, including the rondalla, it was broadcasted on television and radio (Channel 3 and DZAQ), hosted by Dely Magpayo and Pepe Pimentel. The composer Dominic Salustiano became a regular juror in this competition, where many of his compositions were played. In 1967, the Manila Times Publishing Company sponsored the National Symphonic Rondalla Composition Contest where Jerry Dadap’s work Philippine Symphonic Medley for Rondalla topped the contest. In 1970, Felipe Padilla de Leon organized the Taliba National Rondalla Contest, whose winner was the Pio del Pilar High School Rondalla from Makati. The group was conducted by Rosario Tobias, a 15-year-old girl. Other groups that garnered the prize were the Round Table Rondalla from Bulacan, the Ramon Magsaysay High School Rondalla and the Araullo High School Rondalla both from Manila. In 1976, through the initiative of Mrs. Imelda Marcos, the Don Manolo Elizalde Sr. National Rondalla Contest was held in Pandacan. Composers Restie Umali and Alfredo Buenaventura served as the judges. The following groups won the competition: Parañaque District III Rondalla (first prize); Ramon Magsaysay High School Rondalla (second prize); Super B-5 Rondalla from Quezon City (third prize). Later in 1982, the Ministry of Human Settlements launched the Baranggayan Competitions, and the winners were: the Parañaque District III Rondalla conducted by Celso Espejo; and Elaine Espejo for the solo bandurria.

Through migration and foreign employment, the Philippine rondalla has reached other countries where it has thrived up to the present. When in the early 1900s many Filipino musicians and dancers got employed by American luxury shipping lines to perform Philippine folk dances with the rondalla as accompanying music, some of them chose to settle in America where they found jobs, particularly in South California (Parnes, 1999). These migrants then started organizing rondalla groups that would perform during events and celebrations in Filipino communities there.

From the 1960s, interest in the rondalla among large Filipino communities living abroad grew mainly as a medium of expressing cultural identity. In California, New York and Honolulu, civic groups began to employ rondalla musicians such as Bayani de Leon, Michael Dadap and Ricardo Trimillos to set up rondalla schools. Rondalla classes were also established in universities such as the University of California in Los Angeles, the University of Michigan, the University of Hawaii, attracting students of various nationalities to this music tradition.

Many rondalla groups in South California and other parts of the United States have remained active until now. In fact, some of them came back to the Philippines to participate in the Strings of Unity: International Rondalla Festival (2004), and to join other activities. Some of these groups are the Fil-am Veterans Rondalla (California, USA), Iskwelahang Pilipino Rondalla (Boston, USA), Rondanihan (Australia), and the Bayanihan Rondalla (Singapore).  Even foreign musicians have learned to play rondalla music like at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Rondalla founded in 1981 and led by Joseph Peters: the group is composed of Chinese and Asian students of the university and they play Filipino music

The rise of popular media culture and the growing preference for choral music in schools and government offices saw the interest in the rondalla decline. But at the end of the 20th century, a resurgence in the popularity of rondalla emerged, mainly as a result of national competitions such as the annual National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMCYA). After its creation in 1973, the bandurria was included in the solo instrument category, and the family rondalla in the ensemble category. In 1996, when Dr. Ramon P. Santos was the Secretary General of the NAMCYA, the rondalla was made a regular category in the competition. Rondalla music grew even more alive. The NAMCYA has produced acclaimed groups such as the Marcelo H. del Pilar High School Rondalla, the Kabataang Silay Rondalla Ensemble, the Nabua National High School Rondalla and the Dimiao Youth Rondalla. The renewed interest in the rondalla extended to popular music artists as well, such as Grace Nono and Bob Aves in the Philippines and Bobby Bandurria in the U.S.A.

In the 1980s, the Pambansang Samahan ng Rondalla (PASARON), a national organization of rondalla groups, was organized by Celso Espejo, Benjamin Lucas and Teodorico Cosejo. It became one of the avenues for sharing new knowledge on the rondalla through its festivals, informal gatherings, trainings, and performances (Espejo, 2007).

In 2000, the Department of Education (DepEd) launched the Special Program for the Arts (SPA) which included the arts in the curriculum for selected schools in the Philippines. Rondalla music was taught as part of the curriculum for music, and teachers were meant to improve their skills and teaching techniques. The DepEd organized a training program every summer for art teachers who handled the courses.

The Strings of Unity: International Rondalla Festival, conceived by the National Music Committee of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) headed by Ramon P. Santos, was created in 2004 and it turned out to be one of the biggest events in the history of rondalla in the country. Rondalla artists from the Philippines and plucked string musicians from all over the world gathered to witness and share their musical traditions. The success of the first edition produced three more festivals held in 2007 in Dumaguete City, in 2011 in Tagum City and in 2015 in Taiwan.

At present, the most regular rondalla events are the NAMCYA annual competitions and the triennial Strings of Unity: International Rondalla Festival to which the rondalla groups look forward: both of these events have become their inspiration in pursuing excellence in rondalla music. Today we can say that the rondalla has spread throughout the country, as it is patronized by public and private institutions, schools, families, churches, and the community. It has become the national cultural emblem of the Filipinos.


Bacatan, Jose T. Rondalla Handbook. Quezon City: Manlapaz Publishing Co. , 1970.

Culig, Edna Aurora. Arrangements of Filipino Folk Dances. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2004.

Dadap, Michael. The Virtuoso Bandurria. Dumaguete City: Unitown Publishing House, 2007.

de la Paz, Cecilia. Cuerdas: Music, Lives, Memories (The Exhibit of 1st International Rondalla Festival). 2004.

—. Cuerdas: Rhythms of Community Life (Exhibition of the 2nd International Rondalla Festival). 2007.

de la Pena, Verne. The Filipino Rondalla. Lawak Rondalya: Commemmorative CD Album of Cuerdas nin Kagabsan, 1st International Rondalla Festival. Quezon City: National Commission for Culture and the Arts , February 2004.

Espejo, Celso O. The Celso Espejo Rondalla Method. Unpublished Manuscript, 2011.

—. Rondalla Basics: Organization and Teaching (Workshop Module, Cuerdas sa Panaghiusa, Dumaguete, 2007). n.d.

Parnes, Samuel Will. “A History of Filipino Rondalla Music and Musicians in Southern California.” Ph.D. Dissertation in Ethnomusicology, Univeristy of California-Los Angeles. 1999.

Patricio, Maria Cristina Llige. The Development of the Rondalla in the Philippines. Research paper submitted to the Conservatory of Music, University of the Philippines-Diliman. Quezon City, 1959.

Rubio, Hilarion F. “The Roving Rondalla.” Roces, Alejandro (Editor). Filipino Heritage, The Making of A Nation, Volume 9 . Manila: Lahing Pilipino Publishing , 1978.

Santos, Ramon P. (Editor). Musika Jornal 8. Quezon City: U.P. Center for Ethnomusicology, 2012.

Santos, Ramon P. “Dayon!” Commemmorative CD Album of Cuerdas sa Panaghiusa: 2nd
International Rondalla Festival. Quezon City: National Commission for Culutre and the Arts and Musicological Society of the Philippines , 2007.

—. “Lawak Rondalya.” A Commemmorative CD Album of Cuerdas nin Kagabsan: 1st International Rondalla Festival. Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts and Developmental Institute for Bicolano Artists , 2004.

Santos, Ramon P., et al. Cuerdas nin Kagabsan: The First International Rondalla Festival. Terminal Report. Manila: National Commission for Culture and the Arts and Developmental Institute for Bicolano Artists, 2004.

—. Cuerdas sa Pagkakaysa: The Third International Rondalla Festival. Terminal Report. Quezon City: National Commission for Culture and the Arts and Musicological Society of the Philippines, 2011.

—. Cuerdas sa Panaghiusa: The Second International Rondalla Festival. Terminal Report. Quezon City: National Commission for Culture and the Arts and Musicological Society of the Philippines, 2007.