Dwindling funds threaten to end 40-year-old international bamboo organ festival in Philippines

It has survived time, storms and wars. But a nearly 200-year-old bamboo pipe organ, said to be the oldest and most complete in the world, is facing what may be its biggest threats yet: pop music and dwindling donations.

For the last four decades, music lovers from as far away as the United States, Argentina, Australia and Europe have come every year to a Philippine Roman Catholic church to hear the organ, the centerpiece of an international music festival. Chances are, this year will be the festival's last edition.

Organizers say they are broke because funding from traditional donors including the Philippine government, European embassies and corporate sponsors is drying up. Private companies are more keen to be involved in pop concerts than classical music, said Leo Renier, a Belgian, who founded the International Bamboo Organ Festival in 1975.

"They (corporations) are more interested in entertainment," said Renier, a former priest and the festival's executive director. "If Justin Bieber of Canada comes, millions they are ready to spend."

Without the festival, the unique sound of the organ — completed in 1824 by the Spanish priest Diego Cera — would have no venue to really shine, Renier said. Sure, it would still be played during services at the St. Joseph Church in metropolitan Manila's Las Pinas city, but its sounds would never reach the ears of the world.

The organ, which is about 5 meters (17 feet) in height and 4 meters (13 feet) wide and occupies a portion of a wall on the left side of the church, produces clear, flute-like sounds through its 902 bamboo and 129 metal pipes. By pulling different knobs, an organist can make the instrument produce distinct sounds, which one player said was like calling on different members of an orchestra one after another.

As of last Wednesday, the eve of the eight-night festival that ends Friday, organizers had secured only a portion of the 3.2 million peso ($72,500) budget. The rest of the pledged donations had still not come in. Ticket sales alone were not enough to fund the performances. By next year, the reserves of the foundation that runs the festival will be dry.

"The bamboo organ is not just a piece of furniture with bamboo, but you have to hear it," Renier said, as performers rehearsed music from Bach's Mass in B minor under chandeliers made of Capiz shells and bamboo.

Swiss organist Guy Bovet, in his seventh year at the festival, said, "All the bamboo parts of the organ are very gentle, and reminds you a little of, I would say, a pan pipe, or something like a wooden flute."

Renowned overseas musicians receive minimal pay to attend the festival, which serves as a forum for musicians to meet and a training ground for local talent. Several former members of the Las Pinas boys choir, which performs at the festival, have gone on to pursue international careers in music and organ building after training in Europe.

The festival's artistic director and resident organist, Armando Salarza, is a product of the boys choir, and has played the bamboo organ since he was 11. After high school, he was sent on a scholarship to study music in Graz in southeastern Austria. He did his post-graduate studies in Vienna, but came back in 1992 to share his talent with the younger generation in his hometown.

"It's the only place in the Philippines where you hear this kind of music and with this kind of interpretation," said Salarza, a professor of organ at the University of the Philippines.

Throughout its existence, the festival has been dedicated mainly to Baroque music, which preceded classical, because the bamboo organ was built as a retro-18th century Iberian-style instrument.

Salarza said such music is seldom introduced in Philippine schools, with popular music most often heard in public places and on the airwaves. The challenge, he said, is to educate and expose children to it.

"We keep coming back because it's a wonderful atmosphere, you find that nowhere else in the world, and the sound of the organ is magnificent," said Jules Maate, a 53-year-old Dutch expatriate who attended the festival for the fourth time.


Associated Press journalist Kiko Rosario contributed to this report.