The Darangen is an ancient epic song that encompasses a wealth of knowledge about the Maranao people who live in the Lake Lanao region of Mindanao. This southernmost island of the Philippine archipelago is the traditional homeland of the Maranao, one of the country’s three main Muslim groups.
Comprising 17 cycles and a total of 72,000 lines, the Darangen celebrates episodes from Maranao history and the tribulations of mythical heroes. In addition to offering compelling narrative content, the epic explores the underlying themes of life and death, courtship, politics, love and aesthetics through symbol, metaphor, irony and satire. The Darangen also encodes customary law, standards of social and ethical behaviour, notions of aesthetic beauty, and social values specific to the Maranao. To this day, elders refer to this time-honored text in the administration of customary law.
Meaning literally “to narrate in song” in the Maranao language, the Darangen existed before the arrival of Islam in the Philippines in the fourteenth century. Being part of a wider epic culture that is connected to early Sanskrit practices and extends through most of Mindanao, it offers insight into pre-Islamic cultural traditions of the Maranao people.
Though the Darangen has been largely transmitted orally, parts of the epic have been recorded in manuscripts using an ancient Arabic-based writing system. Being cherished as heirlooms by certain Maranao families, these manuscripts are highly valued for their antiquity and prestige value. Specialised performers of either sex sing the Darangen during wedding celebrations that typically last several nights. Performers must possess a prodigious memory, improvisational skills, poetic imagination, knowledge of customary law and genealogy, a flawless and elegant vocal technique, and the ability to engage an audience during long hours of performance. Music and dance sometimes accompany the chanting.
Nowadays, the Darangen is infrequently performed owing in part to its rich vocabulary and archaic linguistic forms that can only be understood by practitioners, elders and scholars. Indeed, the growing tendency to embrace mainstream Filipino lifestyles represents a serious threat to the survival of this ancient epic.