The Colors of T’boli Women

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A T’boli woman offers sweetened coconut to tourists

The traditional costumes of highland tribes in Southeast Asia is something that strikes me as interesting.  It seems that, despite being oceans or, at least, mountains apart, these mountain tribes have managed to agree on one thing: that the colors of their traditional garb should be a mix of bright colors of red, yellow, white, or green set against a pitch black background.  I have seen this among the Hmong tribe of Indochina with whom I worked in mid-80’s; among the Igorots of Sagada; and the hill tribes of Mindanao.  I have no explanation for this phenomenon but it’s something that I noticed being a keen observer of light and colors.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

Traditional T’boli blouses on display at a souvenir shop

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A resort waitress, an authentic T’boli woman, wears traditional clothing at work. Small brass bells dangle from beaded strings hanging from her waist strap.

The T’boli people  of the mountain municipality of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, the Philippines is among these color-laden tribes.  A few decades ago, when these indigenous people still had limited contact with the Christian and other tribal groups of the Mindanao lowlands; these group regularly wore their traditional costumes made of woven strands of abaca dyed with tree saps called t’nalak; beads of various bright colors; and brass belts, neck rings,  bracelets and anklets often adorned with small tingling bells.  The datus or chieftains even had their horses adorned with brass bells and it is said that the purpose of the bells was to warn fellow users of the narrow mountain trails that another person or group is using the trail ahead thus one is able to quickly step aside to any available trail-side space to let the other trail-users pass.  Unfortunately, as in many indigenous groups in the world, the traditional costumes are gradually being replaced by “western clothing” and the lively colors and designs of their clothing are gradually fading.  While T’boli men and women in full traditional regalia can still be found in remote villages, those who are wearing them in the municipal center are mostly the persons manning cultural centers or the staff of resorts and hotels hoping to attract more tourists through the traditionally clad waiters and performers.  For some reason, the brass bells are noticeably absent in most of them.

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The headgear and earrings are made of colorful beads

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

A colorful beaded belt with a brass buckle holds the equally colorful sarong in place

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

The sarong is an important prop for traditional dances

Jessie T. Ponce Photography

While these T’boli ladies wear their traditional clothing in a somewhat contrived setting; they somehow help preserve their colorful culture — in an entertaining way.