Meet the last tabungaw maker of Abra
Gourd hats are considered a traditional craft and found in other places around the world. In the Philippines, it’s the Tingguians and the Ilocanos who are known to make these, locally called tabungaw, using the hard shell of a variety of gourd or upo. Today, it is only in the municipality of San Quintin in Abra that this tradition is kept alive by one man.
Teofilo Garcia, 74, has learned making the tabungaw from his grandfather when he was 15 years old. When he started, there were still several craftsmen in Ilocos and Abra who were producing this beautiful and functional head gear. But with the advent of cheaper, mass-produced items, the interest in the craft of the tabungaw has waned, and possibly, Garcia may be the last craftsman.
Over the years, Garcia persevered, mastering, promoting and innovating on his craft that he was recognized nationally and was conferred the Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan (National Living Treasure) in 2012 for traditional gourd hat making.
Garcia is a farmer who ekes out a living planting rice and tobacco enabling him to send his five children to school. In between harvests, he plants upo where he sources his tabungaw.
It’s a tedious process. After harvesting, the gourds are horizontally cut and the seeds removed. These are then dried. The upper part goes into making the tabungaw while the base is fashioned into a dipper that can be used in the kitchen or dining area. Once dried, he cleans and varnishes the exterior then prepares the interior lining which is made of woven rattan, bamboo and nito, a kind of dark colored vine which is also used in baskets.
One tabungaw can be produced in seven days and one can last a lifetime if properly cared for. However, production is limited; only 100 are produced yearly depending on the availability of the upo and the season.
Although the craft is in danger of vanishing with only Garcia keeping it alive, the national recognition has brought hope in its preservation. One of his missions as a Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan is to teach this tradition to a new generation. Today, he teaches Grades 7 to 10 students at the San Quintin National High School every Thursday and Friday, from preparation, weaving and assembly to finishing. He’s also open to teach other people who are interested. While he used to do all the tabungaw before, he now has an assistant who helps him when orders are high.
“As a simple man, all these things that have happened to me is very overwhelming, especially when I was awarded the title,” he said in Filipino.
He has been to other countries, talking and demonstrating his craft to curious and receptive audiences. He has met celebrities and officials and his tabungaw is highly sought after as gift or souvenir.
From being a hard working farmer to National Living Treasure, he continues to practice his craft and hopefully, the tradition will continue with his new students.