Reflections on Music, Dreams and Mediumship among the Temiar of Peninsular Malaysia and the T’boli of the Philippines


The mysterious weaving of dreams, music and mediumship is a worldwide phenomenon prevalent amongst a number of peoples across the world; from the dream time of the Aboriginal people, to the Shona Mbira music of Zimbabwe and the Icaro songs of the Shipibo Shamans. In this essay, we will discuss how this interweaving presents itself specific to a few indigenous groups in South East Asia; the Temiar of peninsular Malaysia and the T’boli of the Philippines.

The Temiars number around 14- 20, 000 people and are known as one of the many groups of Orang Asli (Original people) in Malaysia. They are a peaceful easy-going people, many of whom live in the rainforests of Kuala Lumpur.

Although some Temiar no longer follow tradition and have ventured into the city for jobs; they are renowned for their séance and dreaming practices with music. (Hickson 2005)

In Temiar culture there is no direct translation for song. What we would term a song is described as a pathway, a way or a route:

The spiritguide shows a path, a way, a route; the medium sings of the route traversed by the spiritguide, describing the visions and the vistas seen by the spiritguide during its travels. The path links spiritguide, medium, and other ceremonial participants.” (Roseman 1991: 6)

This “pathway” is revealed in melody during dreamtime, to the spirit medium known as Halaa, by the spirit guide.

“The ability to receive songs from spiritguides during dreams, and to later manifest those spiritguides when singing the songs and trancing during ceremonial performance, renders a person ‘a person with halaa” (Roseman 1991: 53)

The process of an individual with Halaa receiving a pathway is a mysterious journey that begins with longing. This journey is where their connection to the land, to nature and specifically to the rainforest becomes a part of both the physical and ethereal landscape. Spirit guides that originate in nature attract humans to meet with them in the rainforest through a sense of longing which is intensified through “symbol laden sounds and body movements”. In Marina Roseman’s iconic work, Healing Sounds from the Malaysian Rainforest”, she describes how, for the Temiar, the sounds of the rainforest, and the songs of particular birds and insects induce “longing”.

The pulsing of the bamboo- tube percussion that accompanies Temiar singing ceremonies is similarly structured, alternating high and low pitches in continuous duple rhythm. These socially structured sounds, sonic icons of the heartbeat, move the heart to longing.” (Roseman 1991: 15)

Roseman argues that these are culturally mediated sounds and symbols which link to the social structure and environment of the Temiar people and a web of local meanings. Part of their collective understanding is a belief in detachable souls of both humans and non-human entities (such as plants, trees etc.) which allow souls to meet and be attracted towards one another. These human and non- human relationships, bound in attraction and enticement, are key elements of the initiation into mediumship; into becoming a person with Halaa. ((Roseman 1991: 15-16)

“For you; her name is Mother, Mother Fluid Beauty.” After that, then she gave me one tune. She repeated and repeated, every week. One week, one time. One week, one time. So, she gave that tune. After she gave that time, I was able to sing bit by bit... Mother Fluid Beauty returns weekly to tutor Ading Kerah until, about six months later, he feels sufficiently secure to order a ceremony for public performance of the song received. The timing and frequency of this process vary from one medium to another” (Roseman 1991: 65)

Once the longing entices the human to the nature spiritguide, they meet in dream time to learn healing songs which will later be shared with the community. During the dream, the spiritguide sings a phrase and the dreamer repeats, and this continues until the song is firmly embedded in the dreamer’s memory” (Roseman 1991: 53) Once these pathways have been learnt by the Halaa, they are shared in ceremony, and the Halaa will sing the melody with a female chorus repeating in unison.

It is worth noting that gender plays an interesting role in Temiar healing rituals. The connection is usually formed between a male human being and a female nature spirit; then in ceremony the male Halaa will sing phrases which are then repeated by a chorus of female Temiar. This hierarchal structure is interesting because in everyday life men hold positions of power within the community and lead the healing ritual; yet the nature spirit they seek guidance and instruction from is female.

Once the “pathway” is opened up through a music and dance trance ceremony, the medium is believed to diagnose and cure illnesses through musical pathway under the guidance of the spirit (Roseman 1991: 6, 9, 80)

Another group of people in South East Asia known to receive healing music through dreams are in the Southern region of the Philippines, amongst the T’boli people.

The T’boli hold a music concept termed “Utom” whereby instruments are used to depict sounds of nature, describe events and to evoke the divine sound. Filipino musician Florante Aguilar says, "As Animists the T"boli believe that everything in our universe is a manifestation of the divine, and art and music are the 'voice' of the divine," (Melnick 2019).

Specific utom are revealed in an initiation process to the dreamer, taught by a spiritguide. The first song learnt holds a significant place in the repertoire of the neophyte. Those who learn and perform this song are known as adepts (Mora 2005:85). Similarly to the Temiar people, these spiritguides derive from the natural world, and belong to a category of supernatural beings known as tau fenen, who could otherwise be described as custodians, spirit beings belonging to various elements of nature. As intermediaries between D’wata (the supreme deity) and humanity, they are custodians of the natural world, responsible for the natural order. There are spirit beings / custodians of trees, grass, bamboo, water etc. Due to musical instruments being made of natural materials, they also come under the custodianship of spirit beings. For example, the lute made from wood, has fu koya as the custodian, as they are made from wood. (Mora 2005:86)

For the T’boli, healing songs are sometimes given and sometimes requested. At times there is an intention to invoke the presence of the spiritguide for the remedy of a specific illness. At other times the spirit instructs a specific utom for a malady. (Mora 2005:93) This sense of a familial relationship between medium and spiritguide is evident, and similar to the way the Temiar describe their relationship with the detachable souls of plants and trees etc.

“If during the evening the spirit touched the edge of my zither it will sound beautiful. When he is beside me it is as though there is a force directing my fingers. His shadow approaches, and when he comes to my side the utom from the zither resonates up into my elbows; but if he is not with me it is difficult to even pluck the strings. He who visits me is the custodian of the utom I play. He comes from the bamboo groves, just as the custodian of the lute comes from the forest” (Mora 2005:101)

Unlike the Temiar, adepts in T’boli society can be both female and male, but similarly the relationship between medium and spirit guide often forms a close bond similar to a human relationship, described as similar to or even literally as a husband- wife or parent-child relationship. (Mora 2005:81) Lendungan Tawal, describes her calling as an adept and her relationship with her spirit guide:

“The spirit never disclosed his name, but the shaman (tau meton bu) said that he is Lemugot Mangay, the celestial deity, the messenger of God (Dwata). He revealed the composition (utom) to me when I was still small. He was the “spirit-owner of the bamboo” (Fu Afus). At first, I tried to play the bamboo zither by myself but then he came and began to guide my fingers.” (Mora 2005:82)

Tawal proceeds to explain that the spirit owns the utom she plays, and that they are married with children, a boy and a girl, who come and visit her in dreams. She describes how her zither will only sound beautiful if he comes to her, and if he doesn’t come her fingers can barely even move. Then when he comes, he directs her fingers with his breath- “nawa”, which becomes clear- “tikaw nawa”. (Mora 2005:83)

Further testimonies from T’boli adepts, further confirm the reliance on the spirits for musical ability. In another statement, Bendaly Layul, a well-known lute player, explains the necessity of calling upon Fu Koyu, the custodian of the trees and custodian of the lute, if you want to learn to play the lute. The common materials used to create instruments such as bees wax, bamboo, wood and plant fibre, all derive from nature, so for the T’boli, the nature spirit is present within the instrument itself and forms a link between the adept and the nature spirits. (Mora 2005:87)

The imminence of spirit within nature is something characteristic of Animist cosmology, which Mora describes as “manifest in lived experience”:

“Knowledge, immanent in nature and imitated from nature, is contingent upon the activation of the breath and the sensory contact with spirit beings. The source of inspiration lies not in the idle contemplation of the world as it is perceived; rather, it occurs through interaction with a living and breathing world. And that contact, the fusion and identity with the “other”, is possible because it is grounded in concepts of being and knowledge that are fundamentally different from our own. These concepts are manifest in lived experience.” (Mora 2005: 93)

In Marina Roseman’s work she attributes the power of musical healing within Temiar ritual as emerging from shared assumptions that guide their composition, performance and affect, as well as indigenous cosmology. (Roseman 1991:184)

“Temiar mediums are singers of the landscape, translating the rainforest environment- jungle, field, and settlement- into culture as inhabitant spirits emerge, identify themselves, and begin to sing in dreams and ritual performances.” (Roseman 1991: 58)

Mora reminds us that the conceptions of the T’boli are fundamentally “different from our own”. Upon reflection of the way that these two cultures experience and view the world, and how we as “outsiders” may consider our own ways of interacting with the world around us, a few reflections come to the surface.

Firstly, that the imminence of spirit in nature, implies a deep respect and reverence for not only musical instruments, but for all elements of the natural world. The link between the breath, (hawa for the T’boli); and how it connects human beings to elemental spirits, is something quite far removed from Western culture today. Although there was a time when the natural world was revered, and magic, Gods and Goddesses of nature, and fairy beings were commonly acknowledged. With the dawn of Rationalism and Materialism, there has been a marked shift of belief in the natural world as something sacred, to a lifeless physical commodity. Furthermore, music too has been segregated to a capitalist enterprise of entertainment, with other functions of music including sacred music and healing music, seen as specialist and “other”.

The concepts head, breath, spirit, and soul have profound implications not only for the way the T'boli see themselves in the world, but for the way they think about music, where it comes from, and the nature of its power. (Mora 2005:82)

Today, the Temiar and the T’boli people face a real struggle to maintain their ancestral lands, which are in high demand from logging and mining companies. But not only are these peoples the custodians of lands rich with nutrients and biodiversity, but they are also custodians to a way of life that is in harmony with nature and spirit, and they are wisdom keepers of ancient knowledge in healing and music. Far from being primitive peoples, perhaps it is time that we in the modern world acknowledge that belief in the divine spirit throughout nature, is a living reality, and one that could save humanity.



This essay was written by Ruhiya as a part of her MA. in Music in Development at SOAS University, for Sacred Sounds of South East Asia module under the tutelage of Professor Nick Gray.



Roseman, Marina. 1991 “Healing sounds from the Malaysian rainforest”. University of California Press

Mora, Manolete. 2005. “Myth, Mimesis and Magic in the Music of the T’Boli, Philippines” Ateneo de Manila University Press

Mora, Manolete. 2005. “Mind, Body, Spirit, and Soul: A Filipino Epistemology of Adeptness in Musical Source: Asian Music, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer - Autumn, 2005), pp. 81-95. Published by: University of Texas Press

Online resources:

Hickson, Andy. 2005. “The Temiars”

Melnick, Lisa Suguitan. June 25th, 2019. “Utom Unfolds T’boli Myths Through Music”

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