Cebu, Philippines, is famous for its beautiful beaches, rich historical heritage, vibrant festivals like the Sinulog, mouthwatering lechon, its status as a thriving creative hub and now recognized as the UNESCO Creative City for Design, and its musically-inclined populace all set against a backdrop of warm Cebuano hospitality, making it a multifaceted and appealing destination for travelers and tourists.
Joining the Cordilleran team of creatives from the City of Baguio Creative Council, the Department of Tourism (DOT), the DOT Press Corps, the Baguio Tourism Office, and the Baguio Tourism Council, I had the chance to visit some of the creative hubs in Cebu and the neighboring communities. One of the most interesting is Aling Susing’s Guitar Factory on Mactan Island.
Our adventure began with a tour along the coastal roads of Cebu, our tour guide setting the tone for a day filled with musical discoveries as she combined singing with her commentaries.
From the mainland of Cebu, we crossed to the island of Mactan through the newest and now the longest suspension bridge in the Philippines, the Cebu – Cordova Link Express (CCLEX).
Mactan Island is renowned for its pristine beaches, vibrant culture, and the enchanting melodies of its handcrafted guitars. There are several guitar-makers in Cebu and our guide enthusiastically recommended Aling Susing’s Guitar Factory.
Aling Susing’s is located in the heart of Lapu-Lapu City, just a few minutes drive from the longest bridge. As we stepped into this humble yet iconic establishment, the scent of freshly cut wood and the gentle hum of craftsmen at work greeted us.
We were met by Yen Valiente who is married to the grandson of Aling Susing and serving as the marketing manager. According to her, the roots of Cebu’s guitar-making tradition can be traced back to the Spanish colonial period when the guitar was introduced to the Philippines. The Cebuano people, renowned for their craftsmanship, embraced this musical instrument with enthusiasm. Local artisans, often self-taught, began experimenting with guitar construction techniques, forging the foundation of a unique tradition.
Yen narrated the story of Aling Susing’s Guitar Factory dating back several decades when a skilled luthier named Juanito Valiente Sr. started crafting guitars in his modest workshop. The guitars he built with relatives were sold at a general merchandise store owned by his wife Susana fondly called Susing by close relatives and friends. His passion for music and craftsmanship soon gained recognition within the local community and beyond. What began as a small-scale operation grew into a thriving business, attracting musicians and collectors from all corners of the globe.
Within the factory’s hallowed walls, we meet the true heroes – the craftsmen. These artisans, some of whom have dedicated their lives to this trade, are the backbone of Juanito and Susing’s legacy. With hands that have sculpted countless guitars, they transform raw materials into works of art. We watch in awe as they carve, shape, and assemble, each movement a symphony of skill and precision. In a week, the team of artisans can finish at least 20 guitars.
According to Yen, the heart and soul of every Aling Susing guitar lie in the wood selection. Local hardwoods, such as narra and mahogany, grace the workshop, patiently waiting to become instruments of beauty. The craftsmen carefully choose each piece, knowing that the wood’s unique characteristics will influence the guitar’s sound. It’s a harmonious blend of nature and artistry.
Aling Susing’s Guitar Factory offers a diverse range of guitars and ukuleles. Yen said they created a separate brand name for the Ukulele to distinguish it from Aling Susing’s Guitars, they called it Valiente Ukuleles or Val.Ukes.
We had the opportunity to strum the strings of classical guitars, with their warm, soulful tones, and admire the intricate inlay work. Acoustics and ukuleles also make their presence felt, catering to every musical preference. The showroom is a symphony of sights and sounds, an invitation to explore the island’s musical heritage. Most of the guitars are exported, and this has helped sustain their employees even during the pandemic.
As we delve deeper into the factory’s history, we uncover its cultural significance. Aling Susing’s Guitar Factory is not just a business; it’s a living testament to Cebuano craftsmanship. It’s a place where tradition meets innovation, where artisans pass down their knowledge to the next generation. The factory also actively engages with the community, providing apprenticeships and fostering local talent.
Our journey to Aling Susing’s Guitar Factory in Mactan has been a harmonious blend of art, culture, and tradition and two of our companions have decided to bring home with them part of these extraordinary masterpieces, two specially made ukuleles. As we bid farewell to this musical oasis, we carry with us not only the memory of finely crafted guitars but also the echoes of the island’s cultural heartbeat. Mactan’s melodic muse has left an indelible mark on our souls, reminding us that in the heart of paradise, music is the ultimate guide to the island’s rich heritage. – Story and photos by Carl Cariño Taawan