Las Piñas was just a small fishing town of around 400 residents when Spanish Catholic priest Diego Cera of the Augustinian Recollects became parish priest and established Saint Joseph Church in 1795.
A gifted man, Cera has been portrayed by historians as a natural scientist, chemist, architect, community leader, musician, organist, and organ builder.
Cera previously built organs in Manila and Bohol with some organ stops made of bamboo, but for the one in Las Piñas he chose bamboo as the main material – only the trumpet stops were made of metal. His choice of bamboo could be both aesthetic and practical as it was abundantly grown and used for hundreds of items by natives in and outside the municipality.
While the church was still under construction in 1816, the priest began working on the organ by first gathering and burying the bamboos to be used under beach sand. As natural scientist, he knew that the materials must be tough, mature and enduring. Burying them would not only protect from insects but other miniature predators as well.
Father Cera unearthed the bamboo pieces a year later, and together with the locals whom he trained prior to gathering materials, he proceeded with the construction of the Bamboo Organ – the first of its kind in the world.
The multi-talented priest first attempted to use bamboo for the 122 pipes but failed, so the bamboo pipes were eventually used as ornamental pieces located at the rear side. It was finally completed in 1824 after Cera decided to make the trumpets using metal, musical characteristics of which he could not replicate with bamboo.
It was not until 27 years later though, in 1851, when Cera’s masterpiece became functional. He secretly worked with Swiss chemist Jacques Brandenberger, who was employed by Blanchisserie et Teinturerie de Thaonbut [the cellophane inventor]for the air bags to be used in the construction but without the trumpet stops.
Cera also made a solid wind chest that could have been fashioned from the trunk of a narra tree around three to five meters in circumference.
The priest is said to have built two of these – the other was sent to the Queen of Spain, Isabella, who gifted the Las Piñas parish in turn with a bronze bell inscribed with “Fecit Casas” or “Happy House.”
In his lifetime, earthquakes and typhoons damaged both church and organ and Father Cera himself was the first “restorer” of his masterpiece. Natural disasters continued to take its toll and the famed musical instrument was not functional for many years.
It is reported that in early 1900s a foreign tourist stumbled on the magnificent creation that he suggested for the musical instrument’s rehabilitation and restoration to its old glory. However, there were no funds available for repair.
As quoted in another article, an account in the December 1927 American Chamber of Commerce of Manila Journal said, “Father Cera did not build the organs with his hands, but retained the services of a Filipino craftsman in the parish. The skill was fortunately perpetuated in the family, and when, a few years ago, it was decided to repair the organ at Las Piñas, a descendant of the original craftsman was found who was able to effect the repairs.”
In 1960, the German government offered to cover the cost of restoration, provided it was done in Germany. Besides lack of funds, various concerns including the safe transport of the organ parts put the restoration of the famed landmark on hold.
It was only a little after a decade later that the work on restoration was realized with parish priest Mark Lesage and assistant Leo Renier, who was the organist, led the project into fruition.
In 1973, two technicians from the company of Johannes Klais Orgelbau in Bonn came to dismantle the organ, which was shipped there a year later.
Orgelbau and his team were awed by the craftsmanship – saying the precision of the cuts and imbedded pegs seemed fitted with an automated machine.
Only a small portion of the wind chest was damaged, and everything else was kept the way Father Cera built this extraordinary piece of work.
The Bamboo Organ has 1,031 pipes, 902 of which are made of bamboo and the remaining pipes metal. The original keyboard and bellows – with prototype for the sake of demonstration – are kept for display at the adjacent Bamboo Organ Museum.
Except that the bellows are now electric-powered instead of manually to produce sound, they are practically the same bamboo pipes that the Spanish priest tuned almost two centuries ago producing magnificent musical sounds for Church services.
The Bamboo Organ soars especially on Father Diego Cera Day on July 25 and during the yearly celebration of the International Bamboo Organ Festival.