Idea draft: Ouido, cifra, and listening-as-performing

Ouido literally means “by ear”, it means “to hear,” right. So a musician just listens [papakinggan] to it and copies it and then memorises what he hears. It gets etched [markadong-markado] in his mind. And he can sweeten what he learned because he’s memorised the form and what needs to be played, all he needs to do is add more flavour to it [pasasarapin]. To add flavour, I mean the nuances in the music: “ah, let me delay the chord a little bit, or let me go a little bit ahead to syncopate it.” Things like that. Those embellishments to sweeten parts of the music which is very important to a listener. That’s where you see the difference between a conservatory-trained musician and one who’s cut their teeth exclusively playing in bands [nagbabanda lang].

Two months into my new teaching job in Hong Kong, I’ve resumed the work of revising my PhD research into a book manuscript. In the process, I’ve been revisiting my interviews to dig up intriguing subjects that I didn’t have space, physical and intellectual, to cover in the thesis. Foremost among those topics is the notion of ouido and cifra/sifra. (In my interviews, the terms were interchangeably used to refer to instrument players’ process of learning music/melodies by ear, without the aid of written notation; however, the former is generally used as a noun while the latter is used as a verb.)

While it’s commonplace in both academic and popular discourses to identify mimetic capacity as central to Filipino musicianship, little is said about the different ways in which musical imitation is learned and put to work. Much of the analysis is spent on the aesthetic/existential question of whether this mimesis reproduces a lack of cultural distinctiveness indicative of the homogenising sweep of globalisation (I’m looking at you, Pico Iyer), and on the counter-critiques of such simplistic prognoses (Christine Bacareza Balance does a good job of this in her introduction to Tropical Renditions).

However, there are manifold practices, purposes, and positionalities behind the work of ouido. The ability to cifra is characteristic not only of the (ambivalent) racial-cultural construction of musical labour as Filipino, but also of the job of live music entertainment in hotels, bars, and cruise ships, which require the constant updating of the repertoire to keep abreast of current trends as well as variable audience tastes. (One of my respondents, a drummer/singer from Cebu working on a cruise ship, wryly recalled having to learn an Irish jig on the spot.) These different logics track interesting distinctions between formal and self-taught modes of learning; concomitant skill and salary hierarchies; and differing approaches to the work of musical interpretation which shade into the ineffable realms of individual preference and in-the-moment performance. I love the above quote by Bobby, an agent for cruise ship musicians (himself a pianist and musical director of considerable repute), because it shows how the mental labour of ouido is already-always inscribed onto modes of affective and embodied knowledge. It shows how there are as many ways to listen as there are ways to perform, ways that an obsessive focus on originality and authenticity can’t necessarily resonate, let alone register.

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