Paper: American intermediaries and Filipino musicians (2011)

Here’s an excerpt from my final essay with Prof. Rey Ileto, in which I use geographer Tim Cresswell’s tripartite notion of mobility (material, corporeal, symbolic) to look at the development of Overseas Filipino Musicians (or OFMs—I have my uncle to thank for coining that term and suggesting I use it).

In this excerpt, I look at two instances of American cultural intermediaries playing a significant role in shaping Filipino musicians’ material mobility—their actual patterns of movement, transnational routes of travel and performance, etc. Those two instances are (1) Pinoy jazz musicians performing in affluent Japanese cities (like Yokohama and Kobe) in the mid-/early 20th century; and (2) more specifically and recently, the popular ’90s pop vocal groups 14K and Smokey Mountain.

We often reduce the Western/American influence (or hegemony) on Filipino music to issues on the macro-level of the music industry—i.e. genre and the like. While I won’t disagree that this is an important question to consider, I’m a bit more interested by the more ‘lived’ and micro-level engagements of Americans—in the form of managers, agents, and executive producers—in propelling the mobilities of our musicians to destinations and audiences outside the Philippines. I think these kinds of histories will give us a fuller, richer, and more complex account of the autonomy practiced by Filipino musicians within their many constraints as cultural workers and foreigners.

I drew from two main sources in this section. The first is a 2007 article* by Lydia Yu-Jose, doyenne of Philippine-Japanese studies, which chronicled the transformation of the legal term “entertainer” in Japanese citizenship parlance from (predominantly male) musician to (predominantly female) japayuki. The second is an interview I conducted with (super-nice!) maestro Ryan Cayabyab, as research for this  piece on Cayabyab’s 1981 solo vocal album, One. 

This is a long read, and laden with academic jargon. Sorry about that. Shorter and snappier posts next time, promise.



The material movement of cultural workers, insofar as it pertains to transnational mobility, will always be dependent on the porosity or solidity of the institutional, political, and legal structures of migration. In a country such as the Philippines, which has integrated the mass economic migration of its citizens into its overall strategy for national economic development, Filipino migrant musicians are  ‘formed’ as ideal Filipino migrant workers according to a regime of regulation, professionalization, and accreditation similar to those operative in other labour niches. Tellingly, the ‘embodied’ skills of emotional expressivity, artistic sensibility, and technical prowess unique to musical cultural labour are codified into requirements for attaining an OPA (Overseas Performing Artist) or entertainer visa—in other words, the possibility of movement as a cultural worker hinges upon the fulfillment of a TESDA-approved  formulation of ‘musician’, ‘singer’, or ‘dancer’.

These regimes of migrant labour regulation, however, were not simply a deliberate construction of local government agencies. Rather, the success of these regulatory regimes can also be traced in part to long-standing historical patterns of musicians’ movement. In a very relevant way, then, the mobility of colonial Filipino musicians has pre-determined the current movement patterns of Filipino migrant musicians, both in the choice of destinations, the type of music performed, and the entrenched expectations from audiences and employers. These existing mobilities are then strengthened by institutional strategies for export labour migration and contemporary flows of economic globalization, leading to the more recent dispersal of Filipino musicians to globalized cities in South Korea, Malaysia, and the Middle East (Quirino,  2006; Yu-Jose, 2007).

It is no exaggeration to surmise that the corporeal, symbolic, and material mobilities of Filipino musicians in the twentieth century were spurred and shaped to a large extent by Spanish and American colonial presences (Irving, 2010; Quirino, 2006). Intertwined with the decisive cultural influence of American jazz would be the intermediary structures of employment and overseas movement of Filipino musicians by American managers, booking agents, and club owners throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

The spatialized practice of jazz and Western music partly explains the ‘fixity’ of Filipinos’ Westernized musical styles and migration routes. This is particularly evident in Japan, when,  after the end of World War II, the United States occupied Japan. Musicians aiming to work in clubs servicing American military bases in Okinawa would get in relatively easily, even with the strict immigration controls imposed by the SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers).

Once inside, Filipino musicians then had the freedom to perform in Tokyo and other major Japanese cities, and gained steady employment as well as a positive reputation in the Tokyo’s well-known nightclubs. As a result of the SCAP’s immigration regulations, Filipinos and Americans were the only foreigners who performed in Japan during the 1940s and 1950s.

Their linguistic and musical fluency in Western culture made them the only Asians in the postwar entertainment scene in Japan. Notably, even though their musical skills were compared favourably to their American counterparts, and were acknowledged by some to have been better than the latter, Filipinos were always cast as skilled imitators rather than as equals. This disparity was reflected in their salaries, which were always lower than the Americans’.

So it was jazz and other nascent American popular musics that brought Filipinos abroad, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s (Quirino, 2006; Yu-Jose, 2007). But another significant factor in the propelling of Filipino musicians to overseas destinations was the role played by enterprising American migrant businessmen in the Asian live entertainment circuit during the pre- and postwar years (Yu-Jose, 2007). American agents coordinated circuits of performance locally and abroad, particularly in Japanese cities, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Yu-Jose also notes that Filipino musicians in the 1920s entered Japan as part of all-American, i.e. “real”, jazz ensembles, who were in high demand among reputable dance halls in hotels in Kobe and Yokohama.

A similar yet divergent dynamic may be gleaned from an otherwise unique case of music management: that of the formation of ’90s-era vocal pop group Smokey Mountain. Ryan Cayabyab, the group’s songwriter and musical director, recalls how the notion for a children’s vocal group came from Judd Berlin, an enterprising American businessman who was part-owner of the Raffles Hotel in Palawan, southern Philippines. Berlin approached Cayabyab with the idea of training street children to become national performers. Cayabyab recounts how Berlin’s observation influenced his own perspective on innate Filipino musicality:

All Filipinos sing. Everyone sings. It was made more evident to me in 1988 when I met Judd Berlin. He said “everywhere I go, Filipinos sing. It is a national treasure. It’s so cheap. It’s your natural resource just right under your nose and you’re not doing anything about it. You harness this natural resource and you use it for business!” I told him there’s already a lot of performers around the globe. And he said, “that’s not enough. You pull your resources together and if your government can do it, you should make it a project of national significance. Use those talents for the good of your country. I want to get into a project and prove it can be done.” So we formed 14K first, and then went commercial with Smokey Mountain. [Cayabyab, 2011, personal interview]

Berlin and Cayabyab co-produced the formation of vocal groups 14K and Smokey Mountain, the latter of which would go on to achieve widespread national and regional popularity, as well as win top prizes in high-profile international music festivals in Tokyo, New York, and Surabaya, Indonesia. In this case, the motives of the American-as-privileged-outsider (“I want to prove a point”) inspired and motivated a musical and commercial phenomenon that was deemed a wholly Filipino success.

The partnership between Cayabyab and Berlin is interesting because, on the one hand, it challenges typical readings of inequality between Filipinos and Americans in music production relationships. Berlin, as executive producer, provided the crucial impetus for the project’s inception, and provided the financial backing in the initial stages before the groups’ commercial success. Yet it was Ryan Cayabyab who was entirely responsible for writing the material and training the young singers to become seasoned performers; and the “Smokey Mountain” style fits neatly into his oeuvre of melodically appealing, lyrically clever, and vocal-heavy brand of Original Pilipino Music (OPM).

On the other hand, it seems neither trivial nor accidental that the Smokey Mountain narrative follows the earlier patterns of Filipino musicians who found success abroad: enterprising, even visionary, American businessmen quick to recognize the “natural resource” of musicality in Filipinos propose a project or business scheme to capitalize on this natural resource, “use it for business”, and market this unique product to potentially receptive audiences abroad. That the trajectories of musical success should be measured not only by local acclaim but also acceptance in the international music community indicates both the general necessity of musicians to seek validation in larger and more cosmopolitan urban audiences, and the particular valence of Filipino cultural groups in representing the Philippines as a diverse and ‘hybrid’ nation, uniquely fusing elements of Eastern and Western sensibilities (Frith, 2009; Castro, 2011).

Nevertheless, even while the ostensibly all-Filipino production of Smokey Mountain was the brainchild of an American businessman, the group still represents a unique case, in that their international validation stemmed from their unique branding as a Filipino children’s pop vocal group. For the most part, Filipino musicians abroad were and are judged by their ability to be “as good as the ‘real’ American bands, if not better”.

The latter dovetails with Lee Watkins’ thesis on the unique value of contemporary Filipino cover musicians in Hong Kong: that they “pass [themselves] for a racial Other” in their exact sonic and embodied reproduction of Western music (Watkins, 2009, 2010). The disjuncture between sonic sameness and racial difference only serves to heighten the suspension of norms and highlight the exceptional space of performance.

* Yu-Jose, L. (2007) ‘Why are most Filipino workers in Japan entertainers?: Perspectives from history and law”, Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies 22, 1, pp. 61-84.


  1. Ria says:

    H Jeline! This is really an interesting angle. It has triggered a lot of insights and spin-offs on my part. For now, I am considering the case of a friend of mine who is working as an OFM now (cruise ship). He is the band leader of a group of Canadian musicians. But when he arrives back home, he works on his project, a jazz nonet whose music is based on fusing Filipino kulintang music with big band jazz. I play piano in it. I am currently wondering if he, as an OFM, was spurred to embark on this project as a reaction to the things you have described in this article. Chat with you sometime about this! 🙂 (and drop by one of our gigs too, hehe)

    • helloise says:

      Hi, Ria. Thanks for your comments! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the post. This is really just one possible angle to take out of many others. I think the Judd Berlin/Mr C/Smokey Mountain case study is an exceptional one, since: 1. Berlin was not a music producer per se, but more of a philanthropist expat (Mr C told me about another project of Berlin’s: he hired a Phil swimming champion to train squatter kids to become a swim team. They used the pool in his hotel to practice). 2. Mr C is himself an exemplary figure in the Phil music industry and I doubt any of his contemporaries had/has the comparable clout and talent to pull off an idea like Berlin’s and produce similar results. But I thought it was useful since it shows a different sort of involvement by Americans into shaping Filipino music.

      About your fantastic kwento:
      1. I’m fascinated by this recent (?) development of OFMs finding work in cruise ships, and I wonder what kinds of constraints, challenges, and opportunities are made available to OFMs there, that aren’t present in land-based destinations. Lalo na when it comes to these rare (but increasing?) reverse hierarchies when Pinoys become bandleaders of white/multi-ethnic ensembles. (I also have a friend who’s a bandleader – baka naman iisa lang pinag-uusapan natin, hehe.)

      2. Sakto ‘yung point mo about your friend creating original and distinctly Filipino music possibly as a response (whether negative or positive) to his work as an OFM. The tricky and unique thing about musicianship as a profession is that the boundary between ‘mimetic’/cover/performative work and ‘original’/composition-based work is quite blurry, at least on the level of actual creation/performance of music itself. (Of course, this boundary is likely much clearer on the level of economic remuneration, sales, employer demands, etc.) But on the level of creating, this blurred boundary-ness is productive.

      3. I wonder though if this kind of productive blurry-ness between overseas cover work and original composition is genre-specific? I hear about these kinds of stories frequently among jazz musicians – maybe because the high degree of proficiency needed to compose? Paano kaya mga OFMs na hindi kasing edukado or virtuosic?

  2. Ria says:

    Also, it is interesting to note that some of the visionaries/innovators in Filipino jazz have been OFM’s at some point in their lives. Angel Pena worked the Hong Kong jazz club circuit, and was employed as a double bassist at the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra at another time. He’s been dubbed as the Father of Philippine Jazz because of his work fusing Filipino folk songs with the Western idioms. Another example is Bob Aves, who lived and worked in Boston for a time. He graduated from Berklee. Both immersed themselves in the craft, theory and practice of American jazz. And they became skilled at it, made a living out of it. But they did not stop there. What a wonderful thing it would be if more Filipino musicians can transcend the entertainment mindset. Do it for economic reasons, yes, but do not stop there. I think it starts from an attitude of innovation. Imitation is a beautiful thing when it gives us the tools to create something else. And we are already halfway there, because we are skilled imitators!

    Or maybe these people I mentioned saved enough money from being OFM’s to be able to focus on their art.. LOL! Pero alam ko Angel Pena wrote his compositions during his off-hours from the night clubs or the orchestra. What an inspiration.

    • helloise says:

      …to continue my last comment, hehe:

      Again, the Angel Pena and Bob Aves examples are interesting: both are virtuosic/exceptional, male, internationally educated* jazz instrumentalists. I wonder too if working/studying as an OFM specializing in jazz – or classical – genres might actually be an advantage since it provides the requisite time, space, and broader engagement to master the highly technical aspects of jazz and classical performance before ‘moving on’ (?) to the arena of composition – lalo na ‘fusion’ composition, since it requires mastery of two radically different musical paradigms. If so, would similar dynamics be present for, say, an untrained female pop singer?

      Your offhand remark about OFM-ship being a means for musicians to save enough money… baka nga ganun talaga diba? In which case, migrant work for Pinoy musicians might be equivalent to migrant work for Pinoys in other labour sectors, wherein it’s undertaken primarily for economic reasons. (I guess musicians and other cultural workers though would have other reasons for going overseas, such as the crucial opportunities for interaction/training/education you also mentioned.)

      “I think it starts from an attitude of innovation. Imitation is a beautiful thing when it gives us the tools to create something else. And we are already halfway there, because we are skilled imitators!” – I love this quote and I will come back to you with it sometime, and ask you to share more about it haha.

      Oh – and I will definitely go to one of your gigs when I’m back in Manila! Looking forward to seeing/hearing you again. 🙂

      * Although, was Angel Pena was formally trained abroad? I’ll have to check the Pinoy Jazz docu again.

  3. joey ayala says:

    Salamat sa iyong paper 🙂 well-done! and useful.

Leave a comment