Filipino music-mobilities: some thoughts (2011)

Hello! Yes, I know, I haven’t posted anything in an obscenely long time (‘long’ in terms of the hyper-sped standard of Internet temporality). My apologies for that, Occasional Visitor.

This semester has been unusually busy, because of the four modules I’ve taken on. I’m learning a lot—not just in terms of research topics and such, but also my own unexamined weaknesses and strengths as a student/researcher/writer. It’s been an interesting and constant struggle to try to unlearn unproductive habits I’ve been doing for years. (Not succeeding… but like the Marlboro Man, I’m not quitting!)

I’m beginning to understand what a different kind of game this PhD thing is. Like all other long-term writing projects, it’s a mental and physical marathon that requires, more than anything, a routine perfectly adjusted to your personal quirks as well as the goal in mind. (Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite novelists, has a terrific interview with The Guardian‘s Emma Brockes about this.)

I thought I would share an excerpt of an essay I wrote for an independent study module I’m currently taking with the great Filipino historian Reynaldo C. Ileto. I’m interested in the practices of Filipino musicians during the colonial Spanish and American periods, and how these practices (whether spontaneous and regulated) have helped build the kind of reputation (and self-recognition) Filipinos have today as ‘musical’, ‘mimetic’, and ‘mobile’ people—and how this ethnic/cultural orientation links up to Filipino mobilities as migrants and as avid consumer-producers of music originating from the West.

In this essay I also try to use insights from the mobilities ‘paradigm’ as developed by Cresswell (2006, 2010, 2011) and Sheller and Urry (2006) in understanding both the movement of people and ideas/material in Filipino music. My impression is that the mobilities framework has seldom been used outside cultural/social geography and certain types of sociology (of transport and tourism—research areas where mobility is front and centre in the development of social phenomena).

I’ve yet to receive Prof Rey’s comments on this. So I may end up backtracking and overhauling the whole essay. Something to look forward to in the next post—which won’t take as long, I promise.

Any comments and suggestions are welcome! As usual, please don’t quote or cite without permission from the author. Salamat nang marami.

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The Mobilities of Music: Some Ideas on the Past and Present of Filipino Music

The capacity and enthusiasm for music are what makes Filipinos uniquely ‘Filipino’—so the stereotype goes. It is a stereotype with surprising longevity and consistency, already evident in accounts by European travelers describing the indios’ fondness for singing in the far-flung Spanish colony (Irving, 2010; especially Chapter 3). It has likewise been affirmed by Filipinos themselves, often in the articulation of a distinct cultural and national identity. For instance, in his oratorical piece ‘Jewels of the Pauper’, Jesuit historian Horacio de la Costa named music and faith as the ‘jewels’ that bind together an otherwise disparate, impoverished, and vulnerable people. Combined with this belief in the innate musicality is, paradoxically, a belief in its creative limitation: Filipinos are unparalleled in their ability to mimic and perform other musics, particularly those of their Spanish and American colonizers. They are not well known for effectively composing and listening to their own indigenous musics, in contrast perhaps to their counterparts in South America or Southeast Asia. It may even be said that Filipinos’ particular skill as musicians lies in this mimetic faculty, evidenced both in affective authenticity and technical prowess (Ng, 2005; Quirino, Davis, and Lagman, 2006).

Skilled Mimesis versus Compositional Skill?

These twin discourses of Philippine musicality—mimetic ability and compositional inadequacy—have arguably come to define a specialised migrant labour niche for Filipino musicians, a niche that local promoters and agents themselves aggressively target to increase employment opportunities in the global live entertainment industry (Bowe, 2005; Ng, 2005; Watkins, 2009, 2010). Yet these discourses also create a tension within the Philippine music industry, with its primary thrust of encouraging the production and consumption of locally composed, produced, and performed music. While Original Pilipino Music (OPM) may refer narrowly to the specific body of works produced by a contemporaneous collective of recording artists in the 1970s and 1980s, ‘OPM’ has since evolved into a generic industry term, usually evoked to stimulate institutional and public support for locally composed, produced, performed, and distributed music. The clearest evidence of this is Executive Order 255, enacted in 1987 by then-President Corazon Aquino, which mandated FM radio stations to play locally produced songs (i.e. OPM) on an hourly basis. Professional musicians’ organisations such as the Filipino Society of Composers, Arrangers, and Performers (FILSCAP), the Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-Aawit (OPM), and 7101 Music Nation (a privately owned non-stock, non-profit organisation that develops workshops for young songwriters and singers) distinctly cite ‘OPM’ as the focus  of their efforts to stimulate industry growth, encourage local patronage, and uphold the economic and creative rights of professional musicians. The implication seems to be that the practice and institution of skilled mimesis of Anglophone and western music, while economically lucrative, contribute only superficially to deeper cultural imperatives of artistic autonomy and national identity.

A ‘natural’ facility and ready economic demand for skilled mimesis, versus the imperative of creating a concrete cultural basis for a distinctive national identity: how are we to make sense of this contradiction in Philippine music? One option is to investigate the veracity of these claims of natural facility. Are they truths proven by history or strategically fashioned claims? Perhaps a more promising line of inquiry to pursue is what economic, cultural, social, and political forces have shaped these discourses of (self-)identification and give them their particular cultural valence. How can we identify and begin to understand the dynamics behind Philippine music and musicianship which reinforce its putative ‘status’ as one of skilled mimesis (Watkins, 2009)? In what ways have these dynamics been present throughout the Philippines’ cultural history, and in what ways do they persist today? Is there a common artistic perspective shared by musicians, regardless of their genre or specialisation, that lends a distinctly ‘Filipino’ ethic and aesthetic to the practice of music?  Do Filipino audiences themselves respond to and integrate music in their individual and communal lives in a way that is identifiably ‘Filipino’?

A second question to consider has to do with understanding the economic and sociopolitical roles of music in Philippine society. Can we perhaps look at Philippine musical production as a particular labour niche, albeit one that is distinct from other sectors of employment by virtue of its primary production focus of symbols and cultural forms (Hesmondhalgh and Baker, 2010)? If so, how does it differ from yet converge with other labour sectors such as seafaring, domestic work, and nursing? Filipino professional musicians, by virtue of their profession, have a long history of overseas work: some accounts of Filipino performances in Japan and China date back to the 1880s, in response to the nascent regional demand for American jazz (Yu-Jose, 2002). And yet it may be argued that a great number of Filipino artists—whether instrumentalists, vocalists, composers, arrangers, or producers—share with other migrant workers the same motivations for seeking work abroad, such as economic security for their families.

Aside from this cultural-economic aspect of labour, music has been utilised for ideological, religious, and sociopolitical purposes. This utilisation is by no means unique to colonising powers: the first Spanish accounts of indigenous life detailed how certain types of of music and dance were integral parts of religious ritual. It was observed too that sung epic poems played a central political role in pre-colonial societies by upholding systems of governance and civil order (Irving, 2010: 75-90). Later on this profound affinity for music, poetry, and dance was explicitly harnessed by religious authorities to convert the natives towards Christianity and effectively exercise a mode of social control.

A third area of questioning arises in our consideration of Filipino music’s contradictory status. Simply put, why do Filipinos love music in the particular way that they do? What leads Filipinos as listeners to prefer exact reproductions of extant compositions to improvisations or creations, and what drives them as performers to cover popular material rather than produce their own? If we suspend romantic idealisations of authorship and originality as the standard for evaluating ‘Art’, and set aside for the moment structural analyses of colonial cultural hegemony, what experience of Filipino music are we left with? How does this differ from and/or converge with practices of patronising, producing, and participating in ‘homegrown’ music, as seen in (to cite a concrete example) well-established yearly choral competitions featuring Ryan Cayabyab’s ‘Kumukutikutitap’ as main contest piece?

My guess is that the conflict between skilled mimesis and compositional originality is not as straightforward as it seems. My own status as an amateur of music (in the Anglophone sense of non-professional as well as in the originary French sense of ‘lover’ or ‘enthusiast’) betrays this tension: while I am a strong supporter of OPM, I myself tend to sing other people’s songs than make my own, and have developed a habit (or skill) of reproducing the styles of singers I admire. I also find myself frequently dissatisfied with certain versions of OPM favoured by the masses (Willie Revillame’s music, to cite an example). Does that mean that I am ‘settling’ for a lower cultural standard by patronising foreign music, and ‘betraying’ my own culture by my privileged status as a member of the elite Filipino class? These are questions that are impossible to answer here, and require a much longer reflection. At this point my aim is to demonstrate that structural analyses of the economic, the social, and the political by no means exhaust the issue of music and cultural participation more generally.

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