Malayo Man Malapit Din: OPM Songs About Migration

Today I posted a Facebook update asking my contacts to suggest songs by “Original Pilipino Music” or “OPM” (why I put this term in scare quotes is fodder for another post) artists that specifically address the Filipino migrant worker phenomenon. No specific reason other than a thought that randomly occurred to me while I was thinking about another music/migration issue I’m preparing an news feature for. Filing this away as a post-thesis journal article idea.

The suggestions flowed in almost immediately. Some of them are well-known ones, like Roel Cortez’s oft-parodied “Napakasakit Kuya Eddie” (It’s So Painful, Kuya Eddie) and Gary Valenciano’s triumphant anthem “Babalik Ka Rin” (You’ll Return At Last), used famously in a 1990s TV commercial for the Duty Free Shopping Terminal at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Others are underground classics, like Lolita Carbon’s haunting “Sa Kabila Ng Lahat” (In The Face Of It All).  I compiled all the suggestions and made a Spotify playlist.

Here’s the blurb I wrote to accompany the link when I posted it on Facebook. Full disclosure: being an overseas Filipino speaking to other overseas Filipino friends and colleagues, I wore my uncritical heart on my unscholarly sleeve when I posted it.

No other narrative defines the contemporary Filipino psyche quite like the arc (or perhaps the circle) of migration. Someone leaves, someone is left behind; everyone waits and endures, sometimes many times over. Longing transforms distance into a powerful space of intimacy. Here are a few songs of migration–the faraway nearby–told from the many voices and viewpoints in contemporary Philippine popular music.

But, since I’ve resigned myself to the overreading, overthinking fate of a popular music scholar (I’m not complaining; there are worse things to specialize in), I started thinking about whether we could speak of the OFW song as a subgenre unto itself, unique to Philpop*, both reflective and constructive of the OFW imaginary as it’s unfolded over the last 30 years. Not an especially novel thought, I know, but the exercise of arranging the tracks into a playlist turned me on to a few interesting implications.

I noticed right away that the suggestions indicated a great diversity of genres and voices—from the lyrical poignancy of indie(genous) folk stalwarts (Joey Ayala, Gary Granada) to the soaring dramatism of stadium balladeers (Martin Nievera, Angeline Quinto and Regine Velsaquez). Quite a few people also suggested recent standout singles from the last decade’s flowering of mainstream pop-rock and hiphop (gloc-9, Sugarfree, Orange & Lemons). But I also noticed a few, remarkably consistent tropes. Off the top of my head:

  • Endurance and expression (and endurance through expression) of the pain of long-distance separation, and the longing for homecoming. Interestingly enough, there’s an equal number of both male and female voices, leading me to hear this as proof of the well-established conception of music (particularly the usage of ballads) as  a safe space for the performance of masculine emotion, whether it’s full-blown drama, like Martin Nievera’s “Pag-Uwi” (Homecoming), or a more restrained mournfulness, like “Napakasakit Kuya Eddie” and Orange & Lemons’ “Umuwi Ka Na” (Come Home Already).
  • Suffering, regret, and loneliness, stoically endured, as a pathway to the promised glory of return. See: “Babalik Ka Rin;” the telenovela gloss of Angeline Quinto and Regine Velasquez’s “Lipad Ng Pangarap” (Flight of Dreams)**, and Joey Ayala’s “Agila” (Eagle), and Asin’s “Pagbabalik” (Return). I couldn’t resist putting the “Lipad Ng Pangarap” and “Agila” together; the symbolic twinning was too good to pass up. Very resonant with Filomeno Aguilar’s 1999 article which sees migration as a form of ritual passage.
  • The sense and poignancy of home, embodied in everyday quirks and exchanges. See Hotdog’s “Manila;” Sugarfree’s “Dear Kuya;” The Eraserheads’ “Balikbayan Box.”
  • Still, feminine voices seem to be the standard for this genre. Not surprising given that the face of the OFW in the popular imaginary has been and continues to be female (though many scholars have pointed out that this perception may be dangerously misleading). Some of the most iconic OFW songs are songs about women sung by women. There’s “Mama,” by the hugely popular ’90s kids’ pop quartet Smokey Mountain; and Carmen Soriano’s “Malayo Man Malapit Din” (Far Away, Yet Nearby).*** Of course, there’s the iconic Nora Aunor’s “Kahit Konting Awa,” (Just A Little Mercy), which, like “Sa Kabila Ng Lahat,” is part of a 2005 compilation EP dedicated to the memory of Flor Contemplacion.

Still, there’s something to be said about how a textual analysis of some songs here can shed light on the underlying shifts of political and economic discourse surrounding migration. Almost all of these songs attempt (and succeed, in varying levels) to interweave the pathos of the individual experience with the collective experience of sacrifice and frustration. But there’s no way a song like gloc-9’s “Walang Natira” (No One Left), with its penetrating critique of the impact of the brain drain of nurses and teachers, could have been written in the early 1980s and 1990s. I put it side by side with “Babalik Ka Rin” to highlight what feels like a really stark  contrast about the way Filipinos feel about migration itself as a major force in their economy and society.

To conclude on an interesting note, I did a bit of internet sleuthing on “Babalik Ka Rin” and came across a reflection by the ad man responsible for creating the Duty Free Philippines ad campaign. It turns out that Gary V’s version was written after the ad agency had settled on “Babalik Ka Rin” as the concept for the campaign. It was from a kundiman of the same name, often sung by Inay Aurea, an old neighbor of the ad man’s that he used to visit with his aunt as a child. From this childhood sepia-toned memory, they crafted a campaign—and a spinoff song—that tapped into a great reservoir of loneliness, longing, and resilience.  It was a move that paid off, in more ways than one. He makes a comment that reminds us, all too clearly, how music functions in complex and contradictory ways, especially for a reality as deeply felt as migration:

The “Babalik Ka Rin” TV commercial was such a big hit it broke sales records at Duty Free. Gary Valenciano sang a new soulful “Babalik Ka Rin” version created by Louie Ocampo. If not for Inay Aurea, I would not have the insight to use loneliness as a powerful element in tapping the huge OFW market and maximize market shares.

* I prefer to use the term “Philpop” because it does away with the whole thorny loadedness of “original” in “Original Pilipino Music.” I’m aware that Philipop is the name of a national popular songwriting competition, and I find that it actually overlaps with what I’m trying to identify here as the multi-genre, multi-generational nature of contemporary Philippine popular music. (Also because “contemporary Philippine popular music” is a friggin’ mouthful.)

** I was told that there are several versions of this song, including one by Dessa (which seems to be the original, definitive version) and another one by Gary Valenciano. I put this one in because 1. Dessa’s version wasn’t on Spotify and 2. Gary V already has one song here, and in the interest of making representation diverse as possible I’m only putting one song per artist. This is also why I didn’t include other tracks by Joey Ayala, like the sublime “Walang Hanggang Paalam” (Infinite Leavetaking).

*** I wanted to include Bayang Barrios’ version of the song (I’m not sure if it’s the same one, or different songs with the same title), but it wasn’t on Spotify. Pardon the clumsy song title translations. This was written off the cuff and on an empty stomach!


1 comment

  1. Gem says:

    jeline maybe you can add Eraserheads Tindahan ni Aling Nena. i love that song. it’s very funny.

    he has the hots for the daughter of Aling Nena, but when he’s gonna introduce himself to her, Aling Nena says she’s leaving for canada in three days.

    Pumunta ako sa tindahan kinabukasan
    Para makipagkilala
    Ngunit sabi ni Aling Nena
    Habang maaga’y huwag na raw akong umasa
    Anak niya’y aalis na, papuntang Canada
    Tatlong araw na lang ay babay na.

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