Saturday, August 30, 2008

A change IS gonna come

I was really hoping that Hillary Clinton would get the Democratic nomination, and then I was hoping that Barack Obama would get her as his Vice-Presidential running mate, but in the end I think he picked the right guy, who will be good not only for his campaign but also for the U.S. if, theoretically, Joe Biden assumes the presidency in case something happens to Obama. And now, John McCain has picked Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, who is not even that well-known among Republicans (well, at least until several hours ago), and who is even younger and probably a lot less experienced than Obama. So much for McCain's argument that a head of state should be qualified and experienced enough, not just domestically but also internationally (hello, Russia!). If the elderly McCain croaks, Palin -- a conservative, an "average hockey mom," an NRA member, and whose last job was as a mayor of 10,000 people -- will theoretically have to take over. In the short run, the choice of Palin seems a logical choice to attract many disgruntled Hillary supporters and the undecided, and to take some of that new-kid-in-town sheen off Obama. But Palin will have to seriously turn on her charm in the next few weeks to convince people that she's a deserving choice (which may even prove that her being chosen was actually a stroke of genius). Otherwise, I think McCain has sealed his fate. A change truly will come on election day.

(Note to Tina Fey: you might want to consider going back to Saturday Night Live!)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival: El negro que tenía el alma blanca (1927)

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival kicked off last night at the Shangri-La Plaza Cinema with the screening of The Black Man With White Soul (Benito Perojo, 1927; Spain). In it, Pedro (played by a white actor in blackface), a son of a former slave, leaves Cuba (where he was being mistreated for being black) to seek his fortune in Paris. While working as a bellboy at a dance club, his dancing prowess is discovered and then he goes to become a famous dancer of the Charleston in the city. He falls in love with his dancing partner, who could not stand the thought of marrying him because of his skin color.

The film is truly a product of its time. Had this film been released today, nothing short of Martin Luther King, Jr. rising from the grave might happen. Riots in L.A.! Condemnation from Spike Lee! A second career for Public Enemy! The film is replete with images, scenes, and inter titles that can only be possibly amusing in a Chris Rock sketch. Witness Pedro's face fade to that of a giant ape! Witness Pedro's poster as it gives his partner a nightmare (with matching horror film effects)! Witness Pedro in an African tribal get-up! In spite of his success, Pedro could not get the one thing he wants, that is the white girl's heart. The girl's father is sympathetic to Pedro, but not really because he understands what he is going through, but because he feels he owes him a lot for giving him and his daughter the good life (mansion, Rolls Royce...). I kept waiting for redemption for the main character, like waiting for the punchline to a joke that has gone on for too long. It never came. In the end, Pedro died of heartache, beside him the girl, who up to the end was wishing he wasn't black, but takes comfort in the idea that though he had black skin, he had a white soul (Jesus.) And then looking on is Pedro's trusty skinhead manservant (the girl's next love interest?) who looks like an SS officer in his uniform. And I don't think the film was being ironic.

Despite the unabashedly racist elements of this movie, it will be unfair to condemn it or judge it with our modern views since it was made in the the 20s. Actually, I'd say it's a very progressive movie for its time, because of its portrayal of a black man who was actually successful (but still not happy, natch), enjoying the acclaim of a society largely indifferent to their plight. It is also progressive due to the mere fact that it attempted to explore the theme of racism and discrimination from the point of view of a black man, in 1927 (meanwhile, D.W. Griffith was glorifying the Ku Klux Klan in "The Birth of A Nation").

For the first time ever in this yearly festival (which started a few years ago when it was still the German Silent Film Festival), a choir accompanied the screening, instead of a world music ensemble, an electronic group, or a rock band. The Novo Concertante Manila, a bemedalled choral group, did a respectable job performing a piece specially composed for the film, although when they also tried to do sound effects like clapping and chirping of birds, I thought it was unnecessary and distracting.

The 2nd International Silent Film Festival runs until September 8. See the schedule HERE.

Friday, August 22, 2008

We are Filipinos. This is how we rock.

The Panorama Jam Fest, held last Saturday (August 16), was a thesis project of four students from the College of Saint Benilde. It sought to answer the question, "What defines truly, original Filipino music?" The event encompassed not just a concert, but also workshops in playing ethnic instruments and a trade fair.

(Ok, my initial reaction was: "Thesis project?!!?" These guys booked the Philippine International Convention Center! They got all these bands and will donate all proceeds to charity! The sole food concessionaire was Via Mare! I don't even have a copy of my thesis. A photocopy of it could still be lying in a dusty corner of the state university, if it hasn't been eaten by moths and worms already.)

For decades, Filipino popular music has been influenced largely by Western pop culture, from the big band sound in vogue in the 40s and 50s, rock & roll in the 60s, folk and psychedelia in the 70s, synth pop, the so-called "new wave," and hardcore in the 80s, and alt-rock and hip-hop in the 90s up to the present. Each decade has produced amazing local acts that, frankly, the world has to recognize. They were no mere copycats, but truly gifted artists who expressed uniquely Filipino sentiments, whose work just happened to reflect the dominant musical form of the day. In a country like the Philippines, Western culture has always been welcome since Spain converted most Filipinos to Catholicism in the 16th century. We watch it, we listen to it, we download it, we read it, we play it, we eat it, we wear it, heck, we even copy it and sell it back to the West. It is inescapable, like air.

However, starting in the late 70s, a new breed of Filipino musicians have emerged, not only expressing Filipino sentiments, but also sounding like nobody else. They sounded Filipino. At first, these musicians just incorporated tribal elements into songs that are essentially folk and rock (the groups Asin and Ang Grupong Pendong come to mind), but later, some have used purely traditional Filipino instruments in their compositions, like in the case of Joey Ayala at Ang Bagong Lumad, and the University of the Philippines-based Kontemporaryong Gamelang Pilipino (Kontra-Gapi).

The Panorama Jam Fest offered a snapshot of where this movement is now.

So what truly is Filipino music?

1. It is original and simply excellent.

I can't believe I've never seen Joey Ayala at Ang Bagong Lumad live before this event. I started listening to Joey Ayala in high school, when I sold my Ariel Rivera tape to a classmate to be able to buy Mga Awit ng Tanod-Lupa (yes, I used to listen to Ariel Rivera). This was in 1991, several years after he came out with his first independently-released album. Joey's favorite themes are the environment, indigenous culture, and social commentary, using very poetic and insightful lyrics, rich and rousing melodies, accompanied by traditional Filipino instruments that have never really been put on record before. Although a true pioneer, I still think Joey Ayala is largely underappreciated in this country despite all the accolades he has received.

I knew his set was going to kick butt when he launched into his first three songs: Magkaugnay, Karaniwang Tao, and Agila, all well-known masterpieces, and surely, the crowd was on its feet from the very first note. May I nominate Joey Ayala as the next National Artist of the Philippines.

2. It is fresh.

Unitiima was next. I've seen them live several times before, and what I like about them is that the ethnic and tribal thing is almost incidental to their music. Their music is not a museum piece, but an excuse to rock out or dance. Composed of young guys from La Salle, they use a lot of djembes which give their music a sense of urgency. I dream of the day when I'll hear their songs on the radio.

3. It is world class.

Makiling (formerly the Makiling Ensemble) is an 11-year old band whose members first met in high school at the Philippine High School for the Arts in Mt. Makiling, Laguna. They incorporate a lot of elements in their music--touches of Indian, middle eastern, gypsy, classical, even 60s soundtrack and jazz. Some might think it's not pure Filipino music. It doesn't strike me as impure. It strikes me as confident. It strikes me as refusing to be pigeonholed and not looking at the world with trepidation, and instead proudly declaring that, yes, if those British acts can do it, why can't we also incorporate those Indian sounds in our music dammit. Makiling's music is exciting, and it's thrilling to hear all these different elements come together in their still-distinctly-Filipino compositions. Filipinos trying to reinterpret the world in their own terms...we certainly have been doing that for ages.

4. It rocks.

What more can I say about Pinikpikan? They are the most exciting Filipino band right now in my opinion because their main purpose is to make you lose it on the floor with their music. Of course they brought the house down with their classics such as Kahimanawari, Una Kaya, Cosmic Ride and Kalipay, with Carol Bello's devil-may-care vocals and the guys' heart-pounding music, a smorgasbord of traditional Filipino instruments, African drums, guitar-bass-drums, and even plastic tubs. Pinikpikan has a large following, including expats in the know, and who can blame them? I don't understand most of their lyrics because they're not in Tagalog but in other Philippine languages, but who cares? I dare you not to move during a Pinikpikan set. (Pinikpikan had a stall at the fair, where I bought their new CD, their first compilation entitled Rhythm Soup For The Tribal Soul, a good buy as all their albums are currently out of print.)

5. It is exotic.

Sruvaleh creates excellent music that sometimes will remind you of an imaginary movie about the nocturnal mysteries that lurk within the exotic jungles of Mindanao. Or something. Perhaps not the best kind of music live, but probably killer on headphones. This band takes chances, adventurously working within the scope of Philippine traditional music. It's a trip worth taking.

6. It is proud.

How can you ignore a band like Kadangyan? Kadangyan like to wear their identity on their sleeves. Umm, actually there are no sleeves as they prefer to play live with no shirts on, just the tribal tattoos that cover their skin. The members of Kadangyan hail from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao (vocalist Bhava Mitra is Ifugao). Like Pinikpikan, they want you to move, but imagine a band that sounds like Pinikpikan but thinks they're Metallica. This is not your usual world music. This is ROCK. And as you mosh to their fierce sound, remember that that is the rumble of truly Filipino music you're hearing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Not forgotten

Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, Jr.
Assassinated: August 21, 1983

Friday, August 15, 2008

International observers' farewell karaoke

Perhaps to get a taste of indigenous Filipino culture, the international observers of the Asian Network For Free Elections (ANFREL) were treated to a night of...karaoke. The farewell party was held last night (till this morning!) at The Red Box in Greenbelt in Makati, three days after the election in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). I can't believe these guys are all leaving today. What, nobody will even go sightseeing? I wish they could stay longer so that they will have other memories of the Philippines besides the election, which did not go on without hitch, as usual (read their final statement HERE.)

Highlights of the night for me: the requisite ABBA-thon, everybody dancing (disco, Bollywood, and line), Tatine screaming at Badrul for stopping Clair Marlo's "Till They Take My Heart Away" mid-song, me (ehem) belting out "Grease" and "I Believe In A Thing Called Love" ("guitars!"), and those karaoke montages of women with overflowing bikinis as a roomful of Muslims watch (with horror?). Yep, we Asians do have major differences, but hey, we all know the lyrics to crappy Celine Dion songs when they come on. Can we have more nights like this please?

(And do come back you guys. You'll be sorely missed. Hope to see you all again, wherever, whenever).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Team Asia

I haven't even finished writing my blog entries about my last election observation mission, here comes another one. Twenty-two foreign observers from the Asian Network For Free Elections (ANFREL) are now in the Philippines to observe the election in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), scheduled to take place on Monday, August 11. The Asia Foundation (TAF) has organized the observation mission, and I helped out Tatine Faylona (fellow election observer in Nepal and Program Officer of TAF) with the manuals and forms and other stuff. I wanted to do more for this mission, and would have wanted to go with the observers to Mindanao, but I cannot leave work.

ANFREL observers also came last year for the elections and they were deployed only in the ARMM. They made a big media splash when they said that the election in the Philippines was worse than that in Afghanistan. No less than Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo herself had to respond to that. But can they be blamed? A bomb went off in the polling place being observed by one of the delegates. A couple of observers got offered money in exchange for votes because people mistook them for Filipinos. Et cetera. Read their report HERE.

The observers arrived in the country last Thursday, and a briefing was held last weekend at their hotel in Makati. Lots of familiar faces. Aside from the Bangkok-based staff of ANFREL (headed by Somsri Hananuntasuk, or Sui, who used to lead Thailand's Amnesty International), there's Tad from Malaysia and Moline from Cambodia, both fellow observers in Nepal, and then there's Ramesh and Pradip from two election-monitoring organizations in Nepal. Other countries represented are Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. Some observers actually backed out, not only because of security concerns, but also because up to this time there's uncertainty whether the election will push through.

I'm not going into details as to the reasons behind the possible postponement, or any other issues pertaining to the ARMM, because I might sound uninformed or plain ignorant. The truth is, like most Filipinos, there's not a lot I know about the ARMM. I haven't even observed any election there because every election period I'm at our headquarters in Manila. The issues surrounding all these talks about the peace process, the MNLF, MILF, ancestral domain, etc., these are issues rooted in events that took place even before the Spanish came to the Philippines, and for centuries these issues have been largely supressed, denied, warped, or simply because the largely regionalistic, predominantly Catholic Philippine population just did not/do not care enough, which I'm a bit guilty of. I remember in 2004 I was in Indonesia observing their election. In Central Java, a group of young Muslim activists started asking me about Nur Misuari and the Moro struggle, and I was rendered speechless. Here I was observing another country's affairs, and I couldn't even say anything about things going on in my own backyard. To say that I was embarrassed will be a severe understatement.

The observers spent three days being briefed on the ARMM, on Mindanao, the Philippines and Filipinos in general, and the coming election, particularly the use of machines. There will be two technologies to be used in the elections on Monday: one is the electronic voting machine (EVM) in Maguindanao, and the other is the automated counting machine (ACM) for the rest of the ARMM. For the EVM, voters will get to vote by pressing buttons on a machine. For the ACM, voters will use ballot papers similar to those used in exams wherein ovals corresponding to choices are shaded. These ballot papers will then be counted by machines. No more writing of candidates' names, or deciphering handwriting. Results for both methods shall be transmitted electronically to the national counting center, meaning no more manual filling-up of those giant election returns. Visit the ARMM election WEBSITE for more details about these technologies.

The participants were able to try for themselves the two machines. It certainly wasn't the first time I participated in such a machine demo for Philippine elections. The automation of the counting and canvassing of Philippine elections has been a dream for many Filipinos, most especially those of us from groups like Namfrel that advocate electoral reforms. If only the original automation law had been implemented on time, we would have modernized our elections since 1998. What we got instead were pilot tests, half-hearted support from lawmakers, confusing stance from the election commission, an impeachment complaint against a corrupt election commissioner (which she won, but the moral victory was ours), and other election-related scandals left and right (hello Garci!). Many people were /are against modernizing Philippine elections, simply because it will prevent them from cheating. But hopefully this time this is it.

(The second day of the briefing ended with Rano from Cambodia...hitting the floor with b-boy moves. Our jaws dropped and we were like, kumusta naman ang breakdance!" There was a threat of salsa dancing for the third day, but fortunately it finished way too late for shameless Latin moves.)

Saturday night we took a breather and headed to Xaymaca for some reggae. It was Tatine, me, Jayson from TAF, Mark (who was at Namfrel's Mindanao desk last election and now temporarily with TAF), Atty. Zen Malang of the Bangsamoro Center for Law and Policy, Tad, and another Malaysian observer, Badrul, who was ANFREL's youngest observer ever when he joined the mission in Afghanistan a few years back (check out the documentary "The Observer" where he was featured along with the other ANFREL observers in that mission; the movie made the rounds of international film festivals). The last time me and Tatine and Tad got together like this was in Jazz Upstairs in Kathmandu last summer (in the case of Tatine and I, this was the first time we hung out with anybody after the Nepal mission). It was a wild night with Coffebreak Island. Early on the guys were already on their feet dancing to the bands' music, but when Coffebreak Island played "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic," Rancid's "Time Bomb," and "Wooly Bully," there was no way I could keep still. I joined in the skanking, hair not just down but all over the place, though not in full abandon like Tad and Atty. Zen. (A couple of days later, I saw Atty. Zen on TV in a suit, attending the GRP-MILF signing in Putrajaya, Malaysia. I was like, that guy is a reggae nut!). It was a well-deserved break for everybody (the calm before the storm?), as we made toasts to the peace process (?!) while Marley banged on our eardrums.

(The ANFREL observers have already been deployed in the ARMM. Here's hoping that everything will turn out well and that everyone will be safe.)

Paris Hilton for President!

See more Paris Hilton videos at Funny or Die