(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.