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Stories, essays, readings, facts and trivia on Philippine music and the local music industry

The Diversity of Philippine Music Cultures

Felipe Mendoza de Leon*

“At the rate our people are bombarded with all sorts of Western pop and commercial music through radio, television, jukeboxes, record players, and movies – the day may not be too far away when we shall have committed our own native music to the grave; harshly forgotten, abandoned, its beauty laid to waste by an unknowing generation whose only fault is not having been given the chance to cultivate a love of it…” – Felipe Padilla de Leon

Philippine music is rich beyond compare. Most Filipinos, however, do not know this wealth, victims as they are of a broadcast media that propagate Western, particularly American entertainment music, day in and day out. If ever music written by Filipinos is given a chance to be heard, it is ninety percent of the cheap pop variety copied or adapted from foreign hits.

Our young people hear almost nothing of the creative music of the people of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The vast output of our serious composers, who ironically are mostly Manila-based, is also unknown to them.

There is a pressing need to bring Philippine music closer to our people: strong identification of our own music is one vital factor in bringing our people together or unifying the nation.

Exposing Filipinos to their own musical traditions is properly the task of the government, our music educators, musicologists, community leaders, concerned media practitioners, performing groups, pro-Filipino radio and television stations and recording companies, heritage centers and libraries, and cultural organizations all over the country.

A survey of the whole range of authentic Filipino musical expression reveals at least eight major types according to cultural sources and influences:

Traditional Filipino Music

I. Music of Indigenous Southeast Asian Filipinos: Harmony with the Creative Forces of Nature
II. Music of the Moros or Muslim Filipino Cultures: The Courtly Elegance of Islamic Unity
III. Music of the Lowland Folk Villages: The Way of the Fiesta

Filipino Popular Melodies

IV. Music of Popular Sentiments: The Sanctity of the Home

Music for Listening

V. Music of the Concert Hall: The Autonomy of Music
VI. Music for Mass Entertainment: The Consumerist Lifestyle

Music for Social Awareness and Human Dignity

VII. Music of Social Concern and Cultural Freedom: A Force for Social Transformation
VIII. Music for National Identity: Being Filipino

All of these Filipino music cultures are not only alive and contemporaneous; they are distinct from each other in terms of concept, form, and style. Each represents a way of life that is uniquely Filipino and is expressive of a subculture’s experiences. Understanding these music cultures enables us to understand ourselves better.

We may divide our music cultures into two groups, the first three types of expressions belong to one group and the last four types to another, with the third type straddling the two groups. Though possessing unique characteristics, those musical expressions grouped together have many things in common.

Extemporaneous creation

One shared feature of the first group is the extemporaneous way of creating music – the music is created and performed at the same time. There is no time gap between conception and realization, as when a Yakan creates-performs music in the kulintang (similar to the extemporaneous nature of the poetic joust in Balagtasan).

This is entirely different from the way music is made in the second group, where a musician first writes or records his thoughts on paper and only later does a performer reproduce it in sound, as in writing and performing Ryan Cayabyab’s Limang Dipang Tao.

Thus, the emphasis on the first group is on the creative process while that on the second group is the finished product.

Another feature of the first group is the multi-functional character of the music, which accompanies (or is indispensable in) many activities and events, like putting a baby to sleep, courtship, prayer, debate, protest, merrymaking, and a host of other rituals and celebrations.

In the other group, music has ceased to function in many aspects of everyday life. In the extreme, it has become dispensable, decorative, merely for entertainment, or worse, nothing but a commodity, like many examples of what we call “pop” music.

Also worth mentioning is the collective character of music making in the first group and the individualistic character in the second.

Clearly, our musical traditions, all of them contemporary, can tell us many things about ourselves. Indeed, beginning the study of Philippine music cultures is the beginning of a fuller and deeper understanding of the Filipino.


* FELIPE M. DE LEON, JR. is Chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and a Professor of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines where he teaches humanities, aesthetics, music theory and Philippine art and culture.

He was Commissioner and Head of the Subcommission for the Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the Chairman of its National Committee for Music from 2004-07. He was also Chairman of the Gawad Sa Manlilikha ng Bayan (National Living Treasures Awards) from 1993-2007. He was a Commissioner of UNESCO Philippines (1999-2002) and Chairman of its Committee on Culture (2002).

He was also Chairman of the NCCA’s Committee on Intangible Heritage and Vice-President of the International Music Council (UNESCO), Chairman of the Division of Humanities, National Research Council of the Philippines, Chairman of the Kilusang Kayumanggi sa Ikasusulong ng Kultura (Brown Movement for Cultural Advancement) and Musical Director of Kasarinlan Philippine Music Ensemble.