Friday, July 25, 2008

Celebrating our culture

Music, particularly singing, seems a natural fit among us Filipinos. No celebration of Philippine culture, whether at home or abroad, will be complete without a showcase of talented singers, from children to teens to adults.

Teodoro Agoncillo, the eminent Filipino historian, observed that Filipinos are born musicians. When Villalobos went to Samar in 1543, he saw natives playing a stringed instrument called kudyapi. Pigafetta also observed that natives of Cebu played such musical instruments as the timbal, the drum, and other instruments made of wood and bamboo. It is no wonder that Filipinos up to this present day continue their love affair with music.

Voices of the Future, a musical extravaganza produced by Livvy Flores-Camacho, a friend from university, highlighted the afternoon event of the Mabuhay Festival in Toronto last July 19. The program featured promising children singers from ages 6 to 13, each one of them rendering Filipino compositions from the past to the present, songs that represented significant eras in the evolution of Filipino music. It was a refreshing exhibition of young voices, and judging from the strength of their vocal chords and tonal quality of their voices, all these budding young talents are really destined to reach for their stars in the future.

But singing is not the only talent Filipinos possess. They also have happy feet, whether in folk dances, interpretative ballet, or hip-hop dancing to the tune of rap or pop music. An organization of young men and women and children called Fiesta Filipina Dance Troupe of Canada stood out with their choreography of dances native to the islands from north to south of the country. It is not only the graceful and elegant folk dancing that reminds us of our colourful heritage, but the resplendent costumes representing the clothing and styles of our ancestral tribes and native musical instruments such as the guitar, kudyapi, kulintang and drums also bring out the joy and pride in our culture, our traditions, and our past.

We can go on and on and name any art genre and a Filipino artist will always be mentioned. The sad thing about our multifaceted artistry, however, is that not many outside of our own community appreciate how gifted Filipinos are, that we have a very vibrant and colourful culture. In hindsight, the organizers of the Mabuhay Festival could have thought of sharing our culture and talented artists beyond the Filipino community, instead of celebrating the festival just among us. The Mabuhay Festival was a grand fiesta in sheer magnitude with food stalls that feature our favourite national recipes, exhibits by Filipino businesses here and in the Philippines, information booths from various community centres and social justice organizations, and to top it all, a fully entertaining cavalcade of non-stop program of music, songs and dances.

Our culture—our ways of life as manifested in our music, art, manners of dressing, traditions, and social and family values—is not inferior to the culture of the West. All cultures are equal. The purity and mass appeal of our indigenous music, dance, and art that have survived through many centuries are comparable to the so-called sophisticated western culture. Despite Spanish and American influences through colonial rule, our traditional musical and dance forms have survived and maintained their native and popular appeal through acculturation. Yet, the heart and soul of Filipino culture is still intact, even if it has enriched itself with the music, dance, and other art forms of the West.

Take the case of chanteuse Lilac Cana. Trained as a vocalist in the western tradition of sopranos and operatic singing, Lilac reminds us of the ancestral richness of our own music whenever she sings a lyrical kundiman or a Filipino patriotic song. Or Je-an Salas, a classically trained ballet dancer and former mainstay of the National Ballet of Canada, as she interprets “palangga,” a lover’s dance that conjures a native dance interpreting the story of a man who danced around a woman to show his love for her. Or even the hip-hop boys and girls trotting on the stage to the music of Janet Jackson, but still evoking images of our past as in the festive Ati-atihan or balitaw or dandansoy.

Even Original Pinoy Music, more widely known as OPM, although popularized as pop songs, told stories of unrequited love, the parting of friends or family, or leaving home for another country, or longing for the presence of loved ones. Like traditional and indigenous music, OPM is also heavy with sentiment and mournful longing.

That magical afternoon, as I listened to Candace Santos, all of 14 years old, sing “Sa ugoy ng Duyan” by Lucio San Pedro, one of our illustrious national artists, I watched my wife’s eyes begin to swell with tears. Everyone in the audience, old and young alike, sat glued to their chairs; not even a rustle could be heard as if time stopped. When it was Jasmine Elaine Ragual’s turn to belt “No quiero Casarme,” everyone almost stood up from their seats in awe and triumphant applause to the powerful voice coming from a petite 11-year-old. Roy Tugbang, a promising 13-year-old baritone, capped this part of the musical program with a rendition of Nicanor Abelarde’s “Bituing Marikit,” bringing the house down.

There is nothing to be ashamed of our culture. Culture does not merely mean the opera, ballet or big art museums. The West does not have a monopoly of culture. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that China and India are far older and vaster civilizations.

A Vedic writer and believer of samskara once wrote that culture is the spine of any race or society. It is the foundation of the development and strength of a nation. The culture of a nation is its true wealth. If our island nation is still weighed down with huge debts, we owe it to our rich cultural heritage and innate capacity to survive for keeping us buoyant and in high spirits.

Perhaps, we all need to learn to be Pinoy again. As Gilda Cordero-Fernando, a well-known Filipino writer, admonishes us in one of her columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, we “have to protect it [our being Pinoy] and fight for it against other Filipinos who think everything is wrong with our culture and find the need to apologize for it constantly.” We’re not baduy or average, she said, just because we have the bahay kubo, the aswang, sinamay, sinigang, the kundiman, the moro-moro, as artefacts of our culture.

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