This feature story was originally titled as Historical Notes, and was published in the August 2008 issue of Tatler Philippines
Seems as if music is the one field in which Filipinos can't help but succeed. We send a singer to an international competition and he or she will almost certainly come home with a prize, if not the top prize. Let a homegrown show band play at a cruise ship or the bar of a chain hotel and it's sure to give guests a good time. Still, winning international singing competitions or entertaining hotel guests doesn't begin to speak of how much music means to Filipinos. To be Filipino is to have a soundtrack album built into your life—there's music for every occasion or emotion. Nothing is too mundane to be unworthy of music.
Because music is valuable, our cultural heritage has become rich, colourful, and vibrant—just like the people who create it. But few of us can truly claim to having a fine understanding and appreciation of our cultural heritage. Felipe de Leon Jr., professor of art studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman, says that being unaware of the beauty of our culture is a liability. The lack of cultural awareness muddles our sense of identity.
Getting in touch with our musical roots—and understanding that music says as much about us as history and the other arts—can have the grandeur of looking deep into our souls, as well as the simplicity of knowing our name.
De Leon says that Filipinos are "among the most highly relational people in the world"—we simply love to connect with others. We work in big groups. A party that doesn't involve the entire community is unimaginable, when a Filipino woman has to go to the restroom, her friends often tag along, no questions asked. To most Filipinos, being close to others—and the self disclosure and inquisitiveness involved in connecting with others—often trumps privacy.
The preference for a sense of community in favour of individuality manifest itself in traditional Filipino music. Whereas classical Western music strictly follows the seven-note diatonic scale (the "do re mi") with sharps and flats in between each note, traditional Filipino music has "no isolated notes," de Leon points out. The music of indigenous cultures and even of many Muslim and Christian Filipinos tends to be "bridged by slides or a microtonal continuum."
For example: If a Western singer could go from "mi" to "fa" in one step, the traditional Filipino singer sees that single step as a big jump, since many notes lie between "mi" and "fa", notes that Westerners don’t even know exist. This is why you often encounter the hagod style of singing in Filipino music, where the singer glides or slides between notes.
Traditional Filipino music also speaks of how we perceive time. Before the arrival of Westerners, Filipinos didn’t have a strict concept of how time should be divided. There were no seconds that made up a minute, no minutes that made up an hour, no hours that made up a day. Filipinos didn’t think of time as something that should be divided into small components, but as something that is huge and whole, something that moves like a stream. Because of this, there is also a flowing quality to our music. This is most evident in the way members of the Kalinga tribe play the tongali (nose flute), which sounds fluid and graceful.