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The Cultural Roots of Philippine Music: Tradition and

Felipe M. de Leon, Jr.
In Philippine culture, there is an underlying belief that everything is alive.
This world view called magical or mythical - assumes a continuity of
consciousness and direct communication, unmediated by symbols, not only
between human beings but between them and Bathala, the spirit world of
deities, departed ancestors and mythical heroes, animals, plants and
minerals. Among indigenous and folk Filipinos belief in spiritual kinship with
animals is widespread, e.g. the lizard or crocodile as totem brother. The fire
dancers of Alfonso Cavite unite with the consciousness of the fire element,
the salamander, to attain immunity from fire
This social sense of the world makes Filipinos harmony-seeking and
unitive. It encourages a devotional attitude towards the highest ranking
being in the cosmic social order for the reason that becoming one with this
figure unites one with the whole world.
Hence, images of divine beings attract so much devotional fervor in all
traditional Filipino towns and villages. A strongly shared devotion, as in the
Penafrancia Festival of Naga, develops an expanded sense of self, an
orientation that is communal rather than individualistic, intuitive and holistic
rather than logical and analytic, and preferring interdependence and
relationships over self-assertion and privacy.
Filipinos are highly relational people. They are hardly alone, quite happy
being together - when they eat, sleep, work, travel, pray, create or
celebrate. Having a minimal sense of privacy, they are open, trusting and
easily accessible socially. Instead of a meticulous concern for
safeguarding their private sphere, as in the case of Western peoples,
many Filipinos actively seek a convergence of their
lives with the lives of others. Thus, they become highly skilled and creative in
interpersonal relations and social interaction. The capacity to integrate
becomes one of the hallmarks of maturity.
A manifestation of this in music is the Filipino tendency to connect notes
to each other, unlike in the West where they are treated as isolated,
discrete entities. Pitches slide toward each other, just like two people
establishing rapport. Pitch slides (hagod) abound in melodies of
everyday Filipino language. For example, a vendor calls out ba-luuut ,
with the last syllable crossing several microtones and ending with a high
The communal orientation is manifested in all aspects of traditional
Filipino village life and, to a great extent, even in urban settings.

Communal Orientation of Traditional Music

Traditional music most sensitively reflects this communal orientation,
especially the music of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera, Mindoro,
Palawan, and Mindanao. The following basic concepts and attributes of music
and the conditions of music creation, expression and experience could only
have arisen in communal or integral Filipino cultural settings:
Multifunctionality: Integration of music with other values and
functions. Music is not valued for its own sake. The aesthetic is not divorced
from utilitarian, religious, moral, spiritual, social, and ecological concerns.
This ensures a balanced cultivation and development of human faculties.
Music is assigned as many uses and functions and levels of meaning as
possible. This is a way of integrating and representing the varied perceptions,
needs, and concerns within the community. Thus, music appeals to more
people and serves a broader range of values.
With multiple functions and values, music becomes an effective
instrument for bringing people together, rather than separating them
according to specialization or expertise. It draws together individuals of
varied interests, tastes and persuasions, thus promoting communal
The most communal cultures in the Philippines, like the cultures of our
indigenous peoples, will also have the most multifunctional kind of music. As
a culture becomes more individualistic, the more mono-functional the music
becomes, as in the serious music of the academe or pop entertainment
Integration of music with other arts. The unity of values in
communal cultures also works for a characteristic integration of the arts. The
balitaw of Cebu, pandangguhan of Batangas, awitan of Quezon, pagsindil of
Sulu, berso and maskota of Cagayan, and many others are all living,
contemporary examples of poetry, music, and dance all woven into one. A
kulintang musical performance among the Maranaw is inseparable from the
splendor of their visual arts, costumes, and dance. Musical instruments
among the cultural communities in Mindanao and Sulu are visual arts
masterpieces in themselves.
The basic assumption underlying the integration of values and merging of
the arts is that man is a being of many levelsphysical; psychic, sensuous,
emotional, mental, spiritualwhose survival and sense of fulfillment depends
on the successful integration of these levels. Our senses, in particular, need
to cooperate with each other for our fullest functioning. No one sense must
dominate all the others. Consistent with the integration of faculties is the

integration of artistic sensibilities. This is the reason for the merging of the
aural, visual, kinetic, literary and other art forms in communal or integral
No one sensory mode and aesthetic intelligence is to be cultivated at the
expense of the others. Although one may be given emphasis - musical,
literary, visual, spatial, kinaesthetic, gustatory and olfactory senses have to
be harnessed and promoted together for maximum aesthetic well-being.
An integration of faculties is definitely a function of intuition, which is a
Filipino genius and often manifests as pakiramdam, hiwatig, damdam or
kutob. Thus, the Filipino is highly capable of subtlety and nuances in
relationships. In music this is expressed in our microtonal propensity.
Microtones are intervals much smaller than the smallest distance between
piano notes. These microtones are like shadings to the tones produced. They
make for more colorful and interesting musical texture.
Music is integrated with everyday life and not regarded as a
separate activity. It does not become a specialism (specialization that is
narrow or at the expense of everything else, as defined by cultural critic
Jacques Barzun). It is not for the specialist alone but for everyone. This
implies that there will be no special venues or spaces for music because it
virtually exists wherever and whenever there is human activity.
The traditional artist himself is not a narrow specialist. His purpose is to
maintain, within his person, the broadest basis for interacting and
communicating with others in everyday life. This is why, for example, an
expert gong player for rituals may be a professional dentist the rest of the
time. A National Living Treasure of the Philippines, Samaon Sulayman, who is
a specialist and master of the kutyapi or two-stringed lute is also the
favorite barber in his home town and a Muslim imam on particular occasions.
To the integral traditional mind, pitting individual against society to raise the
individuals worth simply does not make sense.
Especially among our indigenous peoples, life is an indivisible whole. Art,
myth, ritual, work and activities of everyday life are all integrated into one.
Spirit and matter, God and nature, the visible and invisible worlds are not a
dichotomy but interpenetrate in many ways. Of all Filipino subcultures,
indigenous music is the most integrated with everyday life, multifunctional
and participatory.
Being most sensitive to the life around them the Lumad of the Cordillera,
Mindoro, Palawan and Mindanao highlands regard everything as alive. Rocks,
rivers, the winds, fire and air, are permeated by the same vital energy that
animates biological life. In many of their rituals, a continuity of consciousness
between human beings and animals, plants and minerals is attained,
especially when they are in a shamanic or babaylanic state of consciousness,
a condition correlated with theta brain waves.

An important tool for inducing a shamanic state of consciousness among

indigenous Filipinos is the use of the drone. The drone in music is either
a continuous uninterrupted sound or an ostinato, a periodic alternation
of stresses and intervals, or different combinations of both. The drone,
whether in continuous or ostinato forms, as in the phenomena of
continuous rain, river currents, insect buzz, and frog calls are powerful
inducers of a sense of timelessness leading to relaxation, trance or
hypnotic states.
Central Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian shamans and Australian
aborigines are well aware of the powerful effect of the drone on psychophysical states. A particular type of ostinato played on the drum (an
instrument they call their horse) can transport them to shamanic
states of consciousness as distinguished from ordinary states of
consciousness.The Shamanic State of Consciousness, which is
associated with theta brainwaves, allows us to journey into the higher
spiritual planes. The steady-rhythmic beat of the drum struck four and
one-half times per second (theta waves are 4-7 cps) is the key to
transporting a shaman into the deepest part of his or her Shamanic
trance. The constant and rhythmic-drone of Tibetan Buddhist chants
that transport the monks and other listeners into realms of blissful
meditation also follow this rhythm.
Philippine indigenous music has the widest repertoire of sounds in the
country, perhaps reflecting the myriad forms and enormous biodiversity of
their mountain and forest environment, making it very attractive and exciting
to the proponents of new or experimental music in the West, which is
currently fascinated in exploring the entire universe of aural phenomena. A
much broader definition of what constitutes a musical sound exists among
our indigenous peoples, not limiting it to sounds with definite pitch but
includes vocables, noise, and environmental sounds.
Harmony with nature is also oneness with the cosmic. A deeply mystical
concept, the unity of opposites, representing the twin cosmic forces holding
the universe together, like man and woman, forceful and tender, change and
permanence, positive and negative, black and white, etc. is a core principle
among Filipino indigenous peoples. Philippine traditional music abounds in
unities of opposites: drone and melody textures, ringing and damped tones of
the gangsa, contrast of the resonant kulintang sounds with the explosive,
cracked bamboo colors of the Yakan gandang, and many others.
Equality of opportunity for participation in the artistic, creative
process. There are relatively no superstars, for the source of power is not
the individual, who is only a channel of divine inspiration or creativity. Thus,
the author or creator is often anonymous. An authentic indigenous melody
like Salidummay or a folk song like Bahay Kubo will not be claimed by any
person as his creation.
Traditional music implies co-existence, cooperation, interaction,
collective participation and the idea of maximum employment of people

through an equal distribution of means, whether in the musical or economic

sphere. It can also connote other human or natural phenomena characterized
by interpenetrating and interacting layers: the ecological order, social strata,
energy levels, the bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, or the luminous
strata of the earth's atmosphere itself.
The traditional music of the West, particularly of the classical-romantic
period, focuses on the single, isolated, completed event. Whether depicting a
thought, emotion, experience, system of relations or action, the tendency is
to treat it as an individual, self-contained and finite process. One that begins
at a certain point, rises toward a climax, falls to a denouement, and ends with
finality, as in a single melodic line.
Philippine traditional music would have none of this "individualist
aesthetics," which ultimately alienates the artist from his audience and is,
therefore, a fitting metaphor for the individualistic and materialistic system of
values and attitudes that is behind much of the modern world's maladies: The
unprincipled capitalist's unbridled desire for profits, the lust for power that
drives nations to overspend for arms but leave very little for food and social
services, the uncontrolled use of technology that threatens to destroy the
ecology, the wasteful consumption and ruthless competition for scarce
resources that lead to chaos and cause untold misery to three-fourths of
humanity. All of these are a consequence of the perception, indeed the
illusion, that an event can be isolated from all other events, that a thing can
have a separate existence, or that an individual or society can live a selfcontained life and what one does can have no effect whatsoever on the rest
of mankind and nature.
Hence, one must not expect a single melody or tune accompanied by
chords when listening to our traditional music ensembles, unless it is the
rondalla or other Hispanic-inspired groupings. Music is not a linear
progression in time from a clear-cut beginning to a foreordained end (that is,
of music as thematic development). The listener cannot hope to find in them
the rise and fall of an emotion, dream or desire. Rather, he should imbibe,
absorb or steep himself in the mood, quality, character or "atmosphere" of
the surrounding space created by the musical "sound environment," as when
experiencing the Tiruray agong ensemble (with five agongs) of Cotabato, the
Kalinga gangsa ensemble. (with six gangsas), or the Magindanawon kulintang
ensemble (with four types of gongs and one drum).
The music performer is not separate from his audience or
society; communal participation is the norm. There is no basis for the
separation of performer from audience. Everybody is potentially a performer
and therefore his own audience. The situation does not give rise to the
traditional (and insoluble because of narrow specialization) Western
dichotomy of artist and society, artist-performer and spectator-audience, or
art and life.
The ideology of art for arts sake tends to make artistic creation the
exclusive province of professionals. The creative-artistic resource pool is

drastically reduced to that of the artistic sector within a much larger society
or community. When this happens the inbreeding that results will be
extensive and there is a danger that the whole sector will be thinking alike
and impoverish art in the process.
In the Philippines, manifestations of collective participation in making
artistic decisions abound. Zarzuela rehearsals in the provinces are usually
open to the public, thus inviting criticism from those present. Lantern-making
is open to everybody, regardless of skill or experience. Pasyon-singing is not
limited to the best singers in the community. Carving, pottery-making,
weaving, or making a musical instrument is everybody's concern.
Audience as artist
Another example of popular participation is the traditional awitan of
Quezon and Laguna wherein a man and a woman engage in a poetic debate
in song and dance, with a third person providing the guitar accompaniment.
Apparently there is a separate audience because not everybody is dancing
and singing all at the same time. Many people- seem to be just watching the
couple perform. But soon somebody from the crowd asks permission to offer
his opinion or piece of advice on the debate going on, also through song and
dance. Others may do the same as everybody is really encouraged to join
and share in the activity. And from the crowd rises cheers, exclamations or
spontaneous comments of approval or disapproval for one party or the other,
greatly and directly influencing whatever is happening at the moment. Thus,
the awitan is truly a communal affair and there is no place in it for a
detached spectator such as an art or music critic.
Such a relationship between the artist and his community
characteristic of many Asian societies. According to Koizumi:


'The role played by the audience in the musical and theatrical arts
of Asia is far more important than that of its European counterpart.
Asian audiences are not simply the passive recipients of musical
performances, for they have a much more active part in the creation
and performance of music. If, at a concert in the Arab world, no one
encouraged the performer with shouts such as aiwah (just so!) or Allah
akbar (God is great!) he would probably lose the power to go on
creating phrase after new phrase in the fabric of a tagsim or musical
improvisation, as well as losing confidence in his own ability to thrill by
his musical inventiveness.
Unlike in the West, there is no dichotomy of artist and society because
art is not the specialists concern alone. Artistic skill is not cultivated as a
special gift by select individuals but the province of everyone. Everybody is
expected to be an artist and participate in creative, expressive activities. In a
place where the pabasa is being done, anybody who comes is expected to do
the pasyon and not just listen. Musical form is open-ended to provide

maximum opportunity for creative communal interaction or participation.

Among our indigenous people, where musical traditions are the most
communal in the country, many instruments are often played by three or
more people in an interactive, reciprocal and interlocking fashion, highly
indicative of social cooperation, togetherness and an egalitarian ethos,
particularly in the distribution and access to resources.
Flexibility of material, technical, and formal requirements. No
rigid or fixed standards dictate the choice of materials, techniques, and forms
for artistic creation and expression, e.g. there is nothing like an arbitrary,
fixed system of tuning as in the European equal-tempered system though
definite principles underlie the tuning of musical instruments such as lutes,
flutes and gongs. Such flexibility ensures a wider, more democratic
participation of people in artistic activity. On the whole, Philippine traditional
music is less mechanical, freer and more flexible than Western music,
providing greater opportunity for communal participation in music making.
Each creation is unique
The more active role played by the people in making artistic decisions is
seen in the absence of fixed, mechanical, and arbitrary technical, material,
and formal standards (which does not mean lack of standards of artistic
excellence). These are flexible enough to allow for individual taste and
creativity. A person may choose or create the technique, materials, and forms
suitable to his expressive intentions and capabilities.
A particular Philippine instrument, for example, may come in varying
shapes, sizes, materials, tone color, number of notes (number of strings,
fingerholes, gongs, blades, etc.), tuning, and over-all design so as to allow for
individual differences in physique, finger span, strength and endurance,
technical ability, taste, temperament, musicality, imagination and spiritual
orientation among the potential performers and composers of a community.
Thus, no two kulintang sets are identical. They vary from village to village,
from person to person. Mass production, the endless duplication of an item, is
out of the question. The variations, of course, are done within the limits of
certain conventions of design and form which everybody in the community
recognizes as belonging to a particular instrument.
Nonetheless, artistic authority does not issue from one or a few
individuals in the community. A style or design, no matter how beautiful or
excellent, will not be copied exactly by others. Each person expresses
something of himself in his work every time so that he never repeats exactly
what another person or he himself has done. He may feel insulted if forced to

repeat a design. He may say that he is capable of creating more beautiful

The outcome is an amazing diversity and plethora of musical forms and
styles to which nothing in elite or mass culture can be compared.

The art expert

In contrast, the idea of mass production, which was partly brought about
by increasing specialization and the "passion" for comfort in the West
favors a setup wherein artistic decisions are made by just one or a few
"experts," whose designs or creations are executed, in a sense
"consumed," and reproduced in large quantities by a passive, noncreative labor force, as in a factory. The final products of this process are
then foisted by the elite few upon large masses of people who have to
be amused, diverted, or entertained for not being allowed active
participation in making crucial social, cultural, political, and economic
decisions. They become the passive consumers, the victims of social
manipulation and engineering who go crazy for fads, hits, bestsellers
and superstar idols whose styles, manners and forms they try their best
to imitate at the expense of their individual creativity, uniqueness, and
development as human, rather than as mechanical, beings.
Observe how a song or dance style, engineered by the few controllers of
the media to become a "hit" or "craze," so dominates the consciousness of
the masses (mostly urban) that they sing nothing else or dance nothing else
until the next fad comes along. They even take pride in copying -- mindlessly,
mechanicallythe style, manners, gestures, and appearance of the
"superstar" who apparently started it all.
Compared to people with elegantly flourishing traditional cultures, these
masses are impoverished! Especially in Northern Luzon, in Mindanao and
Sulu, no song or dance will be performed in the same way by two individuals.
Every person alters or creates it anew to satisfy his expressive and creative
urge. Thus, we have hundreds of styles of the music of the ogayam in the
north, kubing (mouth harp) in the south, or pasyon in Luzon and dances like
the pangalay in Sulu, pandanggo or jota in Luzon and the Visayas.
Such creative/artistic freedom hardly exists in an elite-mass culture
wherein an art song, sonata, pas de deux, or a threeact play is presented
as a finished, completed, unalterable product, even though it may have been

created in the past in response to particular social, cultural, material, and

spiritual needs and conditions that may no longer exist.
A strength of oral traditions
The fact that, in traditional culture, artistic instructions are not written on
paper but in the minds of people gives them the freedom to alter these
according to the situation and expressive needs of the moment. This is
particularly true in the performing artsmusic, dance, drama, story-telling,
and poetrywhere the performer-creator has to be especially sensitive to the
feelings and response of his audience/co-performers and the total social
situation for maximum artistry, interaction, and effectiveness. This is one
important reason why set pieces, those that are predetermined or planned
from beginning to the end, i.e., standard musical, literary, theatrical
compositions like Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu, Keat's Ode To A Grecian Urn,
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, or Bizet's opera Carmen are the exception in
people's culture. Instead, we find that most songs, epics, dances and plays
change with each presentation. Each new performance is actually a new
creation. Such a concept of artistic creation insures a maximum integration of
creator, performer, audience, and situation. Art and life become one.
The standardization and mechanization of technique, materials, forms,
and products in elite-mass culture actually favor those few individuals who
have the means and inclination to work creatively within these fixed
standards. They virtually bar the vast majority of people from active
participation. Take the piano, for instance, whose keyboard, size, and shape,
distance between keys, tone color, characteristic amplitude, tuning, etc.
effectively discriminate against individuals who may not have the right
physique, finger span, strength, and temperament for it. Yet the piano is
practically identical everywhere! In particular, a person who may desire to
change its tuning (called equal temperament and pegged to an A-440
standard) will run into some difficulty because of its fixed and highly
mechanized nature. The Spanish guitar with its fixed frets is not much better
even if its tuning pegs are easily manipulable. Compare these with the highly
variable tuning system of the koto of Japan, sitar of India, or our own kudyapi,
the very frets of which are movable.
Use of available resources for music creation. Music is not
synonymous with big production costs because what matters is artistic
excellence or the creative idea as well as making music part of everyday life.
Thus, the least
expensive mediums, e.g. bamboo, wood and stones, are regarded highly and
not considered inferior to the costlier ones. And even the most practical
objects like pots, thongs, or sticks can become a medium for the finest music.

Among the Cordillerans, a porcelain plate can easily become an instrument

for playing the drone. The Tagbanua of Palawan, the loose bamboo flooring of
the house becomes lively rhythm for the tarek dance.
Emphasis on the creative process rather than the finished
product. The equality of opportunity for artistic participation implies a
greater importance given to the process of artistic creation or invention
rather than to the finished products arising from it. This endows
extemporaneous, improvisatory or spontaneous expressions of creativity a
higher value than deliberate, often solitary, conceptualization and
composition of forms. This creative spontaneity, made possible by a highly
magical and intuitive mode of consciousness, could be the prime generator of
the permutative formal procedure often found in traditional music, whether
vocal or instrumental.
The valuing of process rather than product nurtures creative health and
can inhibit mere idolizing of masterpieces and obsession with permanence.
Ephemeralness an advantage
If traditional art tends to be ephemeral, it is because the emphasis is not
on the art object itself but the joy of making it.
One reason for the ephemeralness of our traditional art objects is the
prevalent use of bio-degradable materials like bamboo, bark, wood, reeds,
leaves, paper, gourds, animal bones, hides, and other inexpensive materials
readily obtainable from the environment.
But this ephemeralness is an advantage in integral culture since it
encourages the continuous creation of art rather than the preservation and
worship of a few masterpieces done in the past. Like the Balinese of
Indonesia or the Chopi of Africa, the Filipino traditional artists sees "no need
for 'classics' to keep them in touch with their past, no need to take refuge in
the past from the pressures of the present." To them, "it is the process of
creation that is important; the product is relatively unimportant and can be
discarded without compunction, a sign of self-confidence on the part of these
richly creative artists that seems to be lacking in the West."
Simultaneity of conception and realization. A culture that puts
emphasis on the creative process rather than on the finished product will
make conception and performance simultaneous activities. Affirmation of the
creative imagination through the tradition of instant mirroring or biofeedback,
which, together with emphasis on the creative process, provides an excellent
condition for communal participation.
Some Musical Correlates of Communal Participation in the Creative Process


Communal participation in magical traditions tend to endow music

with both a phenomenal and noumenal (numinous) levels of
significance. For ex. Alain Danielou asserts that Western-trained
ears may not
realize how an isolated note can convey the full meaning of a
chord because of its
position in regard to the memorized tonic or to another axial note.
A floating, suspended, modal quality, as in the awit or music of the
Melismatic, microtonal and stylized melody
Natural voice quality and broad pitched sounds
Relatively unmeasured melody accompanied by a drone or drones
Non-metric rhythm, layering and interlocking of rhythms
Asymmetrical phrasing
Open-ended form, may be taken up by others
Permutative formal procedure
Poetic and musical improvisations
Polaristic sonic order (preference for pairs of opposites)

The decline of integral art in urban settings

As Philippine society becomes more Westernized, particularly in the more
urbanized and industrialized areas, the cultural contexts enumerated
above are replaced by their exact opposite. Artistic creation becomes
narrowly specialized, separate from everyday life, a glorification of the
individual ego, and obsessed with commercial success. It becomes primarily
a medium for technical virtuosity, sensory impacts, entertainment, and highly
secular values. Art loses its magical, mythical and mystical qualities.
The technical and economic power of Western art for arts sake has
awed many Filipino artists and led them to embrace its individualist
aesthetics. Creative cooperation and harmony in traditional communities
have been replaced by the wasteful competition and anxiety-driven ways of
modern living.
Consumerism Could Dehumanize (or Endanger Mental Health)
In highly communal, traditional, cooperative, non-consumerist cultures,
people tend to be more open and expressive, thus more likely to be
relaxed, rhythmic, musical, and, hence, satisfying an important
precondition for health. Filipino musicality and expressiveness has its source
in a deep communal orientation, attitude of openness, trust, and acceptance
of life.
On the other hand the highly competitive, consumerist, arhythmic,
irregular, fragmented character of modern, industrialized lifestyles can easily
make people sick. Imbalances in our habits create imbalances in our bodies.


More than 60% of all U.S. Americans are dangerously overweight. In the cities
we tend to overschedule and undersleep. Stress is considered a normal part
of modern life. Depression, heart disease, and cancer are some of the ways
our bodies' use to "pull the emergency brake."
Quite threatening to mental health in consumerist societies are the
following conditions, which are also factors that inhibit musical creativity:
Very few are involved in creative or productive work, the majority
simply buy (or receive passively) the products or decisions of others
Especially in the cities, employees and workers simply obey or
consume instructions from an authority
Mass production, which is indifferent to human creative individuality,
is considered acceptable, even desirable

Many Filipinos who have been educated in the Western way or

conditioned by the massive propaganda for Western elite and mass cultures
in our midst have distanced themselves from Filipino integral or communal
art to the extent of denigrating it as inferior and primitive, if not ignoring it
altogether as art. Such thinking has no basis in fact and is mainly the result of
ignorance and lack of exposure to the excellence of our traditional arts.
The best representatives of our communal culturesthe so-called
"ethnic" Filipinos in northern Luzon, Mindoro, Mindanao and Sulu, Palawan,
lowland folk in Luzon and the Visayas, and traditional communities even in
urban places like Manila and Cebuhave never succumbed to the error of
dichotomizing art and life or serving art at the expense of the integrity of the
community or the individual. Unlike in the West, our integral art has always
been a way of making oneself whole and of harmonizing oneself with others,
with nature and with life.
To revitalize the cultural contexts of the traditional arts in contemporary
life is to return to the path of wholeness and wisdom.