Artist Celebrates The Traditional

Manila - Contrary to the expectations of those accustomed to the Filipino bands in hotel lobbies around the world, original Filipino music does exist. It just isn't a major export yet. But with artists such as Grace Nono around, it should be.

Nono's music is strong, rhythmic, tribal and moving. She combines native instruments with a modern consciousness. The result is a form of ethnic rock that is the latest craze among Manila's bohemian set.

Performing traditional music takes vast reserves of physical energy, which Ms. Nono exudes from her tiny but powerful frame. After spending time with the Ata mountain people in her home province of Agusan del Sur, on the southern island of Mindanao, Ms. Nono says it requires spiritual energy too.

The appeal of the Ata, she says, "is not just in their instruments, their dress ... it's more basic than that. It's more basic than mythology. Seeing them face to face is like seeing a part of me that I had forgotten."

"Music is like a companion for me," explains Ms. Nono, 30. "I was an only child, I had no friends, but I had a guitar. I could talk to it. I left home at the age of 12, and it was the same situation - no friends."

"After school, I had a family, and the music was still there. Then the marriage finished and the music was there. Finally, I thought I should focus on the music. It never let me down. It's my most basic fixation."

Trained in theater arts, anthropology, art history and Asian music, Ms. Nono combines many influences in her song-writing and performance.

"There are so many subcultures here," she explains. "Some are avant-garde, some pop, some pure traditional. It's like cooking stew, with many ingredients. You put them all in the casserole, boil them and let them simmer.

"I'm talking about traditional rhythms, traditional instruments, textures and color. But I'm also talking about contemporary instruments, like the computer.

"And I'm talking about a lot of soul."

Her first album, Tao Music, has just been followed by Opo, which she is busy promoting on local radio and television. While much of her music is traditional, it is at the same time contemporary. A haunting and full-sounding song turns out to be simply her voice and one lute.

The important element of traditional music, says Ms. Nono, is the rhythm, produced by logs, skins, stones, anything at hand. Western notions of harmony do not play a large part, but lyrics and feeling do.

"Padayon is a song on my first album. It's in Visayan (the language of central Philippines) and is all about moving on. I think I wrote it in a bus!" she says.

The original inspiration for many songs is the lullaby. Grace Nono uses a lullaby chant from the Cordillera mountain people in northern Luzon and weaves lyrics and harmonies around it. "I try to be as organic as possible," she says, over a fresh pot of herbal tea at her home, which she shares with her eight-year-old daughter and another solo parent and child.

"My time in the mountains has left a lasting impression on my mental landscape. In the mountains there are so many layers, so many levels of consciousness as mountain after mountain fades away into mist."

Tribal inspiration risks becoming a cliché to the purveyors of mainstream culture, she admits. But this alternative scene in the Philippines is alive and well.

In Baguio City, for example, near the gateway to Luzon's mountain ranges, is the Cafe by the Ruins, where performances of poetry, music, jokes and other arts happen around the large open fire and get written up in the national newspapers.

Also in Baguio, and organized by many of the same people, is the Baguio Arts Festival. This intense experience of a range of arts, from the traditional to the bizarre, happens every November.

Yet Manila radio stations play unending selections of sentimental love ballads, with no sounds of the Philippine heritage to be heard but Nono hasn't given up though.

"It was harder to interest people a few years ago. Now, more Filipinos are open," she says.

Nono and friends hope to change attitudes through a variety of projects.

The Philippines Tourism Department is organizing "The Musical Islands Festival," November 20-26, featuring Ms. Nono and other traditional artists.

Her own record label, Tao Music, is now engaged in producing other artists as well as herself. Her home is sometimes home to Kulintang workshops with a specially hired master of the gongs.

"What we want is a balance, a unique sound," Ms. Nono says. "This is not to preserve old things. It's not a romantic crusade. We are not out to change the world, but to evolve with it. These forms are ancient but just as relevant as anything else in today's language."

by Vaudine England
International Herald Tribune
19 October 1995


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