Attending to the Spirits
A review of the music CD Diwa by Grace Nono
(Produced by Grace Nono and Bob Aves for Tao Music; October 2002)

by Luisa A. Igloria*
212 Westover Ave.
Norfolk, VA 23507

Diwa is variously translated as soul, as intrinsic essence, as inward-dwelling spirit. It is about listening to the spirit that lives and breathes in everything. In the hands of Grace Nono, it is an ambitious musical project, in breadth and scope no less in vision, especially because while its primary aim is to bring to listeners a lived experience of musical and ideological elements culled from indigenous Philippine history, it also wants to illustrate the universal threads woven through this identity: Chinese, other Southeast Asian, Arabic, Spanish-European, and contemporary global influences.

There are two powerful and immediate registers that you feel when you listen to Diwa, the latest musical project of singer-songwriter Grace Nono: the first thing is the realization of how much the world has changed, how far it has come from its beginnings, how we stand at the brink of this new century especially in the wake of world events like the conflicts in Europe, the Middle East, and the destruction of the World Trade Center with the sense of our burdens of loss and fear; the second is the recognition that despite all that is uncertain, terrible, and wounded, there are realities that are older than any time we could ever know, that shimmer and invite us to look ìbeyond what is seen, heard, touched, smelled and tasted; that though intangible, [they give] hope, strength, courage, understanding, joy, and meaning to existence.(Grace Nono, from album liner notes)

Grace Nono explains how the album is the result of a continuing personal search for her voice. For such a remark to come from a less able artist might perhaps be the equivalent of professional hara-kiri. An artist who has not yet found her voice? What a seeming anathema to the idea that someone with such accolades to her name as the Catholic Mass Media Award for excellence in music (1994 and 1996), KATHA Best World Music Album (1996, 1998, 1999), TOYM Ten Outstanding Young Men Award for the Performing Arts (1994), and TOWNS The Outstanding Women In the Nation's Service Award for the Performing Arts (2001), Catholic Mass Media Award for excellence in music (1994, 1996 and 2002). Surely, she must already have found a voice and firmly established a comfortable identity in her art and life. Not that Grace ís acknowledged place in contemporary Philippine music is in question, nor that her musical powers have faltered in this album for they have not-- in fact, her voice has never been as rich, strong, and nuanced as in cuts like the traditional chant adapted from the Kalinga of the Cordilleras, ìDosayanî, in the haunting rendition of the traditional Ilongo lullaby ìIli-Iliî, or the near-wordless chant ìMeditationî supported with percussion by Graceís husband-soulmate Bob Aves, work on cello, violins and viola by Renato Lucas, Reginald and Olgu Pineda and Felicito Dumlao.

But for someone like Grace, the articulation of this continuing search through a work like Diwa is one of the qualities that most clearly sets her apart from other artists who can become -- and often are involved with the narrower, more solipsistic concerns of their craft and/or career. In this album, Grace devotes her musical abilities to the idea of mediumship, a tendency that was already apparent in her earlier works, especially Opo and Isang Buhay. She writes, ìI listened to the spirit speaking in day to day situations, in dreams and in other peopleís stories, permeating the air in mountain clearings, river valleys, backstreets and academic halls, cable tv and the electronic superhighway.The voice that you hear in this album has become a merging of many voices; a merging that transpired in the course of living and music making. I can't think of a more pleasing way to acknowledge and thank one's roots, one's family, community, connections, teachers, friends and co-sojourners on this path.

And so, including the other cuts already mentioned, Diwa has this impressive line-up of material: Maghimaya ka, Maria, a Visayan adaptation of the Latin prayer ìAve Mariaî composed by Tomas Luis de Victoria in 1611; the Itawit- and Ibanag-inspired Golpiadu Makimallo; Hol Doyon Kuy Díwata, a song of praise from the Tíboli of South Cotabato; Panangpit, an adaptation of a tod-om or vocal music form traditional to the Manobo of Agusan del Sur; Sa ëYo, O Diyos, Graceís rapturous Tagalog adaptation of the Latin piece Te Deum, ascribed to St. Nicetas in the year 415; a throaty, atypically non-sopranic interpretation of the American hymn Amazing Grace sung to kudlon and skin drum accompaniment; and Awit sa Krus, based on the pandanggo and awit forms found in southwestern Batangas. The melodic core of these songs is not new; they are very old materials; but what Grace has done with them is to create a meeting of forms and presences: theirs, plus her own contemporary sense of cross-cultural influences. The result is a carefully researched, lovingly prepared collection of songs that show how we are all kindred spirits, desirous beings residing on this earth, longing for the sweetness of the spiritual home which gave birth to all of us. Neal Oshima's evocative photographs and cover artwork, Felix Mago MiguelÌs inviting lay-out and design, Bob Avesí expert musical arrangements and direction, together with a host of other artistic and academic credits, give further testament to the collaborative nature of this project.

While Diwa may not be a popular album in the way that the word is understood, it is a singular and distinctive experience full of rich rewards for those who would attune their ears and hearts and minds to the blessings which we have been so fortunate to receive through Grace.

* Luisa Igloria (previously published as Maria Luisa Aguilar Carino) is a poet and writer originally from Baguio City. She is currently an associate professor of Creative Writing and English at Old Dominion University. She has collaborated with Grace Nono on a number of poetic translations for the latterís musical projects.

Luisa A. Igloria, Ph.D.
English Department & Creative Writing Program, Old Dominion University
Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk, VA 23529, USA
(757) 683-3991 xt 3929; Fax (757) 683-3241;


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