Joey Ayala & Grace Nono: giving a Filipino voice to World Music
by Ed Maranan

In the Philippines, where they have inspired countless advocates for the imperilled environment and indigenous cultures of the country, Joey Ayala and Grace Nono have become cultural icons, role models, and best-selling musicians. Moreover, they have been hailed as the epitome of the socially engaged artists who have given a fresh meaning and cachet to an ancient catchphrase itself threatened with extinction, 'cause-oriented'.

And now the exemplars of what one may call the Filipino 'Eco-Ethnic Soul Music' have become officially part of the multicultural World Music movement (as distinguished from, of course, Globalized Pop Music) with their recent participation in the highly successfully Diaspora Music Village in London from June 26 to July 14, organized by Cultural Cooperation, an independent arts charity set up in 1987 with the aim of promoting international and intercultural understanding through the arts, mainly through music, so as to enhance local and global cultural dialogue.

It holds an annual festival called the 'music village', one amongst several in London, and one of the biggest and most spectacular, not unlike the Womad or World of Music and Dance festival in Reading. Cultural Cooperation's Music Village is an aural and visual feast of what has come to be known as World Music - the expressive totality of the indigenous or ethnic, folk or traditional, sacred and secular music, both vocal and instrumental, together with their accompanying dance forms or movements, from all the continents.

This year, the theme of the 18th Music Village was Diasporas, the "mass population dispersals around the world at different times in world history," in the words of Festival Director Prakash Daswani, who suggests that Diasporas are such "a vast and complex theme, yet one that seems to us vitally important to comprehend if we are to come to terms with the often troubled modern times in which we live - and to make the most of their great potential for positive social change and peaceful co-existence."

For three weekends, and in almost daily performances and lecture-workshops around London, Joey and Grace - together with guitarist and arranger Bob Aves, who's also Grace's husband, and multi-instrumentalists Malou Matute, Niño Hernandez and Budethz Casinto - joined up with ten other international musical groups as well as twenty-seven London-based artists in giving appreciative audiences an endless enjoyment of African, Latin, Middle Eastern, European, Caribbean, East Asian and Southeast Asian rhythms, chants, songs, instrumental music and choreography, with each open-air concert lasting for at least nine hours, leaving the listeners cheering for more. The participants gave weekend concerts at Kew Gardens, Regents Park, and Greenwich Park; workshops and performances at the British Museum, October Gallery, and selected schools; and international showcases at the Union Chapel in Islington.

We can happily report that the Filipino musical artists gave bravura performances of their musicmaking that combines indigenous motifs, movements and sounds-exemplified by Grace Nono's mesmerizing chanting and singing and expressive dancing - with contemporary ecological and sociological themes, performed with traditional instruments yet reinforced with electronic amplification, particularly in the virtuoso guitar-playing of Joey Ayala, whose powerful baritone coursed through a wide range of emotions, from depths of poignancy to heights of celebration, often laced with native wit, humor, or irony. And what a skillful backup they were blest with: arranger-maestro Bob on the octavina, Malou on the kulintang and kubing and assorted brass bells, and Niño and Budethz with their array of drums, gongs, sticks, and other percussion instruments from north and south of the Philippine archipelago.

Those fortunate enough to have known Joey's "alternative (Alter/Native) music" from the early 80s onwards through his post-Bagong Lumad phase, as well as the epic soul-singing of Grace Nono of a later period, would have thrilled to hearing them again in the vast expanses of London's greenparks or the cool sanctums of its museums, galleries and churches. It was a delight to hear Joey's new songs, such as Tabi po (mapaglarong Engkanto), "a reminder" - in the poet-singer's words - "that consciousness resides everywhere and not just in the human being", a get-up-and-dance song recounting his trek up the mystical Mt. Banahaw, sung with a dose of hip-hop and reggae. But the heart swelled to hear as well cult classics like Panganay ng Umaga, "a rousing ode to the morning, an expression of containing, and being contained by, the whole of creation"; Ilog, " life as a river, meandering yet with a purpose"; Tingnan n'yo (Arkipelago), "a call for peace and unity in a culturally and historically fragmented country"; Mindanao," an invitation to visit the South, and to sow peace"; and the eco-warrior's ominous Ania na, a warning that "environmental action is a concern for today, a daily, everyday endeavor which is not about the future alone".

And listening to Grace Nono is an epiphany that opens up into a spirit-womb of ancestral wisdom, into a land and a time of oneness with the earth and with the natives who inhabited it. Most of her songs, in which chanting is integral, have been sourced from Philippine ethnic music that, together with epic poetry and mythology, constitutes our oral tradition. These songs were taught to her by the indigenous singers themselves, finally taking shape as her own interpretations - for concert delivery and compact disc - through husband Bob's creative adaptation and sensitive arrangement.

Her Diaspora repertoire, interspersed with Joey's pieces, included the following: Ader, a Maguindanaon courtship song (from Labaya Piang of Maguindanao); Ambahan ni Wili, a Hanunuo Mangyan ambahan "delivered by a wife metaphorically speaking about her husband whom she refers to as a tree she could not lean or depend on" (from Wili Manggaya, a Hanuno Mangyan woman); Batang Lansangan, Grace's re-working of the Ibaloi children's rhyme Bagbagtu, by threading the text throughout with her own verses about streetchildren; O D'wata Holi Kemudung, a T'boli prayer for peace and justice (from T'boli shaman and epic chanter Mendung Sabal); Dosayan, a Kalinga prayer for peace and unity (from Kalinga artist Arnel Banasan); and Dindikan, a Maguindanaon lament (from Maguindanao music teacher and kulintang specialist Aga Mayo Butocan). These songs are included in her albums Isang Buhay, Hulagpos, and Opo, which she and her husband produced for their independent music label Tao Music, which has already come out with a Philippine Indigenous Music Series.

The Joey and Grace concert act in London, just like the message of their music, was a unified performance that bespoke harmony and holism. Grace gave vocal support, with expressive choreography, to Joey's songs, while he provided vocal support and dexterous guitar playing for her own singing. Innovativeness heightened the group's passionate playing, at one point using the Cordillera bamboo percussion tambi in lieu of brass gongs as they moved around and down the stage in simulation of the tadek ritual dance.

The fact that not too many Filipinos were able to watch the performances of Joey Ayala and Grace Nono was mitigated by the realization that they were providing thousands of Londoners an eye-opener to the musical genius of Filipino artists, and that their appearance at the Diaspora Music Village this year could presage the beginning of a more permanent presence of the Philippines in the world of World Music. It is an exciting thought, though, and an ever-present hope that the people of the Filipino Diaspora and their second- and third-generation progeny could yet rediscover their powerful ethnic origins through the music of Spirit-bearers like Joey Ayala and Grace Nono. At least for now, our musicians are giving a Filipino voice to World Music that is bringing together diverse cultures in a joyous celebration of life, perhaps a tiny and yet a very palpable beat of hope amidst the steady din of universal conflict.

The participation of Joey Ayala, Grace Nono and their group at the Diaspora Music Village was made possible by the British Council Manila Office, the Philippine National Commission on Culture and the Arts, through arrangements made with Cultural Cooperation by the Philippine Embassy in London headed by Ambassador Cesar B. Bautista, and with the cooperation of the British Council in Manila. Author Ed Maranan is the Foreign Information Officer of the Philippine Embassy in London.


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