Elemental Passages
Grace Nono, Isang Buhay/One Life
(BMG Pilipinas, 1998)

Just around the beginning of this lunar year, Grace Nono released a startlingly beautiful, new collection of songs under the title Isang Buhay/One Life (BMG Pilipinas, 1998). As always the hallmarks of Grace Nono's artistry and special magic are there--the originality, the unique voice and the tonal resonances that remind you of elemental things: keening wind and soothing water; fire and stone, the dusky quality of earth. But in this new album that comes more than a year after her triumphant Opo (which won seven Katha awards in 1996), Grace rewards the listener not only with a journey to new artistic levels but also with the sensitive fusion of varied energies expressive of life's many melodies and facets. More than that, the album represents what we might call a coming to maturity, a richer ripening, for an artist who has worked long and seriously to keep honing both vision and craft.

Followers of Nono's musical career remember her early exposure as lead female rock singer for the Baguio-grown band The Blank, which re-established itself soon after the late eighties in the Music Museum. Following a hiatus in her native Mindanao, where she immersed herself in traditional lore and music, Nono released her first album Tao Music (Record Plant, 1992; BMG Pilipinas, 1993) as an independent venture. For many commentators on the music scene, the enthusiastic reception of her fresh interpretation of tunes inspired by themes that "have always been there" was an indicator of several things. At a time when the "ethnic" provided one definition for innovative musical experimentations such as those of Joey Ayala, "alternative" also seemed a convenient way to describe the sound of Grace Nono's music. With Opo in 1996 and an increased interest in "world music", the stylistic features of Nono's productions might easily be categorized as part of the growing body of songs employing traditional instrumentation, indigenous rhythms and folk lyrics updated by digitized technology, synthesizers, standard acoustic sets. However, as Grace herself said in an October 1995 interview for the International Herald Tribune, her interest is not part of a "romantic crusade...to change the world but to evolve with it. These forms are ancient, but just as relevant as anything else in today's language".

Chatting with Grace several times this month over the production history of Isang Buhay, we had a chance to better to understand the rare confluence of energies which went into this work, and the woman who sings the music in it-- from the marvelously articulated title song where she inflects each breath, each undulating chant and pause between syllables-- with so much ardor. Isang buhay is as much the result of her own continuing quest for clearer musical definitions, as it is a product of close collaboration with her husband and "soulmate", ace guitarist and musical arranger Bob Aves. "It's a perfect relationship because he can do things that I cannot do, and vice versa," says Grace. "His gifts include the ability to work amazing things with harmonies." But the collaboration is also more than that, for it allows Grace to arrive at a ledge where she can comfortably speak of the spirit journey that Isang Buhay also is.

The album divides thematically into motifs taken from the life-passage itself: Pagsilang/Birth, Paghahanap/Search, Pag-ibig/Love, Tunggalian/Conflict, Pagkamulat/Awakening, Kapayapaan/Peace, Pagbabalik/Return. The title song eases the listener, with twelve-string guitars and the sweet comfort of rainsticks, into the portal. The voice of Grace is both the vessel and the current we ride on this journey into the bittersweet mingling of moments: "Aking tuwa/aking pait/aking hiyaw/'sang buhay/isang sulyap/na may ngiti/isang iglap/'sang buhay."

"Ani" celebrates the idea of community and bounty with its robust rhythms and the familiar imagery of life in tune with seasonal change. Even in this relatively simple ditty, Nono's attentiveness to craft emerges in little details like the way she resists conventional strategies for sliding into melodic line-endings. There is always a little catch of surprise, the voice dipping or extending a few more beats, before releasing itself with abandon in a chanted refrain, or lowering mesmerically into a lullabye of wakefulness in "Anungan.

"I think I am much more in control of my voice now. I'm doing things with my voice that I didn't do before. The tones are slightly more nasal. I've finally understood how technique comes not just from paying attention to a delivery from pure emotion. Even when I practice, it is important for me to feel I can throw my voice and not create waves of disturbance," muses Grace, when asked to reflect about what this album represents in terms of developments in vocal or other technique.

"Musically, Isang Buhay also simplifies some of the experiments we have done with sounds in the last two albums". She explains how "alternative" or "ethnic" no longer seem to provide adequate description of what they have tried to do: "Those kind of labels become problematic, because you outgrow yourself. Isang Buhay is solid, just as the effort that goes into every Nono recording and every project to come so far from Tao Music (Grace's and Bob's independent record label and publishing company). The diversity and richness of these sources is another offering of the album-- here we have a harvest of very tuneful songs, including one of my favorite cuts, "Ader", which is a kudlong (two-string lute), pitched bamboo drums and skin percussions by Bob Aves, the simple monotonal fabric of the song, reinterpreted by Grace, becomes charged with an astounding array of human emotions ranging from the playful to the erotic.

Other memorable moments in the album include the haunting "Ay, Leng", a lullabye that yokes the ideas of sleep and death together in the same piece, and the exquisite nuancing of "Pag-iisang Puso" that makes one realize all over again how, in popular music today, the vocabulary for describing the singular experience of love and union has become so appallingly jaded and unremarkable.

"I feel that I have come full circle," says Grace, as we exchange notes over our children and life-passages. "And I am so glad I didn't get here from nowhere. I went through it the hard way". We've been friends for more than seventeen years, go back a long way, so I know exactly what she means. Some of our searches have also converged paths at many points, and I tell her this is why her new album often brings me near that apex where it seems impossible to discern the difference between pain and joy. "I was an unbeliever for years. I also had to unload a lot of that stuff from feeling misunderstood, having no one to level with. Then I hit rock bottom. Humbled, I started studying this thing that I had persecuted for years. I've surrendered and have found my spirit nature again. My husband is also deeply spiritual, though he practices a different path. We respect each other's position. The more vigilant one of us becomes, the more inspired the other is to do the same. Different roads to the same God. Is it a search? Perhaps. There are a lot more centers to be opened. I look forward to those; I feel as though I am only starting to be aware of my slumber."

The evidence is in Isang Buhay, in the way Nono is gracefully riding and balancing the new-charged energies in her life. She will continue to disclaim that she is a "singer", though people see her only in that way. Rather, she sees herself as a "generalist", someone for whom singing (performance) takes up only about twenty per cent of her actual working time. Her commitments have grown deeper-- music of course infuses all of these, in all her other roles as artist and cultural researcher and publisher for Tao Music, student of Asian and indigenous musical forms and yes-- wife, and mother to ten-year-old Tao.

Appropriately, Isang Buhay ends with the song "Kadkadduwa" (an Ilocano word for "companions")-- a blessing and acknowledgment, closure without end. The English translation of the last few lines go thus: "Thank you for your smile/your kindness and love/Oh brightness so perfect/sail me home/to the land of my origins/A freedom like no other/To Kanlaon, to Kadungayan!/To Madjaas, to Magdiwata!" With Grace, now we can look forward to the radiant other journeys initiated by Isang Buhay.

by Maria Luisa Aguilar


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