Grace Nono, Isang Buhay/One Life
(BMG Pilipinas, 1998)
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".
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
Maria Luisa Aguilar