The Grace Nono Phenomenon
welcome by-product of the notion of Global Village is the decisive
perforation of boundaries between hegemonic, Eurocentric practices
(i.e. Gregorian, Romantic, Baroque) and the older and more diverse
indigenous forms which, until lately, lay low in the fringes of their
post-colonial grasp. More artists are committing serious time and
effort to traditions previously derided as primitive or backward.
This turnabout reeks of poetic justice. The grand European movements
were, after all, built up from small folk traditions.
centuries-old boundaries is never easy. It takes great skill, talent
and quixotic hard-headedness to swim against tidal waves of Colonial
habit and suffuse the so-called mainstream with fresh water from primal
founts. Big music money does not smile on this. Yet a distinct pleasure
of the 90s is knowing that World Music has gained a toe-hold in the
major Philippine cities like Manila, Davao, Cebu and Baguio, the challenge
has been to cross over from anthropology discourse into the pop limelight.
Early attempts in the 70s were dismissed as provincial (read: inferior)
but the provinces, the periphery, were the only true sources of alternatives.
Thanks to the termite-like persistence of Emil Sanglay and Pen Pen,
Asin, Al Santos and the PETA Ensemble and, in the 80s, Joey Ayala
and Bagong Lumad (New Native), Popong Landero and Ang Grupong Pendong,
young filipinos had footpaths to trace in the quest for racial self.
the 90s, we have Grace Nono.
At age 12, Grace entered the Philippine High School for the Arts on
a Theatre Arts scholarship. The PHSA was then a fledgling third-world
Julliard meant to hothouse talent from all over the islands. It was
situated on Mount Makiling, in Southern Luzon, about 900 km from Grace's
birthplace in Agusan del Sur, Mindanao. She read Humanities at the
University of the Philippines in Baguio, Northern Luzon. In Baguio,
she got into music, fronting for a critically welcomed but financially
challenged rock group called the Blank.
five years, a failed marriage and one daughter, serious questions
began to plague Grace and the music which she adopted as a craft.
A turning point came at the Baguio Arts Festival in 1990, where with
the Blank, she found herself as re-hashing covers of Western rock
in lieu of original compositions.
Grace, a PHSA product, this mimesis become problematic. The Blank
disbanded and Grace returned to Agusan, where, in a semi-sabbatical,
she renewed her links to indigenous communities, the Manobo, found
healing in their sense of community and native instruments. Things
began to come full circle. What followed was an epiphany of sorts,
recharged creativity and a clearer goal. She had found her voice.
She later returned to Manila, still the hub of the music industry,
and in 1993 released the first of what would be 4 haunting and painstakingly
Music hit the scene as the next wave in Indi music (Indi, as opposed
to Indie, means not only Independent but also based on indigenous
sources). Grace found an ideal collaborator in Bob Aves, Berklee graduate
and virtuoso guitarist whose arrangements gave Grace's already catchy
ethnic-tone-poems an exquisite contemporaneity. They covered subjects
like exploitation of wealth in minority territories, as in Lawang
Sebu (Lake Cebu), marginalization from tribal lands, in Tu Pasak Ta
(Our Land) and Salidumay (Cordillera lullaby). This maiden effort
was suffused with attention to detail and collaborative precision
heretofore not associated with alternative music.
who had likened record making to birthing, took two years to follow
up with Opo (Affirmation) in 1995. It not only hurdled the 2nd album
jinx, it won the affirmation from peers and industry bodies for Musical,
Production, Traditional Recording, Engineering and Album Design excellence.
The Grace Nono/Bob Aves team continued, with luminous contributions
from pedigreed session players like axemen Jun Lopito, Cesar Aguas
and Gerry Duran, bassist Bobby Taylo, keyboardists Tateng Katindig
and Mel Villena. It also featured Diokno Pasilan on Hegalong (Two-stringed
lute) and Rene Tengasantos on drums. The album established Grace's
gift for synthesizing diverse talents.
extended Grace's thematics to include the plight of street children,
Batang Lansangan, the true ignorance underlying colonial disrespect,
Mangmang 'Yan (The Ignorant Ones) and a mother's deep oneness with
her child Alay (Offering). Not to be missed are Kawayan, (Bamboo)
a wind-borne sonnet to the embodiment of resilience and Dandansoy,
a goose-pimple raising reprise of a Visayan folk love song.
third album, Isang Buhay (One Life), 1997 could be said to also describe
the evolution of the Grace/Bob team from creative to conjugal. Both
acknowledge the convenience this brings, while being careful to preserve
the necessary psychic and productive space within which two intense
spirits need to thrive. Aside from the title track, the theme of coming
together is explored in the atmospheric Pag-iisang Puso (When two
hearts unite) and Kadkadduwa, Ilocano for companions.
Buhay veers from the contentious laments of the previous albums to
choral celebrations like Ani (Harvest) and Simula Na Naman (A New
Beginning). Soaring synths envelope Ikaw, Ako (You, I), a ballad-like
paean to the strength of a united community. One might say that this
album signals a phase of equilibrium and resolution.
one to rest on three successful takes, Grace collaborates with 9 Filipina
poets to produce Hulagpos (Breaking Free), 1999. Running tangential
but not contradictory to her previous concerns, this album focuses
on violence against women and their struggles for self-realisation.
Dalit ng Paslit (A Child's Song) a poem ny Benilda Santos, merges
reggae and blues in a poignant stream-of-consciousness account of
the withdrawn hell that is child prostitution. Taghoy (Lament) does
the same for wife abuse. Buhok (Hair) is rendered a capella, showcasing
not only Grace's vocal gamut but Elynia Mabanglo's incisive observation
that a woman is her hair, whether stroked in affection or pulled in
a fit of domestic rage.
is co-produced by Arugaan ng Kalakasan (roughly: Cradle of Power)
an NGO helping to empower women victims of abuse and characteristically
calls for a smaller budget. It is instructive that Grace and Bob did
practically the entire musical segment on their own yet emerged with
a sound as rich and layered as heard here.
eagerly awaits the next Grace Nono project. Yet Grace and Bob are
at work on a parallel endeavour, less dramatic, yes, but no less significant.
This is Tao Music, namesake of the first album, an independent production
company set up in 1994. They have published, here meaning documented
and recorded, the music of deserving but lesser known musicians affiliated
with the world/ethnic genre. Their first issue was Earth Kulintang,
1995 which featured Aga Mayo Butocan, Maguindanaon kulintang (8 pc-
knobbed gong) master from Maguindanao, Mindanao. This was followed
by Metronomad, 1996, an album by Pinikpikan, a Manila-based community
of percussionists known for instrumentals that integrate northern
and southern drum forms with gongs and bamboo, resulting in a percussive
river of improvisational rhythms. And then there was Pakaradia-an,
1997, chants and instrumentals by Sindao Banisil, one of the remaining
masters of the Darangen epic from the Maranaw of Western Mindanao.
The latest release is Marino: Hanunuo Mangyan Music and Chanted Poetry,
Music pushes the concept of appropriation that empowers, one that
documents and acknowledges the age-old sources that nourish the ouvres
of moderns. It is Grace and Bob's way of replanting the seeds of the
wondrous fruits they have savoured.
might be disproportionate to say that Grace Nono's work embodied the
90s sound in the Philippines. But the 90s that we know would now be
inconceivable without the experience of indigenously enriched and
searingly memorable collaborations that flowed from a primal stream
which integrated personal and communal visions of cosmic balance.
This might, at least stand as an apt description of the Grace Nono
Jose Tence Ruiz