Primal Stream:
The Grace Nono Phenomenon

A 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.

Puncturing 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 popular market.

In 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.

In 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.

After 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.

For 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 crafted albums.

Tao 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.

Grace, 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.

Opo 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.

The 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.

Isang 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.

Not 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.

Hulagpos 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.

One 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, 1998.

Tao 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.

It 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 phenomenon.

by Jose Tence Ruiz


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