The Return of the ‘Babaylan’
By Eric S. Caruncho

BLUES, said John Lee Hooker, is a healer.

To sing about pain is to accept it, to bear it, and finally, to overcome it. Why do you think we sing so damn much?
That salesgirl absently humming Sarah Geronimo while you’re trying to make up your mind which socks to buy at SM could be battling anomie – the soul-deadening burden of modern life. Those louts in their cups doing off-key Engelbert Humperdinck at the karaoke bar across the street may be purging themselves of despair. (Lonely is a man without love, indeed.) CharicePempengco and Arnel Pineda may sing for the sheer joy of it, but the rest of us sing to get us through the day.

“The act of singing is in fact one of the few things that generate hope, healing and redemption in the midst of destiny’s misadventures,” says Grace Nono, whose own musicaljourney has been to uncover the spiritual essence that lies at the deep core of indigenous Filipino music.

That journey has taken Nono, and her long-time musical collaborator – jazz guitarist, arranger and composer Bob Aves – through some strange by-ways. Apart from producing and releasing their own music on their independent label Tao Music, the duo has also attempted to bring the music of indigenous artists such as MaranaosingerSindaoBanisil and Maguindanaokulintang master Aga Mayo Butocan to a wider audience.

But judging by their most recent album, it seems the pair might have been taking the long way home.

The just-released “Dalit: Ballads on Love, Loss and Finding Heart Again” might come as a surprise to fans of Nono’s previous albums, which document their attempts at a fusion of indigenous traditions with jazz, rock and world music.The songs that make up the album are Nono’s interpretations of traditional Visayan folk songs.

“Most of these songs have been generally passed on as oral traditions and are referred to by elders in Camiguin as dalit, and by others as kinaraan [of the old],” writes Nono in the liner notes. “As living documents of people’s sentiments, these ballads continue to live on to this day through contemporary voices that breathe new life into them. I sing these songs as a native Visayan speaker, and as one to whom love and loss, anguish and despair are no strangers, but have, time and again, inhabited my heart and soul.”

The album includes such songs as “Kung Imo AkongTalikdan” (a sort of Visayan counterpoint to Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”), “KamingawsaPayag” (“How Desolate This Hut”) and “Panamilit” (“Farewell”). The lyric sheet includes English translations by poet Gemino Abad, for the benefit of non-Visayan speakers.
In an interview with SIM, Nono elaborates.

SIM: How did this project come about?
Nono: After many years of delving into the practice of elements of some Philippine-sung oral traditions that connect us with our Asiatic roots (pentatonic, rhythmic freedom, homegrown instruments made from bamboo, wood, etc.), fusing these with more contemporary styles, I knew it was time to take on more recent traditions such as those influenced by Spanish music introduced to our islands since colonial times. They are part of our heritage and are worthwhile additions to any singer’s repertoire which draws from culture and history.

As far as content is concerned, I always knew that I would have to tackle the theme of romantic love (eros) sometime, which I generally shunned in my earlier years as an artist avoiding clichés, tackling instead social issues, and of late, traditional prayers. At this point in my life, having experienced love and loss, then regaining my faith in the life-giving power of love, I would say that I have a more mature perspective on the matter, and hence, the album.

It was in Mindanao where I learned the songs featured in “Dalit.” First of my sources was Ralph “Roping” Valle, a Visayan singer/band-leader whose performing group was looked after by my late father IgmedioNono, who endorsed them to a local radio station and coordinated some of their performances. Nong Roping, who is our neighbor, taught me most of the songs in the album. LordinaPotenciano and Francisco Awitin are shamans/healers whom I met in the course of my current research. Aside from their ritual practices, they have a vast knowledge of secular songs, which I asked them to teach me. And they did.

To complete the circle of collaboration, arranger, co-producer, coperformer Bob Aves researched the instrumentation by tracing the musical style’s journey through different parts of Europe, among gypsies and others, into our own soil, linking these with contemporary revivals of this type of music around the world.

SIM: Why the long period (seven years) between this album and the last?
Nono: I went back to graduate school (Philippine Studies at the UP Asian Center) and spent many years writing my book “The Shared Voice: Chanted and Spoken Narratives from the Philippines” (Anvil, Fundacion Santiago). I have, however, continued touring all these years.

SIM: How did you discover this music? Are they all traditional or have there been previous recordings by other artists?
Nono: I would not say that I discovered this music. It was always there, in our part of Mindanao where I was born and raised and where Visayan had become lingua franca. Even my parents sang such types of songs. Like other forms of Philippine traditional music, however, it is something that’s generally taken for granted by the youth who view it as backward, shameful. In my earlier years as an artist trained at the Philippine High School for the Arts, I was more drawn to the Asiatic, pre-colonial forms, which makes perfect sense because it allowed me to appreciate the wealth of our culture before the Europeans came. Subsequent maturity dictated that I embrace a more holistic, inclusive view of our traditions, embracing all forms of music as valid expressions of historical experience.

Some of the songs in “Dalit” may have been previously recorded by earlier artists whose recordings may have informed my field sources. (With the help of FILSCAP and PARI, we continue to await the confirmation of alleged publishers that the songs whose titles they have in their catalogue indeed match at least some of the lyrics and music we learned from oral sources, so that these may be given proper credit.) Whether these compositions were drawn from oral tradition before they were recorded, or whether they were through-composed by individual composers, the moment these songs were performed or practiced by the folk themselves, these became subject to oral processes once again, which allowed them to be recreated or changed to certain degrees, according to each performer’s discretion or state of memory, or both.

Folk song, as noted by Evelyn Wells, “is the product of no time or person; its author, if ever known, has been lost in the obscurity of the past and in the processes of oral tradition. Its medium is word of mouth, rather than print. It goes its way independent of literary influence, carrying for a while the accretions of this or that singer, but sloughing them off as it passes to the next. It has no one original text, being freshly created by each successive singer as he [or she] makes his [or her] own version. It has periodically risen to the surface from the underground stream of continuous tradition, and has been caught and fixed in print, but it differs greatly from its printed form because of its unconsciousness of literary conventions.” (Wells 1950:5, quoted from Damiana L. Eugenio’s “The Folk Songs”)

SIM: What’s your take on music – in particular, Filipino music – and healing?
Nono: I am currently doing research on the interface of sound, spirit, healing among Philippine babaylan and other ritualists, with the support of the Institute of Spirituality in Asia. Aside from being drawn to matters of spirit and healing, and of course, music, this study came about because again, we observe the trend of our medical professionals simply mimicking trends in the west in the emerging fields of music therapy, or our religious shunning our rich musical heritage in most of their rites. Yet, if one takes a good look at our traditions, we have always used sound and music in our rituals which invoked spiritual sources and healing of body and soul. And we do it from a worldview very different from that of western materialist science. I cannot, however, elaborate on the matter; my study being still in progress.

I myself have all these years experienced the healing power of music, which never fails to lift the spirit, transforming whatever negative energies we carry in our hearts and bodies (stress, fear, doubt, anger, etc.) which could eventually lead to illness, into a renewed sense of clarity, vitality, bliss.

SIM: Is this album the product of maturity (personal, spiritual and musical)?
Nono: Definitely. Songs as documents of real-life experiences – the joys, pains, failures, triumphs, lessons from earth existence. This is no exception.

SIM: What is the relationship between your book and this project?
Nono: This is still part and parcel of the vision to create contemporary music which draws from elements and processes of oral traditions, both primary (purely oral) and secondary (mediated by literate and technological processes) – which is what my book speaks of, among others.

SIM: What are your current preoccupations? Any other projects in the works?
Nono: The “Dalit” launch/performance was held last August 11 at the Yuchengco Museum, RCBC Plaza in Makati. We will be performing at the National Museum of Singapore on Oct. 30 and 31.

I am also about to begin my Ph.D. studies in Ethnomusicology at New York University. Writing for my second book continues. Tao Foundation will lie low in my absence but our traditional artist partners in Agusan are establishing their own cooperative, which means they are now able to stand on their own.
Life goes on, and with it, the music.

by Eric S. Caruncho
Philippine Daily Inquirer
29 August 2009


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