THE SHARED VOICE: Chanted and Spoken Narratives from the Philippines Grace Nono, with Mendung Sabal, Henio Estakio, Baryus Gawid, Salvador Placido, Sarah Mandegan, Gadu Ugal, Florencia Havana, Sindao Banisil and Elena-Rivera-Mirano. 2008.
The shared voice: Ed. Carolina Malay. Pasig City: Anvil Publishing and Fundacion Santiago. 248 pages.
"My name is Grace Nono. I am a singer and a creator of songs." That is how the author of this magical book introduces herself. That is also how she immediately connects her identity with the rest of the million "singing Filipinos" whose voices she celebrates in print. By voice Grace Nono means much more than a physiological function. "It is the summation of spiritual and sociocultural experience, of vision, and of creative imagination." In the first few chapters, Nono locates this research on the voice of the Filipino oralists within the literature of oral literacy studies and ethnomusicology, taking off from the scanty Philippine references and going into the wider accounts of African and European experiences. In the process, she also locates herself as "secondary oralist" (using Walter J. Ong's terminology), being different from those who live purely with the spoken word, and not with written text. The research process is then revealed as a participation in the search for a shared identity and collective energy, in the drinking from one's well, and kissing "the ground from which voice springs."
The rest of the book is an unfolding of this insight, through her series of accounts of nine other "oralists" most of whom she personally visited in their homelands. Mendung Sabal is the famous Tboli chanter from Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. With pride, she says "I am poor, very poor, but my song is my protection." Sixty-year-old Henio Estakio is an Ibaloi mambunong from Benguet. He chants during healing rituals, as well as in death rites, while listening to the whispers of Kabunyan. From Mindoro, Baryus Gawid is a master of Mangyan ambahan and urukay musical genres. Salvador Placido is a
baylan (tribal priest) from Agusan del Sur. He is a barangay policeman, but he is also known as benuduman, the one who sings the tod-om and the uyaging. In Datu Piang, Maguindanao, Sarah Mandegan expresses preference for the oral dayunday, rather than the more traditional bayok. The latter may be more poetic, but the former can more easily connect with the young. Gadu Ugal is another Tboli singer. His singing is part of the whole struggle for cultural regeneration. He believes that when he sings, his people's "memories return to them." Florencia Havana became a Methodist when she was young, and returned to Agusan to teach. But it was precisely in translating the Bible into Manobo language that she discovered her Manobo songs "have always been inside me, embedded in my mind." With the help of manod-amay, she began to sing Manobo songs again. Elena Rivera-Mirano was born in the United States. A daughter of a modernist pianist in the 1950s, she grew up with a healthy exposure to diverse musical styles. But her introduction to kudyapi and kulintang music at University of the Philippines opened up for her a spiritual career in Christian – and very much Filipino – chants. Sindao Banisil belongs to a family steeped in traditional Maranao arts and music. She laments, though, that only Christian researchers are interested in their Maranao art. She says she owes her artistic development to Dean Lucrecia Kasilag - to think that her father who was a philosopher-poet or kataro sa lalag and a chanter was the mentor to two national artists, Lucrecia Kasilag (music) and Lucrecia Urtula (dance)!
The book is not complete without the section on Grace Nono, the researcher-researched. Although she classifies herself as "secondary oralist," this soulful singer from Agusan truly belongs to the community of chanters that she has studied. Perhaps we need say more about the author. Grace Nono is an award-winning Philippine music artist-producer, a cultural worker, and a teacher. She is known for her contemporary interpretations of Philippine traditional music, and for singing about "living identity," women's issues, environmentalism, and interfaith spirituality. She has released five acclaimed solo recordings, and has represented the Philippines in world music festivals, performances and conferences in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, United States, India, China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. I could imagine her enjoying the international community of NYU! To date, Grace Nono has won forty awards, including the prestigious Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM), The Outstanding Women in Nation's Service (TOWNS), numerous Catholic Mass Media Awards, Katha, Awit, National Press Club, and other awards for her artistic and cultural contributions.
Grace Nono has taught Philippine Traditional Arts at the University of the Philippines, where she previously earned her bachelor's degree in Humanities and master's in Philippine Studies. Her thick dissertation on Filipino oralists is now this wonderful book – thanks, of course, to her many academic and artistic companions, and to her expert editor, Carolina Malay.
And speaking about her friends, The shared voice actually reveals many of these companions in her artistic and spiritual journey. Jordan Mang-osan's thirty expressive rubber cuts sprawl all over the book, providing earthy-colored dividers. Gigi Escalante's eight batik arts are almost as musical as the chants themselves. Anna Fer's paintings visualize ecological and political undertones of the study. The overall design and layout achieves the color and glitter of coffee table book but without diminishing the scholarly nature of the volume.
Indeed, the book is a scholarly contribution to the (slowly) growing ethnomusicological literature and multimedia production. Grace Nono allots several chapters theorizing on "oralist" tradition and definition as well as "orality and literacy" debate. More interesting is how she reflects on the whole process of recognizing the voices and translating them into text. Another extremely important contribution is her account of the reflexive moments and movement of the author as singer and singer-turned-author. Less impressive, for this reviewer, however, is the section discussing the distinction between the dualistic and nondualistic aesthetics. I believe this "mental habit" perpetuates the dichotomizing tendency – prevalent in many places and for so many decades – and could be hiding just another version of dualism. In contrast, Datu Migketay, the Talaandig leader from Mount Kitanglad, Bukidnon, would rather highlight, in his foreword, the "link between traditions and modernity" which both the book and its subjects have actually achieved and celebrated.
The book, by the way, has an add-on: a CD of original chants and music treated in the text.
Congratulations to Anvil Publishing and Fundacion Santiago for their daring to produce such a precious – and must be expensive – book. Fundacion Santiago, in particular, deserves mention because it is one such institution that has a vision that connects identity and energy of being Filipino. It aims at contributing to "a strong grasp of the national identity by promoting and sustaining historical awareness among Filipinos," and the Foundation believes that this "sense of self and of shared purpose" could be used as "foundations of national development." We hope more institutions would share the same passion and commit the corresponding resources for producing more books like Grace Nono's The shared voice.
Over all, The shared voice is a strong piece of poetic scholarship. It brings me deep into the springs of a culturally-rooted and musically-embodied kind of worship. I personally admire Grace Nono for
undertaking such a daunting research on the haunting chants of Filipino oralists like Mendung Sabal of the Tboli and Henio Estakio of the Ibaloi, among others. And the way she records their dreams with
reverence, the way she weaves their songs and stories into her text, and the way she draws insights from her very own experience of communing with our heroes and mystics through music – all this reveals that Grace is definitely one of them. The bonus is that we, like her, in this day and age, can also drink from the same source of indigenous energies that continue, despite the odds, to nourish our collective will to live with dignity. The shared voice sings the divine in us as a people; it is a rare book that is meant to be shared.
-- Albert E. Alejo, SJ, PhD
Ateneo de Davao University