The Grace of Spiritual Music
by John Clewley, Bangkok Post
June 26, 2012

Nearly two decades on from her debut album, Grace Nono is still exploring the Philippines' sacred songs and oral histories.

One of the main reasons I went to the recent Penang World Music festival was to see the Filipina singer Grace Nono and her band perform, which I wrote about in my review of the event. I also had the chance to chat with her about her remarkable career and work.

It is a career I have followed since writing about Nono's debut album Tao Music in 1993 (look out for the song Salidumay from this album on YouTube) and the follow-up Opo in 1995. At that time she took the bold step of setting up her own record label with her musical collaborator and partner Bob Aves, Tao Music, and began a search for her own musical identity. She travelled around the Philippines, particularly in the south, where she comes from, in search of voices, tellers of stories and oral historians. She recorded and released albums by traditional singers like Sindao Banisil, while at the same time researching the history and cultural background of these artists.

After releasing several more albums, Nono decided to further her studies by focusing on narrative traditions in Filipino music. She's currently completing a doctorate degree in musicology at New York University.

Photo by John Clewley

Despite the hectic schedule of a postgraduate, she still manages to perform at festivals with the Grace Nono-Bob Aves band.

"The concept for us is that of a conversation with different musical styles in the Philippines, from pre-colonial days to the 333 years of colonialism. It's an explicit way of trying to make sense of what has happened to us in history."

The band is made up of members of different ethnic and spiritual groups from across the Philippines, led by Nono and guitarist/producer Aves. Nono was quick to add that the band had a distinct focus: "Thematically, for the past 15 years we have focused on indigenous sacred and spiritual music. It's not an easy path, trying to make sense of who we are."

Nono surveys oral traditions from cultures such as the griot (or jali) hereditary praise singers of West Africa and qawwali singers of Pakistan.

Some of her research and the musicians she has met, studied and collaborated with are collected in a fascinating book Nono published in 2008 on oral traditions, The Shared Voice: Chanted And Spoken Narratives From The Philippines (Anvil Publishing, Philippines).

Illustrated throughout with photos and local artwork, lyrics and poems, the book features 10 oral tradition practitioners, or what Nono calls "oralists": Mendung Sabal, Henio Estakio, Baryus Gawid, Salvador Placido, Sarah Mandegan, Gadu Ugal, Florencia Havana, Elena Rivera-Mirano, Sandao Banisil and Nono herself. Some like Banisil are part of an ancient tradition, while others like Rivera-Mirano came to study oral traditions only after having studied Western music formally. The latter route, argued Nono, was the result of colonisation, which had robbed people of knowledge of their oral traditions.

In the early chapters of The Shared Voice, Nono surveys oral traditions from other cultures such as the griot (or jali) hereditary praise singers of West Africa and qawwali singers of Pakistan but strangely doesn't mention any of the oral traditions found in other Southeast Asian countries like lam music in northeast Thailand and Laos or chappay (lute) troubadours in Cambodia. That quibble aside, this is an interesting and intriguing book that combines autobiography, research, field research, interviews and lively discussion of what Nono calls a more "complementary" approach to musicology and aesthetics.

But Nono did reassure me that her academic career would never interfere with her work as a performer, which is great news because she does have one of the best voices I've ever heard in this part of the world. After completing her studies she plans to work on a new album.

Her most recent album, Dalit: Ballads On Love, Loss And Finding Heart Again (Tao Music), came out in 2008, and featured a different side of her music. On the album she sings songs from the Spanish period, albeit in tagalog and local languages, backed by Aves' guitar-work and lush production.

On first listen, I was struck by how similar she sounded when she sang to the Mexican singer Lila Downs: both are passionate, powerful singers.

The album is well worth checking out, as is The Shared Voice, for fans of Filipino music. More information from:

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