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Filipinos in the Midwestern Chautauqua Circuit

When you think of Filipino or Filipino American musicians, what comes to mind? Julie Plug? Eraserheads? Joey Ayala? DJ QBert? A kulintang ensemble, or a rondalla orchestra? How about Filipinos playing banjo and slide guitar in a traveling tent show in Iowa, circa 1920? Filipino musicians performed in the Redpath Chautauqua traveling tent circuit in the American Midwest dating back at least as far as 1917.

... the Chautauquas presented a message
of self and civic improvement within
a general context
of community education and upliftment.

The Chautauqua might be considered a mobile relative of both the St. Louis Exposition (and other expositions of that type), and the early 19th century Lyceum movement developed in New England by Josiah Holbrook. But unlike the urban "White City" paradigm of the grand expositions with their "palaces" and exhibition halls, or the lyceums with their upper-class New England audiences, the Chautauqua shows played to primarily rural and small-town working and middle-class families in the early 20th century Midwest.

Despite their proximity to the "wild west," unlike Buffalo Bill's Wild West tent show, the Chautauquas presented a message of self and civic improvement within a general context of community education and upliftment. Russell L. Johnson writes that, "During the peak years, from 1920 to 1924, chautauquas brought... education, inspiration, and entertainment" to many cities each year. President Roosevelt called them "the most American thing in America."

If not "the most American thing in America," it would seem that Filipinos contributed to an idea of the Chautauqua as a traveling exposition of many cultures, a place where farm families could come to learn about peoples from beyond the isolated areas of the rural mid-west.

Many of the Filipino performers arrived in the U.S. in 1903 as part of the first wave of Filipino students to study in American colleges and universities. A number of the students needed to work during the summers to help pay for their tuition and upkeep. Some of them may have also performed at the St. Louis International Exposition in 1904, or at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915. Filipinos were a sufficient novelty at the time (one effect of well-publicized Filipino "reservations" at the expositions) to draw curious audiences, even in the rural mid-west.

Between sets, White or Filipino speakers would edify the audiences
with educational lectures about the Philippine Islands, or related topics of current social interest..

Along with their racial and ethnic novelty, these Filipinos were also excellent musicians and performers. Chautauqua press releases stressed the education of the Filipinos, to convince audiences unfamiliar with the Philippines that the entertainment would be wholesome and morally upright in nature. Between sets, White or Filipino speakers would edify the audiences with educational lectures about the Philippine Islands, or related topics of current social interest; for example, anthropologist Dr. Fay-Cooper Cole lectured on the cultural history of the Philippines with lantern slides, or Pedro M. Blanco, a post-graduate student of Columbia University, would lecture on "Mutual Understanding in Philippine-American Relations."

Also stressed was the band-members' wide range of musical expertise. One promo billed the music of the Philippine Quartet as ranging "from the primitive to grand opera." "Enchanting Melodies on Native Instruments" introduced the Ne Pomoceno Quartet to audiences in 1917. The words are ironic, since Filipinos playing in clubs and chautauquas of that era rarely played native instruments although they did play Philippine adaptations of European string instruments. Yet, their music and their promotional materials present a surprising range of flexibility in repertoire.

Filipinos were just one of a varied array of ethnic groups represented in the Chautauqua. There were also featured African-American jubilee singers, Spanish, Mexican, Bohemian, rural Anglo-American and Hawaiian performers. Hawaiian or "South Sea" bands were popular during the teens and twenties, and Filipino groups apparently capitalized upon that, becoming expert in slack key and Hawaiian style steel guitar. Considering the popularity of Hawaiian steel and slack key at the time, one wonders about the extent to which Filipinos may have contributed to the rage for those modes of guitar-playing during the 1920s and 1930s.

They also played Mexican, Spanish and popular American tunes, as well as opera. Posters featuring half a dozen Filipino musical groups (some of them large enough to be called orchestras) reveal that some of the bands contained white or mestizo members. There appeared to be racially mixed, married couples among the musicians. Many of the band members could sing, and play, interchangeably: banjo, piano, violin, banduria, ukelele, laud, octavina and Hawaiian steel guitar.

Filipino musicians have been contributing their own sounds to the melodic weave
of American music
for a long time.

So, the next time you find yourself at a Filipino party, and everyone starts country line-dancing after dinner (something I experienced at an Igorot community banquet in the U.S. a few years ago), or the next time you listen to Chicago-based pinay, Anna Fermin, belt out "Northern Lights" or "Besame Mucho" with her country-western band, Trigger Gospel, just remember that it's nothing new. Filipino musicians have been contributing their own sounds to the melodic weave of American music for a long time.

The images in this essay were obtained from The Records of the Redpath Chautauqua Collection, courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa, USA.

For additional information, click on:
The Traveling Culture (Chautauqua),
Jean Vengua's FilAm Music blog and
Anna Fermin's website.

______________________________________________________

1. See Charlotte Canning. "What Was the Chautauqua?" Traveling Cultures website, University of Iowa. http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/traveling-culture/essay.htm (April 23, 2004).
2. See Russell L. Johnson. 2002. "Dancing Mothers" the Chautauqua Movement in Twentieth-Century American Popular Culture. American Studies International. V39. n 2. George Washington University.

© Jean Vengua

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