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2012 Global Filipino Literary Award for Non Fiction


The Perils of Ethnography in a Cultural History

While it would be romantic to tell people that my book wrote itself—that the devilish quill danced on parchment as I, inspired but unwitting, channeled the words into being—it seems to me that the mundane tedium of producing an academic book is readily apparent upon reading. Each sentence bears the strain of reworking, constructed to direct ideas forward with the illusion of a natural flow. In such a monograph, prose burdened with formal language lumbers through the application of theory to collected ethnographic data. The writer must quash evidence of creative writing by reflex to avoid the common criticism of self-indulgence, but, of course, it takes a great deal of creativity to bring all of the parts of a book together.

The underlying insistence on studying musical practice in context would initially imply a reliance on living people, relegating historiography to providing informative background for contemporary practice.

As with most who must write for whatever reason, I wrestled with how to shape my book in a way that would serve numerous purposes, some of which were not entirely compatible with others. Though parts of the monograph would be based on my doctoral dissertation, I felt compelled to re-write everything to expand the topics and provide a more coherent overall narrative. I concluded that organizing the work as a cultural history, more or less governed by chronology, would help to corral an enormous amount of material into something readable. Further, because I am an ethnomusicologist, I also needed to adhere to certain guidelines of my scholarly discipline in order to be relevant and for the book to be accepted for publication. 

Ethnomusicologists engage in historiography as a normal part of their scholarly routine, but their quirky vocation is usually defined in markedly different terms. Ethnomusicology, a relatively small field with an enormous domain, is generally the academic discipline devoted to “world music.” While the purview of ethnomusicology in practical terms is distinguished from historical musicology (the study of Western art music) primarily by its regional diversity, many scholars within the field define it through the interrelated methodologies of fieldwork and ethnography. Ethnomusicologists, as such, are as kin to anthropologists as they are to historical musicologists, and they pride themselves on the interdisciplinarity of their studies. The underlying insistence on studying musical practice in context would initially imply a reliance on living people, relegating historiography to providing informative background for contemporary practice. Yet, ethnomusicological scholarship over many years has proven to be much more diverse and the art of ethnography not so clearly delineated as either process or product.

For most ethnomusicologists, the practice of ethnography involves an extended period of fieldwork and an analysis of collected data. The product of fieldwork, usually an academic article or book, is an ethnographic account or, in short, an ethnography. The ethnography stands as a critical interpretation of experience filtered through the researcher’s lens, and it proclaims, “I was there,” establishing what has come to be known as ethnographic authority. Beyond giving the researcher credibility, reflexive passages in ethnographic works have become something of an ethical obligation, since details about fieldwork and personal background are meant to reveal the researcher’s subjectivity and the representative nature of writing. In other words, ethnographies are not transparent windows into the cultures of people, for scholars are interpolators into lived experience rather than merely recorders of neutral data. We impact not only the communities we live in, but also how people are represented and understood by others through our written works.

Unsurprisingly, it is not particularly easy to write clearly about people and the webs of meaning we know as culture, and it becomes much more complicated when trying to write oneself into those webs. As with all types of formal academic writing, style is subject to various prescriptive norms. Was it objectively “hot and humid the day of the festival,” or did I feel “as if the air was oppressively heavy in the full sun of the plaza, weighted with the smells of sweat and roasting peanuts”? It all depends. If a scholar is writing history, typically a tone of objectivity is required to establish the infallibility of the author and the significance of her sources. If a scholar is writing ethnography, then the words must convince readers of the reliability of the account by merging observation with insider knowledge. And what if the scholar is writing both, plus including theoretical perspectives and technical musical analyses? A single written work co-mingling these different writing styles is, in fact, the most typical ethnographic product of ethnomusicologists, and the difficulties in “making it work” are simply part of the process. How information is organized and how tone and voice are manipulated are the signal aspects of one’s writing skills. From graduate school on, ethnomusicologists are encouraged to balance the tensions between revealing themselves just enough to acknowledge their role in knowledge-making and presenting convincing data.

My intent as a writer was to describe in a relatable way the connections between music, experience, memory, and emotional affect to set up the material in the chapter that followed.

In order to illustrate some of the problems involved in this kind of writing, I turn to several excerpts from my book, Musical Renderings of the Philippine Nation (2011 Oxford University Press). By way of disclaimer, I do not present my writing as a model to follow. Instead, I hope to make apparent how disparate writing styles might work together and why I made the choices that I did. The first passage is an ethnographic account that is also highly reflexive, readily acknowledging that what is presented pertains to my particular experience. I meant for these introductory paragraphs to the book to offer the reader insight into how my subjective stance frames the material of the book. Further, the passage describes my personal experience of collective and individual identity at play, themes that are important throughout the work, even when put forth in theoretical terms.

The group I traveled with had been in the Philippines less than a day, transferring from plane to shuttle to bus to reach the site of the First International Rondalla Festival in 2004. Near the end of the nine-hour drive from Manila to Naga City in the Bikol region, somebody yelled, “Wake up, there are American flags!” Faintly, over the rumbling engine, I heard the sound of brass and drums. Indeed, a small marching band of schoolchildren in full regalia had inserted itself directly in front of the flat snout of our bus, mere footsteps from the exhaust tail of the bus ahead. Additionally, a long ribbon of children stood poised on the lip of the sidewalk, hesitating with homemade paper flags on sticks while they waited for the buses that carried local and international delegates to pass them. Buttoned up smartly in school uniforms on this relentlessly hot Sunday—likely with instructions from civic leaders and teachers at their elementary schools—the children unleashed their ebullient cheers, stiff flags swatting the air, as the wheeled procession finally reached them. From our slowly rolling perch many feet above them, we could make out the multitude of small crayon-colored Mexican, Israeli, Russian, Australian, and U.S. flags clutched by each child. In response to their infectious energy, we dotted the glass windows with our fingertips, pointing and smiling with sleepy enthusiasm. A few of us looked fruitlessly among our belongings for an American flag or some other symbol to let them know where we hailed from, since our faces alone held no easily discernable distinction. We looked, at least at first glance, as if we were Filipinos too.1


For the purposes of illustration, the above can be paired with an excerpt from later in the book’s introduction. The following paragraph is a lead-in to a longer section on theoretical approaches to nationalism and the kinds of ideas that constitute nation:

The connection between music and nation is an abstraction that is not only imagined but is also performed, and the affective nature of music intensifies the power of this perceptual and discursive marriage. That music and nation could ever be linked denotes a process rather than a fact. One might wonder whether there even is such a thing as national music, since the very idea of a national essence is unsustainable when examined too closely. To simplify matters, in his reference work on Filipino music, Raymundo Bañas defines a national song simply as “one that belongs to the nation” (1975: 79). This statement, at the very least, illustrates the authority of perception. Importantly, music of and for the nation is not merely a question of genre perception and has everything to do with the construction of ideas.

The next passage, found much later in the book, is also ethnographic, but it goes further down the reflexive rabbit hole. My intent as a writer was to describe in a relatable way the connections between music, experience, memory, and emotional affect to set up the material in the chapter that followed. This selection recounts a trip I took with my mother to Washington DC to protest Ronald Reagan’s support for the Marcoses following the assassination of Benigno Aquino.

Upon arrival, I felt like I was a part of something much bigger, something that extended overseas to the people in the Philippines who were actually putting their lives at stake. We marched, chanted, and looked aggrieved for the press, but the most rousing aspect of the experience to me were the songs. More than once we sang “Bayan Ko (My Country),” a patriotic kundimanknown by most Filipinos. I knew it too, having learned the words phonetically at first during Filipino School. Plus, as long as I could remember, we had kept the score in the piano bench at home. One of my older brothers could play it before I could, so I learned how to play it too. Whenever we did, my mother would remind us to play with feeling, as if our mechanical struggles were doing a disservice to something special.

That one day in the nation’s capital, I am not sure I really believed the words, really felt that it was my country longing to be uncaged, since my country of birth is the United States. Nevertheless, the music moved me then, just as it has always moved me. I believe my sense of profound affect is similar to that experienced by many who have personal memories related to the song as well as an understanding of its iconic standing over decades of Philippine nationalist history. More than twenty years later, when I play the song with my rondalla in concerts, I know it has lost some of its contextual power. But when we play it well, and when we allow our bodies to rise with the dynamic swell and our faces to brighten with the onset of the major mode and the shift to a higher register, it seems we can always make someone cry. It’s just that kind of song, with just that kind of history.2

.....my trepidation about including reflexive accounts along with history, theory, musical discussion, and conventional ethnography, resulted in my cleaving those sections into separate interludes...

The chapter this personal ethnographic interlude introduces has as its focus the 1986 People Power Revolution. The prominent themes are music and politics, contested ideas about nation, the role of music in social movements, and the power of emotion in music. Along with the bulk of the book apart from the ethnographic interludes, this passage presents a mostly neutral tone to give precedence to a narrative built on primary and secondary archival sources mixed in with information from ethnographic interviews. The writing is not truly seamless, but the goal was to transition as smoothly as possible between my words and the quotations of others. This tactic allows for an objective-sounding writing style preferred, for better or worse, in most academic fields that obscures the author’s role in organizing and presenting information. At the same time, the suppressed ego of the first person voice remains present to critical readers, revealing itself as the very guise of authority.

Some of the songs used during EDSA showed support for the opposition military and served to encourage other defectors. In the earliest stages of the revolution, they played the Alma Mater hymn of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) over the radio as a plea from the rebel PMA officers to their mates from the academy to join them (Melencio 1986: 56). When the rebel soldiers and officers moved from Camp Aguinaldo to Camp Crame, surrounded by thousands of civilians but still exposed to military fire from above, “they were cheered by jubilant Filipinos singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’” (Bilbao 1986: 124). That particular song, highlighted by Elena Rivera Mirano with some bemusement (2008), actually had become popular as a kind of anthem during the years before EDSA that tapped into the religiosity of Filipinos and seemed to apply so well to Cory Aquino’s campaign for the presidency. During the revolution, the song bolstered the sense that the military rebels were both heroes and martyrs for the cause against the Marcos dictatorship. The sense of camaraderie between the civilians and the rebel military deepened throughout the days of the revolution, with many feeling that the political cause naturally intertwined with a much more spiritual crusade.3

The final excerpt also relates to the reflexive ethnographic interlude, as it leads to a discussion of an iconic Filipino song genre, the kundiman, and the essentially emotional nature of its music and text.

“Bayan Ko” is a kundiman, a genre of Filipino music that for many is strongly associated with Filipino identity. Popularly described from a metaphysical perspective, the sentiments of the kundiman are felt to have generated from the soul of the Filipino nation and have as much to do with suffering as with hope. The kundiman is a song of passionate longing and profound love that translates effectively into patriotic and nationalist music, an analogy made doubly potent when one compares unrequited love with the yearning for independence against tremendous odds. Because the history of the kundiman has direct ties to the war against Spain and the age of U.S. colonialism in the Philippines, it is well worth examining the musical genre in order to under- stand how it culminated in “Bayan Ko” as an anthem of social protest.

To conclude, I should also note that my trepidation about including reflexive accounts along with history, theory, musical discussion, and conventional ethnography, resulted in my cleaving those sections into separate interludes that introduced each chapter. I realized when writing that including these interludes would be risky from an academic standpoint, and I continue to feel this way. At the same time, I am amused over the irony of several people remarking to me that the interludes were the only sections of the book they read. I meant for the text as a whole to appeal to a wider readership than ethnomusicologists and my parents, and it may be that the riskiest parts are also the most generally readable.


Bañas, Raymundo. 1975. Pilipino Music and Theater. Quezon City: Manlapaz.
Bilbao, Cesar C. 1986. “I Was Ready to Be Teargassed.” In We Were There, edited by Lourdes Angulo. Manila: Staff Members of Asian Development Bank, Pasay City. pp. 123–126.

Castro, Christi-Anne. 2011. Musical Renderings of the Philippine Nation. London, New York: Oxford University Press.

Melencio, Cherie. 1986. “I Forgot All about My Groceries.” In We Were There, edited by Lourdes Angulo. Manila: Staff Members of Asian Development Bank, Pasay City. pp. 49-50.

Mirano, Elena Rivera. 2008. Correspondence with author. September 6.

End Notes

1 Castro 2011:3-5.

2 Ibid.,165-166.

3 Ibid., 174-175.

©Christi-Anne Castro

(Editor’s note: See book review essay in this issue.)

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