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Book Review

When People and Music Converge: Songs of Nation and Identity in the Philippines

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

Christi-Anne Castro’s narrative on music and nationhood begins in 2004 with the arrival of the Iskwelahang Pilipino (IP) Rondalla of Boston in Naga City. A nine-hour leisurely drive going southeast from Manila brought the group to the site of Cuerdas nin Kagabsan (Strings of Unity), the First International Rondalla Festival. The city was playing host to at least twelve local rondalla1 groups of the most accomplished ensembles in the Philippines. Foreign groups participated as well: musicians from Mexico (Rondalla Motivos de Guadalajara), Israel (Three Plucked Strings) and Russia (Quartette Phoenix). Representing diasporic Filipino communities abroad were a group from Australia (Rondanihan of Australia) and two from the United States Fil-Am Veterans Rondalla of San José, California, and IP Rondalla, the author’s ensemble. Throughout the week, the repertoires of the various ensembles showcased their individual talents and identities. The final concert where they all played together, however, became the highlight of the event. The local and global nature of the festival revealed various ideals about music and art, and pride of place in the international community:

The greatest show of appreciation erupted in the middle of the recital by the Israeli group Three Plucked Strings–consisting of harpsichord, mandolin and guitar–that gamely played through a light drizzle during an outdoor concert. They artfully traced the melody of “Sarungbanggi,” the most well known folk song from the Bicol region in which the festival took place, to the unfettered delight of those assembled. The Filipino audience was proud that a foreign group would add a beloved hometown song to the evening’s repertoire, perhaps in the same way that many people appreciate tourists who have bothered to learn something of the local language. (Castro 2011: 5)

The book is organized into seven parts, with the introduction detailing the subject matter as “a cultural history of the Philippines that outlines the role of music and performance in defining nation..."

Music, along with language, can convey meaning on various levels. But, the author notes, ethnomusicologists will quickly point out that even as music is practiced all around the world, “no single music is itself universal” (Castro 2011:5). As a human activity, its meaning may depend as much on the intent of the person performing it as well as the experience of the person listening to it. As a cultural phenomenon, its practice varies from country to country. Music covers a broad array of genres, and is not confined to melodic sounds but may include rhythmic beats, dance and theatre.  An ethnomusicologist herself and a second-generation Filipino-American, author Christi-Anne Castro observes that the many possible meanings that could be derived from this form of human expression are what make music compelling and “so rich a topic to explore.” (Castro 2011:9) For music to become part of the social fabric of a people, time and some form of engagement is essential. So, when can music be considered characteristic of a nation? How is the concept of nationhood articulated in music and performance? What is Filipino music?


Musical Renderings of the Philippine Nation addresses questions on national identity in an intelligent and observant manner. By providing a framework on which to anchor them, it allows for rich insights into the cultural history of the Philippines. Without being overly emotive, the author approaches the subject with sensitivity and understanding while maintaining the academic rigor that is sometimes lost in studies such as this. The book is organized into seven parts, with the introduction detailing the subject matter as “a cultural history of the Philippines that outlines the role of music and performance in defining nation and, in its interrelated converse, the influence of national-level politics in shaping musical expression.” (Castro 2011:6) The stated coverage of musical genres date from 1898 to1998 with emphasis on the postcolonial era beginning in 1946 (ibid.). Using a wealth of archival data and her own research experience in the field, the author sketches a portrait of the Filipino as composer and performer amidst a changing social, political and cultural environment.

"Philippine Village" by Clare Ferriter

Chapter 1 outlines the development of a newly independent Philippines at the turn of the nineteenth century, and expressions of national identity in music from that era until the 1950s. The author notes that music written during this period took on heightened significance as composers wrote into their scores their notions of what the role of music should be in nation building (Castro 2011:24). Just prior to the Philippines’ declaration of independence from Spain in 1898, Filipino musical compositions—characterized as both religious and secular—emerged, reflecting nationalist aspirations of sovereignty (2011:27). Shortly after, the United States took over the colonial role and introduced sweeping changes in political and social structures. In the cultural arena, the U.S. brought along with it a strange soundscape that gained increasing popularity, especially among the younger generation, in the decades that followed. Filipino composers countered the cultural imperialism with nationalistic compositions of their own using musical forms and styles imbibed from the Spanish era. For example, “[t]he composers and writers of zarzuelas (also sarswelas), a light music theater form that arrived in the Philippines from Spain in the late nineteenth century, hid seditious messages in their productions through symbolically archetypal characters, costuming, and props that contained references to the Filipino flag.” Many productions of this character signified protest against the repressive laws of the early American occupation (Castro 2011:30, 204).2

Not all of the nationalist composers focused on liberation through rupture from colonial domination. Francisco Santiago (1889-1947) was representative of a group that sought liberation through a different process. Dubbed as the “Father of Philippine Nationalism in Music,” Santiago was a proponent of Filipinism in the arts which is a result of Filipinization i.e. a process by which “culture would be made more Filipino in order to counter the effects of colonialism and/or further a stronger sense of localized identity.”3 (Castro 2011:32-33)  Well-known for his kundiman love songs, Santiago’s musical strategy is reminiscent of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal’s literary strategy of promoting his country through excellence in  his works. It is also similar to the strategy of eastern European composers who incorporated folk songs in their repertoire as they sought to assert their national identity while remaining within the pan-European umbrella of nations.

Because this atonal approach fused Asian instrumentation with European avante-garde musical expressions, it seemed an ideal solution to the question of what direction modern nationalist music should take.

In the postcolonial era, the author focuses on the works of two influential Filipino composers to illustrate the two modernistic trajectories of nationalist Philippine music. Lucio San Pedro (1913-2002) composed in the Romantic style, incorporating the “idiomatic essences of folk music” (rather than the folk music itself) to evoke a sense of nostalgia and spiritual connection to a simpler, less chaotic Philippines, as opposed to the modernizing post-colonial present of the 1950s. The fourth movement of his 1956 “Suite Pastorale” (a five-movement piece) is a popular lullaby known as “Sa Ugoy ng Duyan” (The Sway of the Baby Hammock), beautifully encapsulated by the author, thus:

More haunting than sweet, the song has a modal quality that lends itself to exoticism or, more aptly, a distancing from the present-day self in imagination or in time. The past—an implied shared past—is both metaphoric for the nation and real for many as a memory from childhood. The song is based on a tune that San Pedro’s mother hummed when putting him to sleep, and the tones that undulate smoothly beneath the melody clearly paint the memory of gentle rocking. This rocking serves as a constant motif throughout much of the piece (Castro 2011:48-49).

Lucrecia Kasilag (1918-2008) initially gravitated to the popular approach of incorporating folk music in classical compositions as San Pedro did (Castro 2011: 52). During her studies in the United States, however, she “experienced atonal and electronic music” and realized the exciting possibilities of incorporating this genre in her compositions (ibid.). Because this atonal approach fused Asian instrumentation with European avante-garde musical expressions, it seemed an ideal solution to the question of what direction modern nationalist music should take. “In the context of the 1950s Philippines, the musical strategy of ambiguous tonality and neoclassicist principles of balance and anti-Romanticism had the nationalist implications of metaphorically dissolving colonial aesthetic values while not denying the unchangeable facts of history” (Castro 2011:54).

"The Boatman " by R.G. Wedum

The subsequent four chapters examine the post-colonial musical expressions and their place in Philippine society, both as support and challenge to the state apparatus. Chapters 2 and 4 examine the roles and contributions of the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company and Philippine Madrigal Singers as “nationalized” agents or official purveyors of Philippine dance and music. Noting the complex relationship among the state, the nationalized groups and the performers, the author keenly observes that this is not a simple matter of collaboration and opposition but is better understood as a constant negotiation: “That individuals can clearly make a distinction between nationalism and support for the state reveals an elastic space in which balances of power can be manipulated, even when performers are under duress” (Castro 2011: 164).  Chapter 3 presents a state institution—the Cultural Center of the Philippines—as an important agent in promoting and stimulating Philippine culture and arts despite its controversial origins. Chapter 5 captures the nationalistic mood of “People Power” in 1986, a momentous event that expelled a dictator and focused international attention on the Philippines for several gripping days. The spontaneous outpouring of protest in Manila was poignantly expressed in old and new songs and performances. A concluding part recapitulates the themes in the book and marks the 1998 centennial celebration of the end of Spanish rule as “an event celebrated throughout the country and in diasporic Filipino communities around the world” (Castro 2011: 193).

Impulses in the Development of Philippine Nationhood

The Philippines provides a particularly fertile ground for researching the role of music and performance in defining national identity. While it is geographically located in Southeast Asia, its experience of close to 400 years of foreign governance inculcated in it, among other things, an appreciation for the Western musical aesthetic of tone, scale, and harmony. This musical aesthetic, inherited from over 300 years of Spanish liturgical service (and locked in by nearly 50 years of Hollywood!) is in marked contrast to the rhythmic-driven, atonal musical traditions of its Asian neighbors. An interesting narrative on this orientation is offered by the author based on an interview of a well-known Philippine composer:

In 1955, Lucrecia Kasilag, who was then dean of PWU, led a delegation to Dacca, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) for an international festival of dance and music. [...] Doctor Kasilag had been accompanying the dancers on piano and requested a piano from the organizers for their performance. The organizers were sorry to say that no piano was available, for it was not anticipated that one would be required in an Asian festival. Kasilag made due [sic] with a guitar, but the experience made her and all of the other members realize how Western-sounding the music she had been playing was. When they returned home, the “identity crisis” that arose from being among other Asians gave them the determination to “probe deeper into authentic Filipino cultural heritage (de Guzman 1987:81).”4

Another theme which affects cultural expression in the Philippines is hybridity, obviously forged from the Philippines’ long history under Western rulers

This vignette serves to frame the question of whether there is an “authentic Filipino cultural heritage” that antedates its colonial experience. The reality is that there was no “Philippines” before the Spaniards came, and therefore there was no “Filipino” consciousness per se. Cultural groupings existed in the islands of the Philippines, the most dominant of which were the people speaking the Tagalog language.5 Thereafter, the long path towards Philippine nationhood was shaped mainly through interaction, first, with the Spanish colonizers, then with the American colonizers. As the most recent imperial power, the U.S. serves as a foil for Philippine nationalist aspirations. It also remains a constant presence in Philippine culture because the “special relationship” engendered an equivocal reliance on the part of the Philippines as the U.S. maintained global dominance after World War II. “While other Southeast Asian countries formed nationalist movements against representatives of the Old World, the Philippines underwent a modernizing project under the tutelage of the New World. These experiences, translated into the representation of self, resulted in external and internal projections of a hybridity unique to the Philippines that required cogent articulation.” (Castro 2011:8).

In tracing the cultural history from 1898 to 1998, the author identified three themes in the development of nationhood in the Philippines. First, there is an inclination towards a Western type of modernism, defined by the author as “the ideological impulses that urge society and culture toward an ideal of modernity,” the latter referring to “the desire to belong to a global community of nations and the legitimation of self-rule (Castro 2011:7).” As a nationalist strategy, the modernist approach enabled composers to create music that tapped into a “nostalgic past” through the use of folk idioms without having to deal with troublesome colonial memories. It also allowed composers to experiment with non-melodic and non-traditional Western forms of music, thereby providing a way for accepting the present and navigating the future while shedding colonial associations.

Another theme which affects cultural expression in the Philippines is hybridity, obviously forged from the Philippines’ long history under Western rulers. As already noted above, the experience of the Philippines as a colony of the United States translated into a national identity of a heterogeneous character that has been profoundly affected by its discourse with the U.S. Such hybridity pervades individual and community expressions and is apparent in both cross country and internationalist outlooks (Castro 2011:8). A third characteristic theme in the cultural history of the Philippines is manifested in the robust interaction between authority and agents of cultural change, whether in support of or in defiance of the powers that be. Because of the long history of struggle against colonial authorities, protest is a tradition well embedded in Philippine cultural expressions. How artists and cultural institutions of the state exercise and negotiate power, and define political space contribute to the shaping of the cultural landscape, which “reveal narratives of and insights into the Philippine nation.” (Castro 2011: 6-8)

The Imagined Community

Apart from rallying people to the flag against a common enemy, songs articulating aspirations of freedom, have seldom focused on hate to nurture a nation. More often than not, such music celebrates life, love, dreams and hopes for a better future. Castro characterizes this linkage between music and nation as a construct that exists in the imagination of a people and argues that it is better understood as a process rather than as a fact (2011:10). Benedict Anderson defines nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”6 According to him, the nation exists in the imagination of its members because the members wilI never know, hear from, or meet most of their fellow members “yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (ibid). This community imagined by a group of people was first made possible by a change in the perception of time brought about by the widespread dissemination of ideas, which, among others, was enabled by the development of print technology (ibid, Anderson). The change allowed for communication and common understandings among people that otherwise would not be possible outside of a religious culture. Through time, these common understandings have allowed people to have a sense of shared history and to develop common aspirations, thus signifying nation and then, a national identity. In articulating identity, the nation through its governing structure—the state—may decide to associate itself with certain songs as a symbol of its official character. At other times, music may be employed to showcase a disconnect between the people and the state, and even, to repudiate the state. As the author notes, “it is through discourse and experience that music can be defined as characteristic of a people or a nation—sometimes as an essential characteristic (Castro 2011:9).”

Nationalism and Music

Nationalism has held different meanings at different times to different groups, and may be viewed through different lenses. Mindful of this, the author adopts a specific definition of nationalism:

For the purposes of the present book, I define nationalism as the authorizing ideologies of nation. It is a field of ideas from diverse sources that can be examined through subcategories– including political nationalism, the sentiment of patriotism (love of country), cultural nationalism, and specifically musical nationalism. Yet, more than just a psychological predisposition (Giddens 1985), nationalism authors nation, ceaselessly propelling the projection of ideas and production of culture in a multidirectional circuit. [...] I consider nationalism in its romantic (e.g. Herderian [discussed below]) sense, but only to the extent that blood and land can be popularly believed as tying Filipinos together. After all, as stated above, the Philippines is not distinguished by a single language, ethnicity, or religion. The country is an archipelago with lowlands and mountains and with numerous ethnic and regional divisions. Nationalism, therefore, works at shoring up understandings of mutual belonging and exclusion among a diverse population” (2011:11-12) (italics supplied).

Musical elements consisting of folk dances, folk tunes, rhythms, and harmonies became proper subjects for state patronage.

How does one parse the idea of “nation” in a country with multitudinous diversities—in religion, language, ethnicity and regional loyalty? Romantic nationalism which had inspired Philippine national hero, José Rizal, provided a means to continue strengthening the ties that bind Filipinos to their native land.7

Romantic Nationalism and Cultural Nationalism

Romantic nationalism originated from Europe in the late 18th century. It was a movement inspired by the ideas of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803), a German philosopher who postulated that thought depends on language, so that language essentially determines thought. According to Herder, the meaning of words could not be divorced from the way they are used by the people who speak them.8 Language which develops common understandings and shared impulses among individuals results in a culture that links them to their native land: “The best culture of a people is not speedy; it cannot be enforced through a foreign language; it prospers at its most beautiful, and I would like to say, exclusively, in its inherited and bequeathed vernacular on the soil of its own Nation. Language forms the heart of a people ...”9

In music, romantic nationalism manifested itself in a cultural nationalism that placed a premium on local idioms and symbolisms as sources of inspiration. Musical elements consisting of folk dances, folk tunes, rhythms, and harmonies became proper subjects for state patronage.  Partly as a reaction to the cultural dominance of French, Italian, and German music in the classical sphere, newly emerging nations such as Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, and Russia10 developed their own classical compositions. To distinguish themselves as separate nations, but still sharing European roots, many nationalistic composers incorporated folk music into their compositions.11

Cultural nationalism was based on the idea that each nation should have its own language, folklore, music, flag and government institutions, while remaining part of cosmopolitan Europe and being aware of each other’s developments. Indeed, rather than being viewed as opposites, nationalism and universality were closely connected in European musical thought.12

Taken in its best light, romantic nationalism inspired people to believe in their own capacities as a people, and to trust their own instincts and emotions. This trust was validated by the knowledge that the people around them spoke the same language, practiced the same customs and adhered to certain basic norms. The idea of being born into a culture and sharing a common perspective provided a sense of belonging.  It gave identity to a people and became a measure for determining who belonged to the community and who did not. This identity increasingly became the legitimating factor for their cohesion as a nation. Pride in their own customs and traditions gave spiritual value, anchoring societies that had started questioning the divine right of monarchs to rule over them.

As a political movement, romantic nationalism became the guiding light for the leaders of many colonized nations that declared independence in modern times. However, romantic nationalism has sometimes been blamed for setting the stage of World War II. With their dream of bringing Germany back to its dominant role in Europe, Hitler and his Third Reich instituted a virulent type of “nationalism” based on racism by adopting policies of mass extermination and slavery of other peoples.

Benedict Anderson, on the other hand, sees a fundamental distinction between racism and (patriotic) nationalism. For him, nationalism “thinks in terms of historical destinies” inspiring love and self-sacrifice. He asserts that colonized peoples, who have every reason to hate their colonial masters, very seldom express their love of country in terms of hate. Instead their songs and other cultural expressions focus on their deep ties to the land. Racism, on the other hand, “dreams of eternal contaminations transmitted from the origins of time through an endless sequence of loathsome copulations: outside history.”13 As a political movement, romantic nationalism strongly influenced the dynastic states of nineteenth century Europe which became models for the newly-independent Asian and African nations in the twentieth century.[1][2] It helped change the world order.

On the individual level, the question of national identity constantly affects Filipinos as they traverse the globe, whether as tourists or contract workers, or as members of the Filipino diaspora...

The American occupation of the Philippines certainly generated many cultural expressions of love of country and yearning for freedom. Protest songs and performances, especially during the early part of the occupation, were generated in response to oppressive laws and not to thoughts of racial contamination. The practice of censorship elicited a harvest of protest literature. The author quotes composer-scholar Ramón Santos, thus: “Works such as Tanikalang Ginto (Gold Chain) and Mabuhay ang Pilipinas (Long Live the Philippines) of Juan Abad, Pag-ibig sa Lupang Tinubuan (Love for the Motherland) by Pascual Poblete, and Kahapon, Ngayon at Bukas (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) by Aurelio Tolentino are but few of the works whose authors and producers were severely punished and censured by the American colonial government” (2001:27).14

In a post colonial world, the challenge to articulate “nation”—as it is becoming—continues. Cultural nationalism with its underlying utilitarianism will seek to reify cultural subjects into expressions of identity.15 Thus, music and performance will continue to be a crucial part in defining identity within a nation’s borders and beyond.

National Identity and Diasporic Communities

As a small country, the Philippines is regularly faced with the task of articulating its place in the international community. The concept of national identity continues to be relevant as it negotiates power in the international arena. On the individual level, the question of national identity constantly affects Filipinos as they traverse the globe, whether as tourists or contract workers, or as members of the Filipino diaspora that have settled around the globe. As the author notes,

While the large-scale migratory patterns typical of Filipinos points toward theorizations of postnationality in which “nation” holds less meaning than it ever has before, the imagination of nation is actually magnified and simplified—in other words, essentialized—through  the phenomenon of distanced citizenship that arises from a vast population of overseas workers and other emigrants. The nation takes on the powerful symbolism of home, such that diasporic Filipinos, wherever they may be, continue to identify the nation as the space of Filipino people and culture (Castro 2011: 12-13).

For diasporic Filipino communities then, cultural nationalism provides a strong anchor for their national identity as they occupy the margins of society in their adopted homelands. And even when these communities have integrated with the peoples of their adopted homelands, knowing their own cultural identity can but give them the confidence and motivation to actively participate in charting their own future.

Between Two Worlds

The author precedes each chapter with a vignette of a personal experience. This style is highly effective. By providing a cinema-directe type of experience, it draws the reader into another world that is somehow both familiar and unfamiliar. Personal narratives in other sections provide insight into the in-between world of the ethnomusicologist both as a chronicler and a participant-mediator of cultures. The author clearly articulates this experience during her participation at the International Rondalla Festival in the Philippines, alluded to earlier in the book, thus:

Throughout the festival I was aware of this in-between state, expected somehow to be able to negotiate the local idiosyncrasies of transportation and decorum, though we were only slightly better equipped to do so than other foreign tourists. Our guide disappeared at inopportune moments, hinting that other foreign groups might need more help. In this small example and in others, questions involving the nuances of national identity became increasingly apparent as the week progressed.  (Castro 2011:4).

Likewise, consider this [excerpted] narrative by the author, poignant in its simplicity and in its identification with an imagined community:

The bus ride was long, lasting all night on a straight shot to Washington, DC from Boston. My mother had asked me if I wanted to join her, so that we could march together in front of the White House to protest former president Ronald Reagan’s unwavering support of the Marcos regime. Ninoy Aquino had been assassinated after returning to the Philippines to run for president in a “snap election,” and his wife, Cory Aquino, surprised many by taking his place. Both had lived in the Boston area for quite a while, since Ninoy Aquino had been exiled from the Philippines for political and health reasons, and the students and parents of my Filipino school sang Christmas carols at their home. [...]

Upon arrival, I felt like I was 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 kundiman known by most Filipinos. [...]

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 (Castro 2011:165-166).

...Ethnomusicology teaches its practitioners to be always mindful of the two worlds.

The inclusion of personal narratives do not, in anyway, suggest that they should be reified into generalized abstractions of the Philippine ethos. However, such narratives reveal nuances that may otherwise escape notice of people who are not “in between worlds.”  In terms of the Philippine diaspora, personal narratives contribute also to the imagining of the United States as a multicultural and multi-ethnic world, not just as a black-and-white world.

Ethnomusicology and Contribution to Scholarship

Modern ethnomusicology has existed in Western countries since the 1880s.16 A good portion of its development as a field, however, has been spent trying to define itself, somewhat similar to a colonized nation seeking a separate identity. As a matter of fact, its growth as a discipline was engendered, to a certain extent, by the de-colonization and birth of new nations. The field grew from the study and comparison of music from non-Western traditions that were transmitted through performance. As newly emergent nations started to assert their national identities, new ways of thinking and approaches likewise emerged to counter the charge of Western cultural bias and improper methods of collecting data.17 This growing recognition of the important role of music in the formation of cultural identity was reflected in the evolution of the discipline’s name. According to ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl:

In the 120 years in which modern ethnomusicology can be said to have existed, since pioneer works such as those of Ellis (1885), Baker (1882), and Stumpf (1886), attitudes and orientations have changed greatly, and so has the name, from something very briefly called Musikologie (in the 1880s), to “comparative musicology” (through about1950), then to “ethno-musicology” (1950-ca. 1956), quickly to “ethnomusicology” (removing the hyphen actually was an ideological move trying to signal disciplinary independence), with suggestions such as “cultural musicology” (Kerman 1985) and “socio-musicology” (Feld 1984) occasionally thrown in. The changes in name paralleled changes in intellectual orientation and emphasis.

While there is no single definition of ethnomusicology, the core of the discipline may be described as a credo in the form proposed by Nettl, thus: “1. For one thing, ethnomusicology is the study of music in culture. 2. Just as important, ethnomusicology is the study of the world’s musics from a comparative and relativistic perspective. 3. Principally, ethnomusicology is study with the use of fieldwork. 4. Ethnomusicology is the study of all of the musical manifestations of a society” (ibid.,12-13).

The awareness of these disciplinary challenges prompted practitioners of ethnomusicology to address them directly by using the approaches of other disciplines, drawing from such diverse fields as anthropology, psychology, sociology and linguistics. On account of the charge of cultural bias, the discipline is particularly sensitive to the concept of cultural “insiders” and “outsiders” and ethnomusicology teaches its practitioners to be always mindful of the two worlds. Over time, however, even the boundaries of these two worlds have shifted. As Nettl observes:

One of the major events in ethnomusicology since 1950 has been the emergence of scholars in non-Western nations who study, if not the music of their personal tradition, then that of their nation or region [...] The relative roles of Western and non-Western scholars in ethnomusicology have been debated in international gatherings, where it has sometimes been shown how many modern nation-states in the third world exist in violation of cultural boundaries otherwise determined, such as tribal and language groups, urban and rural cultures. [...] It is interesting to see, however, that scholars in the more industrialized African and Asian nations are beginning to admit that they, like European and American fieldworkers, are also outsiders to the rural societies with which they deal. They admit this as a liability to their scholarship, but they may also insist that their political right to be “insiders” remains unimpaired. On that front, there is even a tendency for insider identity to be accorded to residence on a continent. Asian music should be studied by Asians, African music by Africans, one sometimes hears (ibid.,154).

There is hardly any reference, however, to the subsequent state policies on culture and the arts, and the discourse between the state and its artists in the succeeding administrations of Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos.

Wherever the imaginary line of insider-outsider finally settles, the mediating function of the ethnomusicologist is an important one. Some studies are valuable not in terms of breaking new ground but because of the mediating function that their authors serve. By virtue of these scholars having been raised in two worlds–either as products of mixed marriages or as transplants to another culture, they are in a unique position to articulate the reality of both worlds and provide a richly nuanced perspective. In this context, Christi-Anne Castro’s Musical Renderings of the Philippine Nation is a scholarly contribution to ethnomusicology studies. It is also a welcome addition to the increasing literature on Philippine-American cultural diaspora studies.

Missed Opportunity

The virtually uninterrupted decades of nation-building after World War II afforded the author an opportunity to trace and examine national policies as they shaped cultural expressions. Through the chapters covering contributions of Lucrecia Kasilag, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Bayanihan Dance Troupe and the Madrigal Singers, the author successfully illustrates the discourse between the Marcos regime and Philippine artists. There is hardly any reference, however, to the subsequent state policies on culture and the arts, and the discourse between the state and its artists in the succeeding administrations of Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos. This omission leaves a gap, particularly since it gives the impression that the only postcolonial contributions to “classical” or “art” music were generated through the support of the previous administration. Whether true or not, integrating these subsequent discourses, if any, would provide a fuller narrative of Philippine musical life. Since the avowed subject matter of this book includes the “influence of national-level politics on shaping musical expression” (Castro 2011:6) with emphasis on the post-colonial period from 1946 to 1998, this missed opportunity is puzzling.

On Organization

The inclusion of José Maceda under the subchapter on “Lucrecia Kasilag and Asian Modernism” in Chapter 1 seems rather strange. To illustrate the two different modernist trajectories of Philippine music, the author created two subchapters, citing the works and personages of Lucio San Pedro and Lucrecia Kasilag. Therefore, to include a long paragraph on José Maceda within the Kasilag subchapter as a kind of sub-subchapter seems superfluous and serves as a distraction. On the other hand, as the father of ethnomusicology in the Philippines, perhaps, Maceda deserves a separate section, if the purpose is to illustrate a branching out of this modernist approach from that of Kasilag’s.

On Translation and Transcription

As a second generation Filipino-American, Castro deftly guides the reader through the now familiar, now incomprehensible world of a former colony as it strives to integrate its diverse cultures into one nation. Yes, sometimes she stumbles—the song translations are lacking the elegance of the original, sometimes the translation is too literal, or overly interprets the meaning, or just plainly misses capture of contextual meaning.

Commonwealth National Anthem

An example of over-interpretation occurs when the author discusses the text of the Philippine Commonwealth national anthem. Written by Camilo Osias in 1934 on the eve of the Philippine Commonwealth declaration, the English text was meant to replace the Spanish text of the first Philippine national anthem composed by Julián Felipe. For easy reference, the entire poem is reproduced below (italics and emphasis supplied):

Land of the morning,
Child of the sun returning,
With fervor burning,
Thee do our souls adore.
Land dear and holy,
Cradle of noble heroes,
Ne’er shall invaders
Trample thy sacred shore.

Ever within thy skies and through thy clouds
And o’er thy hills and sea,
Do we behold the radiance, feel and throb,
Of glorious liberty.
Thy banner, dear to all our hearts,
Its sun and stars alight,
O never shall its shining field
Be dimmed by tyrant’s might!
Beautiful land of love, O land of light
In thine embrace ‘tis rapture to lie,
But it is glory ever, when thou art wronged,
For us, thy sons to suffer and die.

The author states that the English text largely adheres to the message of the original Spanish text noting, however, a curious change in national character, as illustrated by the metaphors used:

Much of the message from the Spanish text is retained, including a poetic reference to the country’s location in the east with an implication of the youthfulness of an emerging nation. A warning against invaders is coupled with a reference to sons of the land as heroes. This land, despite U.S. secularization, is sacred, and the Filipinos are possessed of souls. Later in the text, the Philippines is no longer the lap of a mother, but rather the embrace of a lover, an intriguing shift in national character to one of virile masculinity with the feeling of liberty described as nothing short of a glorious throb (Castro 2011:31). [Italics supplied].

For conservative Filipinos just emerging from centuries of Catholic Spanish rule, the adoption of such a conceit in a national anthem would be remarkably risqué and probably incomprehensible.

That the Philippine metaphor is now that of the “embrace of a lover” instead of the “lap of a mother” is an interpretation by the author that is not borne out by both the text and context of the poem. She bases this lover metaphor solely on the word “throb.” The word in its plain signification, makes no reference to a lover at all. “Throb” means “[to] beat rapidly or violently, as the heart; pound.”19 Other meanings given are “to vibrate, to pulsate, or sound with a steady pronounced rhythm.” To read in the second stanza a competing metaphor would create an inconsistency that does not seem justified since the mother metaphor is retained throughout by the use of “cradle” and “sons,” and perhaps, even by the word “sacred.” Besides, as the author herself notes, the lover metaphor signals an “intriguing shift of character.” For conservative Filipinos just emerging from centuries of Catholic Spanish rule, the adoption of such a conceit in a national anthem would be remarkably risqué and probably incomprehensible.

Bayan Ko20

In “Bayan Ko,” the author uses the word nasakdál in the last line of the first stanza which is incorrect. While not obvious because it is alliteratively close to the correct word of nasadlák, it is very noticeable in her English translation:

Original verse:
Bayan ko, binihag ka
Nasadlák sa dusa.

Author’s copy:
Bayan ko, binihag ka
Nasakdál sa dusa.

Author’s translation:
My country you were conquered
Charged to suffering.

“Charged to suffering” is awkward and difficult to understand. Perhaps “charged with suffering” or better still, “condemned to suffering” would be more apt. Since Bayan Ko is an iconic song and has had several stanzas added to it at various epochs of protest, it is possible that this song may, indeed, have changed in a folkloric fashion. This reviewer, however, submits that until now, she has never heard of a version using “nasakdál.” The root word of “nasakdál” is “sakdál” which means “accusation” in a court of law. Other meanings include “a criminal charge,” “indictment” and “lawsuit.”21 “Sakdál” may also be used as an adjective to indicate a superlative as in “very great” or “extremely” (ibid.). For example, the last line in the second stanza says: “Aking adhika, makita kang sakdál laya” which translates to “My desire is to see you truly free.” On the other hand, the original word “nasadlák” comes from the root word “sadlák” which means “a fall into disgrace, shame or some misfortune.”22

May 17, 2009: Filipino-American Symphony Orchestra Concert at the
Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, conducted by Robert Shroder.

The beautiful rhythm, cadence, and imagery evoked in the original is lost in the translation. But then again, translation is a tricky business and requires a complicated skill set. More often than not, the translator is faced with several tough choices: should one translate literally and remain faithful to the poem while possibly losing the meaning, tone and cadence of the original? Or should one find a metaphor in the English language that would evoke the rich imagery extant in the original language but in the process lose accuracy in the text, and the context that goes with it? What if there are several possible literary meanings, or conversely, what if there is no literary equivalent? How much license can the translator exercise in the exercise of craft? The difficulty may, perhaps, be illustrated in the different versions below, all of which are insufficient in capturing the beauty of the original.

Original verse:
Bayan ko, binihag ka
Nasádlak sa dusa
Sample Version 1
My country, you were imprisoned
Mired in suffering.

Sample Version 2:
My country, you were conquered
Condemned to suffer.

Sample Version 3:
My country, enslaved thou art,
From fortune hast thou part’d.

It would be interesting to find out how Western pop music implicates Filipino identity not only in terms of a globalized age but also in terms of geographic location and dislocation.

It may also be observed that the author’s musical transcription has a couple of notes that deviate from the standard version. This relates to the last four measures that correspond to the last line of the song, thus: “Aking adhika, makita kang sakdal laya!” In the penultimate measure of the song, the author’s notation reads as [f#2-e2- f#2-e2]. It should read as [f#2-e2- g2-c#2] with the third and fourth notes as the highest and lowest notes, respectively, in the measure. These two notes are particularly important because they correspond to the stressed syllables—sakdál laya—and the combination of the highest and the lowest notes in the same measure stirringly emphasizes the yearning to be “truly” free.

Bayan Ko – four measures as transcribed by the author Castro:

Bayan Ko – four measures as transcribed by the author Castro

Bayan Ko – last four measures as usually performed:

Bayan Ko – last four measures as usually performed

No matter how hard one tries, there always seems to be something lost in translation and transcription, a problem that the field of ethnomusicology has had to face in its development as a theoretical discipline.

Other Considerations

Towards the end of the book, the author states: “While space has not permitted this book to explore in much detail Filipino and Western pop music and its dissemination in the Philippines, future work on national identity in the global age would certainly need to take into account the popular music marketplace” (Castro 2011:199). It is indeed unfortunate that space limitations did not allow detailed discussion on Filipino and Western pop music discourse in a globalized age. It would be interesting to find out how Western pop music implicates Filipino identity not only in terms of a globalized age but also in terms of geographic location and dislocation. Future work might also elaborate on the role of music during the colonial government’s introduction of English as part of its educational policy. Beyond the nationalistic reaction to the oppressive sedition and flag laws imposed by the U.S. colonial government at the start of its administration, how did Filipinos sustain their identity as a nation amidst the onslaught of Hollywood? For Filipinos living in America, how did they express their “distanced citizenship” in the communities they lived in?

Nascent American Musical Renderings

While many of the major Filipino composers featured in this narrative studied in the United States, there is hardly any discussion of nascent American musical influences on Philippine compositions. This is unfortunate because it is especially during the early 20th century that the U.S was forging its own musical identity separate from its European moorings. Prior to the 1920s, modern music in the United States consisted primarily of featured works by contemporary European composers (Crawford 2001: 568). Musical nationalism in the 19th century appeared as a reaction to this dominance of European music in American life. The debate was generally framed within the context of how to keep the concert halls and opera houses filled considering the perceived musical illiteracy of the American audiences and the negligible presence of American composers. Two positions emerged on how to address the problem. On the one hand, some musicians were of the view that “American composers needed all the help they could get, and that performers and audiences should give their music a hearing simply because they were Americans” (Crawford 2001: 326). Others were of the view that “to create American music, one needed only to be an American and to compose”(ibid.). It was not until the first generation of American-born modernists came of age that the national consciousness became aware of a distinctly modern “American” music (ibid., 568). Like Lucio San Pedro, composers Amy Beach, Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson were experimenting with integrating folk melodies into their classical compositions (ibid.,365 and 610). Louis Armstrong and Ferd “Jelly Roll” Morton’s jazz improvisations were starting to gain national recognition (ibid.,623).

The scarce treatment of American musical influences leaves a visible gap in the cultural history of the Philippines.

Both “serious” and “popular” music were enriching and marking the era with new musical idioms and styles when the Depression hit. Ironic as it may seem, the severe economic decline was instrumental in creating a “cultural revolution of the thirties” (ibid.,590). From 1929 to 1934, about 70% of all musicians in the United States were out of work due to a confluence of economic and technological factors (ibid.). The economic decline meant that audiences had less money to spend for entertainment while the advent of radio made it possible for music to be heard outside of music halls and in the confines of private dwellings. Moreover, the transition from silent film to “talkies” obviated the need for music performers who had previously accompanied silent films in orchestra pits of theatres, large and small. The dire situation of musicians motivated the U.S. government to sponsor a wide-ranging relief action. As part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program, music received for the first time “systematic, comprehensive government support” (ibid.). Through the Federal Music Project (1935-1943), the government employed 16,000 musicians and gave 5,000 performances to an estimated 3 million monthly (ibid.).The Project also resulted in providing more than a million classes to 14 million students (ibid.). Did this Project in anyway affect the public school system in the Philippines which was still a commonwealth under American rule?

Dancing Koi: oil painting by R.G. Wedum
Dancing Koi: oil painting by R.G. Wedum

The scarce treatment of American musical influences leaves a visible gap in the cultural history of the Philippines. The narrative seems to skip directly from classicized folkloric music and protest songs to the discovery of atonal music in the early years of nationhood. While the latter fittingly reclaims the Philippines’ identity as part of Southeast Asia, there is a noticeable gap that needs to be bridged, especially since the study claims for its subject a cultural history of the role of music covering the period between 1898 and 1998.

Ms. Castro’s work is cut out for her. In line with her doubly unique status as a product of two worlds, both as a Filipino-American and as an ethnomusicologist, a second volume detailing Philippine-American musical discourse would certainly complement this scholarly tome.


Book sources:

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, Revised Edition, 2006).

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

Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History (London and New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001).

Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005).

Leo James English, Tagalog-English Dictionary (Philippines: Congregation of The Most Holy Redeemer, 1986).

Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire , the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 363 and 372.

Lynn M. Sargeant, Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000).

Internet sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rondalla accessed on May 11, 2011.

Eufronio M. Alip’s Tagalog Literature: A Historico-Critical Study published by the U.S.T. Press in Manila in 1930, and made available online by the University of Michigan at its website: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/ as accessed on May 10, 2013.
http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/herder/  accessed on May 10, 2013.

accessed on May 10, 2013.

Ramon Guillermo, “Moral Forces, Philosophy of History, and War in Jose Rizal” Philippine Studies 60 No.1 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 2012) 3-30. Accessible online at: http://www.philippinestudies.net/files/journals/1/articles/3558/public/3558-6211-1-PB.pdf as accessed on May 21, 2013.

End Notes

1 Rondalla  in the Philippines refers to any group of stringed instruments played using the plectrum or pick. Certain instruments that make up the standard Philippine ensemble of stringed instruments are: the banduria, the laúd, the octavina, the double bass and bass guitar. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rondalla as accessed on May 11, 2011. (Note: This contemporary definition is much more specific and much closer to the contextual meaning of Rondalla.)

2 Between 1907 and 1919, several repressive laws were passed. Among them were: the Flag Law, the Sedition Law, the Reconcentration Act and the Bandolerismo Statute. The Flag Law prohibited the display of the Filipino flag and the playing of the national anthem.

3 Americans were divided on the issue of keeping the Philippines as a colony. Those in favor of retention viewed Filipinization as “nothing less than political apocalypse, a “scuttle policy” aimed at sinking the ship of state” and that the Philippines “would inevitably decline in Filipino hands.” On the other hand, some commentators such as James Bryce who had previously lamented the “scandalous maladministration and wasteful inefficiency” of U.S local governments showed empathy with the Filipinos,imagining a situation where Germans came to the U.S., and declared: “‘We are the acknowledged experts in the world in the operation of municipal governments.... Therefore we have come to do it for you.’” His self-introspective commentary postulated “Would we welcome them? Would we be grateful to them?”  Paul A. Kramer, The Blood of Government: Race, Empire , the United States, and the Philippines (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 363 and 372.

4 Castro 2011:73.

5 An early account of Tagalog literature may be found in Eufronio M. Alip’s Tagalog Literature: A Historico-Critical Study published by the U.S.T. Press in Manila in 1930, and made available online by the University of Michigan at its website: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/.

6 Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York: Verso, Revised Edition, 2006), 6.

7 In his essay, “The Philippines A Century Hence” Rizal talks about the loss of culture of the Filipinos after the Spanish conquest:

Then began a new era for the Filipinos. They gradually lost their ancient traditions, their recollections—they forgot their writings, their songs, their poetry, their laws, in order to learn by heart other doctrines, which they did not understand, other ethics, other tastes, different from those inspired in their race by their climate and their way of thinking. Then there was a falling-off, they were lowered in their own eyes, they became ashamed of what was distinctively their own, in order to admire and praise what was foreign and incomprehensible: their spirit was broken and they acquiesced (italics provided).

The artifacts of culture mentioned by Rizal – writings, songs, etc—and the references to climate and way of thinking as being tied to one’s native land are all part of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s philosophy which inspired the romantic nationalist movement. Moreover, Rizal owned a complete set of Herder’s works. See the interesting article of Ramon Guillermo especially for other influences on the political thought of Rizal in “Moral Forces, Philosophy of History, and War in Jose Rizal” Philippine Studies 60 No.1 (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University, 2012) 3-30.

8 http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/herder/  accessed on May 10, 2013.

9 http://www.pitt.edu/~votruba/sstopics/slovaklawsonlanguage
accessed on May 10, 2013.

10 As late as 1841, a Russian critic was lamenting the impoverishment of Russian musical life, deeming it inferior compared to that of Germany. According to him, musical life was limited to “Russian and foreign (nemetskaia) opera, and concerts during Lent.” See Lynn M. Sargeant, Harmony and Discord: Music and the Transformation of Russian Cultural Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 27-28.

11 Richard Crawford, America’s Musical Life: A History (London and New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 377.

12 Ibid., 377-378.

13 According to Anderson, “the dreams of racism actually have their origin in ideologies of class, rather than in those of nations: above all in claims to divinity among rulers and to ‘blue’ or ‘white’ blood and ‘breeding’ among aristocracies” (2006:149).

14 Castro 2011:185.

15 The products of culture may go through the nationalization process in two ways: via the state and via mass media and commoditization. The first involves the process whereby the state bestows national status on the music and/or performers, when their expressions align with the goals and purposes of the state. In the latter, the music and performances are given widespread dissemination without government intervention. (Castro, 2011: 13-14). The latter process is, in fact, not dissimilar to the branding of goods.

16 Bruno Nettl, The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 3.

17 Ibid., see in particular Chapters 2 and 6.

18 Nettl 2005:3

19 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000) 1802.

20 Translated as “My Country,” Bayan Ko was composed by Constancio de Guzman in 1928 with original lyrics written by José Corazon de Jesus (see 2011: 176).

21 Leo James English, Tagalog-English Dictionary (Philippines: Congregation of The Most Holy Redeemer, 1986), 1124-1125.

22 Ibid., 1134.

© R.G. Wedum

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