There was a time in the early 90s when Francis Magalona – remembered fondly as a vanguard of OPM and a passionate advocate of nationalism in Pinoy pop music – was deemed by OPM icon Freddie Aguilar as unpatriotic.
I don’t remember the exact rant but I specifically recall him derisively describe Francis M’s rap as “musikang banyaga” in a news interview once. It was a bit confusing to me at the time because “Mga Kababayan” already seemed like blatant nationalist propaganda akin to “Magkaisa” and “Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo”. Yet it wasn’t enough for Ka-Freddie; not its ethnic music infusions or its earnestly patriotic motherhood statements like “bilib ako sa kulay ko” and “magaling ang atin, yan ang laging iisipin”. As far as he was concerned, rap is African-American music and is therefore un-Filipino.
No other Filipino musician could lay claim to OPM authenticity in the early 1990s more than Freddie Aguilar. Children of the 70s had come of age and regarded him as the father of modern Pinoy popular music – his “Anak” became a popular hit outside the Philippines and his rendition of “Bayan Ko” became the anthem of their generation. His acoustic guitar sounds, soulful melodies, and cowboy hats were the embodiment of Filipino Folk music.
Except, of course, he wasn’t really playing Filipino Folk music – the ethnic instruments used in “Mga Kababayan” is closer to indigenous folk music than any of Aguilar’s tunes – but Filipino Folk music, which is to say American folk music rendered in Tagalog. Ka-Freddie’s “folk music” didn’t trace its roots from Davao or Benguet, but from the Appalachian mountains in North America; the birthplace of a genre popularized by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Byrds, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
I cannot help but remember this every time the subject of the alleged “Pinoy Sound” comes up, when people disparage the current crop of local indie bands as “not Filipino enough”, or worse, “nagpapaka-British/American”. The 70s is often imagined as the musical Garden of Eden, where Asin, Sampaguita, Hotdog, and The Juan Dela Cruz Band roamed the pristine land of true-blue Pinoy pop.
Unless one is talking about music primitivists like Pinikpikan, Joey Ayala, Makiling Ensemble, and (to a lesser degree) Cynthia Alexander, then there is really no “Pinoy Sound” in the strictest sense. But why is it, then, that certain artists just sound more Pinoy than others?
The go-to post-Aguilar, post-Magalona “Pinoy Sound” reference has been the Eraserheads, who everyone agrees sounds Pinoy, even if taking out all the vocals from “Ligaya” reveals a sound reminiscent of Kalapana, while the Pinoy street vernacular of “Pare Ko” conceals a Jackson Browne sensibility. But that’s the thing: the Pinoy sound we all point to is nothing else but the nasal crisp-consonant timbre of Pinoy street vernacular. We’ve been confusing music for voice all this time.
When music nationalists look for that elusive “Pinoy sound”, what they’re really looking for are Pinoy words. There’s no sense in insinuating that indie pop or chillwave is less Pinoy than punk or hard rock because any human being on Earth who plays popular music inescapably operates in a Western art form.
The post-colonial grudge Pinoys are born with, like a native original sin, makes it difficult to view music as a purely universal human endeavor towards understanding life. It is hampered by a reactionary nationalism born out of a hereditary inferiority complex that necessitated such lines as “wag kang mahihiya kung ang ilong mo ay pango” or “isipin mo na kaya mong abutin ang iyong minimithi” from our pop music canon.
I’ve always felt very little kinship with music burdened by politics (whether it’s by U2 or The Jerks). The music that stays in me and speaks to me in the most powerful ways is the kind that talks about not being American, or British, or Filipino – but the kind that talks about what it means to be human. For instance, Peryodiko’s “Bakasyon” and Up Dharma Down’s “Feelings” provide me with the same sense of melancholy towards the same treacherous and lonely world. And yet there remains a difference that I cannot ignore.
As a duet between Armi Millare and Paul Buchanan, “Feelings” sounds to me like a Blue Nile b-side; in fact almost the entire “Capacities” album lends itself to unavoidable comparisons to Buchanan’s old band. But this is not a value judgement; a lot of Pinoy albums recall a lot of Western music, whether or not it features foreign guest vocals. Outerhope will always remind me of Bobby and Blumm and It’s a Musical; The Bernadettes will always remind me of BMX Bandits and early Teenage Fanclub – but this isn’t their fault because, again, they’re operating within the idiom of a Western art form.
Every time I am moved by “Feelings”, I am touched by an unavoidable sense of otherness, which through sheer force of familiarity, no longer leaves me alienated. If anything, it decorates the emotion in romantic first-world tropes of life-defining heartbreak, of British fogs and pretty American streets where the only danger resides in your eternal loneliness. I’ve felt intense kinship before with other singers of English words sung in foreign accents, so Pinoy bands like Up Dharma Down, in their English songs, only duplicate that experience.
Yet, I cannot deny that the yearning desperation in “Bakasyon” feels more emotionally immediate, because it cries and bellows in a language I use everyday. It also somehow sounds a lot sadder and less ornamental than western mope songs or Filipino ones rendered in western English. Heartbreak songs by bands like Peryodiko or Sugarfree remind me of my humid reality of cramped bedrooms and depressingly dark motel rooms, and not of the sleek romanticism of the west. And sometimes I find myself gravitating more towards The Smiths or Red House Painters because abstract loneliness is easier to withstand (which is probably why I write in English, but that’s another self-conscious matter for another day).
Music nationalists who advocate the use of Filipino lose me when they start reducing their art into a mere civic duty; as if we are at war, fighting for our musical identity. Hardly anyone ever mentions the raw power of the mundane and the familiar that can never be achieved through English.
I suppose the more English songs we have, the more competitive we can be in the global music community, which ironically makes the enemies of music nationalists accidental nationalists. But music – at its most transcendent – has to be honest. It has to speak, not just the language of the artists, but the language that best communicates their lives. We live in a bilingual country with dual realities that deserve equal artistic attention. Some realities just feel more real than others.
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