Composer for Every Country: Philippines

Modern humans have been around the Philippines for quite a long time. The oldest human remains yet found are those of the Tabon Man, dating to, oh, 47,000 years ago, give or take 10,000. Seems like… Well, I don’t want to presume, but it seems like that margin of error doesn’t make for great betting odds, but it’s the best we’ve got right now. While the first humans arrived via long-submerged landmasses, another strong wave of humans, the Austronesians, arrived by boat and established trade between the islands and along the coast of East Asia. Sea-faring trade would be a staple of the islands basically its entire existence from this point onwards.

As far as historical records go, there’s the Laguna Copperplate, dating to 900AD, which exists as an assurance that the debts of one Honorable Namwaran have been paid. Found in 1989, the plate was deciphered in 1992, and I can only imagine the excitement in the room when it was revealed the artifact was, in fact, an 1100 year old receipt. Not to say it lacks historical import! It is written in Old Malay, and its date marks it as contemporaneous with the Tando settlement and Javanese Medang Kingdom.

Unlike Indonesia, there were no overarching empires that united the islands under one polity. Various Indian cultural influences spread from the Indonesian Majapahit Empire during the 10th-century AD, while Islam came rather later, in the 15th century. Until Ferdinand Magellan arrived in 1565, the Philippines were home to a multitude of cultures and political units centered around various trade cities like Maynila, Tondo, Namayan, and many others. These operated in city-state-like organizations called barangay. Or maybe the city-states are formed of alliances between barangay? It’s a little unclear to me. In any case, there was no central bureaucratic state to speak of.

So then, Magellan shows up, asks who is in charge, and, I assume, receives an answer not unlike King Arthur got from Dennis, the Peasant. He then gets himself killed at the Battle of Mactan, which granted the islands only a temporary reprieve before Spain successfully conquered the area in the 1570’s. Spain would rule the islands as colonies until 1899, when the Philippines established the First Philippine Republic, only to become a colony pretty much immediately when Spain loses the Spanish-American War, and America, being the pro-democracy country it is, went “Yeah, no.” 

Thus, I imagine Filipine attitudes towards the US could only be described as “complicated” when American soldiers began liberating the islands from the Japanese Empire. Estimates say nearly a million Filipinos were killed during WWII, which included both combat and war atrocities like the Bataan Death March and the Manila Massacre. In the end, the US recognized the Philippines as an independent state in 1946 after the war.

Musically, there are two sides to the Philippines: indiginous music, and Spanish. Also, some American music. One of the more surreal moments in my listening this week was a Filipine choir singing an American folk-tune, “Louisiana.” It was great, but… unexpected. The indiginous music is predominantly played by gong ensembles called kulintang. Exact practices vary by region. From Spain came the tradition known as the rondalla, usually made up of a banduria, guitar, double-bass, and some kind of drum. It might also include accordion or violin. Of massive popularity is P-Pop (Pinoy-Pop, of Philippine-Pop) which is largely composed of sentimental pop ballads. I can’t say I’m personally a fan, but it might be up your alley. Popular styles of American origin are also widespread, especially rock and hip-hop.

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The composer today is Lucrecia Roces Kasilag (1918-2008). Growing up in Paco, Manila, Ms. Kasilag was a pianist and composer, although her performing career was cut short by a congenital weakness in one hand. Her musical education ranged from the Philippine Women’s University to Eastman School of Music, and her compositions typically blend elements of Filipino culture with European concert music. Ms. Kasilag was also deeply involved with Philippine cultural preservation, helping found both the Bayanihan Folks Arts Center and the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company.

Linked below is her Toccata for Percussion and Winds, which uses percussion from both the Philippines and Europe in its orchestration.