When the Spaniards set foot on Philippine soil, native inhabitants already had a thriving musical culture of their own. Friars, travelers, and chroniclers describe instrumental and vocal music that celebrate the exploits of heroes in battles and festive occasions such as birth and marriage. There were work songs related to planting and harvests, songs to invoke blessings from the good spirits, as well as songs to drive away evil ones. There were songs of courting, mourning, and children's game-playing songs.
Musical instruments consisted of gongs, drums and flutes and were made of bronze, wood, and bamboo. While traditional music still exists among the indigenous tribes throughout the archipelago, the bulk of Filipino music underwent a radical transformation with the influx of Western influences, particularly European culture, during the period of Spanish colonization. As a result, a hybrid form of musical expression, heavily tinged with Spanish tastes, developed and spread throughout the islands.
As Filipinos became more comfortable with their new-found religion, they incorporated indigenous traditions and practices onto Roman Catholic rituals and celebrations, many of which are still practiced today. During the Christmas holidays, for example, carolers visit homes, serenading households with shepherd's songs (pastores). During the Lenten season, many liturgical ceremonies are held. There is the pabasa - the intoning of a pasyon in homes or in barrio chapels - a verse that recounts the death of Jesus on the cross. Varying from region to region, the chanting of the pasyon in its entirety can take anywhere from sixteen to twenty hours!
Harana by Carlos "Botong" Francisco
The Filipinos' dedication to music is absolute. Indeed, the cycle of life in the barrio is celebrated with songs for just about every occasion. They include lullabies (See also: Hay Kailangan), songs of love (See also: Matud Nila), nuptial songs, even death and burial songs. A very romantic song used in courtship is called Harana, derived from the Spanish jarana. It is a series of songs sung beside a young lady's window, where she usually waits until after a second song has been sung before opening the window and inviting the serenaders into the house under the watchful eyes of the young lady's parents. Once inside, pleasantries are exchanged, sweets are sometimes served, and the serenaders and the young lady take turns singing songs heavy with traditional Tagalog poetry worthy of a Balagtasan.. The nocturnal visit is concluded with the serenaders singing a farewell song called, pamamaalam. The popular cartoon showing a young lady throwing a flower pot on the serenader's head is simply not true, at least, not in Salaza. However, if the serenaders had had more than a few San Miguels at the sari-sari store earlier and they were slurring their songs, you can bet that the young lady's Itay might take matters into his hands quite literally with his newly sharpened bolo.
In the mid 1800s an increased interest in Western music other than the liturgical genres occurred. Piano lessons for young girls and instrumental music for boys were part of the Catholic schools curriculum that included religion, history, physics, Latin, and philosophy. Eventually, the products of such an education formed an elite group that cultivated Western arts and culture. Members of this elite group called the ilustrados patronized the arts and attended concerts and operas; and, in the Filipino version of the Italian passeggiata, they rode in open air carruajes around the Luneta to enjoy the cool sea breeze and listen to the military band that played there every evening.
With his natural flair for dramatic talent, the Filipino has since then developed an extraordinary ear for music. He is, in fact, a natural born musician. Many native musicians who never took formal music lessons can execute difficult compositions with ease on first sight. It is not surprising then that every town and barrio in Spanish Philippines had one band, sometimes two, comprising of no more than seven or eight musicians.
The bands were generally under the supervision of the municipal authorities, or, better to say, under those of the Padre. Their services were enlisted for religious, social, and political functions. They were a sort of common property of their respective communities, and the only compensation most of them received for their services consisted of donations given by their hosts and free meals during the duration of the occasion for which they were asked to perform - coronation night, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and Christmas and Easter.
Their instruments were of an old Spanish pattern and of extremely soft and melodious sound. (The eight-member Botolan brass band that came to our house in the Salaza fiesta of 2000 had a snare and bass drums, two saxophones, two trumpets, a trombone, and a clarinet). The music played by them were invariably classic. Selections from the operas of Verdi, Meyerbeer, Rossini and others were their favorite compositions and were executed with much skill and feeling. In Salaza of my youth, my Mother used to be the perennial hostess of such bands from the neighboring barrios of Ti-ti-on and Kapalangan during Salaza's fiestas. It was during such festivities listening to the bands that my boyhood appreciation for old European masterpieces like An der schoenen blauen Donau, Sorrento, and La Cumparcita began to develop. (See also: The Salaza Fiesta).
Filipinos are great imitators. When a new style of jazz was made popular by bands accompanying funeral processions in New Orleans in the early 1900s, it did not escape the attention of Filipino barrio musicians. Ragtime was an unknown quantity in the Philippines in those days and the rendition by a barrio band of When the Saints Come Marching In played at the liveliest up tempo conceivable to them, immediately following soft, somber music, carries with it the tradition of a New Orleans funeral procession at its best.
Today's Filipino musikero is found in almost every major city of the world where they have formed bands that are usually superior in performance to their local counterpart. Indeed, whether he is performing solo in a smoky Singapore pub or in a string quartet performing a Mozart at the elegant Chateau de Versailles, his execution is so perfectly flawless it makes you want to cry.
To add a touch of drama to the plight of our "musikeros" who have limited opportunities at home and are forced to seek employment overseas, the following link tells the story of Ding, a veteran and talented musician in Hongkong, and the story that his son, Dong (pun unintended), may be forced to repeat.
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