Our Languages and Our Songs in the Philippines
Manuel L. Quezon III
The first time I met the great Filipino novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez, it was at a lunch where the discussion drifted to the merits of authoritarianism versus democracy. The relative merits and demerits of the Philippines and Singapore came up. In response, Gonzalez told us a kind of parable.
“In Singapore,” he said, “they only know one song: Their national anthem.” In contrast, he said, “we Filipinos know our national anthem and we know so many songs we can’t stop singing them; and we sing so much, the Singaporeans hire us to do their singing for them.”
He concluded with this thought: “I’d rather have the freedom to sing whatever I want, however badly I like, rather than know only one song, and an official one at that.”
Every so often a debate breaks out in the papers, and quickly turns into a fight. The debate is over which language should be taught in our schools. The debate used to focus on two languages: English and Filipino. In recent years, it’s become a three-cornered fight: English vs. Filipino vs. the other languages of the Philippines. I have my own views on the matter (English is necessary; Filipino, too; and advocates of both have a historical obligation to recognize the aspirations of other Philippine languages, so that learning either doesn’t come at the expense, politically and culturally, of the others).
I’ve heard one interesting argument, which is that English is easier to read, and write, than Filipino. That our local languages (personally, I hate the careless use of the term “dialect,” because it mistakenly classifies Philippine languages as dialects, when they are not. A dialect would be, for example, Tagalog spoken in Batangas in comparison to the Tagalog spoken in Manila; but the Tagalogs and the Ilokanos, for example, speak separate languages) are manifestations of a culture that is primarily oral: We share ideas not by writing them down, but by blabbing about them to each other.
Or singing to each other, in our various languages, perhaps? How would you appreciate Cebuano culture, if you cannot speak Cebuano? The closest I have dare come to doing so is by means of three songs: Hearing our national anthem sung in Cebuano; listening to the kundiman “Ay, Kalisud!”, and by belonging to a generation that had its first exposure to history by laughing along to Yoyoy Villame.
And I can say the closest I may ever get to glimpsing the essence of being Bicolano is through “Sarunbanggui” or seeing the smiles on the faces of Kapangpangans when they hear “Atin Cu Pung Singsing.” Take the biggest mark we’ve made in the classical music world: Redenptor Romero’s “Philippine Portraits,” performed by the Moscow State Symphony, with its splendid refrain of the Ilocano “Pamulinawen”?
When we travel the globe, the one thing we bring with us and of which we won’t let go, is our music. And it is in terms of music (not even when it comes to food) that we are held in the greatest affection by other peoples. Besides individuals like Leah Salonga or Jovita Fuentes, both of whom gained global fame by portraying similar roles - Fuentes as Cio-Cio-San in “Madame Butterfly” and Salonga as Kim in “Miss Saigon” (essentially the same story) - there may be no spot on earth where there isn’t a Filipino gifting the world with music and song.
Our best ambassadors remain our choral and dance groups; and I don’t know about you, but it makes me very happy indeed to hear recordings of Eartha Kitt singing “Waray Waray” and The Lettermen singing “Dahil Sa’yo”. Though homage by foreign artists is no substitute for our own homegrown songs being recognized through performances by homegrown talents.
I recently encountered a collection of the (as the compiler, who was from the UK daringly put it) “The Top 1,000 songs of the 1980s” and the sole song from the Philippines in it was Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak,” which really made waves around the world in its day. A friend who worked in Indonesia as a manager told me that when the songs of Jose Mari Chan would play over the loudspeakers of music stores, people would stop in their tracks and listen with reverence.
And there lies the point I want to make. “Anak” and “Waray Waray,” for example, came from different parts of the Philippines, are sung in different languages; “Beautiful Girl” by Jose Mari Chan was written in English: All three are, not only to us, but to anyone else, Filipino songs. All three - and all the other songs we sing, whether badly or not – are about us, whether in our individual capacities as say, Tagalogs or Warays, Ilocanos or of Malay or Chinese extraction.
And the same could be said of our national anthem, which we often forget was already our national anthem before it even had any words. Its first words were in Spanish; then in English; now, in Filipino; and in Cebuano, Ilonggo, too. Yet it is the melody, stirring, among the most beautiful anthems in the world, that unites us, regardless of which language we hold dearest in our hearts.
Right now, it is simply illegal to sing our national anthem in any language other than Filipino. I once attended a concert which opened with the anthem being sung first in Spanish, then in English, then in Tagalog: All three times, it stirred my heart, and I felt, through those languages, drew me closer to the generations that grew up singing our national hymn in those languages. It was an emotion I felt, as well, in Cebu when students there broke the law and sang the anthem in Cebuano.
In Cebu, the students opened their program in Cebuano, they welcomed me in Filipino, and I talked to them in Filipino but they asked me questions in English. We all got along very well, and we all left the symposium with smiles on our faces. It may be that a younger generation, younger than you or I, have settled the old debate among themselves. There is a place for everything, and that place is a more reasonable, more accommodating, but ultimately, dignified place when it comes to language.