Reclaiming our musical heritage

Community News & Features Jun 13, 2014 at 4:33 pm
Nono at the reception after her performance.

Nono at the reception after her performance.

Grace Nono: Addressing cultural alienation

By Mila Astorga-Garcia

GRACE Nono, an arist who specializes in indigenous oral chants from Philippine musical heritage, was in Toronto to perform for the first time in a ticketed special engagement – a talk and performance held Saturday, May 24, 2014, at St. John’s Cathedral Polish Catholic Church.

The musical production, organized by the Caña Caridad Foundation, in community partnership with Kapisanan Philippine Centre and Kapwa Collective, supported by the Philippine Consulate General of Toronto, attracted a diverse audience interested in indigenous music, a number of them, fans of Nono.

The colorful and vibrant Pantayo Kulintang Ensemble was the show’s special guest, performing traditional numbers in the first half of the program.

Nono delivered her talk about her art, and performed chants taught her by mentors from various Philippine tribal groups. The hushed audience was apparently in rapt attention, watching her graceful dance motions interpreting her powerful oral rendition of the chants. Nono’s musical form was powerful and enthralling, however, leaving this writer wanting more in catching content reflective of the present social and environmental conditions affecting the indigenous tribes in the Philippines, which the brief video’s English translations could not capture. Hence, this follow-up interview with Nono via e-mail from her Mindanao home:

Nono in one of her dance numbers  (PHOTO: HG)

Nono in one of her dance numbers (PHOTOS: HG)

Q: I’ve known you to have started with folk songs.  How did your interest and career taken the path it has taken — focusing on the music and art of the indigenous people?

A: Growing up in post-colonial Mindanao after four centuries of colonization, I learned the performance of folk songs with Spanish influences from my parents; American popular tunes from the radio; and Euro-American avante garde-style choral arrangements of folk songs from school. The only genres of music that my generation knew were Hispanized folk, American pop, and Euro-American classical, after the colonizer’s division of the musics of the world. There was no mention of our Asiatic oral traditions that I heard for the first time after college. This was during a trip to the mountains in my own home province of Agusan in northeastern Mindanao. I could not believe my ears when I first heard the singers. I could not understand how such beautiful music was kept from my generation the whole time. It wasn’t because these oral singers were not around or that they had stopped singing, although they may have been performing in the privacy of their homes, for fear of derision. That experience marked the beginning of my decolonization as Philippine artist of music. I began to learn song fragments here and there, until such time when I could already perform whole short songs.

When I started performing the songs in public, I was surprised to find out that there was audience interest in them. The record labels even capitalized and made fads of such work. Long after the fads have faded, however, people like me carried on with our work, going even deeper in our study. Our work has also been dismissed by some as nativist, regressive, self-orientalizing.  But as an elder of ours said: “To some people, culture is just a theory; to us, it is life itself.”

My chance encounter with the oral traditional singers and the babaylan sparked the beginning of my two approaches to education. The first is formal and mostly inscriptive, and has allowed me to participate in broader dicussions on different issues. The second approach is cultural and mostly oral and embodied, through engagements with ancestral knowledge practitioners. These two approaches to education have been my ways of addressing my own cultural alienation.

The chants that I sing are drawn from our Asiatic musical heritage that informed the practices of both highland and lowland populations during precolonial times, long before we became divided into indigenous and so-called non-indigenous groups. Singing them, today, after centuries of colonization, is an act of reclaiming what the generations before our own may have abandoned (save for exceptions) due to the pressures of colonial experience.

Guests, performers and organizers at the Grace Nono event

Guests, performers and organizers at the Grace Nono event

Q: Are there other Philippine practitioners in your art, or have you developed this art contribution mainly on your own, through your own creativity and connections with the indigenous people?

A: Philippine oral chants have been performed since precolonial times so I definitely did not invent them. The truth is, I am a mere student of this ancestral artform.  Perhaps my humble contribution is to perform the chants that have been taught to me—chants that have not been accorded their due attention by our educational and artistic institutions—in mainstream venues with pride and a sense of relationship to their sources. In so doing, I hope to contribute to their respect, appreciation, and transmission to the younger generations.

Q: You have always considered yourself a student as you have learned the music of the indigenous people (I note that you always say “…taught to me by…” in describing your pieces.  Describe your collaborative work with them.

A: My methodology has been constituted by face-to-face mentoring, with textual and digital aids to memory, being a younger generation, postcolonial, formally educated Filipino. This departs from how many of my teachers learned, which was, save for exceptions, exclusively through oral processes, sometimes, through spirit dictation.

My relationships with my mentors have been protracted, spanning years, and sometimes, decades. Each time we meet (not often because bridging distances is expensive and there is hardly any support for this kind of work), I would sing to them what they had taught to me, asking them to correct whatever mistakes I may have.

Every time I learn a chant, I offer a cash gift, as if paying tuition. And when I begin to sing a song in public (after years of practicing), I send money to my mentors as a kind of performance royalty (there is no law that dictates this, but I believe it is the ethical thing to do). In the past my organization had also sendtindigenous youth to school.

Q: In the past especially at present, the indigenous people are experiencing the most difficult times — their lands being taken away from them, their livelihood being affected by “development” activities” by mining companies, loggers; their ancestral and burial grounds being destroyed, etc.  As they are oppressed, they too resist.  How would you consider your art in terms of its being reflective of this social situation?

A: There are many ways that an artist can hope to be part of the solution to the problems of indigenous groups. One approach is to help amplify issues, e.g. by explicitly reflecting the dispossession and marginalization of indigenous groups in one’s writings (pls. check out the song Lawang Sebu in the album Tao Music.) These days, besides writing about indigenous issues (Song of the Babaylan, for example, articulates the indigenous babaylans’ continuing persecution by fundamentalist religions), I emphasize the need to cultivate embodied relationships with indigenous ritualists, healers, oralists. This is important because a major part of these sectors’ problems, I think, is their increasing isolation and continuing exclusion from mainstream processes, even from some activisms that profess to advance their interests. Embodied relationships promotes participation, rather than solutions that come from the outside. The reason that I specifically relate with the ritualists, healers, oralists is because many of those I have met are committed to healing and peace.