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Thursday, February 9, 2012

"The Living Anitos": Refashioning Tradition, Performing Ethnicity

"The Living Anitos": 
Refashioning Kalinga Music,  
Performing Ethnicity

(Scott "Popoy" Magkachi Saboy)

"THE LIVING ANITOS" (L-R): Jerico Odiem, Marah Barameda, Rene Joy Saggot,
Kristel Panti, Maclain Ammogawen, Edison Balansi, Rene Manaltag (seated),
Edmalyn Catalig, Voltaire Lunes, Rogelio Paloma (photo courtesy of Native Works Music Kalinga)

Herminia Coben in her recent work, Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities,* writes that the entry of Protestant Christianity into Ilongot culture meant the death of this indigenous group's oral tradition and cultural distinctiveness. In contrast, she added, Kalinga culture has remained vibrant despite foreign political and religious influences  partly due to the versatility of its bards: "Verbal artists throughout Kalinga history have maintained their vital role in society by creatively mobilizing tradition to bear upon contemporary issues." 

While Coben may have the older generation of singers in mind, her observation holds true to the emerging young verbal artists in Kalinga represented by "The Living Anitos" (TLA), a band led by its sole composer, Edison Balansi. 

Origin of Band Name

The band name was actually coined in jest in the early '90s when Balansi and six other high schoolers were a fledgling group of aspiring musicians at the St. William's Academy (SWA) in Tabuk, Kalinga. They were then taking a breather after singing at a wake when their skinny and swarthy buddy named Warren Samoy sleepily sat on a chair, drawing his knees close to his chin. Amused by his resemblance to the usually dark, carved representation of ancestral spirits, the rest of the group started calling him "living anito." The sobriquet soon stuck and became their collective identification, later pluralized to refer not only to its original members but also to the new ones. Little did they realize that the expression would aptly symbolize the thematic and stylistic thrusts of their music. 

Their appropriation of the term, however, has been frowned upon by some critics, notably churchgoers who cringe at its allusion to "pagan" (and therefore, "evil") practices. Later, a few other Kalingas would also question their fusion of "synthesized" and "native" music to which Balansi would say, "Isunga inmodernize ko tapno maapreciate dagiti ubbing, maattract da iti background music."  So the band stood by their name and music, their work finally validated by the increasing recognition from their own kailian recently.

SWA CONCERT (28 December 2011) Vocalists (L-R):
Kristel Panti, Rene Joy Saggot, Jerico Odiem
TLA's hybridized music format is by no means the first among Igorots.  It is part of a growing, though disparate, trend among local performing groups to fuse indigenous tunes, musical instruments and dance with modern instrumentation. For instance, the Baguio-based Pe'tune headed by Bontoc-Kalinga native Christopher Donaal vocalize the highly popular Bontoc song Nan Layad Nen Sikhafan to the sound of gongs and the usual instruments typical of a rock band while line dancers foot it on the floor. 

From Obscurity to Recognition

But just like most bands in the country, TLA had to bear the frustrations of obscurity and rejection before earning local acclaim. Asked about their early performances in Tabuk, Balansi recalls: "Awan met mangpanpansin kadakami. Nu agperform kami ket awan met..." [No one was paying us any attention. Our performances were not well-attended.] In 1993 they tried their luck in the hot swirl of the so-called "Rock Era" of Baguio City but their voices were drowned out by the more sophisticated local rock outfits of the time. Balansi says of the dismissive regard concert organizers had of his band: "Haan kami nga maikikkan ti slot. Kanayon nga last." [We weren't given any slot. We were always the last priority.] Their first break came only in 1996 when City Rock FM invited them to give the opening performance in its inaugural program. Before they could gain a foothold in the city's soundscape, however, they disbanded when the original members took to their own careers.  They would regroup 10 years later with only Edison Balansi and Maclaine Ammogawen left of the original seven-member band.

Balansi returned to the Philippines in 2007 after working in Taiwan. He would have forgotten his music and gone for good to Canada where his siblings were had not Ammogawen convinced him during the SWA's alumni homecoming to perform once more.  And so, as Balansi puts it, "Nariing manen jay music." [The music was reawakened.]

From then on, the reconstituted band slowly gained popularity in their own hometown. In 2008 they were asked by the National Councilfor Indigenous Peoples (NCIP)-Kalinga to open the "Save the Chico River" concert in which other Kalinga musical artists participated. 2009 saw  them featured in  Tabuk's 2nd Matagoan Festival with Gailyn Balbin of the LGU's "Gabi ng Parangal" committee giving them half of the time alotted for the program. Shortly after that, Balansi decided to reproduce 50 discs of their songs -- "Ay-ayam ko lang" [Just for kicks], quips Balansi who was still unsure of how his music would be received by a wider arc of Kalinga listeners. To his surprise, after his music was played on local radio he was flooded with orders for his CD. TLA music also penetrated the ears of the provincial government which finally asked the band to render a special performance on February 11, 2010 during the 15th Ullalim Festival held at the Tabuk Peoples Gym. This annual agro-industrial and cultural fair served as the venue for the launching of TLA's first album with "Kalinga Tale" as the carrier song.  Balbin noted that it was her first time to see Bulanao folks hiking back from Dagupan (six kilometers away) at witching hour after watching a concert.  Balansi attributes the success of the launching to Balbin's organizational skills, the endorsement of Baguio-based recording artist Arnel Banasan, and the sponsorship of his relatives and other groups including Davidson Hotel, Radyo ng Bayan, Radyo Natin FM, and Golden Press.  

In December of that same year, TLA held free concerts every Sunday afternoon at the SWA. Balbin opines that the site was well-chosen since  it was close to the White Carabao Monument where several shooting incidents occurred earlier.  These caused the locals to avoid going out at night, and the series of free concerts was meant to draw people out to the streets and celebrate the spirit of the Christmas season in peace. Despite the huge crowd turnout, the yuletide  shows were hounded by two major problems which almost broke up the band anew. Edison recalls: "Only three [out of 12] politician-sponsors] actually made [good] of their commitments... So the financial burden was again shouldered by Balansi's recording studio and TLA's umbrella organization, Native Works Music Kalinga (NWMK). Nagsacrifice kami na ituloy kahit we were running out of money; otherwise, masisira ang grupo at masisira kaming organizers. [We wanted to] continue entertaining the people of Kalinga. After the series of concerts, some of my members quit [the group] kasi akala nila I pocketed the money na ibinigay daw ng politicians which I never did in my life. But they came back after learning the truth."

On February 12, 2011 TLA launched their second album at the St. Louis College gymnasium with Bishop Prudencio Andaya, Jr. (Diocese of Tabuk) taking all financial and technical responsibilities. Andaya  was christened by locals as "Bishop of Peace" due to his active involvement in resolving community issues mainly through the Peacemakers Movement of Kalinga (PMK) which he founded in 2004. The second album dovetailed with the Bishop's advocacy.  The carrier piece, "Boses ti Ikalinga," voices out the collective plea of the young who envision a progressive Kalinga free from crime, injustice, and corruption. The show featured performers from the SWA-based School of Living Tradition. Three nights later, TLA performed 12 selections from their two albums at the freshly built Kalinga Astrodome in celebration of the 16th Ullalim Festival to the delight of old and young fans from various areas of Kalinga who filled up around 90% of the 10-15,000-seater stadium. Late last year, TLA entertained a motley group of followers at the SWA parking lot and at the Tabuk City Hall grounds on December 28 and 30, respectively. The shows were co-sponsored by Tabuk City Mayor Ferdinand Tubban and Congressman Manuel Agyao and jointly organized and produced by NWMK and the newly formed Tabuk City Arts and Cultural Society (TCACS). TCACS was founded by current Tabuk City Tourism Officer Arlene Odiem in partnership with Balansi and other arts enthusiasts from different schools in the province. Odiem serves both as TCACS chair and TLA band manager.

With its music now featured on YouTubeLivingAsia Channel and National Broadcasting Network (NBN), TLA continues to seek a wider audience reception. It has also began expanding its range of  community service by committing 5% of its CD sales to the Lin-awa Center PWD transient house in Tabuk.

So what do  we look forward to in the third album slated for release this year?  Balansi confesses that the  first album sought to release the pent up groans of the young who are caught in the middle of social turmoil, and that the second showed traces of this pain while struggling to look at the brighter side of things.  The third album, he promises, will portray a gentler face of Kalinga although it will still be laced with a limited social critique veiled in  a more "positive tone." It will also continue to mix both traditional music and modern instrumentation and feature youthful talents from the province.

A Peek into TLA Music

Their first two albums add up to 29 tracks 15 of which are in the local language and the rest in English or Filipino. Themes border on the political -- the bodong (Kalinga peace pact system) and crime resolution, local leadership and the people's demand for accountability;  ecological (human responsibility, environmental degradation, and nature's backlash); cultural (pride in ones indigenous roots, retelling of local lores, personal choice and filial/communal duty); religious (Divine Providence, moral sensitivity and community relations); and romantic (local marriage customs and conflicted lovers, youthful passion and unrequited love). 

A quick look at two pieces in their maiden album reveals a creative attempt  to recontextualize Kalinga "(oral) tradition to bear upon contemporary issues." "Kalinga Tale"  tells of a conflicted diasporic Filipino pouring out his homesickness, pining both for his hometown and his ladylove.  Following a familiar trope, the author has the persona working as an apple-picker in Californa who had to leave Kalinga because of its unresolved "tribal" conflicts.  While he deplores the sporadic violence in his ili (province/hometown) and even urges his lover to forsake Kalinga and live with him overseas, he also intimates that he sorely misses Kalinga and its tajok ya gansa (dances and gongs). He ends with a wish for a better Kalinga which, with its natural allure and cultural richness, he hopes will occupy a lead position in regional politics. "Kantan Ji Aanak" (Your Children's Song) addresses tribal leaders and elders who are called to task for perpetuating a culture of violence and misguiding the young with their repeated calls for revenge. It pleads  for mutual respect  and social harmony,  anchoring these on Christian principles.

Both pieces appropriate real-life situations of injustice done in the name of tradition and of real people leaving Kalinga reeling from isolated but far-reaching clan conflicts and personal vendetta.  They also commonly allude to the Kalinga ethnoepic,  Ullalim. In the first song, the persona identifies himself as "Banna" -- the primary cultural hero in the epic, and his ladylove as "Lagunnawa" the object of the hero's love in the same epic. On the other hand,  the second opens with "Kanan kanu di ullalim eee" -- the familiar, stereotyped introductory line of the epic, and proceeds with   a salidummay melody. It pins two important elements of the epic at the core of the issue on local peace, the papangat (chiefs or elders) and the bodong.

(L-R): Marah Barameda, Edmalin Catalig, Rene Joy Saggot, Kristel Panti

Refashioning Tradition

While some may harp on the TLA's "bastardizing" of Kalinga traditional music,  it is evident that this youthful combo writes and narrates a continuing story of a people whose bravery and accomplishments have now taken a different form and level of manifestation in a world far more complex than that of the characters of the Ullálim where the depth and breadth of the earth, as well as the extent of journey by the iluta (people of the earth) -- are now far greater than the dola, ngato, lagud, and daya (underworld, heaven, theological south, and theological north) of the ancient Kalinga; where the spot of the mingol-pangat (warrior-chief) whose prowess and prestige are embodied in his kalasag, gaman, and palpaliwat (shield, head-ax, warriors boasting speech) is now taken over by the pulitiko whose power depends on money, guile and academic degree; where personal and  group disputes which used to be settled by mangdon si bodong (peace pact holder) are oftentimes now resolved in a regular court of law; and  where the betel nut no longer conjures up images  of  budding romance as it did in an older era.

TLA's music is a testament to the dynamism of culture and the vital role of music artists in enriching tradition while interfacing it with the lived experiences of indigenous communities. And here one finds an intriguing exercise of creativity and an act of refashioning. For among Kalinga and Bontoc communities, the anito has traditionally symbolized both the revered and feared in the unseen  world. But as is evident today the anito has come a long way from its sacred position in the highland uma (swidden farm), payaw/payew (rice field),  alang/allang (rice granary), and afong/voroy (house) to its amorphous, uncertain state as a curio or a commercial come-on in the man-made mountains and entrepreneural fields of the city, like malls, souvenir shops and museums. It continues to be carved,refashioned, framed, and relocated by the evolving hands and tools of the times, perhaps serving as a ubiquitous reminder of a past that people subconsciously want to remember and recover but consciously wish to forget and discard. In the case of the TLA, their band name has taken on a greater representation, from the individuals composing the group to  what their music seeks to do exorcising indigenous tradition of the ghosts of its past, making oral tradition alive and more relevant to today's generation, and harmonizing native and foreign musical forms while dealing with contemporary community issues that are rooted in the past. 
Standing L-R): Maclain Ammogawen, Edison Balansi,
Rogelio Paloma, Rene Manaltag
Seated (L-R): Rene Joy Saggot, Kristel Panti


*Herminia Coben, Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Society, and History ( Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2009), 84.





 "Kalinga band highlights ethnicity in second album" by Gigi Dumallig @ Kalinga Touch.


sodein said...

Thanks sir Popoy for this blog...

popoy said...

welcome sunod, and thank you for [your] music! :)

Devon Wau said...

Thank you so much for your wonderful music. Someone posted a video of you guys on Youtube. I really appreciate the sincerity in your music.

Devon Wau said...

Thanks for your wonderful music. I was able to experience your performance via Youtube. Your music is heartfelt.

sodein said...

thank you also for your support im so inspired.. 3rd album is coming on feb. 2013. the theme is more positive and broader approach than then the first 2 albums... i gues this is the finest masterpice of mine in terms of recording - mixing=mastering and the combinitions of indeginous instruments. and the lyrics, i say, maybe but i dont know if my researches are accurate. i worked hard for 2 yeras to cme up for fresher ideas. pls buy and dont buy pirated 1s... as an artist, it is the only source of my living so pls help us(local artists.

Devon Wau said...

Sodein, I am just getting started in the creating of music. So I definitely understand your concerns with piracy. I am looking forward to your coming release in February. Are you still based in Tabuk? And Are there recording studios there? Keep sharing what's in the heart my friend. I always say get it out before it permanently dies with you. One Love.

Vincent acapen said...

sir edison.saan po nabibili ung mga cds ninyo.wala me mahanapan sa baguio eh.
im searching for the song AMA INA.

Vincent acapen said...

san po mabibili ang mga cds ng living antitos.wala me mahanapan sa baguio.

popoy said...

hi vincent, here's edison's number -- 09083250690