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Friday, February 28, 2014

Awong Chi Gangsa a "BAD idea"?

[Update (03.04.14): Our favorite critic of the Awong Chi Gangsa has made a reply to my rejoinder (read his post here; I posted a brief comment on his blog but it was deleted somehow).  He says he is a Kankana-ey. Well, he should have known better then than to make irresponsible remarks against his fellow Igorots' affairs.   The greatest lesson that he should have learned from this exchange is that when you write, you gotta learn how to be self-reflexive and be aware of the nuances of the words you use.  It was never a question of whether he had the right to criticize; what was subjected to scrutiny was the content and/or quality of his critique which, in turn, reflected his credibility as a critic.  His being a Kankanaey should have made him potentially credible, but he failed himself on that score.  Thus, he cannot compare himself to other bloggers or writers who wrote informed criticisms about a variety of issues and consequently got the praises or awards they deserved.  If he continues to write the way he does, he will have to make more apologies to a lot more people until he writes 30. Blogging is like possessing or handling a firearm, especially a long one.  You can choose to be trigger-happy, firing indiscriminately as the adrenalin rush makes you feel invincible ala James Bond.  But when you run out of ammo and/or your weapon overheats and the glandular flash up your spine dissipates, you're in for real trouble.  Now, you can boast that in blogosphere ammo and adrenalin are unlimited and the cooling capacity of your gun is superb.  But remember, you can be nuked. :)  On the other hand, you can choose your targets carefully, aim well, control your rate of fire, know when to let go of the trigger, assess your situation, consider your vulnerability, and move on to the next engagement. This way, you conserve your energy, don't make reckless risks, limit or avoid collateral damage, and grow more prudent in combat. :)]

A fellow blogger recently wrote about  “Why [he] Think[s] the ‘Awong Chi Gangsa’ Was A Bad Idea.” He was referring, of course, to the simultaneous beating of over a thousand gongs on 13 February 2014 in Tabuk City, Kalinga Province. It was the focal point of this year’s Ullalim Festival, Kalinga’s annual agro-industrial and cultural fair. There were negative reactions about the event from a handful of individuals for sure, but this particular write up merits some attention for its audacity in raising some questionable notions about ethnicity which need to be examined.

Let me respond to his criticism by looking into the issues of authority, aesthetics and authenticity. 

A Question of Authority. After reading the blog post, I dug into the blogsite to know more about the writer and his institutional affiliation or ethnic background but I could not find the information.  He seemed to speak authoritatively about ethnic music and identity, so I wanted to know his credentials as a critic. Is he an indigenous person who is immersed in local culture? Is he a cultural worker deeply involved in the lives of any of the major ethnolinguistic groups of the Cordillera? Is he an academic? If so, what are his areas of specialization? What academic papers has he presented or published? If he is not an academic, a cultural worker and/or an informed indigenous person, what qualifies him as a judge of what is culturally proper or not for the Kalingas?

If our critic's concluding statements were to speak of his credentials, it appears to me that they betray his very limited understanding of the culture he proposed to evaluate. He writes:

And the two groups of singers who performed before the Awong Chi Gangsa, they are good. I couldn't quite understand most of the lyrics but the distinct Kalinga voice is there.
 If he “couldn’t quite understand most of the lyrics” of the songs which we Kalingas who were watching from the stage and the bleachers clearly comprehended, how on earth could he  figure out the complexity of the culture (and make disparaging comments against it) which those songs represent(ed)? And is he even aware of the musical hybridity in what he calls as “the distinct Kalinga voice”?

Now, the choreographers of the Awong Chi Gangsa (hereinafter, Awong)– Alonzo Saclag, Sr. and Fred Pangsiw – are outstanding Kalinga cultural masters. The former is an iLubuagan who is considered a “Philippine National Treasure” he being a Gawad sa Manlilikha ng Bayan  awardee. The latter is an iMadukayan who has represented Kalinga in cultural performances and lectures here and abroad, sings all the songs or chants of the Kalingas, and plays all the brass and bamboo instruments that Kalingas use. There are others like Pastor Luis Ao-as and Estanislao Albano who were involved in the conceptualization and execution of the program and whom I deeply respect for their considerable practical knowledge about Kalinga. Add to this the fact that Kalinga elective officials from the mayors to the congressman participated in and/or witnessed (and thus approved of) the event. In calling the Awong “a bad idea,” is this critic trying to tell us that he has moral and intellectual ascendancy over all these Kalinga leaders? 

A Problem of Aesthetics

In an attempt at articulating his aesthetic sensibility on ethnic music and dance, our critic tells us:

…let's take into account what beating on the gongs and dancing to the sound of it are supposed to be for. There's a reason why you don't usually see over a dozen men beating on gongs at any event.

Rhythm is a very important aspect of traditional Cordilleran music and dancing. The more gongs there are, the more difficult it will be to maintain the rhythm and the beat. Needless to say, the Awong Chi Gangsa was rather too ambitious and it bit more than it can chew….
 A Cordilleran dance is personal in nature. To truly appreciate what IT is, you need to listen to the distinct beat and the varying rythms. You need to see the dust flying off the dancer's feet. Smell his or her sweat, even. You need to be just a few feet away.
The Awong Chi Gangsa is the complete opposite of everything that a Cordilleran dance should be. Listening to a thousand gongs beating is NOISE, nothing more. It's even worse than noise. I can't help but think of an outsider who has never listened to a Cordilleran gong routine before. What would he or she think? She would think that the NOISE he/she was listening was the real thing when it's NOT.
His point on the value of rhythm in ethnic dances is no news at all. What is odd, though, is his imposition of numerical limits to the playing of the gongs. Last year, the Gong Festival Society in Baguio City made Session Road abuzz with the simultaneous beating of a hundred gongs. You could say it was a prequel to the Awong.  In both instances, music was played – i.e., sonic harmony was achieved.  Granted, the Awong was “ambitious.” But impossible or aesthetically disastrous?  Certainly not. Maybe his ear for music is of a finer order, but it is beyond me how our critic could watch the event and not hear “the distinct beat and the varying rythms [sic].”  The Awong, though far from perfect as our critic would like it to be, showed that synchronizing the actual playing of a thousand gongs is possible and can be perfected with practice.

He is partly right in pointing out the obvious about ethnic dance being “personal in nature” to a viewer – just as it is to say that a tajok/tadek is a social affair. But he is mistaken in thinking that a viewer’s personal involvement in an ethnic dance requires proximity, as in literally smelling sweat and tasting dust. But if he wants to split hairs about this, I would like to ask if he actually got to the oval where the performers were,  had dust flung to his face, and breathed in the smell of the dancers' perspiration. If so, is he prepared to say that we who were there but did not have that same sensory experience as he had did not have a personal involvement in the event?  And does the experience cease to be personal when we watch the Awong on YouTube?

Again, our ear for music must be so inferior to his that what we heard as the music of a thousand gongs at the time was a terrible “noise” to him. He must have had a more polished musical schooling than Asian Institute of Liturgy and Music (AILM)-trained Mauricio Patungao, one of the Kalinga singers our critic praised and also one of those who helped plan the event.

The Issue of Authenticity

Whoever came up with the idea of a thousand gongs being beaten at the same time weren't going for the music, they were going for the spectacle. And this is what I'm concerned about. Our traditional music and dances have become mere spectacles. We have this beautiful culture and we are making a spectacle of it. It's not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that we are doing it the wrong way. At least, this is what I think….
 Although I do understand the intentions of the people behind the creation of the Awong Chi Gangsa, I can't support such a thing. The organizers threw the true nature of Cordilleran culture to the backseat and opted instead with something the only purpose of which is to serve as tourist-bait.
In conclusion, I'm hoping that next year's Ullalim Festival will not serve yet another copy of this spectacle. Forming the words KALINGA SHINES with a thousand dancers is cool but almost everything that represents Cordilleran music and dances were lost along the way. I don't want to see it again. You don't preserve and show your identity as part of an ethnic group by making a spectacle of the very thing that defines you as an ethnic group.

This quote from the blogpost in question touches on the subject of authenticity and ethnic identity.  When he proposes to know “the true nature of Cordilleran culture,” he is treading on an epistemological minefield where simplistic claims are easily blown apart.  The culture he speaks of is not a monolithic or homogeneous society – it is made up of diverse traditions, ethnicities and worldviews. Nor is it a static entity – we continue to negotiate and redefine our identities as we react against and/or adapt to local and global developments.  Many of our traditions have, in some ways, stayed the same but have also evolved to meet the needs of the times. So just as it is na├»ve for our critic to imagine “the true nature of Cordilleran culture,” it is equally  presumptuous  for him to pontificate about “preserv[ing]” our Kalinga identity when he doesn’t seem to clearly understand what has changed and what has remained in the culture(s) of the Kalingas.

In attacking what he perceives as the Awong organizers’ penchant for the spectacular, our critic makes a confused argument. In the first paragraph of the quote under this section, he seems to speak against the idea but at the same time he tells us there is nothing wrong with it, only that we are doing it the wrong way (just what is the “right way” is not so clear, though). But then, in the last paragraph he turns around and talks of  “making a spectacle of the very thing that defines you as an ethnic group.” Ano ba talaga kuya?

Merriam-Webster defines “spectacle” as follows:

1a: something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining; especially : 
      an eye-catching or dramatic public display.
  b: an object of curiosity or contempt : she made a spectacle of herself

The primary definition is neutral; there is nothing inherently wrong with the term. The secondary definition, however, has it either positively or negatively.  So when our critic associates “spectacle” mainly with what he considers to be wrong, he fails to consider all the denotative and connotative nuances of the term. The word can call up scenes of bloodthirsty Romans cheering during a gladiatorial contest, just as it can recall images of a thousand doves in flight. 

A tajok is a spectacle, whether performed by a dozen or a thousand natives and whether tourists are around or not. And when Kalingas display their own performative arts before local and foreign tourists, they don’t necessarily “thr[o]w the true nature of Cordilleran culture to the backseat.”   To accuse the Awong organizers of “opt[ing] instead with [sic] something the only purpose of which is to serve as tourist-bait” is to be unfair and myopic. It is unfair because it fails to consider the perspective of the organizers. Had he talked to the Awong core group members – volunteers from the civil society who unselfishly offered their expertise and resources to conceptualize and implement the project – he would have realized that the spectacle was meant for a far nobler purpose than crass commercialism. And it is myopic because it fails to see the promising symbolism and the positive, far-reaching implications of the event for this “nation” of over 30 (sub)tribes, eight languages and dozens of dialects.

His view of tourism is skewed.  The Ullalim Festival is obviously meant to showcase Kalinga customs and traditions to the world, open doors for intercultural exchanges, draw in tourists, and provide business outlets for various local industries. What’s wrong with that? If we capitalize on our being exotic and attract local and foreign visitors through a grand ethnic performance such as the Awong, why should we be faulted?  If we innovate and create unprecedented performances such as the simultaneous playing of a thousand gongs, what right has anyone to condemn us for our creativity?  Should we be out-and-out primitive-environmentalists and take a preservationist view of our own culture which is supposedly superior to “modern” culture? Should we be political-liberal in outlook and view ourselves as perpetual victims of globalization and capitalism? Or should we take a conservative-humanitarian stance and view ourselves as people with agency, capable of maintaining our ethnic distinctiveness while getting along with the cultural trends of mainstream society?  I think most Kalingas today favor the third stance. 

This does not mean that we are unaware of the potential dangers that aggressive tourism can bring upon us. We very much are – just as we are aware of how some NGOs, researchers and other enterprising individuals have established their careers or built their fortunes by exploiting and even misrepresenting Kalinga culture. That is why, thanks to our tireless papangat and cultural workers, we continue to strengthen and promote our indigenous institutions and practices. But we are also very realistic and know that some of our traditions will have to be left behind, some will remain substantially unchanged, and most will take new, hybrid forms and, in the process, make us redefine our notion of the authentic.  


As a parting note, our critic says, “Anyway, congratulations to the province of Kalinga for staging yet another Ullalim Festival.” I don’t know if our leaders should take this as a serious compliment. Nu kalkalpas mo a nanglipaklipak samto kuna a makisamano ka, anya ngay kanu didiay?