The Philippine Image in the Harmonic and Indigenous Soundscapes of BIMP-EAGA
(The 2nd BIMP-EAGA 2019 Budayaw Festival )
By Prof. Frank Englis with Jelli Luzano and Dr. Rhodora S. N. Englis (ed)
The 2nd Budayaw Festival of Arts and Culture took place on November 19-23, 2019 at the exotic City of Kuching, State of Sarawak, Malaysia. It is held every two years and hosted by a selected member-state of the BIMP-EAGA region. The 1st Budayaw Festival was held in General Santos City, Philippines in 2017. The festival aims to celebrate arts and culture among the four member-states, namely: Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to promote understanding and unity among the people.
Budayaw is a permutation of the Malay word budaya, meaning culture or heritage, and the Filipino dayaw, meaning bounty, prayer, or beautiful. Consistent with its goal, the five-day festival boasted of lectures, workshops, cultural performances, shows, exhibits, and other tangible and intangible expressions to depict how the EAGA region could come together through its culture and various art forms. The festival was truly a most welcome endeavor of “unity in diversity” in BIMP-EAGA whose members do spring from the same Indo-Malayan race.
The 8va Vocal Ensemble: Qualifications and Preparations
One of the performing groups to represent the Philippines was the 8va Vocal Ensemble, handpicked by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). The ensemble is relatively new since it was founded only in 2018. All the members, however, are alumni of the Octava Choral Society, resident choir of the Mindanao State University- Iligan Institute of Technology that I similarly founded and, until my retirement in 2016, had directed and conducted for 27 years. As long-time members of the said choir, the singers had undergone trainings in vocal techniques, choir singing, basic music theory, practical acoustics, stage projection, and choral choreography. Their vocal skills and choral practices were further honed through years of performances in tours, concerts, and other engagements while they were students of the Mindanao State University. Most of the members come from different places in Mindanao where they have now settled after graduating from the university. Preparing therefore for the performances in the Budayaw Festival was a huge challenge. Formal invitation for the ensemble to participate in the Budayaw Festival in Kuching City came in July 2019. Immediately, a special repertoire was drawn up consistent with the purpose of the festival. Choral pieces were emailed to the 13 members that were selected to perform in the Festival who immediately started rehearsing individually. Twice a month from August to November 2019, members living outside of Iligan City travelled to Iligan for the necessary group practices. In this whole process, their musical background as former members of their college choir, the MSU-IIT Octava Choral Society truly came in handy. In the end, everybody’s efforts paid off.
Apart from having seasoned singers as members, the 8va Vocal Ensemble was chosen to represent the Philippines in the festival for another important consideration. This was because it has a strong repertoire of authentic Mindanao songs. These were songs the group used to sing as members of the Octava when they were still students in the university. These are folk and ethnic songs of the different ethnolinguistic groups in Mindanao, which I adapted and arranged for choral singing, some of which won awards in national and international choral competitions. Of course, aside from Mindanao indigenous songs, the 8va Vocal Ensemble’s versatile repertoire includes other genres. The group also performs sacred music, Original Pilipino Music (OPM), foreign and pop songs, excerpts from Broadway musicals, and novelty songs. Their ethnic songs, however, are what set them apart from other well-known choirs in the Philippines, which are more into the standard western and pop music. The group’s unique repertoire which, as mentioned, includes the cultural sounds of Mindanao turned out to be perfect for the required expressions of the image of the Philippines for purposes of the Budayaw Festival. Through this distinctive soundscape that it projected, 8va was certainly able to contribute to the goal of the Budayaw Festival in promoting cultural understanding and unity among the countries in the BIMP-EAGA region.
The 8va Experience: “Voices Rising for Peace and Harmony”:
Aptly named, “Voices Rising for Peace and Harmony” was the choral component of the festival designed to convey messages of peace and harmony through choral music. Held at the atrium of Plaza Merdeka, “Voices Rising” ran daily, specifically in the afternoons for the whole duration of the 5-day festival. In these daily performances, the 8va rendered a mix of foreign songs, pop songs, OPM favorites, specifically Freddie Aguilar’s very popular Anak which has been translated into many languages, and Bituing Walang Ningning, a well-loved Filipino pop song, which were very well received by the audience. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, the group’s ethnic songs were a big hit, too, no matter the unfamiliar tunes and strange lyrics, confirming the universality of the language of music and the distinctiveness and innate charm of a country’s traditional music. The songs performed included D’el Balinalisang Gadong, a Maguindanao courting song; Banlay Paak Biyaaw, a Manobo children’s son; Si Pilimon, a Visayan humorous fishermen’s song; and Sa Kabukiran, a song depicting life in the mountains. The superb singing of these songs was not the only thing that mesmerized the audience. They were entertained as well by the beautiful dancing and other choreographic movements that accompanied the songs. These were the songs that we carefully selected because they portray the unique soundscape of the Philippines, particularly that of Mindanao in the southern part of the country that is populated by the so-called tri-people composed of the Christian lowlanders, the Islamized groups, and the indigenous groups (locally known as lumad) who still retain their own authentic folk ways of life, arts, and beliefs.
It was a delight to note that “Voices Rising for Peace and Harmony” was a winner! The daily choral presentations not just from the 8va Vocal Ensemble but also from the other three choirs from the other member-states of BIMP-EAGA would always leave audiences wanting for more.
The other performing choirs were the In Unity Chorale of Sabah, Malaysia; the Simfoni Negeri Sarawak (SONS) Choir of Sarawak, Malaysia; the Pustaka Darussalam Choir of Negara Brunei Darusaalam; and the PSMITB Chorale of The Republic of Indonesia. These five choirs had wonderful opportunities to sing together as a grand choir for Voices Rising and for the closing ceremonies. The Grand Choir sang a well-loved Malaysian love song entitled, Rasa Sayang (Feeling of Love), which was specially arranged for choral singing by another Mindanaon composer-arranger, Mr. Edwin Edpalina, who is now based in the United States and the Festival theme song entitled Budayaw, which is composed by Joey Ayala of the Philippines and which I arranged for choral singing. During a pocket show at Plaza Merdeka, the 8va, In Unity Chorale of Sabah, and the Usaka Darussalam choirs also sang a Tagalog pop song Kailangan Kita, popularized by Ogie Alcasid and arranged by Lester Delgado, both of the Philippines. Upon popular request, this group gave a repeat performance of the same song during the Festival Closing’s Gala Dinner. For the singers and not a few from the audience, those were magic moments which left them teary-eyed.
During the nightly dinner shows, 8va was further requested to give additional performances. This compelled the group to render many other songs not in the repertoire that was prepared for the festival. Fortunately, the ensemble is a professional group with a trove of songs needing only to be briefly rehearsed. For this purpose, rehearsal sessions had to be conducted in a hall beside the hotel’s swimming pool that the hotel readily provided. Audiences in these nightly shows were thus treated with songs like Tuksuhan, which is a re-imagining of a popular Filipino children’s song entitled Sampung Mga Daliri (ten fingers), Freddie Mercury’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and excerpts from Broadway musicals.
The ensemble is not only strong as a choral group, but also as a group of soloists. The members can render vocal solo numbers, like what happened during an unscheduled pocket show at Plaza Merdeka and during the Budayaw Fashion Show. Nathan Kim Mosot (tenor) and Mr. Marlou Flores (bass) were able to enthrall the audience with their solos and duets. The duo performed This is the Moment, a ballad that talks about a man standing at the peak of his dreams and looking back at his journey. Mosot also gave a solo rendition of Let It Go by Idina Menzel from the hit movie Frozen, while Flores did Go the Distance popularized by Michael Bolton from the Disney movie Hercules. A quintet did a repeat of Freddie Aguilar’s hit single, Anak, arranged by Robert Delgado. All these performances by individual members of the 8va captivated the audience both in the pocket show at Plaza Merdeka and the Budayaw Festival Fashion Show at Pullman Hotel.
Glimpses on “The Narratives of Earth Music”
The other musical component of the 2nd Budayaw Festival was the “The Narratives of Earth Music.” This event showcased the indigenous instrumental music of the BIMP countries. Its aim was for the member-states’ earth music to “break barriers and unite the people” of the region. For this event, the Philippines decided to show a glimpse of the music of three of its ethnic groups, namely the Subanen in Zamboanga Peninsula, Blaan-Sangil of Davao Occidental and the T’boli of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato. The Filipino group, which was assigned to me for supervision, were young traditional musicians from these three ethnic groups, who are authentic owners of their respective cultures. They were Jeharry Mag-aso, a Subanen; Halim Tabi , a Blaan-Sangil; and Edgar Sabang, a T’Boli.
The trio innovated a kind of collaborative music-making of both vocal and instrumental mediums, transitioning smoothly from one number to another. While expertly playing with varied indigenous musical instruments, the three also performed dance movements. The overall collaborative numbers would commence with vocal solos of lingering tones of prayer-chants and then segue to reverberating sounds from small instruments like the khumbing (bamboo jaw’s harp), bamboo flute, and the gabbang (bamboo xylophone). They would further segue into a traditional dance beat of the small double-headed drum (tambol) and bamboo slit drum still accompanied with dancing and singing, culminating into the more exciting kuglung-lute playing demonstrating the many ways of doing it in a kind of “musical flirtation.” These unusual performances always fascinated the audience.
Another fascinating thing about these traditional performers from Mindanao, was the fact that they are millennials, yet they were able to develop a strong passion for their traditional indigenous music. It is remarkable because they have chosen to embrace ethnic music despite the strong presence and hegemony of western music, and the influx of the so-called world-music (e.g. non-western music from other countries like Africa) in the Philippines these days. Nowadays, very few young people from these indigenous groups do this. The dexterity with which the three played with those musical instruments was an attestation for their love of their own tradition.
Certainly, the other local performing groups from Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia similarly demonstrated expertise in their indigenous music utilizing local instruments like the bamboo kulintang, the popular sapeh-lute of Sarawak, angkhlung (bamboo shaker) of Indonesia, among others. It is worth noting, however, that the instruments were utilized in a hybrid fashion. They mixed their indigenous instruments with western instruments from a dance band like the western drum set. They even innovated using electric sapeh-bass imitating the western electric bass guitar, western guitars, keyboards/synthesizers, among others. While the Philippine group stuck to their indigenous musical instruments and played them the traditional way, too, to produce pure ethnic sound, the other groups attempted to demonstrate the possibilities of mixing indigenous musical instruments with western instruments. It was as if the Philippine group “globalized the local” by bringing to the world stage, the “lowly” ethnic instruments and the music these instruments produce while the other groups “localized the global” by showing that these “lowly” ethnic instruments can be played together in harmony along with western instruments. These could be what presently make up the musical soundscape of BIMP-EAGA.
The Festival’s Closing
At the grand closing ceremony, 8va Vocal Ensemble joined all the other BIMP-EAGA choral groups from Malaysia for the grand choir performance. The grand choir sung Rasa Sayang, a Malay Folk Song, and Kailangan Kita. Singing together as a grand choir was electrifying. It solidified the warm friendship which started during the daily performances at Plaza Merdeka, which apparently lasted even until today. Accordingly, some members of the different choirs have remained good friends, thanks to Facebook and the social media, with each wishing for another opportunity in the future to perform together once more.
8va’s participation in the 2nd Budayaw Festival in Kuching, Malaysia is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience for the group. The experience and exposure afforded to the members are unforgettable. The members have performed during concerts and tours and have participated in choral competitions but never in a festival that required them to perform not just once but twice in day and often singing different songs and different venues. To be sure, the festival was challenging and exhilarating. In those unexpected engagements, what to sing was decided only during the instant rehearsals. Nonetheless, the preparations made for each performance was no less than thorough. I conducted vocal warm-ups and rehearsals with the group every morning right after breakfast, after which preparations would immediately commence for the trip to Plaza Merdeka for lunch and for the performance in the afternoon. Right after the show, the group was ferried back to the hotel for a short rest and then preparations for the evening performance in the hotel would begin. It was opportune that they trained to be self-sufficient; the singers prepared their own costumes and did their own makeup, with little supervision.
From the rehearsals to the actual show, the entire process was quite demanding but definitely fulfilling. It certainly helped that the members are already mature and responsible so that each endeavored to master his or her part on their own, without much prodding. Group rehearsals then became a lot easier to manage. Most of the time, what was required was just the polishing.
It was also quite a pleasure to see all groups doing their best to showcase their unique culture through their songs, their artistry, and cultural diversity, as well as the commonality of the people in the BIMP-EAGA region. Because it was largely spontaneous, the opportunity to conduct quick rehearsals along with the other choral groups from Sabah and Brunei Darussalam was a unique learning experience, especially for me. The exchange of choral practices was immediate and most welcome. It was likewise a golden opportunity for the 8va members and the members of the other choral groups to interact more closely and to forge friendships.
Perhaps the most inspiring part was the very warm response of the audience and fellow singers to our group’s every performance. Passers-by in the choral venue stopped and listened. There were those on the upper floors of the mall who would lean over the railings to better see the group perform. There were even regulars in the audience, who keep coming back every day to watch the performances. With their powerful vocals and a diverse repertoire, the 8va Vocal Ensemble undoubtedly became one of the favorites in the festival. Many Filipinos either working in Kuching or already residing there were quick to inform the group of their admiration and to show their support to their kababayans. This was very indeed heartwarming, inspiring more the 8va to do their utmost best in order to come up with breathtaking performances.
Everybody who attended the 2019 Budayaw Festival would probably agree that the evening events were the ones being looked forward to by the participants. The 8va singers were no exception. They were all excited of what the evening events would bring. While the daytime activities were done at the Plaza Merdeka, dinner shows and gala performances were held at the Pullman Hotel. Dinner was worth waiting for, more so the dinner shows which featured musical acts, dances, and other spectacular numbers. The most riveting, however, was the Budayaw Fashion Show where tradition met fashion. Noted fashion designers from the four countries under BIMP-EAGA competed with each other in exhibiting their best and most creative fashion designs highlighting that there can be unity in diversity within the region, to the delight of the audience.
The nighttime events were also opportunities to interact with the participants from other BIMP-EAGA countries. At these events, dinner was shared, and conversation flowed among the delegates from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam. The dancing that followed the formal parts of the evening was carefree and fun. But perhaps the best part and the best way to end the event was the Closing Ceremony. The speeches were appropriate and moving. The Gala Dinner which showcase Malaysian cuisine was perfect for the occasion. The Gala Night that followed allowed us to sing in a grand choir. It was an unforgettable experience. Not only were we able to perform for the dignitaries and culture and arts enthusiasts, 8va and the other choirs were able to weave a beautiful symphony together. Indeed, looking back, not even the videos and memories could give justice to just how magical the moment was for everyone in attendance. This experience was, without a hint of a doubt, provided the perfect way to cap the activities of the festival.
Additional Thoughts to Ponder
Understandably due to limited resources, the three Mindanao lumad musicians selected to join the festival did not have the chance to meet while still in the Philippines to exchange ideas and plan out their act for the festival. Thus, during the actual 5-day festival, they spent most of their time organizing their numbers and conceptualizing a collaborative musical number in their hotel room. Providentially, only a little input and advice from the coordinator were needed for the repertoire-building of a “concert-style” stage performance. Despite the time constraint, the three lumad performers were able to display their unique individual music segueing from one solo number to the next. The final collaborative number mixing the several instruments to accompany the kuglung-lute player highlighted the performance that wowed the audience. The technical problem on the sound system did not deter the performers from doing their best. Nevertheless, planning, conceptualization, coordination, and rehearsals, especially in cases where the performers and the coordinator come from different places, should have been done ahead of the actual event. This could led to a much-better performance and prevent unnecessary stresses.
Indeed, it was both a privilege and an honor to represent the Philippines in the 2019 Budayaw Festival. To say that we are humbled by the experience is an understatement. We have learned much from being able to perform in the festival and showcase the uniqueness of Philippine choral music in general, and choral singing of our ethnic music. Gleaning wisdom from and exchanging knowledge with the other groups was invaluable and will be treasured. Certainly, what the individual members have learned from each other and from singers of the other groups during our time together have strengthen bonds and solidify friendships. Our common love for choral music was indeed unifying.
The whole event was, however, not without setbacks which should point to improvements in the future. Our group certainly experienced difficulties. First, the size of the group was too limited. A group of 16, at least four singers per section, would have been more desirable. Being a choral group, the performance relies heavily on harmony and vocal texture. With 16 members, the group could have produced eight different variations of voices instead of just four, by having two sub-sections per voice (e.g. soprano 1 and 2, tenor 1 and 2, etc.). Another situation that we just had to contend with was the lack of a fixed schedule of activities. We were asked to perform in events not in our calendar and therefore had to sing songs not in our prepared set and thus unrehearsed. This resulted in additional time for some rehearsals. Associated to this unforeseen situation was our costume. We brought only what would be needed for the scheduled events. As a result, we ran out of appropriate costumes to wear and wearing not just soiled but also mismatched costumes. There were technical problems, too, at Plaza Merdeka, which jeopardized quality of our singing. Hearing the different sounds is the key to appreciating choral music. A good sound system is therefore a very important prerequisite. Though minor, it was somehow disappointing that there was no provision for the participants of the festival, particularly those coming from another country, to visit some of Kuching’s landmarks. A brief tour of the host city could have led to a better understanding and appreciation of Malaysia, through a glimpse of Kuching. All these, however, are negligible hiccups in the grand scheme of things made up for by the other beautiful and invaluable experiences afforded us by the festival: opportunity to share talents and abilities, renewed appreciation for culture and the arts, respect for and solidarity with fellow Asians, and friendships.
The 8va Vocal Ensemble believes in the goals of Budayaw and hopes for its success. We are grateful for the singular opportunity to be a part of the 2nd Budayaw Festival as a representative of our beloved country. We take pride in the success of the event particularly in its being able to impart new knowledge on the culture, arts, and other expressions of identity of the BIMP-EAGA members-states. All exposure and experiences gained from this festival shall become fond memories that we will go back to from time to time as we continue on our journey as a vocal ensemble and as Filipinos. Eagerly anticipating another opportunity to join the Budayaw Festival, we shall continue to hone our vocal skills and to share our God-given talents by singing with a purpose, especially in promoting understanding and appreciation for the unique culture of our country in general and the island of Mindanao in particular.