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Why Philippine Music Is So Deeply Embedded in The Culture: Notes on Filipino History

By Paul de Guzman March 20, 2020, Tatler Philippines

Are we Filipinos because we love music, or do we love music because we are Filipinos?

This feature story was originally titled as Historical Notes, and was published in the August 2008 issue of Tatler Philippines

Seems as if music is the one field in which Filipinos can’t help but succeed. We send a singer to an international competition and he or she will almost certainly come home with a prize, if not the top prize. Let a homegrown show band play at a cruise ship or the bar of a chain hotel and it’s sure to give guests a good time. Still, winning international singing competitions or entertaining hotel guests doesn’t begin to speak of how much music means to Filipinos. To be Filipino is to have a soundtrack album built into your life⁠—there’s music for every occasion or emotion. Nothing is too mundane to be unworthy of music.

Because music is valuable, our cultural heritage has become rich, colourful, and vibrant⁠—just like the people who create it. But few of us can truly claim to having a fine understanding and appreciation of our cultural heritage. Felipe de Leon Jr., professor of art studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman, says that being unaware of the beauty of our culture is a liability. The lack of cultural awareness muddles our sense of identity.

Getting in touch with our musical roots⁠—and understanding that music says as much about us as history and the other arts⁠—can have the grandeur of looking deep into our souls, as well as the simplicity of knowing our name.

De Leon says that Filipinos are “among the most highly relational people in the world”⁠—we simply love to connect with others. We work in big groups. A party that doesn’t involve the entire community is unimaginable, when a Filipino woman has to go to the restroom, her friends often tag along, no questions asked. To most Filipinos, being close to others⁠—and the self disclosure and inquisitiveness involved in connecting with others⁠—often trumps privacy.

The preference for a sense of community in favour of individuality manifest itself in traditional Filipino music. Whereas classical Western music strictly follows the seven-note diatonic scale (the “do re mi”) with sharps and flats in between each note, traditional Filipino music has “no isolated notes,” de Leon points out. The music of indigenous cultures and even of many Muslim and Christian Filipinos tends to be “bridged by slides or a microtonal continuum.”

For example: If a Western singer could go from “mi” to “fa” in one step, the traditional Filipino singer sees that single step as a big jump, since many notes lie between “mi” and “fa”, notes that Westerners don’t even know exist. This is why you often encounter the hagod style of singing in Filipino music, where the singer glides or slides between notes.

Traditional Filipino music also speaks of how we perceive time. Before the arrival of Westerners, Filipinos didn’t have a strict concept of how time should be divided. There were no seconds that made up a minute, no minutes that made up an hour, no hours that made up a day. Filipinos didn’t think of time as something that should be divided into small components, but as something that is huge and whole, something that moves like a stream. Because of this, there is also a flowing quality to our music. This is most evident in the way members of the Kalinga tribe play the tongali (nose flute), which sounds fluid and graceful.


Regardless of which part of the country we are in or which ethnic group we belong to, we will always have music playing in the background of our daily activities. Sometimes, it even takes centre stage.

Many indigenous cultures even see music as something that can never be detached from their lives—some cultures don’t even have a generic term for vocal music, or even “music” in general (CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, 1994). These are the Filipinos who live “closest to nature” says de Leon. These include the peoples of the Cordillera, the Mangyan, the Aeta and the lumad (indigenous communities) of Palawan and the Mindanao highlands.

Adds de Leon: “Life to them is an indivisible whole. Art, myth, ritual, work and activities of everyday life are all integrated into one. Spirit and matter, God and nature, the visible and invisible worlds are not a dichotomy but interpenetrate in many ways. Of all Filipino subcultures, indigenous art is the most integrated with everyday life, multifaceted and participative.”

There are songs to celebrate every turn of the life cycle—the Kalinga sing an owiwi to talk about a child’s life, or a dagdagay to predict what will happen to him in the future. They also have music to accompany the first time a child is bathed outside the house (dopdopit) or to celebrate the first time a child wears a necklace (kawayanna). They sing songs for married couples, which include the tamuyong, a prayer for blessing; the dango, a sort of “thank-you” song; and the dangdang-ay, a love song that serves to entertain. Songs for death are also present, such as the Bontoc’s didiyaw. The Ifugao, meanwhile, sing the bangibang to avenge someone who died unexpectedly.

There are songs for work. The Aeta call their work songs duduru, and pray before planting by singing a panubad. The Bontoc sing the sowe-ey while pounding rice, the Kalinga the daku-yon while hunting bats, the Batac the didayu while making wine, and the Ilongot the dinaweg while catching boar.

The music of many of our indigenous cultures is often improvised and communal. “The culture  puts emphasis on the creative process rather than on the finished product, making conception and performance simultaneous activities,” says de Leon. “Musical form is open-ended to provide maximum opportunity for creative communal interaction,” he adds.

When Islam arrived in the country in the 14th century, the culture and way of life of many of our indigenous peoples were enriched. It was the time when, according to de Leon, “West Asian mysticism” began to blend with “Southeast Asian animism”.

Inevitably, the music of the Moro—the Magindanaw and Tausug, the Maranaw and Yakan, among others—also manifested the influence of Islam’s arrival. Although all prayer is now directed to Allah instead of to nature and the spirits, many of the old qualities of indigenous music remained. There were still songs to celebrate movements in the life cycle and song for work—such as kwintangan kayu, which is performed by the Yakan for the growth of rice; bata-bata, a Tausug lullaby; and dikir, which is sung by the Maranaw during a wake or a funeral.

A wealth of religious music also developed after the arrival of Islam. This consisted of vocal music that corresponds to the Friday call to prayer (Salathul Juma), Ramadan (Tarawe) and the birth of Muhammad (luguh maulud).

Musical instruments also speak of the character and values of the Filipino Muslim. The gong, although present in most indigenous cultures, is one of the most distinctive. It can be used alone or in a row (kulintang). Writing for the Cultural Centre of the Philippines (1989), Antonio Hila points out that the kulintang ensemble is considered the “most cultivated of the region’s musical expressions.” It is not only used to entertain family and guests but “also serves as a venue for social interaction and group solidarity and for learning ethical principles.”


The Spanish colonisation changed Filipino music forever. The Spanish brought with them their own musical traditions and instruments, which dominated Filipino musical expression in the last 400 years. And through contact with other Spanish colonies, music from the Americas (Cuba and Argentina, among others) also had an influence on our music. The mathematically precise divisions, not to mention the strict forms of Western music were alien to the native Filipino. Soon the locals adopted these forms and traditions.

Music was used by the friars to convert Filipinos to Roman Catholicism. The friars taught children their strange music—often speaking of a God that was alien to them, in languages that were equally alien. The children were also made to sing in church. After their musical education, these children were made to teach other children the white man’s music.

This “pay it forward” mode of music teaching reached its peak when Filipinos started writing their own misas and cantatas. Marcelo Adonay started as an altar boy at the San Agustin Church, learned music on his own and at the Colegio de Niños Tiples, and by the 1860s started writing celebrated religious music that earned for him the reputation “Palestrina of the Philippines”.

The arrival of foreign secular musical forms also led to the creation of new ones, such as the balitaw and the sarswela. De Leon points out that contrary to popular belief, the quintessential Filipino love song is not the kundiman but the danza. The danza, which developed and became popular during this period, was influenced by the habanera and the tango. Running in 2/4 time, it was the template from which such later love songs as “Dahil Sa ’Yo” and “Hindi Kita Malimot” were made.

The kundiman, meanwhile, is only occasionally a love song. According to de Leon, the kundiman is “devotional and spiritual,” which corresponds to its running in triple metre—long considered to represent the Holy Trinity in medieval Western music. Enduring examples of the kundiman are Jocelynang Baliwag, which inspired the revolutionaries of Bulacan in 1896, and the later “Bayan Ko“.


Western influence became even more widespread with the coming of the Americans. Not only did they bring their language, educational system and way of life; they also brought with them their music. American popular music brought the notion that music could be used purely for entertainment—hence the popularity of dance halls, vaudeville, radio and movie music.

Naturally, Filipinos started writing and performing music in the mode of American popular music. Katy de la Cruz, for example, reigned as “queen of bodabil (vaudeville)” during this period and even after the Second World War, and popularised the jazzy classic,”Balut“.

The American colonial period saw Filipinos mastering the Western classical idiom, as they started performing and creating classical pieces. Operas, which became popular in the country, produced such talents as Jovita Fuentes, who received acclaim for her international performances.

Composers trained in classical composition premiered works that were infused with a distinctively Filipino sensibility. Nicanor Abelardo, besides writing European-style classical pieces, created art songs in the mould of the kundiman—”Mutya ng Pasig“, “Nasaan Ka Irog“, and “Kundiman ng Luha“, among others.

The classical composers of the period showed and proved themselves equally adept in creating popular pieces. Francisco Santiago wrote not only “Concerto in B-flat minor” and the art song or kundiman “Madaling Araw” but also the music for numerous sarswelas.

Even after the Philippines became a republic, the many ephemeral forms of American popular music continued to attract Filipinos.

Some of the most popular artists in the decades following the World War II were great mimics—artists who sound almost exactly like their foreign counterparts like a local Elvis Presley (Eddie Mesa) and Perry Como (Diomedes Maturan). The practice of translating the lyrics of songs into Filipino also became prevalent. Rico J Puno, for instance, adapted “The Way We Were” into the song “Luneta”.

But there were also a number of “original” voices that emerged during this period, some of them using the time’s dominant musical forms as a model for their compositions, or borrowing from earlier traditions. Examples are “Hahabolhabol”, as popularised by Bobby Gonzales and Sylvia La Torre; “Magellan” and “Mag-Exercise Tayo Tuwing Umaga”, written and performed by Yoyoy Villame.

Over the years, pop composers, musicians and performers came to be embraced by a progressively larger segment of their target audience, making the entity that came to be known as Original Pilipino Music (OPM) not only highly commercially viable but accessible and formally diverse. There were ballads (such as George Canseco’s “Ngayon at Kailanman”) and rock songs (“Ang Himig Natin” by the Juan de la Cruz Band), as well as disco, jazz and rap songs.

Artists also tried harder to bring more “originality” to the concept of OPM by borrowing from the music that is originally Filipino—that is, the music of indigenous cultures. They used indigenous musical instruments together with “modern” electric guitars and synthesisers.

Folk-pop, although initially influenced by American folk musicians, quickly evolved to become a truly Filipino musical form. Music conceived and produced in this mode often had a sociopolitical bent. Among the artists who excelled in this fi eld were Freddie Aguilar (“Anak”), Florante (“Ako’y Pinoy”) and Heber Bartolome (“Tayo’y mga Pinoy”).


The diversity in musical styles, subjects and traditions reflects the many facets of our musical heritage. It also speaks of the vibrancy of our culture—some beliefs and practices remain the same, others adapt to the changing times, still others are created to respond to emerging needs.

Sadly, the Filipino capacity to adapt can be far more dynamic than our need to preserve old practices and traditions. Because of this, many of the things that make us truly Filipino are disappearing. But there are efforts at preserving our musical heritage and making it accessible to the public. For instance, the Filipinas Heritage Library (FHL), houses the Himig Collection: nearly 2,000 vinyl recordings that represent many forms of Filipino music, such as indigenous, Spanish and American-influenced, folk and pop. The records invite us to listen closely to our story as Filipinos in all its intricate glory, and be reminded that music and the soul are indivisible.

As of 2019, the Filipinas Heritage Library and Ayala Museum underwent a renovation and are expected to reopen this 2020.

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