A lyricism of spirit

- Alfred A. Yuson () - June 24, 2002 - 12:00am
(The following is one of six chapters that comprise the text of a forthcoming coffee-table book, The Philippines: Islands of Enchantment, with photography by George Tapan, published by Periplus Books of Singapore. This essay deals with the arts, while other chapters offer an Introduction and a guide to visiting the islands, as well as dwell on the history and geographical attractions of the archipelago, the Filipino people, and the festival spirit.)

Mangyan tribesmen of Mindoro Island south of Luzon still incise their poetry on bamboo tubes. The verse inscribed is of a form called ambahan, using the vernacular that is understood only by the few thousands that make up the cultural community, and perhaps a handful of linguists. Usually a love poem, it is then handed to the object of affection.

The Mangyans practiced this written literature well before the Spanish came in the 16th century. Other parts of the archipelago employed their own varied alphabets and syllabary. But not much remains of any literature produced in pre-Hispanic times, except for the oral, in terms of chanted epics extolling gods and heroes.

History in particular was left to be written by the earliest European chroniclers and scholars. Contemporary research has also uncovered modest Chinese accounts that referred to trade with the island of Ma’i in the South China Sea. This large island would later be known as Luzon.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that Filipino writers who had since been trained in the Spanish language would begin incipient attempts at producing literature, thus adding to the folk stories, riddles, proverbs and verse in a myriad of dialects.

Filipino ilustrados – those who had had the benefit of education – in particular the academic and propagandist exiles in Madrid and Paris, wrote essays to advance the cause of independence and nationhood.

Dr. Jose Rizal’s two novels, penned and published in Europe, became the epitome of Filipino writing in a non-native tongue, along with the numerous essays, scholarly commentary and rigorous correspondence he produced. As a man of many hats, Rizal had also done sculpture and drawn illustrations, a series of which accompanied cautionary tales for children.

But it was the Filipino painter Juan Luna, then living in Paris, together with his fellow expatriate Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, who gained early international acclaim in the visual arts by winning prestigious contests in the 1890s.

Visual artists have not had to adapt much to new media or techniques since, unlike Filipino writers who spent a brief period of tutelage in a new language – English as the American colonial supplanters taught it – before coming up with their first efforts at poems and stories at the start of the 20th century. Jurisprudence, official and business communication, education and the print media have relied on English as the lingua franca for nearly a century.

Even as political independence was gained in 1946, it still took more than a couple of decades before nationalists brought up the language issue by the 1970s. The Tagalog spoken in Manila and Southern Luzon officially became Filipino, albeit the more populous Cebuanos in the South still resist its use.

Writers have been encouraged to produce in the native language, apart from English; even regional languages and dialects have been revived for the production of literature. Healthy competition now rules the choice of a literary language; most poets and writers succeed in turning bilingual.

The great numbers of Filipinos living abroad, however, continue to expand the ranks of writers in English, with some achieving a breakthrough by getting published in the United States.

While the acknowledged master among Filipino writers in English remains the poet, fiction writer, dramatist, essayist, biographer and journalist Nick Joaquin, his fellow National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose, also based in Manila, is perhaps the best known abroad, his novels being the most widely translated into foreign languages.

In America, Filipino novelists who have gained renown as part of the Asian-American literary juggernaut include Jessica Hagedorn, Ninotchka Rosca, Bino Realuyo, Eric Gamalinda, and of late, the young Filipina-American Tess Uriza-Holthe who recently debuted with a best-selling first novel.

Filipino visual artists continue to be among the top draws in auction houses only recently discovering the wealth of contemporary Southeast Asian art. The oil canvases of past masters like Fernando Amorsolo, who became prominent in the mid-20th century, command a high price as collectibles. Not far behind are the works of modern painters such as Anita Magsaysay-Ho, Bencab, Malang, and Juvenal Sanso.

The art scene in Manila has become so dynamic that name artists are increasingly feted in the region’s lucrative hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Sculptors such as Eduardo Castrillo, the glass specialist Ramon Orlina, and Imelda Pilapil are much sought after for public monuments and corporate lobby displays.

Theater in both English and Filipino, while perennially underfunded, remains exciting not so much in terms of production, but in providing a legion of actors and entertainers for film and stage, both at home and abroad.

It is in the performing arts that the Filipino creative spirit commands a premium. Dance has long been a national medium of artistic expression. The Bayanihan Dance Company has toured world capitals for decades, performing to full houses appreciative of the elegant suites of traditional native and Castilian-influenced dances.

That the Filipino excels in music may be traced to the communal and national passion of expressing the soul by way of song. Choirs and glee clubs captivate European audiences while romping away seasonally with top prizes in international competitions. The brilliant classical pianist Cecile Licad, a child prodigy from Manila, has long been based in New York City, from where she exercises a choice among invitations for top-draw concert tours and big-label recordings.

At the pop end of the musical spectrum is Lea Salonga, another wunderkind from Manila theater who went on to define the tragic Asian heroine in the West End production of Miss Saigon. She also opened the show in Broadway, received a Tony award for her remarkable abilities as both singer and actress, and continues to be a staple for Hollywood film productions and international stage.

Filipino pop, rock and jazz bands are synonymous to first-class entertainment in international cruise liners and nightspots all over Asia, where they have long been hailed as top-caliber entertainers for their effortless reproduction and interpretation of Western music.

In the countryside, trust the Filipino to carry a guitar to the rice fields, and strike up rhythmic melodies to spur an army of planters on through the paddies. He will also serenade his loved one at night, accompanied by cohorts providing moral support and a well-practiced chorus.

Elsewhere in the hinterlands, it could be the infectious rhythm of gongs and other percussion instruments that will strike up a tribal beat, or the plaintive sound of the nose flute, up in the mountains, that will share the memory of keening sadness or the lyricism of desire.

As well do native crafts thrive in the provinces, where weavers and woodcarvers are passed the generational torch of consummate skill to produce traditional if commercial items such as T’nalak cloth and other distinctive fibers, palm-weave mats, hats and baskets, and other utilitarian items of furniture.

Folk art may also take the form of nearly kitschy-looking papier-maché figures, shellcraft, souvenir woodwork, beadwork, brass jewelry and assorted implements. Jeepneys and motorized tricycles all over the archipelago often bear the ornate flourishes characterizing creative folk expression.

The innate sense of design has served urban showcases in good stead, as witness Filipino ingenuity in graphic and design work. Excellent effusions have spelled a hallmark for interior decoration and other lifestyle elements. Annual furniture shows and exhibits worldwide provide the Filipino creative designer more and more of an arena of opportunity to convince international buyers that the Philippines can lay claim to being "the Milan of Asia."

The fashion designer, the architect and the filmmaker contribute as well in carving out a distinctive name for Filipino art. Indeed, arguably nowhere else in the region have prodigious traditions and modern savvy merged to account for such dynamic creativity.

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