Anthropology as theater: F. Landa Jocano’s ‘Hinilawod’
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - November 5, 2012 - 12:00am

What is sad about this charming staging of a tribal epic as recorded by Felipe Landa Jocano, the country’s foremost cultural anthropologist, is its very short run at the Cultural Center recently. Money was not spared in this lavish adaptation. It reminded me so much of the comedia as we in the North called it — the folk dramatization of the Christian and Moro wars. As a child I used to watch it during the town fiesta. It differs, of course, from the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) production; in those days, there was no sound system or excellent lighting. The comedia was performed by farmers and their children on a makeshift stage roofed with coconut fronds, the prompter sat in a pit covered with a blanket before the crude stage. Since I was often perched so close to him, I could hear him reciting the lines which were then spoken out loud on the stage; at times he scolded his performers for flubbing their lines.

The transformation of the folk epic Hinilawod was achieved with magnificent costumes, imaginative sets. A huge rock represented a dragon. The devil and aswang were made like what we see during the Chinese New Year. The choreographed sword fights and dances were all precise and delightful and the children who composed almost a third of the audience must have had the time of their life. Most of all, the show illustrated this: there is so much in our folk culture that can be used by our creative artists. All we have to do is turn to our cultural anthropologists like Felipe Landa Jocano. 

I first met Pepe Jocano when he returned from the University of Chicago in the Fifties. He visited me at the old Manila Times where I was editing the paper’s Sunday magazine with a series of articles on his findings. He is one of those persevering scholars who made baseline studies on Philippine ethnicity that lucidly explains to us our character as a people. He did not confine his findings to academic and esoteric journals — although he did publish in them, too. He wanted to popularize the knowledge which only persistent research can dredge. He has since then written two dozen books and though retired from the University of the Philippines (UP) where he taught for so many decades, he still holds office there as professor emeritus of the UP Asian Center.

Pepe does a lot of theorizing with the supporting empirical evidence of field work. For instance, he spent months in immersion with our different tribes. Returning from months of living in the Ilokos he told me with a wide grin that we Ilokanos are unique. He then proceeded to explain the Iloko character as different from that of other tribal groups, how industrious we are, how frugal — all those stereotypes which he found truly extant.

At one time, he got himself hired as a motel boy while doing a study on sexuality among Filipinos. He confided that he surprised some of his colleagues who patronized these motels. From that study, Pepe gave me a chapter which I published in my journal, Solidarity. Right at the press, some 20 copies disappeared. The issue was sold out in a couple of months, I had to order a reprint. As one academic told me — it was a landmark article — the first “scholarly pornography.”

And at one time, a relative accosted him in Quiapo where he was actually begging at the church door to gather data on his study of the urban poor. The relative was so shocked to see him there in tatters, he had to drag away the protesting scholar with the promise to help him.

This, his latest work, is a translation into English of the Sulod epic Hinilawod from Central Panay island, He started it in the Fifties but was unable to finish till recently. The epic illustrates the richness of our earliest literature. Staged at the CCP, it became excellent entertainment.

In recording these epics, scholars like Pepe Jocano are actually setting up the cultural foundation of this nation, providing us with materials from which creative writers can draw sustenance. From such epics we also get to know our ancestors. As mythical stories, these anchor us to the past, a connection as well to the land itself. Although the authors of such epics are not really identified, they illustrate the earliest examples of our literature whereon we will build.

Most of our tribes — the Ilokanos, included — have such epics. Some of them have already been recorded and translated into English. The classic Darangen of the Maranaos has been translated into several volumes in English by Sister Delia Coronel.       

It is now a job for the writers to use these epics, transform them into what will be the classics of the future the way Homer worked with the old Greek folk tales. Cirilo Bautista’s longer poems belong to this genre. Ditto with Francis Macansantos

The Folk Dance

is for the Folk

Way back in the Fifties when I was with the old Manila Times, I wrote a critique on the Bayanihan Folk Dance Company, titled: “Folk Dances are for the Folk.” The late cultural commentator and teacher, Pura Santillan Castrence commented on the piece, saying that the ideas in it were worth considering; at the time, there was a vogue for resuscitating folk dances, folk songs and such.

That vogue persists to this day and it is for this reason that I felt it necessary to repeat what I said then.

Folk culture is as indelible a feature of our identity as it is with those of other nations. From the Fifties onwards, I travelled around the Philippines and elsewhere and saw our folk dances as performed by the folk and not by college dance troupes, least of all, Bayanihan or Filipinescas.

But first, let me regale you with a couple of stories about my early search for authentic folk culture. I met the Urdu poet, Syed Ali Ahsan in the 1950s before Pakistan was divided into Bangladesh and Pakistan. He was in Karachi as a university professor. Knowing of my interest in culture change, he invited me to what he called a “genuine Pakistani wedding.” We went out of Karachi to a village where native preparations were being made. The groom rode a fancifully decorated horse, and behind him was a band. It was playing a jaunty marching tune and as I listened, I reminded Ali that the music was English — It’s a Long Way to Tipperary. Then again, here I was in Cairo with an Egyptian writer I met at Harvard. He took me to a village outside Cairo to see genuine Egyptian belly dancing. I expected to see something scintillating and sexy. We were around a campfire, and the belly dancer was an old crone, fully dressed, her belly undulating under her blouse.

Culture is never static; it changes with time and the environment. How will our folk customs, our dances look 500 years from now? We see the rapid urbanization of people. The Boogie is no longer an American dance — it is universal, and perhaps it may be regarded as a folk dance, because it is now danced by the folk. Even the tango — those hip-hop dances of the young.

And of course, the old folk dances, too — their simplicity, their repetitiveness — will they be retained? How do we deal with them? Three ways: Preserve them in their pristine form or embellish and shorten them as does Bayanihan for staging, and modernize them us does Filipinescas.

We showcase our folk dances to emphasize our identity, but to exhibit our talents to ourselves and foreign audiences, we should show them our best ballet dancers, what we have extracted from our folk dances and made into modern dance — i.e., Filipinescas’ Ifugao Suite. We show them our best musicians and singers singing original Filipino compositions — not a medley of folk songs.

The Romantic View

Recently, Kidlat Tahimik, a.k.a. Eric de Guia — conducted a two-day seminar in Baguio centered on folk culture and modernization; I was sick and couldn’t make attend it. Eric should be commended for his efforts in sustaining the culture of the Cordilleras, particularly the Ifugaos. I have had discussions with him and I appreciate his commitment. But his views are often romantic.

We must not romanticize ethnicity; contrary to concepts of pastoral and arcadian idealism, tribal life is not without violence, social tensions, hardships. In fact, tribal life is harsh, often bereft of justice. In appreciating ethnic cultures, we must not overly romanticize it anymore than we can idealize village life. Change is the law of life but as all anthropologists know, whatever is lost in the past, in the cultures of our people, must be replaced with something of value.

Our indigenous peoples should not be immobilized by tradition, they should not be stuck forever in a life of hard labor, and above all, they must have justice which all Filipinos deserve.

The realities are such that we need to understand and resolve them. For instance, many of the terraces in Ifugao are now being destroyed, not by the weather, but by neglect. We want those terraces to endure as monuments to Ifugao culture, their hardiness and engineering skills. But these terraces can hardly provide the wherewithal for a comfortable living — they are abandoned because maintaining them involves hard labor, because the people there find better alternatives for a better life.

Nostalgia is not Enough

The recent Ateneo revival of Lola Basiang’s popular zarzuela, Walang Sugat, is a big and expensive mistake. It is a period piece, very popular in the 1920s and ‘30s, in Manila and in the provinces. This was at a time when there was no TV, and the silent movies were still being shown. As a boy in the old hometown, I enjoyed the zarzuelas in Ilokano that were staged in the town plaza during town fiesta. We must remember that though we belong to the Western tradition, we have none of the Greek plays, or those of Shakespeare — our rural folk, with the exception of some members of the principalia, were — to put it bluntly — often illiterate.

The Ateneo spent a lot in the presentation of the zarzuela but there was no attempt to really modernize it, this in spite of the splendid sets, the singing with a full orchestra, and some choreographed dancing. Walang Sugat is awfully dated, its plot too pat, and there was that final scene that was really absurd. Those who saw Man of La Mancha would recall how Don Quixote started singing that song, The Impossible Dream, but collapsed and couldn’t finish it because he was sick.

The main hero in Walang Sugat, supposedly wounded and dying, sings full-throated to the very end the theme song.

What was wrong with the zarzuela was not just this scene, but the entire zarzuela itself. Nostalgia and nationalism are beautiful subjects for the stage, but a second-rate play will always be second rate even it is dressed elegantly. What the producers of the zarzuela did not consider is that the audience was not the folk of the Twenties and the Thirties. It was a sophisticated audience, familiar with Shakespeare, and the best of Broadway, particularly the musicals that were staged in Manila. To move forward, the Zarzuela should have been rewritten; though set in that historic and heroic past, it should have been altered to give it dramatic quality, intellectual resonance. What should have been done was to adapt the zarzuela to the times, the old jokes modernized, the dancing more creatively professional, and the singing comparative with what our best singers can do.

The producers could have taken a trick or two from the Japanese who have not hesitated to adapt Shakespeare, English classics like Wuthering Heights, for the stage and the screen, with Japanese life, themes, scenes, clearly illustrated.

Again, lack of creative imagination.

I repeat, nostalgia, nationalism — these are never enough as we try to resuscitate the past, to recover memory and remind ourselves of how heroic we have been. For such efforts to last, to impress us all — we must think more creatively. We are not wanting in talented people, particularly a university like Ateneo.

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