Songs of protest
BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - September 19, 2019 - 12:00am

Protest songs are normally associated with a movement for political and social change.  Among these are the “Internationale” which originated in France and became the unofficial anthem of the international socialist movements, and “We Shall Overcome,” the civil rights anthem.

Most protest songs  have  significance to a nation or a people.  The most popular Philippine protest song is  Bayan Ko (My Country). It was originally penned in Spanish by the Revolutionary general Jose Alejandrino during the Philippine American War. Three decades later, it was translated into Tagalog by the poet Jose Corazon de Jesus and the music by Constancio de Guzman. 

The song expressed opposition to the ongoing American Occupation and was banned during that period. During World War II, the song was again banned by the Japanese occupation government.  After the war, the song was hardly sung any more. However, during the Marcos martial law dictatorship, it regained popularity. The Marcos regime deemed the song seditious and public performance was banned with violators facing possible arrest and detention.  After the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, Bayan Ko became the country’s most popular song. It was sung in every rally and in places where people congregated like schools, restaurants and even hotel lobbies. 

There is a refrain in the song which always brought its singers to an emotional peak. Here is the refrain in Fiipino:

Ibon man may layang lumipad/ kulunging mo at umiiyak!

Bayan pa kayang sakdal-dilag/ang ‘di magnasang makaalpas?

Pilipinas kong minumutya/ pugad ng luha ko’t dalita,

Aking adhika:  Makita kang sakdal laya.

Here is a melodic English translation of the song’s refrain:

Birds that freely claim the skies to fly

When imprisoned mourn, protest and cry!

How more deeply will a land most fair,

Yearn to break the chains of sad despair? 

Philippines, my life’s sole burning fire, 

Cradle of my tears, my misery,

All that I desire: To see you rise, forever free.

Protest songs are popularized during periods of oppression when a people are united in fighting to regain lost freedoms. It was no coincidence that Bayan Ko became popular during the periods of the worst oppression. Two of those periods were by foreign invaders. The third period was the Marcos martial law regime which saw thousands of persons unjustly imprisoned, tortured and even killed. It was a period when corruption polluted the social fabric of Philippine society. It was a period when the common people suffered while those in power accumulated vast wealth and led lifestyles that rivalled the world’s super rich. 

I attended many rallies during that period, when I saw many people teary-eyed as they sang Bayan Ko.

The power of songs to express people’s emotions and yearning for freedom and human rights is now again being witnessed in Hong Kong. Three months ago millions of Hongkongers started massive protest rallies especially on weekends. From the start, the rallyists were singing different songs. Among those songs were “Do you hear the people sing” and “ Sing Hallelujah to the Lord.” While popular, these songs did not really capture the struggle of the Hongkongers.

History has shown that every protest movement if it is truly a people’s struggle will give birth to its own song. Four weeks ago, such a song was written by Thomas, a local musician. It literally became a sensation and has now become the unofficial anthem of the Hong Kong people. Its composer, Thomas, remains anonymous to escape arrest. 

The title of the song is Glory be to thee Hong Kong ( Yun Wing Gwong gwai Heung Gong). Here is an English translation of the song:

In angst, tears are shed o’er this Land / With rage, fears are crushed, in arms we stand

We raise, undefiled, our voice shall never die/ As we yearn, our freedom nighs

With eyes blinded, long it comes the night/long it comes the night

In faith, banners, we pledge to fight/ Our flesh, sacrificed, our blood shall write this song

Free this land ‘ Stand with Hongkong’/Stars will fall, and darkness fills the air

Storms will break, bedazzled by our gallant flares!

We shall strike this perilous night Determined to fight Revolution of our Time! Revolution of our /time!

With hope, with song, with dignity/Glory enshrined , break our chains! Hold our lines!

Freedom shall rise! Revolution of our Time!

Liberty thrives, rights divine, in our unending strides

Glory be to thee Hongkong!

“Music is a tool for unity, . ..I really felt like we needed a song to unite us and boost our morale...The message to listeners is that despite the unhappiness and uncertainty of our time, Hong Kong people will not surrender,” the composer says.

The two songs, Bayan Ko and Yun Wing Gwong Gwai Heung Gong  may have been written in two different languages but they express the same yearning for freedom and human rights. When people ask why there are those who are willing to fight for what seems like impossible causes, I like to quote lines from another song:

“ To dream the impossible dream, To fight the unbeatable foe

To bear with unbearable sorrow. To run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong.”

Creative writing classes for kids and teens

Adult class on writing poetry with Gemino Abad on Sept. 28, 1:30-4:30 pm. At Fully Booked BGC.  For details and registration,  email

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