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Tell me a story

/ 12:20 AM February 24, 2017

If you’re in UP Diliman, why don’t you take a walking tour of art installations spread out from the CMC Hill to the back of Quezon Hall, into the area around the Lagoon, and in front of Vargas Museum.

The seven installations are a novel way of telling stories from Philippine folklore and are part of a larger Diliman Arts and Culture Month program with all kinds of cultural presentations dwelling on the theme “Salaysayan: Kuwentong Bayan, Kaalamang Bayan.”

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It’s a good choice for a theme. “Kuwentong bayan” refers to folklore, oral and written, ranging from riddles and proverbs and children’s stories to epic tales that may take days to narrate.

The formal collection of folklore dates back to the 18th century in Europe, and was part of the Europeans’ search for national identities. Philosopher-scholar Johann Gottfried Herder argued that cultural traditions, including folklore, create the ties that lead to nationhood and also reflect a nation’s values. Herder’s writings influenced Jose Rizal, who also looked for the “Filipino” (still a vague term in the 19th century) in our folklore.

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The age of imperialism also shaped folklore studies. Westerners traveled to the colonies and conducted anthropological studies, which included the collection of folklore. In the Philippines, American folklorists had Filipino students in high school and college documenting this folklore. Later, Filipinos took over; the likes of Damiana Eugenio, Francisco Demetrio and Jose Maceda are among the giants of Philippine folklore studies. Significantly, 2017 marks Maceda’s birth centennial, and our Diliman Arts and Culture Month actually had an early launch on Jan. 31, his birthday.

Unfortunately, interest in folklore has declined, overtaken by cinema, TV and the internet. New forms of folklore have emerged, sometimes drawing from the traditional but drifting away from the original contexts and becoming mindless entertainment.

People tend to dismiss folklore as quaint but dated, forgetting its important social functions. We’re all familiar with Aesop’s fables, which date back to the ancient Greeks and have entertained children and adults, while passing on lessons—via animals—on what it means to be a good human.

Reviving folklore

It’s time for academic institutions, which often led the collection and storage of folklore, to revive interest in “kuwentong bayan.” I am proud that UP Diliman’s Center for Ethnomusicology has a project to bring Maceda’s recordings, often involving lengthy epic poems, back to the communities where they were first recorded decades ago. The people, including the young, come out in large numbers to listen to these recordings and sometimes to accept them as lost, and found, heritage.

This year’s installation art in UP Diliman is another way of reviving interest in folklore, and appreciating how it reflects our views of the world, the cosmos, and the human condition.

One of my favorite installations is “Mebuyan sa Idalmunon,” a sculpture by Ma. Rita Gudino of UP College of Fine Arts, that draws from Bagobo folklore. When infants die, according to folklore, they are taken by a mother figure, Mebuyan, who is depicted in the sculpture with some 20 breasts. Mebuyan breastfeeds these infants, nurturing them till they come of age.

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I’m sure this tale came about among the Bagobo as a response to high infant death rates; it consoles mothers with the assurance that their children are cared for.

As I stood in front of the sculpture reading the description of the piece, I thought about a close friend who had a miscarriage years ago while she was overseas. In her e-mails she was disconsolate as she asked: Why don’t we have rituals for parents, mothers especially, after a miscarriage?

Aggravating the absence of rituals to console bereaved parents, Catholics are told that the souls of these unborn and unbaptized infants are sent to limbo, almost as if they are in exile, neither here nor there, to stay forlorn through eternity. It’s no consolation for mothers. Fortunately, the Catholic Church has declared that there is no such place as limbo. But I know many people who still believe in it.

Folk tales are not factual but are often based on real-life situations, which is why they resonate. They can be terrifying, but more often are endearing, and enduring because they are narrated and performed in a community event, a family reunion or, the best ones, between an older and younger relative.

Storytelling bonds

Think of how our children learn, early, to appreciate our stories, written or oral. Soon they don’t just ask, but demand: Tell me a story. Even when exhausted, we oblige them and find how the storytelling takes away our fatigue as we enliven, sometimes even act out, the narrative. The advantage of these children’s stories is that they are not meant to be textbook histories, and can therefore be retold with variations and flair. Children’s stories all carry lessons for life, better than classes on good manners and right conduct or on history, or sermons in church.

If we tell these stories well, our children will someday become good storytellers, too, for their children and grandchildren, as well as for communities and friends. I still remember tales told to me by my grandmother and my mother, which I pass on to my kids. I do so thinking of how I’m helping break the mold, creating, I hope, a channel for males telling the stories and passing on the knowledge. I’m realizing how important it is for males to acquire storytelling skills as part of nurturing and caregiving. Sitting with my father, who has been quite ill, I realize we had never created storytelling bonds. I can’t tell him stories of comfort because his constant interest has been politics, and more of who is in power or in danger of losing that power.

“Salaysayan” is another term being used for Diliman Arts and Culture Month, playing on storytelling (“salaysay”) as history (“kasaysayan”). The 21st century opens so many possibilities for this “salaysayan,” including installation art and performances.

Again, Maceda comes into the picture, with his love and respect for tradition, even as he welcomed modern technologies.  The other week we had a performance of Maceda’s “100 Cassettes,” where the “performers” were people holding cassette players with prerecorded music and moving around in a room to produce music not just heard but also experienced, in different spaces, which is exactly how folk music is performed. This was restaged this month, now using MP3 players. (It will be performed again at the Cultural Center in September.)

I like “kuwentong bayan” because they carry, more powerfully than the English term “folklore,” the concept of stories told by people about themselves and their lives and, ultimately, about communities and nations. In this context, “kuwentong bayan” becomes all the more important as part of truth-telling in a post-truth era.

mtan@inquirer.com.ph

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TAGS: folklore, History, opinion, Stories, tales, up diliman
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