I know why Filipinos sing
“Why do Filipinos love singing so much?” my Dutch colleague Janus Oomen asked me after he and his daughter backpacked around the country. He recalled, among others, an evening in Bontoc, Mountain Province, where they had the unexpected pleasure of singing with the locals in a videoke bar, and he was impressed by their talent and passion, as well as by the fun that the people derive from such musical nights.
To answer his question, one must look at our history and culture. To begin with, we find that our visitors have always been impressed not only by our music but also by how it has figured in our everyday lives.
Antonio Pigafetta, for instance, noted that the Filipinos they met “played so harmoniously that one would believe they possessed good musical sense,” and Antonio de Morga called the early Manileños “good singers,” also noting how the locals rowed their boats to the rhythm of their singing. Centuries later, the American anthropologist Albert Jenks would write of how the young people of Bontoc “often sing happy songs as they walk along together,” observing with amusement that these songs are often duets: “a tenor and a bass voice as they sing their parts in rhythm, and with very apparent appreciation of harmony … fascinating and often very pleasing.”
Beyond the melodies of everyday life, singing was also our way to celebrate, to mourn, and, through our hymns and anthems, to express our love for God and country. Music also figured in our healing traditions; the babaylan used chants and songs to cure. It will also seem that music has long been a way to our hearts, from the harana and the kundiman to the latest OPM songs.
As is the case today, we must have expressed our joy through music, and found in music a refuge and strength amid all our problems. Despite the many struggles we’ve faced as a nation, it is hard to deny what Fr. Horacio de la Costa said: that music is one of the jewels of our people.
That Filipinos love musical instruments is very clear — the kulintang is a fine example among many others — but there is something in the human voice that makes it our foremost form of auditory expression. Notably, in those days before long-distance phone calls and FaceTime, Filipinos exchanged cassette tapes with their overseas relatives, suggesting that what mattered for them was not just their loved ones’ messages but their very voices, which more effectively conveyed longing and affection.
Our appreciation of the human voice can also explain our fondness for singing contests — as well as our willingness for certain singers (and songs) to captivate our hearts. Growing up in the 1990s, I was enchanted by Disney’s “Aladdin,” but it was not the magic carpet but the song that truly brought me to the “whole new world.” Many years later, when I watched “Aladdin” on Broadway, I felt something amiss when Courtney Reed — not Lea Salonga — was singing Jasmine, but the show still hit a magical note: one that brought me back to my childhood.
I was never a good singer, but in the rare moments when I sang, I experienced music’s transcendental power. Midway through a six-day hike up Mount Kilimanjaro with my Filipino friends, while we were finishing our usual dinner of chicken curry, I was suddenly inspired to sing “Pasko Na, Sinta Ko.” Soon, my companions were singing along—and by the end of the song our eyes were all filled with tears; it was, after all, the night before Christmas, and our first time to spend it away from home.
There will be a lot of mysteries around melodies and the human voice; looking at how music shapes our societies and our lives will be a never-ending — and very fascinating — pursuit.
But looking at our culture and my own experiences, I think I know why Filipinos sing. We sing because there is more to life than what we see, and through music we can express our deepest emotions.
We sing because we can join our hearts in song, whether we are together or far away from each other.
We sing in memory of the people we love, in defense of the values we hold dear, and in hope of a bright future.
We sing because we know that despite the hardships we face, life is still beautiful.
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