OPM and its importance to Filipino culture
OPM stands for Original Pilipino Music, a label meant to differentiate music composed by Filipinos in the Philippines from popular music derived from other countries. It is usually sung in Philippine native languages, most often Tagalog, but with Western music conventions and style.
But OPM is distinct and different in other ways as well. As musicologists Arwin Tan, Teresita Gimenez-Maceda, and Cristina Cayabyab have pointed out, the genre grew to be a major force in the aftermath of the martial law era that ended in 1986. OPM originally developed from the Manila Sound of the 1970s, which combined Western pop composing style with Filipino lyrics. The sound was particularly influenced by R&B stylistics and was irreverent in tone.
Later, OPM developed into a wide range of forms such as ballads, novelty songs, folk songs, rock, jazz, and rap. It is easy then to make the assumption that OPM is simply Western-style music sung using Philippine languages. But this is too simple an explanation and does not really get to the heart of how Filipinos have used Western music to express themselves.
As James Gabrillo has discussed, during the 1990s the mass music culture of Manila developed and attracted people who were mostly from the lower economic class. This was mainly because OPM began to incorporate certain kitsch qualities such as parody, humor, melodrama, and exaggeration. This incorporation proved more attractive to them than the musical works served up during martial law, which consisted mostly of state-commissioned nationalist anthems, Western art music, and protest songs. This incorporated music has been called the New Manila Sound.
But where did its “kitsch” qualities originate? Gabrillo goes on to say how Filipinos have always had a profound love of singing, performing indigenous songs as they traveled across the country’s islands during the precolonial period. As they crossed rivers, the pulling of oars provided the rhythmic structure for the antiphonal forms of Filipino vocalization. Much later, during the colonial period, Filipinos developed the “sarswela” genre as an expression of protest. The sarswela used a musical theater style that incorporates operatic elements from the Spanish zarzuela. It was used as a way to hide seditious messages through symbolism and archetypal characters. The sarswela is a notable precursor to OPM in that it fused elements of Western music with indigenous tradition, in this case overstated drama.
Filipino music during the colonial period under Spain and the United States created mass appeal through the adoption of Western music trends that however had local content, themes, and performance to produce a unique popular music culture. The band Aegis was in some ways the godmother of modern OPM. The mostly female group of songwriters performed power ballads that incorporated an indigenous melismatic singing style, called “birit” in Tagalog, with a combination of elements from a genre of traditional Filipino language ballads called kundiman. Aegis consciously fused indigenous musical elements of melancholy, melodrama, and comedy with Western based stylistics.
A great example given by Gabrillo is Aegis’s very first single, the iconic and oft-covered “Halik.” The song features Juliet Sunot’s powerful voice going solo for the first couple of lines. She sings with raspy, emotive growls, and a nasal, reedy tone. In addition, she absolutely belts out these lines in order to grab the listener’s attention. One can quite easily feel the emotion as she performs in the grand indigenous tradition of heightened melodrama and melismatic singing. You hear her voice fluctuate in tone and quiver as she puts on a show of nearly crying over each verse.
Prior to this single, Filipino pop music did not feature these indigenous aesthetics. But Sunot’s singing was intended to grab attention, and it worked. For a good example of the roots of such indigenous performance, Ricardo Trimillos documented the various kinds of musical performance by the Tausug, such as lugu and paggabbang. This singing does have lots of ornamentation and more improvisation. The similarities, though, are striking. The fusion of indigenous music and Western styling gained wide acceptance among the lower classes, who felt that they were acknowledged.
OPM is important for Filipino music because it represents a continuing tradition in the Philippines, and indeed in every former colony, where the hybridization and negotiation of local and foreign cultural concepts take hold. In the case of modern OPM, the sound is reflective of both desire and derision of Western styles, whose end is to create a unique music culture.
Sterling V. Herrera Shaw has a Masters degree in Philippine Studies from the University of the Philippines Diliman, where he specialized in sociocultural studies.