Grace Nono’s Visayan-Cebuano Love Songs

Below is my review of 


DALIT:  Ballads on Love, Loss, and Finding Heart Again

Sung by Grace Nono with Bob Aves a Tao Music release.


This album will be launched, if I am not mistaken, in mid-August 2009. As a Cebuano-Visayan ethnomusicologist, I find this CD album of great interest. Here’s the reason why.


To offer (in Visayan-Cebuano, dalit) means to recognize the human relationship that binds aself–the giver–to a related other, the Beloved. Such recognition ranges from acts of hospitality, homage, friendship, to expressive disclosures of erotic (or loving) sentiments, be these celebratory or pleading in unrecognized or misrecognized contexts. In this CD album,artist and cultural worker Grace Nono envoices an old (or “traditional”) repertoire of Visayan-Cebuano emotional ballads about the loss and pain of love. This loss, as represented in the CD, does not lead to death on the part of the giver, but to personal freedom, especially after the acceptance of mourning is recognized that, in turn, brings about the desire for life again. 


Sentimental love songs like these are, of course, common to many genres of Philippinepopular music. Here, Grace Nono offers them as artistic documents that speak to how a specific group of Visayan-Cebuano speakers in the Eastern Visayan region (centered around the Bohol Sea) have socially reflected upon and hence socially constructed the experience ofpainful emotions. The theme of mourning over love lost is, of course, universal, but the strength and resilience to confront such pain with indomitable strength, the ethos of sacrificialdevotion that love (and its painful entailments) is usually understood in the country, and the rationalization that this hardship and pain would lead to the passage of healing and freedomare unique to the Filipinos. Rendered by Grace Nono, this album is therefore as much ascultural as it is about her understanding of love that she presences via the vocal personas ofher album’s songs. 


The album consists of ten Visayan-Cebuano songs that Grace Nono had learned during her face-to-face meetings with folk singers in rural, inland Mindanao (Ralph Valle, Francisco Awitin, and Lordina Potenciano). These songs sit comfortably between the boundaries of traditional folk and popular (i.e., mass mediated). In fact, though Grace Nono documentedthem using her own ears (and therefore through primary orality/aurality, though presumably also via secondary orality because she must have used recording equipment in her fieldwork),some of the songs (Anugon and Saksi sa Kabulakan) were ironically learned by herinformants themselves (i.e., before Nono’s arrival in the field) through the medium of recordedmusic and broadcast media. Hence there is some irony into the process of Nono documenting(through learning) traditional “folk” music only to find out that what she was registering was, inthe first instance, acquired through recordings and therefore not quite “folk” but “pop”. 


In the album, the Cebuano folk-popular songs that Nono learnt are given postmodern twists,similar to the previous releases of Tao Music (this creative recontextualization or appropriationis Nono’s company’s distinguishing musical approach). The album, however, seems to be Grace Nono’s first endeavor for this type of Hispanized music that we associate with the label”lowland Christian” Filipinos. Nonetheless, the project is not new. For one thing, sometime during the mid 1990s, Bookmark, Inc. released a “classically-treated” (hence also artsy and “postmodern”) CD of lenten pasyon singing. On the other hand, the release of folk musiclearned from fieldwork and therefore in line with the ideology of preserving them also hadprecedents. One could cite Priscilla Magdamo’s collection of Visayan folk songs in the past decades which was geared towards expanding the Filipino art song repertoire. Magdamosubsequently published her field-recorded Visayan “folk” songs replete with art piano accompaniment. In addition, Elena Rivera-Mirano’s cassette album dubbed kumintang in 1987 was a fruit of her field research in Batangas. Yet, this most recent CD album by Nono stands apart from the said three releases; this album targets multiple motivations into one. 


As samples of “traditional folk music” that have been practised in rural Philippines, Hispanicstylistic influences strongly characterize the songs that this CD is a creative reworking. Withno exceptions, all songs (1) manifest the inherent alternation between major and minortonalities and (2) they are accompanied by plucked string instruments that are quintessentiallySpanish (guitar, string bass, octavina, and even bandurria in the last song Panamilit). Moreover, most songs in the album are (3) musically structured in forms other than that of Anglo-Amerian pop music (by which we refer to the commonly-used 32-bar AABA–verserefrain–form). Some songs in the album are strophic (Dahong Laya, Sala ba Diay angGugma), others, through-composed (Anugon, Kung Mahimo Pa). Also, many songs in the album (4) use the quatrain text structure with rhyme endings (reminiscent of the textual formof Spanish-derived metrical romances). Lastly, the songs are accompanied by guitar rhythms that are remarkably Spanish in origin. Notable in this regard is the utilization of the Spanishsesquialtera (the juxtaposition of two pulses with three pulses) that accompanies the songSala Ba Diay ang Gugma. 


More recent influence in the song material are the Latin rhythms that Visayan folk culture had imitated from locally recorded music of the recent past. We speak of this influence as a more recent innovation in Visayan folk music, local adaptations if you will of foreign recorded music and that which music arranger and co-producer of the album Bob Aves made sure was not to be missed. Thus, in the CD, we hear “rhumba” (Kalibutan Nagdumili, Dahong Laya),”tango” (Kung Mahimo Pa, Saksi ning Kabulakan), “Hawaiian” guitar strumming (Panamilit),including cliches at musical endings that were part of the “original” song repertory. These cliches are retained in the album, marking the end of a number of pieces. 


Fuse the combination of this proximally-old recorded musical style and the more distant oldSpanish musical elements with the complex harmonic progressions of “cool jazz” and manyother contemporary mannerisms of “world beat/music” styles (e.g., there are hints of theemotional Portuguese fado, Spanish flamenco, world beat music from Islamic countries, etc.)that Bob Aves knows, then we have indeed in this CD an interesting and eclectic musical mixture that is a symptom of the times: postmodernism. New media technology is evidentlythe material condition of this creative endeavor. It gives life, nostalgia, to old traditional things,like the hyperreal simulation of images that are meant to be composited –i.e., layered easily-on computers. 


The album itself does not present the songs homogenously. Instead, there is an attempt to vary the styles of the musical arrangements and therefore articulate the fine and rich nuancesof love songs that revolved around the theme of mourning due to the loss of love. This theme is suited quite well to the color of Grace Nono’s voice and her artistry. For example, she is most effective in the rhapsodic first sections in a number of pieces where the naturally-low tessitura of her voice strains to soar with drama and pathos. I suppose this dramaticsentimentality is akin to other Original Pilipino Music by Dulce, Papin, etc., and I believe no Filipino would misrecognize the flavor of this musical ethos. It’s “soulful” to the extent that it isvery Southeast Asian Filipino. The rhetoric of emoting dramatic sentiments of love lost then peaks in songs such as Anugon, Dahong Laya, and Kamingaw sa Payag. In the said songs,Grace goes into high altitudes of ecstasy. She convincingly delivers the meanings of the songs intelligently, articulating the through-composed melodies of the pieces as if declaiming the non-lexical words over them (i.e., a la recitative). These enunciations come complete with weeping-like passages that are articulated during the instrumental breaks of the said songs.They are, no doubt, imitative or iconic of crying. Nono highlights this idea of tone-painting thesentiment of loss; they, in fact, seem to be so natural, so organically emergent from her own physical body. Without words, her body aches and “cries” in those moments, in effect, producing uncanny points of sheer intensity that lingers on in one’s perception. Bob Aves aptly supports her voice in these episodes. His agile improvisations on his instrument playedduring instrumental breaks are as equally affective. Tone-painting is also found in the introductory passage of one of the songs, i.e., Kamingaw sa Payag. The dark, dismal image to be conjured by the piece is introduced by a funeral-like dirge phrase where bass and guitarplay unison octaves in dotted rhythm. Aside from the pieces just mentioned, some songs inthat album put melody and musical form over the messages of text. I believe these are not asremarkable as the endearing sentimental musical gestures already mentioned. 


Overall, this album indicates a high level of musical artistry that is distinctively Filipino. The approach to the performance of sentiment is not found elsewhere, as recorded sentimentalsongs from other cultures would have different shades. (Think of Afro-American blues, Japanese enka, e.g. Each one would have its own ethos.) For this reason, the album is a raremusical treat. Aside from being alternative to the formulaic music churned out week by week by the dominating Anglo-American music culture industry, this album is driven by a deep belief that Filipinos have unique musical expressions. I believe the album succeeds quite wellin this endeavor. It represents cultural constructs of Filipino emotion from the perspective that is felicitous and strategically essential.  [A review by Jose S. Buenconsejo]