The “Popular” in Philippine Music

A review of current research on Philippine Popular Music from 2010 to 2019.

[Written as part of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Salikha: Ethnographies of Philippine Auditory Cultures, under Dr. Lara Mendoza’s leadership. The works mentioned in the article are not under the auspices of Salikha Project.]

José S. Buenconsejo, PhD
Professor of Musicology
University of the Philippines
College of Music

In recent years, there has been a growing trend, if not a sudden irresistible itch, to explore the popular musics of the Philippines in a scholarly way, taking more substantial steps to account for their creative evolutions as historical and cultural processes. As what normally happens in language use, the term “popular” has not been a stable category of musical articulation in Philippine history but a fluid entity that interpenetrated with other terms such as “folk,” “indigenous,” “art,” and “traditional.”

Folkloristics as Popular
In the late 19th century when studies in Philippine folk expressions and practices were documented and written by Isabelo de los Reyes, autochtonous music in the Philippines (which was then a province of the Spanish empire) was referred to as the music of the “indigenas” (i.e., of the insulares or local) and “popular” (i.e., widely practised or held in common). A contemporary of de los Reyes (but perhaps from a different group in multiracial multiethnic Manila–a Spanish mestizo or creollo) was Diego C. Perez who wrote in 1886 a long and tedious piano medley (potpourri) of 19 dance rhythms and song (cantares) melodies entitled “Recuerdos de Filipinas y sus cantares.” This was a compilation of musics that represented various Philippine landscapes (akin to the cuadros or scenes of costumbrista literature and theater) of that time and hence was “indigenous popular” of some sort among the inhabitants of the Philippine Islands. Diego Perez was silent about music categorization; after all, he was a piano teacher and repairer. But an internal analysis of his music arrangement, as I have confirmed in a recent article in the book Philippine Modernities, however, indicates the sheer music’s hybridity in which international piano idioms (cosmopolitan so to speak) were mixed freely with, but not obliterating, the character of traditional local rhythms and melodies. I had requested Enzo Medel to record this in Eastman School of Music and we had included his interpretation in the 3-CD set with accompanying anthology of short essays, Saysay Himig, compiled by Arwin Tan and published by the University of the Philippines College of Music.

Like a music catalogue (though paraphrased and hence playable as salon music), this collection speaks to musics that were “traditional” or customary (kalinangan) to the indigenous inhabitants of the archiplego. It echoes a parallel documentary effort of the Puerto Rican bureaucrat Manuel Walls y Merino based in Manila whose 1892 Musica Popular de Filipinas was an important publication and critically annotated by Patricia Silvestre. (Walls y Merino would return to Madrid sometime after his government service in the Philippine province.) Like Perez, Walls y Merino used the term “popular” to refer to the hybrid music common to the colonized majority (jota, fandango, cundiman, cumintang, and so on), and thus he was fundamentally silent about the other musical appellations as we understand these at present.

The term “indigenous music” would emerge separately only when the fledging anthropological science of cultural difference, i.e., between Christian lowlanders and non-Christian highlanders, came to the fore, started first by German residents in the country and visiting American ethnologists who did inland field research expeditions (e.g. Montano, Schadenberg, Worcester, and so on). This was around the last decade of the 19th century unto the next. Armed with the then dominant positivist-empiricist scientific outlook, the previous neutral Spanish term “popular” of the “indigenas” morphed to two distinctions, with the latter carrying the baggage of ethnic or class-inflected othering or belonging in public culture. In the writings, exoticism was evident and often led to hierarchical cultural evolutionism to justify the difference, categorizing Philippine communities into levels of cultural achievement, from simple to complex. (In the American occupation of the islands, the Moslems in the south were in a separate anomalous category.)

Thus, instead of the once, catch-all term “popular,” the “indigenous” was divorced from it and the latter term would even be distinguished from the rural “folk” away from both the “popular” and “indigenous.” There still needs a lot of research to be done how this categorization came about historically and this internet blog would pave the way for that. From a historical materialist perspective that I use in this essay, it makes sense to assume that the bifurcations all related somehow to the burgeoning modern cultural practices. Philippines’ subscription to the world capitalist imperative that sought to expand market exchanges undeniably brought in cataclysmic social relationships that were not always, of course, one-way traffics. Capitalism in the Philippines, as it happened elsewhere, had an effect in music and this was an entangled “tango” between foreign and native musical articulations of sentiment and sense. Recent researches in the late 19th century Philippine music has pointed out the connections between the on-the-ground material developments and their constitutive cultural expressions and social development, i.e., on Filipino identity in local musica notada (or print sheet music) studied by Maria Alexandra Inigo-Chua and on issues in the commodification of music labor and entrepreneurship that was tackled by Arwin Q. Tan. Moreover, mele Yamomo wrote a regional history on music modernity in insular Southeast Asia, which according to him were signified by various sonic signifiers. The entanglements of this modernity–exchanges between empire and the still-to-be realized Filipino nation–crosscut with gendered and ethnic subjectivity projections, a topic of Miranda’s research which was particularly about the pluralistic dissonant voices in Philippine vernacular zarzuelas at the turn of the last century.

Going back to the main topic of musical categorization, it was in 1920s, in the literary journalism of Epifanio de los Santos in El Debate, that the term “music folklore” appeared. This circulation of this discourse in the reading public was nothing extraordinary, however. It fundamentally conformed to the already existing attention of Filipino composers to traditional Philippine music. For example, José Atanacio Estella y Barredo–whose entire holographs of compositions dating since 1890s and the memorabilia that are in the Archives of Philippine music manuscripts in the University of the Philippines College of Music library–was already composing “folkloric” instrumental and piano works entitled “cancioneros” that captured everyday popular culture in the Philippines from musical depictions of rice cake bibingka vendor manglalakoq, female cigarette factory workers to fliting sparrows (maya) of the farm fields. He even sketched a perceived representation of the balugaq or the Negritos, which was condescendingly orientalist. A true-bloodied Filipino Hispanista (racially a Spanish mestizo), Estella had read works by the Spanish Catalan folklorist Felip Pedrell (a student of Albeniz and Granados) and knew about Diego Perez’s Recuerdos that Estella himself emulated in his piano suite “La Tagala” and later in an orchestral suite. To reiterate, the “popular” among these Filipino Hispanistas was co-extensive with the term “folk music” and the fact that this was the music of all naturally born residents in the archipelago, then “popular” meant ” of the “indigena” or “indigenous” as well.

One can see this in the content of de los Santos’s 1920 El Debate article that talks about the “folk” as encompassing the “indigenous” and “popular.” His example of Tagalog awit (verse form of the literary form comedia popularized by Francisco Balagtas from the 19th century) was “popular” in every sense of the word, as in the previous Spanish linguistic usage. It was printed with regional ones such as “Okaka” of the Kapampangan (which today is labelled “folk”) and even of the Tingguian in Northern Luzon (which is “indigenous”). While de los Santos did not explicitly use the word “popular,” his attention to traditional music as “music folklore” seems, to me, synonymous with the previous usage of “popular,” i.e., to mean the music of the majority, and including the minority at that! His awit example was taken from Francisco Balagtas’s comedia Florante at Laura, which is a written tradition. This meant that its popularity owed to the wide public dissemination of the printed word. De los Santos’s concept of “folk” was therefore encompassing (both traditional indigenous and popular) and thus it continued the non-compartmentalized discourse begotten from the previous generation of Hispanistas.

Rise of Art Music
Then comes another writer in 1920s in the name of Raymundo C. Bañas, a public school teacher schooled the American way and who wrote in English. Similar to de los Santos, the term “popular” was excluded. But unlike de los Santos, Bañas self-consciously focused on mostly on the “not popular,” offering a narrative of Philippine music history that was in the mold of western metanarrative history of art music with its focus on “Great Composers.” Ironically, the content of Bañas 1924 book showed the very appreciation of secular music practitioners and genres that were undoubtedly popular as these were widely heard in the public sphere then, notably symphonic band music in Bagumbayan (todays’ Luneta), rondallas and zarzuelas in fiestas, choral music, and so on. Thus, seemingly fetishizing Western concert music, the composers therein, the visiting foreign artist, local music institutions, Bañas’s bias against non-conservatory music is seen in the erasure of bodabil and jazz, which were on the contrary, as popular as they can ever be at that time. We get this sense by reading through the biographies of Filipino musicians in his book. It is gleaned that the conservatory-trained musicians who were serving the concert stage were also the same names who developed the excluded popular realm, as in, for example, many of them played in silent films and music for the popular cabaret dance halls of the elites and new middle class. This goes to show the fluidities in common musical practice, thanks to the genius of the brilliant Filipino musicians. The context of Bañas writing can therefore be understood in terms of the bourgeois ideology that his writing projected; he was writing with a desire for and attention only to genres and practitioners that the new conservatory institutions deemed legitimate art, i.e., highbrow art, forgetting the essentially cultural: the popular. The separation between art and popular was thus articulated and enshrined. Its narration was concomitant to the practice of listening to art for art’s sake in instrumental concert music. This was then a symptom of urbanization and modernity, and it materialized through the hegemony of Manila’s elites. A research into this area needs attention but it has been started. Beltran wrote a thesis on the coming of Central European conservatory music in Manila via the Viennese-trained Alexander Lippay. Beltran argued that the conservatory tradition of borrowing folk music into the new art composition came from a tradition that was within the conservatory itself and that Lippay merely highlighted it because “nationalist” art music was hot in 1920s among the elites and even in the underground. It was this context that exulted the folk to become art in the city for the middle class as in the kundiman of Abdon, Abelardo, and Santiago. They composed nationalist compositions in Western garb as in the much played Abelardo’s and Santiago’s piano concerti that had many folk elements to them. In the 1969 edition of this 1924 book, Bañas attended to the folk music more than ever but, following the discursive tradition of the conservatory system, continues to ignore the popular.

Bañas’s aversion against the “popular” was informed by a musical taste of the new emerging salariat class from whose position Bañas was writing from. (Another writer who selectively chose composers who wrote in the Western idiom of classical music would be Alfredo Roa and Arturo Rotor.) The impulse to collect printed scores, correspondences from local composers, news on music events, souvenir programs, music pedagogical pieces, and so on was spurred by the educational and historical values of music as art. He collected plenty of printed scores (imported from the US) that were used as stock pieces for silent films but did not cover this in his book. Understandably, of course, this was outside of the topic on “Pilipino” music but the fact that he collected them in the first instance was proof of a historicist mindset on the value of the music score as a symbol of literacy that was attached to his bourgeois identity. This was one with a taste for music as art. More research has to be done on the class origins of Bañas in order to assess if his penchant for classical music was “naturally” handed to him from his family or acquired through the liberal arts education he got from the state-funded colleges he attended in. In either way, Bañas’s non-inclusion of music (i.e., of music in cinemas and cabarets) were heard in the new venues of entertainment and his exclusionary action points at the kind of musical taste for classical music, not the commercial variety, that would slide to become “popular music” later on.

This taste is opposite that of the bodabil musician Borromeo Lou, a contemporary of Bañas. Borromeo Lou came from a landed well propertied family in Cebu whose habitus cultivated classical music. But Borromeo transgressed class belonging and identity and ended up as a bodabil entertainer during the time when Bañas’s book was read in the 1920s. Peter Keppy’s recent book on the modern cultural context (the “jazz age”) of this neglected musician Borromeo Lou comes out therefore as a shining moment in writing Philippine music history for it corrects our reading of history by recognizing the popular. Fritz Schenker had also written a research on him.


Technology and Media
Technology (which is a means) and media (which is a representation) play tremendous role in constructing and maintaining popular cultures. These are necessary tools (but not sufficient in themselves as the old adage goes) to generate cultural trajectories and meanings; they are simply not ends or ultimate pursuits. The introduction of lithographic music printing in Manila in 1870s paved a way to the circulation and experiencing of domestic salon music (as Chua had studied this), which can rightfully be called modern as it is secular and “popular.” Titles such as Massaguer’s “La Bella Filipina,” Dolores Paterno’s “El Sampaguita,” Julio Nakpil’s “Recuerdos de Capiz,” Jose Estella’s “La Tagala,” including Diego Perez’s “Recuerdos de Filipinas” were groundbreaking in their time in terms of succesful venturing into local music entrepreneurship. They were “popular” in the sense of their wide (broadcast) dissemination, at least to the piano-owning middle class Filipinos. But these were not traditional or folkloric as the melodies of the pieces were not received from the past, but individually newly composed (unlike that of Perez). The success of these songs warranted their music recording a generation after, in the first decade of the twentieth century. That inclusion in the acoustical recording lists was a proof to their popularity similar to the vernacular sarswelas from the early 1900s from which highlights–in the form of solos and duets–were in the repertory of commercial recorded Philippine sounds. Renato Lucas had published an article in the University of Santo Tomas on the repertories of these early recorded Philippine music.

This split between high art and popular music was, to a certain extent, a result of valuing preservationist conservatory music over that of the popular for its ephemerality. The former has become the canon and the preferred taste of the emerging middle class in the Philippines from 1920s onwards. The role of technology and media had a role indeed, but this needs to be carefully studied more, because the once “folkloric” popular now became more familiar as “commercial” popular.

The view of Francisco Santiago in his too-often read Development of Philippine Music manifests this bias. The director of the University of the Philippines Conservatory of Music from 1930s to 1950s, Santiago realized the rubrics and ideology of the institution he was working for. His succesor, the violinist Ramon Tapales (who studied in Italy), would enforce classicism even more. (There have been anecdotes on Tapales strictness to play only classical music in the conservatory back then). Santiago’s stance conflicted however with the fluid interpenetrations of the “popular” and “art” from 1930s in which time Santiago was at the height of his career as director and composer. He, in fact, like Nicanor Abelardo were all into entertainment circuit before their conservatory years and somehow both maintained their links to that popular culture. As mentioned already, one will read closely the lives of eminent Filipino composers in the past, almost all of them were into popular culture (via music theater and broadcast media, particularly film). In the latter platform, the conservatory background of most of these Filipino composers had prepared them to do the job; after all local cinema followed closely the convention of scoring classic Hollywood films from the 1950s until 1970s. Crisanti Macazo had studied the film scores in all extant Manuel Conde’s film from that period and he found out the effectiveness of these scores in relation to the narratives of the moving images.


Autonomous New Music in the University
Within the University of the Philippines College of Music composition program, a progressive group of composers have searched for alternative sources of sounds, forms, and expressions beyond romantic and neo-romantic styles that the once-a-conservatory institution had inherited from the last two hundred years. The idiom of New Music in the Philippines, which was pioneered by José Maceda beginning the 1960s in UP is a good example and, true to its institutional goal, his project was mainly academic in its pursuit and therefore has remained impervious to the demands for popularity which lies in a sphere that is totally outside of it. New Music subscribes to the idea of music autonomy and a good number of music critical studies have been published on this such as Francisco Feliciano and Ramon Santos on José Maceda’s works, Joel Navarro on vocal music (that was introduced by Ramon Santos in the country) and Christi-Anne Castro on Lucrecia Kasilag who pioneered the utilization of traditional sound materials to neoclassical form and for staged folkloric presentation. These works are fundamentally outside of the popular which is the topic of this essay.


OPM Industry
By the time local capitalization of commercial recordings became a viable enterprise beginning the 1950s, the word “popular” shifted to its current meaning, i.e., a product of the recording industry or capitalist commerce. This is the normative definition of the popular, which is subscribed to this day, although the means for its production, circulation, and consumption have gone haywire beginning the 1990s with the availability of interactive (long distance) telecommunication technologies. The recorded sounds of the 1950s were local throughout, one stream of which emulating the lyricism of the bygone 1920s and the other one was the “plakado” (sound imitation) syndrome that may well have to do with pleasing the listeners whose ears were tuned in to, out of a social desire for, the imported sound, a product of cultural imperialism indeed. The mirror of mimicry cracked as rock music invaded the airwaves beginning mid-1950s to early 1970s. It took some twenty years before a locally distinctive OPM sound (encompassing “Manila Sound”) became a craze in 1970s for consumption among youths following the first generation rockers, the baby boomers. OPM became thereafter as the quintessential popular music of the Philippines, especially among the Generation X. Their expressions had a vast range from the chic to hugot (emotional) and birit (flashy). Musicians with classical music training such as Willy Cruz and Ryan Cayabyab produced prolific outputs in the recording studio that served broadcast media conglomerates–radio, TV, and film. Non-formally schooled in songwriting George Canseco would continue the idiom suited for mass consumption in the jukebox, home stereos, and eventually the portable tape recording machines that were smuggled from Malaysia via Zamboanga. Elsewhere, recordings produced in Manila inspired folk musicians from the provinces such as Pirot, Yoyoy Villame and Max Surban to compose popular music idioms that were close to grassroots’ hearts and ears. Thankfully, Cristina “Krina” Cayabyab wrote a wonderful history of the role of prominent session musicians in Manila from 1970s to 1980s who crafted the diverse OPM pop sounds. Krina Cayabyab also did a video documentation (Sa Madaling Salita: OPM) that captured reminiscences by these musicians who were the main proponents of the local style.

DIY and New Media
The availability of analog sound devices (cassette recorder) in 1980s and subsequently digital gadgets (samplers, MIDI, Compact Disc, and so on) in 1990s with its new media (MP3) to mass consumers started the age of DIY in which time everyone is now living.

The alternative music of the 1990s by Eraserheads spawned the revival of rock music groups, the emergence of world beat fusions of Joey Ayala and Grace Nono, and the continuation of the diverse OPM hugot and birit styles, the sound of Aegis being one of the most spirited embodiment of creativity coming from house band gig musicians. The majors in this decade began re-issuing past sounds into nostalgic collections and ventured into media productions and concert management. Then, the TV industry came up with their own recording outfit subsidiaries to maximize profits.

These technology-driven media developments have not escaped the attention of scholars both here and abroad. James Gabrillo recently wrote a research in the mass culture surrounding the OPM of the 1990s. Monika Schoop had explored the social networks of indie musicians as they form collectives away from the control of the majors. In the transnational music making scenes (which has become more practical as air travel became more affordable), Christine Balance had written about the performativity of “disobedient” listening that marks the ethos of Filipino American millenials.

Then came the frenzied acceleration and circulation of musical media/images across spaces, thanks to the internet. Christi-Anne Castro has written about the transformations of Charice Pempengco and Arnel Pineda after mainstream American media captured their presences via YouTube. This movement has been, again, two-way. Not only were there Filipino musicians moving out of the country to entertain as usual (a history which dates back to 1870s), so were there commotions among big time producers from multinational media conglomerates to continue consuming the perceived exotic images from the margins. For example, the initial 2008 YouTube sensations generated by the image of dancing prisoners in Cebu provoked and subsequently brought in big time Hollywood producers to the island, pounding those sensations all the more with high level gimmickry in the same prisoners’ dance to Michael Jackson’s beat. In a most recent book, Aine Mangaong had critiqued those images as “dangerous mediations.” While we can hear the whispers of finance between Youtube as media and the capitalists’ advertising companies, visibility on the internet too can mean a lot to the network of Youtube uploaders. This is one of the topics that Lara Mendoza had discussed in her recently completed research on hip-hop among the disenfranchised youths in Manila. Shunning away from the control of corporate machineries, the battle rap league, especially Anygma’s FlipTop, has become a virtual space for homosocial bonding and pride for having contributed (pag-aambag) to Filipino culture.



Concluding Thoughts
This cursory review has presented recent scholarly publications in Philippine music, particularly selecting those that have touched upon the notion of the “popular.” The field surveyed was cast within a wider net, linking recent works to those from the distant past. The popular remains a fertile area to question the nature of society, particularly as this entity moves within accelerating technological innovations starting with print unto the present epoch of dizziying exchanges of sound and image. While the popular in the past simply referred to the music of the people, the entanglements with imperialism and capitalism and flow of money cannot be summarily dismissed. The popular became a commercial entity but it also went beyond that. With proper research tools and conceptual toolkit, the authors mentioned in this short review have all understood the complexities of the popular in Philippine music, past to present. They have all been mindful contemplations on topics that are equally worth one’s time and effort.


Works Cited:

Beltran, Maria Edelquinn. “Alexander Lippay (1892-1939) Austrian composer and conductor in Manila, 1925-1939,” Master of Music thesis, University of the Philippines, 2015.

Buenconsejo, José, editor. Philippine modernities music, performing arts, and language, 1880-1941, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2017.

Cristina Ma., Cayabyan. “Session musicians and the golden age of Philippine popular music, 1973-1987.” MM thesis, University of the Philippines. 2018.


Chua, Maria Alexandra. “Composing the Filipino: music transculturation and hybridity in nineteenth century urban colonial Manila (1858-1898),” PhD dissertation, University of the Philippines Press, 2017.

Macazo, Crisancti. “Music and image the soundtrack of Manuel Conde’s extant films, 1941-1958,” PhD Dissertation, University of the Philippines Press, 2019.

Balance, Christine. Tropical renditions making musical scenes in Filipino America. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Castro, Christi-Anne. “Subjectivity And Hybridity In the Age of Interactive Internet Media: The Musical Performances of Charice Pempengco and Arnel Pineda,” Humanities Diliman 7/1 (2010).

Gabrillo, James. “The New Manila Sound: Music and Mass Culture, 1990s and Beyond,” PhD diss. University of Cambridge, 2018.

Keppy, Peter, Tales of the Southeast Asian Jazz Age: Filipinos, Indonesians, and Popular Culture, 1920-1936. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2019.

Mangaoang, Aine. Dangerous Mediations: Pop Music in a Philippine Prison Video. New Approaches to Sound, Music, and Media. New York: Bloomsbury, 2019.

Miranda, Isidora. “Dissonant Voices: Tagalog Zarzuela and the Politics of Representation in the Philippines, 1902 to 1942,” PhD diss, University of Wisconsin, 2020.

Schenker, Frederick J. “Empire of Syncopation: Music, Race, and Labor in Colonial Asia’s Jazz Age.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison. 2016.

Schoop, Monika. 2019. Independent Music and Digital Technology in the Philippines, 1st edition. Routledge Studies in Popular Music. New York and London: Routledge, 2019.

Tan Arwin. “Music, labor, and capitalism in Manila’s transforming colonial society in the late nineteenth century,” PhD dissertation, University of the Philippines, 2018.

—. Saysay himig a sourcebook on Philippine music history 1880-1941, with accompanying 3-CD set of recorded sounds. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2018.

Yamomo, mele. Theatre and music in Manila and the Asia Pacific, 1869-1946: Sounding Modernities. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

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