The history and landscape of Kundiman

In every love story, there is a courtship stage. The suitor serenades their beloved atop the balcony in the hopes of winning their heart—staple of romantic gestures to this day

This scene remains a popular motif in Filipino media, from teleseryes and variety shows, to your neighbor’s random hugot posted on their Facebook page. Courtship and longing have have been extensively represented through music. For Filipinos, this is known as kundiman, a form of traditional love songs; with soulful verses and gentle melodies, its folk sound remains timeless, allowing it to continue thriving even in our modern cultural landscape.

The timeless serenade

Kundiman [literally] means ‘kung hindi man’ in Tagalog,” says Fely Aragon Batiloy, a seasoned choir coach for the multi-award-winning SPED Integrated School for Exceptional Children Choir, and a songwriter who has written local folk songs. Vince Mallari, vocal coach of De La Salle Innersoul, adds that the term kundiman became associated with music from the Spanish colonial period, when the Spaniards, who were unfamiliar with Tagalog, used it to refer to the soothing melodies played by the infatuated writer.

(If it weren’t so.)

Harana, another similar term, is actually different from kundiman. The former is the vocal performance itself, while the latter refers to what is being sung by the performer. As Mallari puts it simply, “Kundiman is the genre; harana is the act.”

Kundiman belongs to the traditional Filipino music genre that began in colonial Philippines under Spanish rule. Mallari explains that the early work of kundiman “[uses] a 3⁄4 time signature, with stanzas starting in minor chords and [then] progressing to major chords.” This means that the song begins with a slow and gentle melody, then gradually shifts in tone as it escalates to emphasize the heart-wrenching lyrics and the singer’s emotive rendition.

Mallari cites Mutya ng Pasig by Nicanor Abelardo, Ang Maya by Jose Estrella, and Dahil Sa Iyo by Pilita Corrales as examples of kundiman, noting that lyrics of these kinds of songs “must be very artistic, poetic, and in strict Tagalog.”

The melancholic melodies and intimate undertones that distinguish kundiman songs are in due part to these songs’ origins: kumintang. Kumintang’s influence is explained as a “a courtship and/or bridal song-and-dance form in olden times,” according to Filipino National Artist for Music Ramon P. Santos in his journal article, Constructing a National Identity Through Music.

Furthermore, he points out that the subject of kundiman songs would often fluctuate between matters of the heart and themes that manifest national fervor, “The kundiman [also] became a popular medium for the expression of undying love for the country [during the Spanish colonization period].”

However, modern kundiman songs such as Maalaala Mo Kaya?—the theme song of a local TV drama anthology of the same title, which literally translates to Will You Still Remember? in English—are considered to be variations of the original kundiman. “The tune formula [of kundiman] later assumed more defined metric and rhythmic structures based on Western dance rhythms,” Santos remarks.

Mallari expounds on kundiman’s mixed influence, saying that kundiman resulted from “the merging of Western music and Philippine folk music.” Filipinos began to incorporate local expressions of love and courtship with Western musical form, combining Spanish and American influences in performances that often featured the guitar.

And on that note

As radio broadcasting became a prominent form of entertainment, kundiman stayed relevant as the songs continued to receive airplay. Batiloy acknowledges that radio programs have helped sustain the popularity of kundiman even until the present era.

But newer generations of both artists and listeners grew out of the traditional sound, as Batiloy comments, “Nowadays, it’s [usually] rock and roll and [other] modern music [genres]…[At present, kundiman] and its materials are now scarce.”

She further explains that, as of now, professional kundiman singers are dwindling in number. However, choir groups such as the Philippine Madrigal Singers based in University of the Philippines Diliman and Voctave in the United States still continue the tradition of singing in the classical style.

Music, like all forms of art and media, constantly evolves as artists and producers find new ways to express their emotions, while listeners enjoy discovering new music. Mallari shares that musical representations of the pursuit of love have consistently remained a strong cultural facet, explaining that, “People learned to appreciate different types of genres, and the most used genre in courtship now is popular music or commonly called “pop.”

Authentic at heart

Given that contemporary music has taken a turn toward greater experimentation in terms of its production, the traditional composition of kundiman seems to have taken a backseat to more modern forms. Popular Original Pinoy Music (OPM) bands like Eraserheads and The Ransom Collective are influenced by Western genres like rock and indie in order to cater to so-called mainstream tastes and diversify their catalogues. This shift in the musical landscape has also affected the up-and-coming musicians of today.

Diego Magpayo (III, CIV), who goes by the stage name MTCH, has been producing pop, hip-hop, and R&B tracks for other local artists since 2014. Drawing from his experiences in the industry as well as being a self-professed avid OPM enthusiast, Magpayo claims that modern music isn’t as simple as using a guitar and one’s voice anymore, as sticking to such may hinder musical variety.

However, he still hears kundiman’s influence in contemporary bands like Ben&Ben. “[Their music] feels homey and creates a sense of nostalgia. The fact that the older generation also appreciates [this type of music] shows that bands like Ben&Ben can capture that idea of kundiman, knowing that it’s been more than a century since the start of that genre,” Magpayo discusses.

Even though kundiman is by definition a musical genre, Magpayo finds solace in the fact that its essence is still carried on not only by mainstream Filipino artists, but also by emerging artists like himself and his peers. In choosing to consider kundiman as “generally a feeling”, he and other musicians are granted flexibility in incorporating elements of the genre in other forms—contributing to kundiman’s progression and relevance as time goes on.

“When we try to achieve the feeling of love, or to serenade a loved one, we go back to our roots, because part of the audience we make music for is the Filipino community,” Magpayo expresses.

While kundiman as a genre is perhaps not as popular as it once was, it has nevertheless managed to sow seeds of romantic pursuit, embedding itself within Filipino culture. Its influence insurmountable to its recognition, kundiman is centuries-old proof that love is always in the air.

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