Channeling the indigenous struggle through songs of old and new

The indigenous influence in music doubles as a protest against the mistreatment of indigenous communities.

Wala nang igway kasi wala na ‘yung lupa.

(There are no more songs because there is no more land.) 

This is how the Iraya-Mangyan people of Mindoro describe the current state of their music to ethnomusicologist and composer Jonas Baes. These lands, however, are encroached upon by state and corporate interests, threatening the lives and legacy of indigenous peoples (IPs). “[They] asked me, ‘Anong magagawa ng pag-aaral mo ng igway sa problema namin sa lupa?’”

(“What can your study of our songs help us with our problems with our land?”)

Fortunately, there are those who loudly oppose these injustices through dynamic demonstrations; but other people protest through heart-thumping melodies and sharply written lyrics, weaving the tunes of those oppressed into their own. “I was so confronted with that , and I continue to try and answer that with all my heart [through music],” Baes furthers. Their enchanting songs are not only a reminder of one’s heritage, but a reflection of the bloody struggle of those whose lands and lives are constantly under threat. 

Melodies of how things came to be

Rooted in a tribe’s rich history and mythology, indigenous cultures feature stories and legends sacred to them, inspiring composers to create music that represents their stories. 

Baes’ composition titled Patangis-Buwaya is rooted in the Iraya-Mangyan legend of the great hunter Aletawu. On his journey to avenge the murder of his wife Diyaga, he brings an indigenous flute, bangsi, and uses it to call his hunting dog Edu. His anguished use of the instrument was enough to “make a crocodile weep,” as the composer puts it. The flute-driven piece embodies the essence of Iraya-Mangyan culture, “It is a way they can tell that the music played by a flute player is good music.” 

Indigenous communities also demonstrate their affinity with nature by mimicking the sounds of rain, living creatures, and natural soundscapes in their compositions. “It’s very much intermingled,” Baes emphasizes. “These metaphors about music structure or music practice [are] actually shaped by the forest.” This intersectionality inspired Baes to produce the album Nostalgia in a Denuded Rainforest, a collection of fieldwork recordings ranging from nature sounds to Iraya-Mangyan music.

Meanwhile, TUBAW Music Collective (TUBAW) or Tubong Mindanao, Tulong Mindanao, takes a more direct approach in integrating indigenous music. Composed of Edge Uyanguren, Jun Zamora, Dodel De Luna, Jamaica Bonifacio, and Aldrinroi Salvador, the band integrates the sound of indigenous and local instruments such as the kubing, a bamboo jaw harp from the Maguindanao province, with that of modern instruments like the electric bass.

Bawat tunog [at] sayaw nila may kwento,” De Luna explains. Zamora affirms this, stating that the music group’s combination of modern and indigenous styles represents cultural synergy. One example is their song Tuloy ang Laban. With the tune’s anti-violence and anti-oppression messages, the use of indigenous instruments musically emphasizes that the IPs are included in this struggle. 

(Each of their sounds and dances has a story.)

Rhythm in protest

Since indigenous music takes inspiration from surroundings—from sounds of nature—the protection of ancestral lands is tantamount to its preservation. Sadly, “Their (IPs’) land is used by the interests of the gigantic transnational and multinational corporations for mining and logging,” Baes laments. 

Then a student with the University of the Philippines Diliman College of Music in 1978, Baes realized the indigenous plight after Macli-ing Dulag and fellow members of the Kalinga Butbut protested against a Marcos-era dam construction. He explains that after several protests made by the tribe, “[the military] went into the village and massacred [them].” 

Decades later, a similar birth inspired the creation of TUBAW. “Ang hirap matulog, kumain, gumawa sa araw-araw na may kalagayan ng isang sitwasyon sa lipunan, tapos ay wala tayong gagawin,” Zamora stresses. Keeping these in mind, the band formed during the 2016 Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya, a series of demonstrations held by over 20 minority groups in Manila against human rights violations against IPs.

(It’s hard to sleep, eat, and live day-to-day knowing that there is a problem in society, and we are not doing anything about it.)

Since their respective awakenings, both Baes and Zamora help bring indigenous concerns to the forefront of local and international interests through music. As part of his advocacy to ensure the Mangyan tribes are reclaiming their music, Baes decided to donate copies of Nostalgia in a Denuded Rainforest to Mangyan refugees. After his deed, he had a heartfelt moment with an older Alangan-Mangyan. “You have returned the music to us, thank you for taking care of the igway,” he recalls the elder saying. 

TUBAW, meanwhile, released Dyandi, a song that calls for an end to violence against minorities. The song’s title references the  B’laan and Bagobo term for “peace pact”, which Salvador explains to have been settled when the once-warring tribes banded together against mining and logging initiatives that trespassed on their lands. “Kumbaga, umunlad sila into uniting themselves against the threat ng pinsala sa kanilang environment,” he notes.

(In other words, they opted to unite against the threat of environmental destruction.)

Shared song of struggle

As the battle against land exploitation wages on, Baes hopes that by channeling elements of indigenous music,  the public will become more aware of the situation of IPs. “So it is not only [important] for its beauty,” Baes reminds, “[acknowledging] its (IPs’ music) social significance—that their struggles [are] united with our general struggle as a nation.” 

While violence has put IP communities in vulnerable situations, their music asserts their rights as humans who also deserve protection. In depicting these stories through euphoric harmonies and melodies, musicians like Baes and the members of TUBAW not only perform for themselves but also for our country. As Filipinos, we should sing and fight alongside them to become catalysts for systemic change and equality. After all, as Salvador aptly puts, “Sino-sino pa bang magtutulungan kung hindi tayo-tayo rin naman?”

(Who else would help us but ourselves?)

Therese Genota

By Therese Genota

Mika Layda

By Mika Layda

One reply on “Channeling the indigenous struggle through songs of old and new”

An excellent article: its heart-rending message is clear and it moves me to yearn to march alongside the IP’s to preserve the sanctity of their identity. Count me in.

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