Mirrors from melodies: The art of choir as a reflection of Filipino culture and heritage

Withstanding the test of time, the rich harmony and heritage of Filipino choral music plays on and far beyond.

National cultural heritages come packaged in various forms. From museum exhibits to generational rituals, culture has long been protected and reflected upon through different mediums of presentation. However, a cultural reflection that is oftentimes forgotten lies in the realm of the performing arts: the art of choral music.

“[Kapag] sinabi mong ‘Pilipino’, nakapalibot na [roon ang] ganda ng musika,” award-winning choirmaster Anthony Villanueva shares lightly. Such connection of the Filipino to the art of singing grew into the communal form of choir music, with church gatherings as one of the familiar places for a predominantly Catholic nation to witness performances. (It’s as if when you say ‘Filipino’, we immediately associate it with beautiful music.)

In Filipino musician, professor, and conductor Sinamar Respicio’s research, she notes that choral singing traces farther than the country’s Spanish inquisition, “When you go back, some research [found] that we already [knew] how to do that because Filipinos love singing.” The exact origin of when and where Filipinos started singing in the chorus cannot be traced, but its foundation within Philippine culture is evident.

In the key of history

Like any art form, music is a melting pot of international and local influences. Villanueva elaborates that the current state of Philippine choral music is a product of the intertwining influences of Asian and Western traditions. As he sings a short sample of Waray-Waray, he points out that the folk song attests to American-style influences, while the kundiman is influenced by Spanish rhythms.

Regional differences also add to the uniqueness and diversity of our local chorale music, even though there are hints of Western influences. One is Cordilleran music, where the Ifugao Hudhud and the Kalinga Ullalim epics are chanted, and it is seen as an example that shows how regions showcase their differences through singing about their agriculture, way of living, and sociopolitical and belief systems. “As we are an archipelagic country, various language groups have their own culture, language, and consequently, musical tradition,” says Nilo Alcala, a resident composer who worked with the Philippine Madrigal Singers from 2003 to 2007. “Even in neighboring tribes, there will be significant differences in their music traditions,” he shares.

By integrating local styles and forms, choirs in the Philippines have established their voice on the international stage. “That is why music is powerful and engaging—it has the power to communicate with different races [and] with different people. We have the voice of the world,” Alejandro Consolacion, a Music Theory and Organ professor at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and Centro Escolar University, proudly shared. With the marriage of different cultures, Philippine music upholds its distinct and unique sound. This is advantageous, especially for the professional choral scene that continues to preserve and share our culture locally and internationally.

On a higher note

There have been many successful efforts to make our local chorale more visible to the public eye, especially on international stages. While the country’s world-renowned status in the professional choral scene is relatively recent compared to other choirs, Villanueva stresses the importance of Filipino choirs showcasing world-class performances and participating in cultural exchanges with other choirs. He cites the Philippine Madrigal Singers, who rose to international acclaim in 1997 and has since effectively encouraged more local groups to join and share their talents with the world. “Sumunod [na ang] mga university choirs like the UST (University of Santo Tomas) Singers [and] De La Salle Chorale, hanggang sa naging rich na ang ating culture because of [competing abroad].”

(University choirs like the UST Singers and De La Salle Chorale followed until our culture became rich because of competing abroad.)

Weaving melodies together, choristers champion Filipino talent both in the local and international music scene.

Philippine choral music by reflecting various linguistic and cultural traditions. It provides a unique sound that speaks to the national history and experiences. Furthermore, it also celebrates Filipino composers and their works, promoting the country’s ever-growing musical legacy by accepting and displaying local talent.

“Constant performance of choral music that is rooted in Philippine tradition ensures the longevity and familiarity of these traditions from ages ago,” Alcala notes. “This means our music culture is alive, dynamic, rich, and is still being enriched, and passed on from generation to generation.”

Through the sharps and flats

Despite the positive notions, barriers are still at bay; for in a country with plethoric musical talent, national support by the government and the general public for its sustainment is heavily lacking. Consolacion delves into this, “You will only feel the importance [of choral performance and classical music] if you are outside the country and see your kapwa Filipino doing this. But if you are in the country, it is so hard to see this.”

Though, not all hope is lost. While securing the population’s support remains a challenge, there is a continuous call for action and hope in the choral and extensive music scene. Alcala emphasizes the need for unionization among workers in the music industry, and the active participation of the government to foster the local choir and music industry.

On another perspective, Respicio sees that choral education should be a subject in schools, “Music [is] not just singing. It’s literature and you get to learn about your culture.” A lot of history goes into the art, and such information must be passed down to future generations, so it doesn’t get lost or forgotten. As Consolacion lays out, “Choral music is not purely entertainment; it’s an art. It elevates you as a Filipino. It elevates society.”

While there are technical aspects in the choral pieces that grab attention, the most defining feature of Filipino choirs and choral music lies not in music theory. Rather, it is through the heart. “[Filipinos] are very warm,” Villanueva observes. “Pag kumakanta ang Pilipino, talagang panaloDoon pa lang, nakikita ng ibang bansa kung paano nagde-develop culture natin.”

(When Filipinos sing, it’s truly world-class. From there, other countries are able to witness how our culture develops.)

Despite the ever-changing keys or melodies, Filipino choristers remain driven to become torchbearers of culture. And much like the singers who join voices in harmony, there must be a chorus loud enough to support those filling the nation with song.

Danielle David Castillo

By Danielle David Castillo

MJ Tinio

By MJ Tinio

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