Keeping up with the Con Gen: To be Exotic and Pinoy
By Paul Raymund Cortes
One staple activity organized by almost all Philippine Foreign Service posts around the world is the ubiquitous cultural program that features “traditional” and (they say) authentic Filipino dance and music. Every year, Philippine Embassies and Consulates General scramble after the Bayanihan and the Ramon Obusan Folkloric Group; or the Madrigals, the UST Singers, or the Ateneo College Glee Club or others dubbed to be performers of authentic Filipino art. These groups, as most Pinoy diplomats would justify and without doubt, highlight the best in traditional Filipino art and showcase the rich history of Philippine music, dance, and performing art. In 2015, the Department of Foreign Affairs embarked on a project that brought Philippine ballet to the Middle East. Ballet Philippines toured Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Jordan and performed to jampacked crowds in these cities, earning praise not only from the Filipino communities there but also from among the European and Arab audiences.
While some lauded the effort of Ballet Philippines to spread their wings in this part of the world, some community leaders questioned why government opted to feature a dance form that wasn’t particularly authentic Filipino. Ballet, they add, is a European concoction with roots from Italy, France, and then Russia. It seemed, critics stressed, that we were orchestrating the preponderance of Western or European art forms at the expense of Filipino art — reeking of colonial mentality.
But what then do I consider unadulterated Filipino? Pre-colonial times in the Philippines suffer a dearth of information and written history on the various art forms of those eras and sadly, academic discussions on Filipino art were not recorded for our ease of reference. And as we had seen our world more connected, more blended, and more interactive in the past hundreds of years, can I even classify each facet of art I see today as pure Filipino — racial and cultural miscegenation and all? Perhaps what we consider as authentic are those that we classify as traditional such as singkil, tinikling, pandango, or in musical terms, kundiman though many will likewise disagree that these are hybrid products of Spanish and Filipino cultures. Do variances of these traditional forms or interpretations of foreign art not qualify as Filipino? What happens when one artist injects his/her personal perspective and soak their own cultural experiences in their interpretations of these “borrowed” arts – are we to dismiss it then as inauthentic?
Some years back, as a struggling professional artist, I was told by my mentors and audience to be authentic – someone like Joey Ayala or maybe in the same musical vein as Grace Nono. My musical influences began with Basil Valdez and Original Pilipino Music or OPM, from which I then graduated to pop balladeers like Martin or Gary and at one point even opera. Somehow, I felt more comfortable in this genre and I could not envision myself dabbling into alternative folk music or even downright traditional folk. To do so wouldn’t be me. Granted, being authentic is being true to oneself but being dictated to be authentic in the standard our audiences demand appears oxymoronic. If audience standard is the only determinant to be true to oneself, then we contradict our search for authenticity and become pawns of the people we seek to be authentic for.
Filipino ballet dancers or Filipino rappers or Filipino artists who interpret American or Western or even Korean art must not be condemned as inauthentic or un-Filipino simply because they choose to speak foreign art using their native tongues. Doing so negates their experiences as Filipinos and how these help redraw their perspectives of global art. How much more Filipino can one get when a Pinoy dances ballet or sings American music or raps in the manner Eminem does albeit in his own language if one uses his Filipino soul to paint new renditions of these art? Should they be booed off the stage for being un-Filipino?
This is my greatest beef with standards and nomenclature. To determine what is authentically Filipino and who determines it is subject of much discourse and debate. And at the end of the day, whose standard are we to use as the benchmark? When Michael Cinco or Ezra Santos refashion the terno to something more palatable to the women of the Arab world, I call it a Filipino interpreting Islamic fashion. Better yet – I call it art – no cultural nomenclature, no categories, no classifications. After all, in a globalized world such as ours nowadays, we have become a mix, a salad bowl of cultures and art so that ascertaining which is pure and uncontaminated is simply anathema to present day realities.
None of us hold the key to whatever it is we deem is purely Pinoy. Folk Ilokano art is as Filipino as the triads of Cordillera sounds or the melodic rhythms of the Tagalogs and Cebuanos or the disco sounds of VST and Co., the ballads of Basil and Martin, the terpsichorean choreography of G-Force and Ballet Philippines or the jerky rap tunes of Blakdyak. That these art are explored and rediscovered through the eyes, words, voices, hands, and the bodies of Filipinos makes that art form uniquely Pinoy and definitely authentic. No critic should ever dismiss you as otherwise.
CONSUL GENERAL PAUL RAYMUND CORTES
When not performing his duties as the head of the Filipino community in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, or the obligations of a dutiful dad, passionate patriot Paul Raymund Cortes, mulls over how to further enrich the local Filipino community by promoting a more progressive mindset.