The modern Filipino is often described as having an identity crisis, and the Philippines as a beautiful country lacking its own culture. But a closer look at Filipino art, dance and traditional music may surprise you.
The colourful cultural heritage of the country is actually very evident in the works of prominent Filipino authors, performers and artists. A rich blend of diverse traditions – Malay, Spanish and American – defines the Filipino culture.
The country’s multifaceted history, years of colonisation and strategic location that allowed barter trade – not only of goods and products but the exchange of cultural influences – all made Philippine culture the unique hodgepodge that it is today. Stay a bit longer if you want to truly see how this distinctive medley of traditional Malay, Spanish and Western heritage has adapted to modernity. The more you look, the more interesting it becomes.
Artistic expression in Manila
The Filipino culture is as multifaceted as its history. Filipinos are a very artistic and creative people, thriving in industries ranging from performing to visual arts, and creating the most iconic of masterpieces that command top dollar abroad.
Cultural expression is not confined to the many museums that dot Manila. If you really want to see culture, check out the country’s parade of festivities, food, tribes, native dresses, religion, native languages and dialects, as well as its creative literature and traditional amusements and pastimes.
Art is a natural form of expression for Filipinos. During years of peril under foreign rule, many iconic masterpieces have surfaced, among which is Juan Luna’s Spoliarium, which symbolically depicts the harsh rule of the Spanish over the Philippines. Visual art provides a channel for expression for most Filipinos, whether it be through painting, sculpture, weaving or religious works. Art has been used to make political statements, portray reality, showcase other facets of culture and boast about the rich nature surrounding the country.
Engravings, etchings and sculptures are also among the earliest forms of folk art in the Philippines. National monuments which were sculpted and crafted by early artists date back from as early as the 17th Century. These sculptures either commemorate different nobilities, Christian icons, heroic personalities or depict various monumental events in the country’s history. Religious art was also at boom in the early centuries, adorning gothic and baroque churches throughout the archipelago.
Literature and theatre in the Philippines
Literature also played a great role in the liberation of Filipinos. Patriotic novels by the world renowned Philippine national hero Jose Rizal – namely Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo – paved the way for freedom and liberation from the cruel oppression of the Spaniards.
Legends and myths that were passed on through orations also take the form of folk literature, while literature from the 20th and 21st Centuries exudes modernismo or Modernism. The Philippine theatre scene is as rich as its other art forms. Just among the age old dramatic art forms still practiced in the country are the cenaculo, which depicts Christ’s passion, moro-moro (comedia), which presents the Christian and Muslim feud in a light comedic manner, as well as the classic zarzuela, which is a form of light operatta largely influenced by its Spanish origins.
The modern theatre industry has taken inspiration from Broadway productions and avant-garde stage shows, bringing to life rich literature through skillful acting, dancing and singing. The Cultural Centre of the Philippines is just one of the main theatre institutions and platforms where Filipinos’ theatrical skills are on display.
Balagtasan is an interesting form of spontaneous poetic debate, performed by ‘makatas’ or poets who contest opposing views by reciting impromptu verses to establish points of argument. After the debate, the mediator or ‘lakandiwa’ bestows judgment by soliciting applause from the audience. The makata with the loudest applause wins the debate.
Filipino music and dance in Manila
Folk dances also tell a lot about the history and the culture of the Philippines. Almost like role playing, folk dances like Singkil tells of interesting stories of tribal prince and princesses and other royalties. Graceful moves, flicks of the finger, pulsating beats, colourful costumes, life size head dresses and lifelike props are just some aspects synonymous with Philippine folk dances. Other forms of folk dance also serve as celebration for good harvest and sometimes a prayer for the same, while some serve as a rite of passage.
The different regions of the country also have different forms of folk dances often showcased during festivities and special events. Common examples include Tinikling, which mimics movements of birds called ‘tikling’ hopping over bamboo traps that are set up by farmers. Ragsakan is also one of the most famous and most colourful dances. Literally translated as ‘merriment,’ Ragsakan is a form of gratitude for a successful headhunt, and is also performed as a peace pact for warring tribes.
Many dances are accompanied by indigenous instruments, including agungs and kulintangs, which create mellow to fast beats that add life to the dance. Music is also a big part of the Filipino culture. Folk music and vocal chanting were among the earliest forms of music contributed by tribal and ethnic groups. Panghaharana or serenading is an age old way of wooing Filipinas, often done by hopeful ‘binatas’ (bachelors) through ‘kundiman’ or lyrical songs that depict romance, passion, love and even sadness or frustration. Choral music is also popular, along with orchestras and rondalla, which is an ensemble of acoustic instruments, including bandurria, guitar and other mandolin instruments.
While different genres of music like rock, hiphop, pop, and rhythm and blues seem to rule over the radio waves nowadays, classic Original Pilipino Music or OPM never dies. Original compositions by local artists are among the most beautiful musical poetries one can hear. The 20th Century also saw the birth of different OPM bands who offer modern twists to the Philippine music scene. Filipino music is also one of the strongest facets of the country’s culture.