Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to catch Cuerdas ng Pagkakaisa, an international music festival that prominently featured Filipino Rondalla, hosted by one of my mentors at the University of the Philippines, Ramon Santos. The Rondalla is a plucked string ensemble made up of several western imported instruments in the Philippines: the bandurria (mandolin like tremolo plucked string instrument), octavina (mandolin like instrument an octave lower than the bandurria), the guitar, the string bass, and assorted percussion. These ensembles have become staples in Filipino communities up and down the islands. Their repertoire ranges from Filipino folk songs, to western classical music, and original compositions specifically for the ensemble, many of which were written by Dr. Santos.
With its title Cuerdas ng Pagkakisa (Strings of unity) the festival featured multiple plucked string instrument musicians of different cultures. Other ensembles included the Indonesian Kacapi, the Taiwanese guitar band, and a Vietnamese ensemble made of instruments like the Đàn bầu and the đàn nguyệt. Their repertoire ranged from folk songs, religious songs, and “Do Re Mi” from The Sound of Music. The festival celebrated the shared notion of the plucked string ensemble with these other ensembles from all over Asia yet even with these similarities, these musics can still be identified as being explicitly Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Indonesian, or Filipino.
The Festival was a great experience because it touched on several of the themes that I have been researching with my project including the notion of musics, plural, and issues of complexity in how we use musical traditions around the world. All of these other Asian instruments are from the same continent as the Filipino rondalla, yet you wouldn’t confuse them for the mandolin like bandurria and octavina in a heartbeat. There is some confusion even to the exact identity of the Rondalla ensemble. Is it truly Filipno, a product of the 7,100 islands? It’s a western instrument but the performances are always in full Filipinana (Filipino clothing) regalia and its performers have a performance practice defined by intense smiling with one another as the performance goes on that is collectively defined by the performers themselves as a “Filipino thing.” If it’s not a Filipino ensemble, is it a western import from Spain? Many of these instruments that are derived from Spain are in turn imports from the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
I believe that it is wishful thinking to just say that music is all “universal” and that we all have the same “music.” Cuerdas ng Pagkakisa helped dismiss that notion and promoted something healthier on behalf of musical traditions. Music is a nuanced field with people at the heart of its study. Everyone needs equal representation when talking about musical traditions. The spirit of this festival promoted the idea that musics are a means to communicate with people of other backgrounds, ethnicities, faiths. Cuerdas ng Pagkakisa showed me how similar we are but that we must acknowledge our differences as well. If there is one thing that you must acknowledge in understanding Filipino music is that there are musics, musics from different cultures and traditions but all in dialogue with one another in the Philippines and all of Asia. The festival acknowledged global complexity through diversity but encouraged working with one another to create a world of connection through musical tradition.