How a Genre of Music Flourished Under an Era of Censorship
Perhaps they find solace in the knowledge that we are descended from a line of people who are far from accepting of injustice, and are emboldened to know that we can situate ourselves within a history that shows how creatively our people have taken risks in order to reclaim their story, their agency, and their voice. - Hannah Balba
My parents both grew up in the Philippines during the 1970s, and two things often come up in conversation when they talk about living through this time: Martial Law, and how good the music was.
From September 21, 1972 to February 25, 1986, the Philippines would undergo a 14-year dictatorship enforced by complete military control. My mom and dad were both teenagers when they lived through Martial Law, and when I ask them what they remember most about it, they say: “the curfews, the tanks, and the rations”. I also hear from many other older Filipinos that people routinely disappeared under the hands of the military—to this day, many families still don’t know what happened to their loved ones.
For my parents to live through more than a decade of military subjugation explains a lot of their present behaviours—how they always want to know where I am at night, who I’m with, and to be rest assured that I will come home—out of the knowledge that some people can disappear without a trace.
Despite this, my parents seem to look back at this period with selective fondness. If there is one thing my parents associate positively with this time, it’s how much they loved the music. My dad would hear “Ikaw ang Aking Mahal” by VST & Company or “When I Met You” by APO Hiking Society, and in a tone halfway through nostalgic and melancholic says: “they don’t make music like this anymore”.
VST & Company Picture from VST and Company’s Facebook page | Copyright infringement not intended.
Apo Hiking Society Picture from APo Hiking Society Spotify page | Copyright infringement not intended.
I mention VST & Company and APO Hiking Society because whenever I am in the Philippines, I can’t go anywhere without hearing a song from these bands. They are prime examples of musical ensembles that popularized a genre of music we know as “Original Pilipino Music” (OPM)—a genre that originated and flourished during the later years of Martial Law.
Descendants of OPM: Harana and Kundiman
OPM harnesses musical trends that trace back to Philippine colonial history. The elements unique to OPM derive from two Filipino musical traditions—Harana and Kundiman. Many Filipinos are familiar with the former, a courting tradition where the male suitor (manliligaw) stands outside a woman’s window and serenades her into going out with him. Kundiman is the classic form of Filipino love song, with its lyrics written mostly in Tagalog. It emerged as an art song during the 19th century, and its musical structure was later formalized in the 20th century.
Early practices of Kundiman symbolized one’s strong feelings towards their beloved. During the revolutionary years, the country took the form of the ‘beloved’, which enabled Kundiman to serve as an instrument (pun intended) for Filipinos fighting against colonial oppression. A notable example is "Jocelynang Baliwag", which was the most famous Kundiman from 1896 to 1898. “Jocelynang Baliwag” represented the patriotic sentiments of the Tagalog revolutionaries in the struggle for liberation from Spanish colonial rule.
El Kundiman (1932) by Fabian de la Rosa (1869-1937) from Wikimedia Commons | Copyright infringement not intended.
The Filipino composer, conductor and scholar Felipe M. de León Jr. wrote that the Kundiman is a "unique musical form expressing intense longing, caring, devotion and oneness with a beloved….Or motherland, ideal or cause. A Kundiman can be romantic, patriotic, religious, mournful, or a consolation, a lullaby, or a protest”.
The cultural influence of Harana and Kundiman remains durable. A mix of love, devotedness, and the deep emotional exchange between songs and its listeners inherent within Harana and Kundiman made way for the emergence and popularity of Filipino ballads that will come to dominate Filipino music in the late 20th century.
Legacies of Harana and Kundiman: The Emergence of Manila Sound
Music written in Filipino and by Filipinos remained popular much throughout the late 20th century, evidenced by the emergence of “Manila Sound”—a musical genre that drew influences from American pop music, and was characterized by its catchy lyrics and melodic phrases that included different aspects from other genres like disco, pop, jazz, and rock.
Hotdog from Yahoo News article “Hotdog: The Reunion”, April 26, 2011 | Copyright infringement not intended.
Manila Sound gained widespread popularity during the early 1970s, with some notable examples including “Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko” and “Langit Na Naman”, both hit songs by the band Hotdog. Songs within this genre are most often in ballad form, a core element inherited from its use in Harana and Kundiman. Despite its immediate popularity, the influence of Manila Sound was short-lived, only really lasting until the mid-1970s when the genre developed more towards camp humour and parody. Because of this, Manila Sound developed into more of a theatrical subgenre. Nonetheless, Manila Sound laid the groundwork for the development of OPM.
The Emergence of OPM: How It Flourished under Martial Law
Picture from History News Network article “This Is the Moment to Remember that 30 Years Ago People Power Toppled a Dictator in the Philippines” by Tom Clifford, September 26, 2016 | Copyright infringement not intended.
A catch-all phrase for any music written by Filipinos, Original Pilipino Music (OPM) emerged during the late 1970s, following the waning influence of Manila Sound. It is most often characterized by the pervasive use of ballads, an element taken from its musical predecessors.
Ferdinand Marcos, picture from Yahoo News article “So what was so bad about Martial Law?”, September 20, 2021 | Copyright infringement not intended.
One of the most fascinating aspects of OPM is how it emerged during a time of unprecedented military censorship. Ruling by decree meant that the Marcos administration had complete control over the media, whereby September 23, 1972, two days after Martial Law was declared, military sources successfully curtailed mass media. As many as 7 television stations, 16 national daily newspapers, 11 weekly magazines, 66 community newspapers, and 292 radio stations were shut down.
“Through Letter of Instruction no. 1, Marcos orders the closure of media establishments.” Picture from Timetoast, photograph taken on September 22, 1972. | Copyright infringement not intended.
As a means to further control the media, in tandem with the heightened Filipino nationalism fostered under the dictatorship, Marcos introduced Memorandum Order No. 75-31 of the Broadcast Media Council in 1975—a law that required all radio stations to play at least one Filipino composition every hour.
As history shows, repressive conditions seldom actually put a stop to dissent. By the late 1970s, Memorandum Order No. 75-31, together with increased dissatisfaction felt among Filipinos towards forced military subjugation, led to more and more Filipino musicians writing and releasing songs that harnessed their grievances and frustrations towards the dictatorship.
“Jess Santiago, 70s Bistro”, Picture from Flickr, taken by Pauline Balba, May 16, 2009 | Copyright infringement not intended.
A famous example of this was Jess Santiago’s composition “Huling Balita” produced in 1976, its lyrics giving voice to the warrantless arrests and extrajudicial killings (popularly called salvaging) of people that the military considers enemies of the state.
Another popular piece is “Masdan Mo Ang Kapaligiran” produced in 1978 by Asin. Although it’s mostly known as a song dedicated to the Pasig River, this classic speaks to another victim of the Marcos regime: the environment, where illegal miners and loggers were protected under Marcos.
The late Filipino professor of Philippine Literature, Dr. Teresita Gomez Maceda, describes the flourishing of Filipino music under Martial Law as “a semblance of an atmosphere of freedom for artists even as summary executions, unlawful detentions, food blockades and other violent measures continued to be imposed on the populace by the mailed fist of the dictatorship”. That is to say that these historical conditions have shaped OPM—in its emergence and what it has come to mean for Filipinos. OPM became a site of voice reclamation—its development especially significant within dominating narratives that reduce Filipinos as imitators—as people devoid of originality and taste.
Considering the historical emergence of Harana, Kundiman, and Manila Sound, we can situate the development of OPM within a long history of Filipinos using music as tools for resistance. Harana and Kundiman emerged during centuries of European/Euro-American colonial oppression. Manila Sound, followed by OPM, was popularized during a period of mass terror—where thousands of people routinely disappeared, were killed, or tortured in the name of societal order.
Picture by the Associated Press, cited from the article “Voice of Philippines' People Power Revolution Signs Off” by Cris Larano, November 25, 2013 | Copyright infringement not intended.
How these genres of Filipino music flourished during periods of violence is not an invitation to discuss the positives about colonialism, imperialism, or forced military rule. The emergence of Harana, Kundiman, Manila Sound, and OPM demonstrate what happens not because of colonialism or Martial Law respectively—but what is produced in response to these conditions.
I often hear people essentialize Filipinos as “accommodating”, “hospitable”, and “gracious”—terms not inherently problematic if some Filipinos themselves very much identify with such. The issue that I take with words such as “gracious” and “hospitable” being strongly associated with Filipino identity is that it comes with the expectation that Filipinos are then accepting of any and all circumstances that come our way—notably suffering, strife, and hardship.
But what does Filipino history tell us? What does the history of Filipino music tell us about how our people have resisted, especially within conditions where we may have little to gain and everything to lose by fighting back?
Perhaps whatever fondness my parents may associate with this era does not stem from nostalgic feelings of wanting to live through it again. Perhaps when they hear VST & Company or APO Hiking Society, they are reminded of what has survived, persisted, and endured an era of mass terror and violence.
Picture of Edsa Revolution from Noli Soli’s article “Classical local songs that are actually about Martial Law,” September 22, 2017 | Copyright infringement not intended.
Perhaps they are reminded of their own strength and resilience in the face of one of the most brutal moments in Philippine history—that they too have survived, persisted, and endured.
Perhaps they find solace in the knowledge that we are descended from a line of people who are far from accepting of injustice, and are emboldened to know that we can situate ourselves within a history that shows how creatively our people have taken risks in order to reclaim their story, their agency, and their voice.
Hannah Balba is a former History student from the University of British Columbia where she graduated in 2021. Currently, she works as a Settlement Worker for newly-arrived Filipino families in the Joyce-Collingwood area in B.C. Her writing interests include: precarious migrancy, foreign domestic worker programs in Canada, and the histories of Filipino labour migration. She has written for Decomp Journal, Sa Pagitan, Asia Pacific Foundation, and will be published in print for Magdaragat: An Anthology on Filipino-Canadian Writing that will release in Spring of 2023. She speaks Tagalog.
“Classical local songs that are actually about Martial Law.” September 22, 2017. https://nolisoli.ph/24540/classic-local-songs-actually-martial-law/.
Greenslade, Angelli. “What Makes OPM Original? The Characteristics of Original Pilipino Music.” November 23, 2020. https://www.filifest.co.uk/blog/what-makes-opm-original-the-characteristics-of-original-philippine-music
“Infographic: The day Marcos declared Martial Law.” September 1, 2021, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/featured/infographic-day-marcos-declared-martial-law-september-23-1972/.
“Jocelynang Baliwag.” September 1, 2021. https://www.scribd.com/document/160322249/jocelynang-baliwag.
“Kundiman.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kundiman
Maceda, Teresita Gimenez .“Problematizing the popular: the dynamics of Pinoy pop(ular) music and popular protest music,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 8, no. 3 (2007).
“Manila Sound.” September 1, 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manila_sound.
Saban, Bea. “Martial Law and Music.” https://www.filipinaslibrary.org.ph/himig/martial-law-and-music/.