9/11/2019
Dear Maestro Ryan

Dear Maestro Ryan,

Let me begin by congratulating you for being honored with the Ramon Magsaysay Award this year. In these times when fan-driven frenzy drives what's popular and what isn't, it's easy to forget all of the things you, and your contemporaries, have done to push all of Filipino music forward, not just in the 1970s and 1980s, but even up to now. I think it's a really good reminder.

When you received your award earlier today, you expressed your sadness that "there is no Filipino music out there". Now, here, sir, I'm not sure if I agree with that.

As I write this letter, several new Filipino acts are preparing to perform in major music festivals in Southeast Asia. A bunch of acts - Kiana Valenciano, Keiko Necesario, One Click Straight, among others - are flying in a few days to Singapore for Music Matters. Ben & Ben are headed to Hong Kong this November for Clockenflap, the same music festival where Cheats performed a couple of years back. And this has been going on for the past few years, with several acts on the alternative side of things finding audiences in Taiwan, Thailand and Japan, to name a few.

Have you heard of No Rome? He started his career here, in the fringes, before flying to London and becoming a darling of the pop underground. Tonight he's returning home to perform alongside the 1975, whose vocalist, Matt Healy, took him in.

That very pop underground's also getting into a bunch of artists with Filipino ancestry, if we're willing to expand our definition that widely. Jay Som, based in Los Angeles and born to Filipino immigrants, just released her third record, Anak Ko, a few weeks back. And then there's Beabadoobee, who was born here before moving to London at age 3, and has incidentally signed with the same record label as No Rome. I think she'll explode a little bit soon.

Sure, that's all on the alternative side. But then, Christian Bautista remains relatively popular in Indonesia. In South Korea, home of some of the world's most exciting pop acts, there's this group called SB19, made up entirely of Filipino members - sure, I think it's a cynical ploy to get support from this country, but it still counts for something. And then there's the giant that is Lea Salonga. It may have been a while since she performed on the stages of Broadway or the West End, but people still look back fondly at what she's done, and her concerts around the world are not exclusively Filipino affairs.

All that said, I'm also not sure if I disagree with you, Maestro. You cited Freddie Aguilar's "Anak". I wasn't around when that song was first released, but I know how much of a success it was: translated into various languages, shifted many copies around the world. That arguably remains the only example of Filipino music truly making a dent beyond its borders. But then, times have changed. Back in the 1970s it was difficult for us to listen to songs from outside our borders, especially those that don't get played on the radio. Now, everybody's on Spotify, and they can stumble upon musicians from all over the world in a few taps. Or, if they want to stick to radio, all the radio stations in the world are also within reach. That's how I found myself in the slightly awkward situation of explaining to someone why I'm excited that Kiwi band the Beths are coming to Singapore. It's helped me a lot when I still had a music blog.

But, yes, I know, wouldn't it be nice if Filipino music was more widely known? And not just amongst hipster crowds. Back when I had that music blog I cited the success of several Malaysian acts in crossing over to the international stage. Yuna has also become a darling of the pop underground, known the world over for her smooth grooves. But then, if you don't pay that much attention, you wouldn't even know she's Malaysian.

That said, I agree with you: we need more people to push Filipino music out there. At the moment, efforts are limited. We have these people truly passionate about music, giving all of their time to promote local acts - and not just in Manila - abroad. And then we have corporate sponsors who see it's worth their while to do the same, although their being corporate means they'll end up sticking with what's proven to be cool and on-brand. I've always wondered, for example, why the government didn't establish a radio station playing solely Filipino music, why they chose instead to chase the sound of slick commercial radio but without the interruptions. I mean, let's take South Korea - they recognize that K-pop is an important part of their soft power, that they've gone to great lengths to promote it. Now, you have BTS, one of the biggest acts in the world, contributing USD 3.6 billion every year to their home country's economy. And they're not the only superstars from their area.

But then, music is a very personal thing. Someone's bound to complain if the powers that be decide to push, say, another one of our balladeers than their preferred I-won't-sell-out pop act. We're always going to have these disagreements, so we might as well push everything and present ourselves as a well-rounded country, with our love songs for those looking for a gentle push, our bands for those looking for a thrill, and our more challenging artists for those looking to really explore. Still, I bet we'll end up asking: what is Filipino music? Is it enough that these songs are created and performed by Filipino artists (of whatever percentage of descent)? Or should it reflect our values, our culture? What are our values in the first place? What aspect of our culture - our multifaceted, complex, complicated, messy culture - should it reflect? Do we present ourselves as one force, or do we let our inherent messiness manifest in the music we push? Should we aim for world domination like those K-pop groups do, or should we be happy being a little further away from the center of adulation, doing our thing, getting respect from fans and critics alike?

Well, these are questions I leave to you, Maestro, and to anybody else who reads this. I think it's a challenge worth taking on. When I started writing my blog seven years ago, I thought Filipino music was in a slump. I was wrong. In the years since I have seen it rise up again, but this time around we have fragmented audiences unwilling to listen to each other for fear of being mocked for their tastes. I, for one, think one of our problems is our unwillingness to open our ears to what else is out there, but then, I don't get to pull the strings.

Once again, congratulations on the Ramon Magsaysay Award. I often find myself listening to your compositions and, as I said, in these times, we tend to forget what you and your like have done all those years ago. It is a good reminder, that we have a lot more ground to cover.

All the best,
Niko

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