The evolution of the Filipino love song

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From kundiman to Manila Sound to OPM, the history of the Filipino love song is one marked by a bevy of influences, all captive to the fluidity of sound and feeling.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It is nearly impossible to chronicle an accurate history of Filipino love songs, because doing so entails putting into words the history of at least two things that comprise the subject — the history of Philippine music, and the history of how Filipinos feel and perceive love. The latter is a fruitless feat, with love being an abstract, immeasurable thing, an emotion that not even science can explain. Among her private meditations on love, Susan Sontag wrote on her journal, “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”

Making sense of love in scientific terms is mostly an effort in vain. Perhaps the reason why almost every song is a love song is the endless search for its meaning, as well as music’s capacity to encapsulate an emotion both as simple and sophisticated as the most mysterious human relation on earth. And as generations come and go, the zeitgeist also evolves, and so does love and the music that captures it.

The practices of indigenous Filipinos in love and music are inseparable from dance. Different rituals are performed for different functions — for good harvest, for driving evil spirits away, for social occasions like weddings, and many others, which vary across different ethnic groups. The banga dance of the Igorot women shows their grace and strength, as they carry stacks of pots above their heads, on their way to a river to fetch water supply, sometimes a preparation for a marriage ceremony. The maskota of Tuguegarao is a wedding dance where the groom sometimes plays the role of a suitor, advancing toward the bride in aggressive claps, and the bride plays coy and hard-to-get with her modest moves.

Many courtship dances that the Filipinos have inherited from the Spanish colonial era have similar characteristics. These are usually accompanied by folk music, most of which are in waltz or triple time, played by a rondalla or a folk band.

In the same era, the kundiman was born as a style of folksong that initially served as a hymn to express patriotism, in Filipinos’ struggle for freedom from oppression during the Spanish regime. Though kundiman songs depicted love for the country, they were usually disguised as love songs for a pined muse, as a metaphor for the motherland. One of the most popular songs among Philippine revolutionaries at that time was “Jocelynang Baliwag,” which was composed in the guise of a courtship song dedicated to Josefa “Pepita” Tiongson y Lara, an idolized lady from Baliwag.

After the revolution, the kundiman evolved into an art form, when it was made for the orchestra by the composers Francisco Santiago and Nicanor Abelardo. It later became more popular when singers like Sylvia La Torre and Danilo Santos adopted it, who were both later hailed as the “queen” and “king” of kundiman, respectively. Somewhat, the political undertone of the folksong style has been retained. Santos’ “Imelda” might as well have been an ode to the First Lady at the time, while La Torre’s “Sa Kabukiran” celebrated the joys of being out in the field, where the farmers plow.

In that age of ternos, love songs conjured images of men looking up at the windows of their Maria Claras, courting them with a tender harana.

When the Americans came along, so did their brand of pop music, which in turn influenced ours. However, the heart of the kundiman still stayed in our musical DNA, and the genre Manila Sound was born. It became a playground of pop, disco, blues, and commercialism altogether, following American sensibilities. The way we loved in folksong was transformed into grand romantic declarations of love in the songs of the Manila Sound era: in the string orchestra of Celeste Legaspi’s “Gaano Ko Ikaw Kamahal,” the muse metaphor in Hotdog’s “Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko,” and the heartbreak indulgence of the early ballads and covers of Gary Valenciano. The songs also showed how gender roles in love evolved, or at least, how we saw and expressed them. Cinderella’s “T.L. Ako Sa’yo” was a lesson in true love in the eyes of a woman, who longs for a man despite the taunts of her siblings and the refusal of her grandparents, which tangentially implies the times’ traditional conservative values, among many other similar love songs.

Taking from the grandeur of the 80s was the era of the power ballads that followed, where we saw the extremities of love in the subtlety of piano lines and the intensity of vocal gymnastics. The voices of divas like Regine Velasquez and Jaya soared to platinum status, as other soul-R&B singers came together into groups — Freestyle and South Border expressed love in falsettos and groovy rhythms reminiscent of their Manila Sound ancestors. Songwriters such as Louie Ocampo, Ogie Alcasid, and Vehnee Saturno continued the tradition started by the great songwriters in the 80s, filling the modern Filipino songbook with hits such as “You Are My Song,” “Bakit Ngayon ka Lang,” and “Mula sa Puso.”

Like exes or former lovers, some songs are stuck to the past as triggers of nostalgia. But they also serve as predictions for the future, as we continue to adopt all the sounds that make up our identity and negotiate all the influences we are faced with, both internal and external.

It was also the age of Pinoy rock, a time for college love. The songs of the likes of Eraserheads served as the soundtrack to the love lives of college kids everywhere at that time. Lovers who once swayed on the dancefloor in the disco era transferred to bars to watch gigs together. Parokya ni Edgar asks, “Uso pa ba ang harana?” and they are answered by many young men serenading their crushes with guitars, probably to ask them out to the prom, with their “nanginginig na mga kamay.” Sugarfree would know how they feel.

A love song-themed multimedia songwriting contest, Himig Handog, was born in 2002, two years after the original Himig Handog songwriting contest focused on the themes of nationalism (Himig Handog sa Bayaning Pilipino and JAM: Himig Handog sa Makabagong Kabataan) — and struck in the same vein of the Metropop Song Festival from the 70s, a competition that launched the careers of many artists, such as Freddie Aguilar and Vehnee Saturno, who continued the tradition of pop composition set by Ryan Cayabyab.

Just like how “retro” reached its peak in the 90s, when revivalism became a trend, the early 2000s saw acoustic covers of almost every popular song, both local and international. The covers of artists such as Princess Velasco and MYMP were equally loved as their original counterparts, and now, more cover artists take to YouTube to share their own versions of old love songs.

As textmates moved from colorless Nokia phones to chatting on the internet, love songwriters started to toy more with electronic instruments, as well as the number of genres that have already been exhausted that time. People fell in love with the soul-R&B-synth fusion of UDD, then Up Dharma Down. Lovers went back to the dancefloor when EDM reached its peak. But they also went to gigs to catch their favorite bands. They sang their hearts out to the love songs of Ang Bandang Shirley. The Eraserheads released new songs and people suddenly remembered their past in a new light, whether in the context of love or not.

Perhaps the reason why almost every song is a love song is the endless search for its meaning, as well as music’s capacity to encapsulate an emotion both as simple and sophisticated as the most mysterious human relation on earth.

These days, in the same way that people loved Sharon Cuneta and Gabby Concepcion in the 80s, people are still obsessed with love teams, as shown in the craze surrounding Nadine Lustre and James Reid, who are both singers in their own right, making songs that profess their love for each other. Though everything has changed in the world of Filipino love songs, it seems that nothing did.

Like exes or former lovers, some songs are stuck to the past as triggers of nostalgia. But they also serve as predictions for the future, as we continue to adopt all the sounds that make up our identity — kundiman, Manila Sound, OPM, and many more — and negotiate all the influences we are faced with, both internal and external. Music is therefore as abstract as love, and can be best explained through emotions as such.

Moreover, the aforementioned genres are sometimes just labels that we can do away with, in the same way that the greatest kind of love can’t be described by a mere label. Memories, after all, are jumbled in a cacophony of many different things — there is no timeline, only sound and feeling.