Despite the call for representation and diversity in the grander scheme of the ‘OPM’ narrative, the majority of the Pinoy pop music that’s been getting traction on top 40 radio and streaming platforms are either too Western-influenced or Tagalog-centric. Without stating the obvious, it’s always the high and almighty folks from Metro Manila that perpetuate these significant inequalities, rendering everything outside of its cultural and socio-economic radar as irrelevant, lacking potential, and unworthy of attention.
Initiatives that promote regional music rarely get funding or institutional support, while most songs written and produced in the local vernacular other than Tagalog are often shunned by Top 40/urban/rhythmic/alternative radio formats, Spotify/Apple Music playlists, and music video channels for fear that it’s not commercially viable enough, and that no matter how infectiously catchy or game-changing the material is, the urbanite snobs and powers-that-be controlling the playing field still deem it as culturally and artistically inferior.
Award-winning songwriter, record producer, musical director and Vispop Founder Jude Gitamondoc also pointed out how record labels and local creatives often neglect to put in experts from key regions to strategically market and promote regional songs on a national level. He says, “It's almost always someone from the major companies and institutions in Manila that are making these creative decisions. If there are attempts to bring in local creatives, they're mostly on a consultancy basis and not key decision makers. We need to be able to trust our local creatives to make creative decisions that represent their locality authentically, so as to engage the community.”
But there are some note-worthy instances when regional pop music accidentally makes its way into mainstream consciousness. These songs have introduced the distinct sensibilities and expressions of individuals and people outside Metro Manila — thus, taking on the challenge of asserting cultural identity while moving forward with the times: Cebu-based band Mandaue Nights made shiny synth-pop jams inspired by New Order or The Human League, but the lyrics are proudly penned in their native Bisaya. Karencitta went viral in 2017 with “Cebuana,” and part of its charm was its insistence to include a verse in Bisaya over booming hip-hop beats and tropical rhythms. PhilPop, the country’s premier songwriting competition, awarded last year’s top prize to reon’s “Suyo,” a bilingual song that touches on young love amidst differences in cultural and geographical upbringing. And who can forget the breakout success of multilingual and multiethnic boy band Alamat whose vibrant debut single “kbye” had its members singing and rapping in Tagalog, Ilocano, Waray-Waray, Bicolano, Kapampangan, Hiligaynon and Bisaya? Yes, all seven languages in one song.
Maldita’s “Porque” as cultural reset
While these developments constitute a substantial step toward minimizing the systemic othering of the regional Filipino experience, none of the songs mentioned above have achieved the ubiquity often granted to cultural products made in Imperial Manila and marketed by big industry guns. Perhaps, the last contemporary-sounding song that isn’t sung predominantly in English and Tagalog, but went on to become a massive chart-topper that everyone has heard of at least multiple times in their lifetime, is Maldita’s “Porque” — a stripped-down song that dredged up wounds with great force, embracing the appeal of hugot songwriting even before Moira called it dibs a decade after.
I remember the song being a cultural reset not only because it opened doors for a relatively unknown band in Mindanao, but also for introducing the poetic beauty of Chavacano in pop music. Chavacano, a Spanish-based creole language spoken in Zamboanga City and in some areas of Southern Mindanao, was primarily used in the original lyrics of “Porque.” Its effortless elegance and romantic appeal somehow complement the song’s subdued, acoustic arrangement, making it easier for the pained words to flutter above gentle chords and soaring melodies. “Filipinos love a pretty tune,” says Jude Gitamondoc. “I've also observed that acoustic renditions draw more people in, particularly the Filipino audience.”
In essence, “Porque” came at a time when the "band scene" has started to lose steam in terms of commercial impact, leaving the charts populated by EDM tunes and "women empowerment" anthems that brought Adele, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry and Ke$ha to global prominence. It was one of the few rare songs on Philippine radio that is sincere in its confessional, and wastes no time in admitting its defenselessness over unrequited love.
The song’s guitarist and songwriter Roel "Whey" Guevara admitted that the band didn’t expect “Porque” to be a chart-topping smash. “We planned a different song to be released as the band’s first single. It was actually our distribution label who suggested to release 'Porque.'”
Initially uploaded on YouTube in 2019, the version written in Chavacano caught the attention of local radio stations in Zamboanga City, which played the song for months. Thanks to its staying power and organic success, the song eventually reached Viva Records through the help of composer Geraldine Lim. This earned the band a five-year record deal with the major record label.
Whey told CNN Philippines that Lim already had a Tagalog translation for the song even before meeting up with the pop-rock outfit. “When she presented it to the band, we edited some parts of it so it would fit the arrangement of the song. Working with her had ups and downs, but we can never be thankful enough for having met her. We feel grateful that she chose us among many talented musicians to be given that opportunity.” A talent scout who took notice of “Porque” after hearing it on local radio, Lim told Inquirer that she couldn’t “shake it off” her head and “immediately contacted them” to re-record the material with a more polished finish.
Two versions of “Porque” have made it to Maldita’s debut self-titled album: the full Tagalog track “Bakit,” which serves as a direct translation of the original song, and another one written in Chavacano and Tagalog. Whey revealed that some of the words in the Tagalog version were not the exact translation of the Chavacano words that he wrote, and that the song was specifically arranged as a duet. “Initially, Maldita had two female vocalists: Dem and Francel,” Whey says. “But only Demz decided to go with Maldita when we got a recording deal. On the final version, we decided to give the song a grand ending by adding drums and more guitars so it would introduce Maldita as a band.”
‘Chavacano’ and Regionalism in modern pop music
To date, “Porque” has amassed more than 30 million streams on Spotify and YouTube combined, becoming one of the biggest OPM hits not only of 2011, but of the last decade. Before it exploded at the top of the charts, “Porque” was a by-product of Original Chavacano Music’s peak, which evolved into a more sophisticated, export-ready material that blurs genre lines and explores possibilities outside of the traditional form.
The movement has spawned some of the most exciting pop music over the past few years, including Bluehome$’s brooding R&B bop “Escapa,” Pluma and RIJJ’s inescapable jam “Ole Ole,” and Nikki Pantaleon’s emotive ballad “Aguanta.” All of these songs made an attempt to forge regional identity with a global sound in mind, which Vispop’s Jude Gitamondoc considers as a necessary step toward a more inclusive Pinoy pop. “In these highly divisive times, I think it's necessary for us to start trying to understand each other. We are an archipelago that's trying to unite itself as one nation. Each of the islands is progressing, I would say, maturing in leaps and bounds — thanks partly to the easy access of information and technology. We have to embrace this phenomenon.”
Gitamondoc stressed that regionalism is not a bad thing. “It's not kanya-kanya, it's kinaiya, which in Bisaya means ‘identity.’ We have to embrace our differences to truly celebrate our oneness as a nation. One such way is to assert and represent these many identities in pop music on the national, even international scale.”
He also emphasized that with genuine community effort, the challenges that hinder regional pop songs from gaining mainstream acceptance can be undone. “We cannot shove this national crisis under the rug of a unifying ‘Filipino/Tagalog’ identity anymore. That is not the country that we are. We cannot be alien to ourselves, not in this day and age of unprecedented necessity.”