“You take a stick of bamboo,” goes an old folk song, “You take a stick of bamboo and you throw it in the water.”
Alternatively, you can bury the bamboo in sand for a year or two, so that it dries and hardens, and make a pipe organ. That is what an innovative Catholic Priest in nineteenth century Philippines did. He created a unique organ for the church of Las Piñas, in metro Manila. It fell into disuse, but was restored in the early 1970s, back in the days of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
I visited the Philippines in 1991. The Philippines was the first foreign country I had ever been to. Properly foreign, I mean – I had been to England and New Zealand, but that doesn’t count. That’s like visiting cousins.
It was only a few years after Marcos has been overthrown. Cory Aquino was in power, but tenuously: there were coups and rumours of coups, democracy was fragile, corruption was a huge problem. But, to my surprise, I loved the Philippines. I was a journalist then, and knew what journalists know of distant countries. Coups and earthquakes, basically.
Following the news gave me no sense of the vibrancy and life of the place, how friendly and likable the people are. I even loved ugly, polluted Manila. The Filipinos are ingenious and endlessly resourceful and creative, especially in graphic art, dance and music. Their pop music is exciting, borrowing from everywhere and making something new. There is a rich tradition of folk-tinged protest song, and also of church music.
The Philippines, more than most societies, wrestles with identity. What, exactly, are we? What is authentically Filipino, when the very name comes from Spanish conquerors? One attempt to reconcile the colonial past with a nationalist sentiment was the work of Lucrecia R. Kasilag, one of the founders of the Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company, and several other important cultural institutions which have survived dictatorship and democracy both.
One of her compositions is this track, from the 1975 LP The Historic Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas. The record is mostly standard organ and choral works from the Catholic tradition, but is some Philippines in there was well, including Kasilag’s “Misang Pilipino”, in which she drew on traditional folk tunes to create a Mass in the native language of (most) of her people.
At the time of writing, the people of the Philippines have elected a new President. Rodrigo Duterte is a strongman, very much in the tradition of Ferdinand Marcos, only less subtle. Duterte has, as he promised, unleashed a campaign of state-sanctioned murder against drug dealers. Anyone who thinks he will stop with drug dealers is deluded: another dictatorship is on its way. This is bad news. A lot of people will suffer. But the Filipino people will survive, and live their lives, and thrive – as will their art. They are a people who take a stick of bamboo, and make a church organ.
- Artist: Wolfgang Oehms and the Las Piñas Boys Choir,
- LP Title: The Historic Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas
- Track: Side 2, Track 2 “Misang Pilipino”
- Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm
- Label: Bamboo Organ Foundation, BOR 4001
- Manufactured in: Philippines
- Year: 1975
Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs. Mention this code “MSD519” to receive a free 7-inch disc of your choice (up to the value of $5.00) with any purchase.