When ‘Tao Po! We Are Here’ became a topic for community discussion on cultural authenticity and internalized oppression

When ‘Tao Po! We Are Here’ became a topic for community discussion on cultural authenticity and internalized oppression

“We’re totally bamboozled,” [Karen] Tongson said. “We think everybody’s putting on a show. And we forget the show actually has real consequences.” – Interview with Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post, Sept. 18, 2017

I promised the community members who took the time to share their feedback to leave out their names. So, to protect the innocent, I will attempt to lay out the discussion, without their names, unless they consented to their quotes.

First, the context. It is the 26th anniversary of Kayamanan ng Lahi, aka Treasures of Our Race, founded by Joel Jacinto, administered by Ave Jacinto with Barbare Ele. It was a full house at the newly renovated Ford Amphitheater. The sounds were pitch perfect. The dance sequences involving the children were cute and endearing to watch. The children, ages 4 to 13 year old,  were well-mannered and knew how to have fun as they danced.  Picture the fish nets big enough to contain the little girls while they danced with the little boys, it was so cute! Well done in teaching them! Ave shared it took 9 months of practice. Bravo, as this is passing on our cultural heritage!

The “Tao Po! We Are Here” concert celebrated the multiple languages of the Philippines, as reflected in the diversity of scenes, dances, songs and costumes. When Alison De La Cruz (unrelated to this writer) said, “multilingual, multitribal, and multi-multi,” that was a strong hint of inclusion in all its aspects.

What Kayamanan ng Lahi achieved was inclusion of multicultural guest performers, celebratory of what Los Angeles City is about, a city of angels, wherein diversity is the norm, and mirrors the diversity of languages and dialects spoken in the Philippines, though a bit more, to 224 languages. That we celebrate!

The first notes that I wrote on my program book: A feast for the senses, a smorgasbord of colors, textures, skin tones, fabrics, clapping boards, swords, and castanets. If there is one word that could describe the entire evening — fiesta!

It was a fiesta of words, as they were substantively woven into a powerful script by Giovanni Ortega. It is not surprising as Giovanni gave birth to successful plays onstage, the recent one, Criers for Hire, which got the audience laughing and crying during full house runs at the East West Players. So when his written words were delivered well by Joel Jacinto and Ave Jacinto, the words pierced through and stayed with us.

By the time Joel Jacinto was drumming, and Jojo Ramirez was playing the kulintang, not just making sounds mind you, but twirling her wooden sticks as in a marching band, the crowd was oohing and taking their personal videos of her prowess, as well as Joel’s. That may not sit well with native gong players of Maguindanao, but it delighted the audience at Ford Theater.

Joel surprised me as I had lost track that not only can he dance hula, choreographed by Keali’I Ceballos, to the tune of Lahat ng Araw, another favorite, along with KNW Sayawit and KNL Dayaw, Joel can do mighty fine drumming deserving of an A-list band!

Equally mesmerizing was the hip-hop dance of Culture Shock of Los Angeles, and the Spoken Word of Tao performance by Alison M. De La Cruz and Faith Santilla. I was again surprised to hear Alison belt the tunes as I have not heard her sing before, and it was quite endearing to hear her comprehensive run down of social issues as well as community issues woven into a non-poem or a poem.

It was equally delightful to watch martial artists perform to the tune of Laging Una/Dahil Sa Iyo, by KNL Sayawit Jed David and Melissa Veluz-Abraham, a tribute to the first Filipino infantry regiment, Laging Una, or “always first.”

What got the crowd involved in dancing and singing in the aisles was Annie Nepomuceno, our popular community producer, artist, arranger, the Asian Journal newspaper host on Channel 18, who sang a medley of Ilocano-Dungdungwen Kanto, Tagalog–Minamahal, Sinasamba, Kapampangan-Mekeni King Siping Ku, and Cebuano–Usahay.

My colleague, Ding Carreon, was so delighted that she sung the opening lines with the right Ilocano accent, a fitting homage to the diverse languages spoken in the Philippines.

The program lists 100+ languages, although CSUN informs us that there are 8 major languages, and according to Wikipedia, 175 to 182 languages spoken in the Philippines.

We also celebrate the inclusion of Jennifer Paz and Deedee Magno Hall and Anthony Fedorov who are professional Broadway singers and showed the audience how songs are sung.

But, to the regulars of Pilipino-organized concerts, like that done by the jazz community leaders like Mon David, Tateng Katindig, Ner De Leon – we know to expect superior musicianship.

Likewise, we have seen that when Philippine Chamber Singers – LA and Harana Men’s Chorus perform, we have come to expect superior musicality, and we saw that personified by Annie Nepomuceno that evening.

Cultural Authenticity and Internalized Oppression

The audience appreciated the members of the Glendale Concert Singers, led by Dr. Peter Green, who made a conscientious effort in learning the Tagalog songs . Though at times they hesitated in their syllables, they got their second wind and belted the lyrics to pitch perfect sounds.

Some of their songs are from the repertoire of the Philippine Madrigal Singers, namely “Pasigin,” arranged by Eudenice Palaruan and “Handog ng Pilipino Sa Mundo,” which was arranged by Ed Nepomuceno.

Oh what a delight to see folks unlike ourselves, Caucasian, Black and other races sing in Tagalog, crossing the bridge into multiculturalism! Hooray for this!

But when the central roles, the critical lead singing spots, five in fact, were given to Anthony Fedorov, some of the audience members messaged me to discuss how we as Filipinos are not given central and lead starring roles in mainstream performance venues, yet now that we can organize our own, why did we ask a white male singer to legitimize our cultural event? Why indeed? It was more than the critical central roles given to Anthony; when he sang, he was surrounded by Pinoy and Pinay performers in the margins, reminiscent of what oppression has created for us in real life, where folks of color are relegated to the margins and white folks are in the center.

Joel Jacinto wrote: “Anthony Fedorov was among 4 special guest artists and 10 additional guest artists. His music and lyrics resonated with the KNL Directors in terms of the themes and political climate and thus his music and his performance was integrated into the script of Tao Po! Thank you for covering the event and for your continued coverage of Filipino American cultural expression,” but he failed to connect.

Had Anthony done more than wearing a white barong and attempted to sing some Tagalog songs, or even greeted the audience in their native tongue, he may have connected. Centrality, blocking on stage, all these factors worked to distance Anthony from the audience, though not all.

Marc Nicolas heaped praises, “Tao Po exceeded my expectation. The production, singers, and dancers were mesmerizing. There were a variety of colors on stage too! I loved the meaningful message behind the show which is…We are all united as one despite our sexual orientation, background, and differences. Kudos to Tao Po!”

And let me add what my friend, Lillian Tamoria, said about Anthony Fedorov: “I liked him. He is a strong singer with a clear voice. Singing center stage, he is obviously non-Filipino but his smile and friendliness emitted a very welcoming aura, exemplifying the theme of the show, “Tuloy Po, Tao Po, We Are Here!,” we are family, we are diverse. He looked very [much] part of the Filipino family on stage.”

Should we not all work for cultural authenticity, a gift of words from the speech and interview done by Riz Ahmed during Emmy’s last September 17, 2017?

When Riz spoke of Ed Skrein refusing a role to give way for other artists who can give the part “cultural authenticity, ” we question similarly why a white male singer is at the forefront of Tao Po! We are Here, especially after listening to Joel Jacinto speak of resilience, how we have overcome oppressions, only to see this visual articulation of cultural oppression, seeing our Filipino and Filipina artists in the margins and peripheries? Could this be the vestiges of our unconscious colonial mentality?

In Tao Po! We Are Here, we have a very capable white singer and composer in Anthony singing his own songs but failed to give tribute to some of the languages spoken by Filipinos, nor the themes sang about in our culture, mostly of love and love of country, and not about being frozen out of jobs! Others insist that he is one of us, an immigrant from Ukraine, and certainly his song, “We All Come From Somewhere” should have made him a part of us.

But should we impose that the audience see the program as an integrated whole when an artist failed to connect to their hearts and minds?

Just as Auntie Pura Case cautions folks who write about their Hawaiian stories, What does it mean to be one with Hawaiian culture? It is to go deeper into the culture, into spirituality, grounding one into connecting with one’s heart. It means connecting with Poli’ahu, the sacred goddess — “speaking what we see with our eyes — that our story has a visual place in our community — to take care of what is around us so it can take care of us, ” in Melé Murals by Tad Nakamura, we too must work for depth in cultural expression, and celebrate the efforts of the Glendale Choir to connect to our audience, which should be the standard for any guest performers.

It is why we must insist on cultural authenticity, and not be content that white folks can play us Filipinos, though they may appear one of us, wearing a white barong tagalog, they must make the crucial effort to connect to our hearts and to our souls, and we must insist like Auntie Pura Case, they make the attempt to integrate into our culture, beyond the barong tagalog.

Tao Po ! We Are Here achieved a great feat of showcasing our cultural heritage and now we know we can count on Kayamanan ng Lahi to do more, as they journey towards the depths of cultural authenticity , in presenting us the rich treasures of their performances.

What gives me this optimism comes from Ave Jacinto’s response to this writer: “We are honored and thankful to have shared the stage with such talented and passionate artists who truly gave to KNL with their hearts. Integrating the richness and diversity of our culture through KNL’s Philippine-American expression and identity was challenging but we are proud of what we did and especially of our pamana, our children.  It is for them we endeavor to always move forward with the utmost respect of who/what we represent, integrating and finding connections with culture and creation through our own experiences and knowledge we gain every day and with everyone. Integration is a spectrum and subjective though — in KNL one thing is for sure, we are fortunate for the opportunities to learn and grow and we are appreciative of every bit of it all.”

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 9 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.

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