Musical Provocateur

Rene Ciria Cruz is a columnist of the US-based Filipinas magazine and that this article came out in the March-April 2010 issue of Filipinas.
Always take official Philippine military statements with a measure of skepticism. They’re always hiding or spinning something. Take their triumphant announcement that they ambushed and killed Albader Parad, chief of the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf terror group.  Hogwash.

According to reliable sources, there wasn’t a gun battle at all. Instead, Parad was shot by one of his own men for singing Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” the wrong way. The notorious terrorist leader may have taken the campfire karaoke mic and launched into “En-now di-en is-nir” on the wrong pitch, and that was di-en of him. Mind you, I didn’t want to believe this “inside information,” but a recent article in the venerable New York Times turned my head around. “In the Philippines,” the article said, “you could get killed for singing Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ in a karaoke bar.”

The prestigious newspaper didn’t offer any statistics on how many bad Filipino balladeers have perished while mangling Sinatra’s classic. But the story raises intriguing questions. Could you butcher, say, Tom Jones’ “Delilah” and end up with a bad haircut? Or could you find yourself charged with sodomy, like Malaysian oppositionist Anwar Ibrahim, by giving a terrible rendition of “Love Hurts”? No one is sure. But croon “My Way” in a Filipino karaoke only at your own risk. It’s like daring to eat fugu sashimi, the deadly puffer fish in Japan.

But why would a simple musical transgression drive Filipinos to homicidal outbursts? Why do we become criminally violent over a song, and yet we’d rather fall on our knees and solemnly pray instead of take up arms against an abusive dictator? (Was it because Marcos, despite what we thought of his rule, could chirp “Pamulinawen,” and Imelda could render “Feelings” with so much, well, feeling that we gave them a pass at a violent end?) Some say it’s the song, not the singer, that “My Way” is way too arrogant, with too much rugged individualism for a society of conformists. I don’t think so. I believe that Filipinos would kill for “My Way” because we’re truly offended by bad singers. Make that terrible singers who have no clue how bad they really are. We’re simply a nation of song connoisseurs.

It’s a simple fact that appreciation for good singing is by now encoded in the Filipino genome; it’s part our evolved, if you may, national character. From the cradle to the wheelchair, Filipinos are programmed into thinking that singing ability is the ultimate measure of talent. So, you can paint the next “Spoliarium,” so what? But can you sing? Manny Pacquiao knocks out all his opponents, but since he can croon “Lady,” he must be really special.

Our training starts early. Relatives are visiting? Why get that two-year-old to belt out “I Will Always Love You.” We have amateur singing contests galore. Every town fiesta has one. The impromptu “vocal solo” is an unofficial part of our public school regimen. Good students mustn’t only do well in recitation, but they also must be able to wail “You Light Up My Life” in front of the class at the teacher’s behest. All this isn’t bad either; don’t get me wrong. Singing is probably the cheapest source of entertainment and the most accessible art form. It has been the way out of obscurity or poverty for many a big time Filipino star. We broke into the world entertainment limelight with Lea Salonga’s pipes in “Miss Saigon.” Many of our OFWs brighten Asian or Middle Eastern hotel bars because no comparable local talent can be found. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, our love of singing has fused with another obsession–politics as we know it. Like singing, politics is in our blood. Apart from singing, our schools also taught us that leadership means running for office and winning. What you do in office is beside the point. Just win any seat– sergeant-at-arms or hall monitor, it doesn’t matter. If you ask me, this twin fetish has only led to irritating results. For example, does that new president of the Filipino American dental association really have to cap his swearing-in with a rendition of “Smile”?

And now that election campaign season is in full swing back home, there’s the spectacle of presidential and senatorial hopefuls pandering to their rally crowds with “impromptu” warbling, on top of their empty promises, which actually goes over well. There’s nothing in the Philippine Constitution that says all candidates for public office (and their wives) must be able to sing. But we might as well include said ability as a requirement. After all, Nero must’ve had the ability to play the fiddle in order for him to do so while Rome burned. Besides, despite the Philippines’ monumental problems, you won’t get the Filipino electorate to turn rebelliously and violently angry with traditional politicians, because the truth is, many aren’t bad singers at all. If only they’d mangle “My Way” to a man.

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