Friday, December 24, 2010


This first came out in my "Showbiz Lengua" column in the December 2004 issue of YES! Magazine. It is now in my book Showbiz Lengua: Chika & Chismax about Chuvachuchu (Anvil Publishing, 2009), a compilation of the YES! language columns.

The X in Xmas
By Jose F. Lacaba

In show business, X spells sex.

X-rated was originally a classification for movies with content considered unsuitable for minors, such as frontal nudity and extreme violence. (Midnight Cowboy with Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight was X-rated when it first came out.) But the term eventually attached itself to hardcore pornography, movies with extreme close-ups of genitals and explicit sex, showing actual penetration, not just a simulation. Movies with lots and lots of explicit sex, especially the gross and kinky variety, went on to bill themselves as XXX, or triple X.

In comic books that eventually crossed over to movie screens, the X-Men were mutants with superhuman abilities, feared and hated by a world of humans that they are sworn to protect. And the X-Files in the long-running TV series dealt with unexplained phenomena and unidentified flying objects.

In algebra, x is the unknown quantity. In test papers, x is the mark the teacher gives to a wrong answer. And in documents requiring a signature, X is what you write in place of a name if you’re a “no read, no write” person.

In other words, x is a synonym for smutty, strange, or stupid.

Which is why there’s sometimes a big brouhaha about the X in Xmas. “Bring Christ back into Christmas!” goes the cry.

I have news for these conscientious complainants: X also stands for Christ.

Xmas is not something invented by space-saving headline writers and attention-catching advertising executives. “Since the sixteenth century Xmas has been used in English as an abbreviation for Christmas,” according to Webster’s Word Histories (Merriam-Webster, 1989).

As members of fratricidal Greek-letter societies probably know, in the Greek alphabet the letter chi, the first letter in Christos, is written as x.

That’s where the X in Xmas came from.

“In Latin manuscripts,” Webster’s Word Histories goes on, “Christus was often abbreviated by using the first two letters of Greek Christos, chi (X) and rho (P). This abbreviation is prominent, for example, on the beautiful chi-ro pages of early medieval illuminated manuscripts like The Book of Kells and The Lindisfarne Gospels. When chi and rho are superimposed upon each other a symbol for Christ is formed which has had wide currency through the centuries of the Christian era. This symbol is known variously as a Chi-Rho, chrismon, or Christogram.”

Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (Merriam-Webster, 1994) adds that, through the centuries, words like Christian, Christianity, christened, and Christopher were also written as Xtian, Xtianity, Xstened, and Xpofer.

So you can be sure that, this month, Xpofer de Leon will be sending Xmas cards to his Xtian friends.

Friday, December 3, 2010


What we now know as OPM, or Original Pilipino Music, didn't have that name yet at the time I wrote this 1978 article.

This was part of a New Year special section, “Ring in the New, but Don’t Ring out the Old,” in the short-lived and now-defunct monthly art-and-culture magazine The Review, which I edited. Other articles in the section: “The New Poetry: Verse as Public Speech” by Virgilio S. Almario, “The New Painting: Return to the Native” by Alice Guillermo, and “Don’t Toot that Torotot” by Gil Quito, about the need to put up an archive for Filipino films.


By Jose F. Lacaba
The Review, January 1978 (Vol. 1, No. 5)

Something’s happening on the Philippine pop music scene. You only have to turn your radio on to be aware of it.

Not too long ago, the airwaves were almost completely dominated by the popular music of the West, specifically Britain and America. Most radio stations never bothered to include Filipino songs in their programming, and even the stations that featured local performers generally preferred those performers who sang versions of the latest pop tunes from abroad.

Today, Tagalog songs are getting more air time, and you can hear them even on those stations manned by disc jockeys with the phoniest American accents this side of the Pacific.

The radio stations’ current interest in local songs is partly due to a recent Broadcast Media Council directive requiring them to play a minimum of two Filipino records per hour. But the BMC directive is really more an effect than a cause. Even before it was issued, a number of stations that formerly played nothing but foreign records were already paying attention to local songs.

More than the BMC edict, the tremendous popularity of the songs accounts for the air time they’re getting. Tagalog songs are topping the hit charts, and at the record stores, singles and long-playing albums by Filipino performers are outselling the imports.

The songs themselves are of fairly recent vintage, and they’re different in many ways from the kundimans your mother used to sing while cooking sinigang. They have a different beat, a different rhythm, and they’re sung in a different style by a new galaxy of recording stars and superstars, unheard of barely five years ago but now household names and targets of BIR investigations.

Backing up the singing idols is a new breed of composers, arrangers, lyricists, and record producers, a few of whom are also performing artists. Thanks to this new breed, a whole new repertoire of local pop songs—enough to fill up more than one special issue of Jingle Chordbook Magazine—has come into existence.

It is these new pop songs that constitute the New Sound in Philippine popular music.

A grab-bag of forms

The New Sound is not a single homogenous sound as distinctive as, say, the Mersey Sound of the early Beatles or the Motown Sound of the black soul singers. Rather, it is a grab-bag of various sounds and styles, of many forms and sundry names.

“Pinoy rock” or “Pinoy rock-and-rhythm” and “the Manila Sound” are among the best-known varieties. We also have a “Pinoy jazz,” a “Pinoy samba,” and Pinoy knows what else. Being new and still lacking a distinct identity, the New Sound does not even have a name of its own, a native name, something as immediately recognizable as the Brazilian bossa nova or the Jamaican reggae.

All varieties of the New Sound fall under three categories: original compositions; translations and adaptations; and new interpretations of local pop standards.

The original compositions usually have Tagalog lyrics (Mike Hanopol’s Buhay Musikero), but a few are in English (the Apo Hiking Society’s Songwriter) or in a combination of English and Tagalog (the Hotdog’s Manila).

The acknowledged pioneer in this category is the now disbanded Juan de la Cruz Band, whose LP Ang Himig Natin signalled the birth of “Pinoy rock” in the early Seventies. The group’s brand of hard rock attracted a cult following among teenagers with hippie tendencies (and even among jeepney drivers), but it wasn’t until the Hotdog came along that the New Sound hit the big time.

The Hotdog broke into the hit charts with Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko and followed this up with the even more wildly successful Pers Lab. The songs were soft rock; the group described them as “revolutionalized kundimans.” In contrast to the Juan de la Cruz, whose psychedelic visions and occasional social commentary were expressed in surprisingly formal Tagalog (“Ang himig natin, ating awitin”), the Hotdog used a more contemporary, more slangy Manila Tagalog.

This was the beginning of the Manila Sound. The Hotdog spawned a host of imitators whose irrepressible Taglish and even raunchier slang caused the Broadcast Media Council to ban their songs from the airlanes. Of the groups that followed the Hotdog’s lead, only Cinderella (T.L. Ako sa Iyo; Bato sa Buhangin) has survived.

Translations and adaptations of foreign songs (the latter use only the tunes) came in the wake of original compositions. They gained respectability when poet and stage director Rolando Tinio put Tagalog lyrics to such songs as The Lady Is a Tramp (transformed into Ako’y Bakyang-Bakya) for Celeste Legaspi to sing.

When Rico J. Puno added humorous Tagalog annotations to his renditions of foreign songs (“Namamasyal pa sa Luneta / Nang walang pera” in The Way We Were), he won instant superstardom. Hajji Alejandro went the same route with Tag-araw, an adaptation of the Bee Gees’ Charade.

Interpretations of old pop songs became part of the New Sound after the New Minstrels successfully resurrected Mike Velarde Jr.’s relatively obscure Buhat, although it should be noted that much earlier, in the late Sixties, the campus crowd had done a similar job with the same composer’s Lahat ng Araw. Revivals are now as much a part of the repertoire of Rico Puno and Didith Reyes as originals.

A matter of style

What’s new about the New Sound, what makes it different from the old, is largely a matter of style. This is not to say that the style is original, because even the original compositions are highly derivative.

“The New Sound is basically Western,” Jim Paredes of the Apo Hiking Society admits. “Our influences are foreign. Our musical roots are colonial.”

Still, the New Sound is new in the sense that its foreign influences are new to Philippine pop music.

The New Sound is really the sound of rock, soul, jazz, American folk, the samba, and the bossa nova. But whereas these western forms used to be imported lock, stock, and barrel—that is, with words and music and even styling intact—today an attempt is being made to introduce their beat and rhythm into the body of local pop music, to make them a part of our musical idiom.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this attempt. Foreign influences are not necessarily harmful. They can also serve as a catalyst for change, as singer and voice teacher Aurelio Estanislao points out: “Kung baga sa biology, ito’y parang hybrid vigor. Masarap din iyong merong konting genes na nanggagaling sa labas.”

The history of Philippine pop music is in fact also a history of foreign influences. Even our folk songs, as recognizably Filipino as adobo, betray a Spanish influence, judging from the presence of Spanish-derived words in their lyrics (sibuyas and kamatis in Bahay Kubo, for instance). Estanislao points out that the compositions of Mike Velarde Jr., including Ikaw and Dahil sa Iyo, which have almost attained the status of folk songs, show definite traces of Broadway.

Memorable Tagalog songs have resulted from the introduction into Philippine pop music of such foreign influences as the boogie (Ikaw Kasi), rock and roll (Hahabol-habol), the yodel songs (Pitong Gatang).

Whether the attempt made by the New Sound practitioners to introduce new foreign influences into Philippine pop music will succeed, whether rock and soul and the rest will eventually be assimilated or rejected, is a question only the future can answer.

A question of audience

Another thing worth noting about the New Sound is that its popularity extends beyond the traditional audience of the Filipino song.

In the fairly recent past, the homegrown product was something to be derided as fit only for peasants and domestics, for the so-called bakya crowd. Moreover, it was primarily a middle-aged proclivity, since even the younger segments of the “bakya crowd” shrieked over idols—Nora Aunor, Victor Wood, Eddie Peregrina—who rose to fame by singing in English (although, to be fair, these singers later added Tagalog songs to their repertoire).

The New Sound, however, appeals not only to the kanto boy feeding coins into the jukebox at the corner store but also to the junior executive feeding tapes into the cassette deck of his air-conditioned car. And the New Sound is championed by the young more than the old or the middle-aged, who probably wouldn’t trade in Ric Manrique or the Mabuhay Singers for Rico Puno or Banyuhay.

Like the new Tagalog movies, the New Sound has enlarged the audience of Philippine pop music to include a social class (predominantly burgis) and an age level (mostly under 35) which previously worshipped only at the shrine of the Stateside, the ‘TatĂȘ, the Amboy.

There is no denying that the rise of nationalist and populist sentiments in the late Sixties and early Seventies has been a factor in the birth and spread of the New Sound. The very names of the rock bands of that period—Juan de la Cruz, Anak-Bayan, Sangkatutak, Apolinario Mabini Hiking Society (shortened later to Apo Hiking Society on orders of the Constabulary’s Office of Civil Relations)—clearly reflected the spirit of the times.

In general, the denunciation of colonial control over all aspects of the national life, culture included, coupled with the attacks on elitism, created widespread guilt and caused a great deal of soul-searching among Filipino intellectuals. This explains the revival of interest in the long-standing questions of “national identity” and “the Filipino soul.” It also explains why, for instance, burgis has become a term of reproach—or at any rate of something to be apologetic about—and why bakya has become almost a badge of honor, as in Ako’y Bakyang-Bakya.

What’s happening on the cultural front may be seen as partly a sincere attempt by certain burgis intellectuals to assuage their guilt and respond to the needs of the times, partly a calculated effort by the dominant culture to coopt nationalist and populist sentiments.

Not surprisingly, many of the practitioners of the New Sound have burgis backgrounds. They grew up in comfortable suburban homes, studied in (or dropped out of) exclusive schools, and speak impeccable English. They even sing Tagalog with an American accent—a fact that particularly annoys Aurelio Estanislao.

Iyang mga pumuputok na T at D, iyang mga short A, wala niyan sa ating wika, maski na sa anumang dialect natin,” says Estanislao. “Iyang ‘Ekaow eng eking…,” iyang mga ‘Sa pag-MA-MA-hal mo…’ wala tayo niyan. PAG-ma-ma-HAL, iyan ang mas angkop. Ang nagsasalita lamang ng pag-MA-MA-hal e iyang mga nanagalog diyan sa Ateneo at Maryknoll.”

Still, the fact that our young songwriters and performers are now making an effort to express themselves in their native tongue is already an encouraging development. It is reflective of a general trend whose manifestations include, in literature, the shift made by many young writers from English to Pilipino and, in the visual arts, the move made by many young painters away from abstraction and towards a more realistic portrayal of the country’s physical and social landscape.

Like their young counterparts in the other arts, the New Sound practitioners are trying to come to terms with their Filipino-ness (although, judging from their persistent use of the word Pinoy instead of the more dignified Pilipino or Filipino, they’re not yet quite comfortable in this role), and at the same time they’re trying to reach out to the great mass of Filipinos once scorned as bakya.

Jose “Boboy” Garrovillo, also of the Apo Hiking Society, articulates this in reflecting on the Juan dela Cruz: “Their medium was Western. Rock sila, hindi ba? But they tried to make it Filipino by using Tagalog lyrics. How else could they bring it to the people?”

A problem with content

One thing about the new sound remains old—and that is the content of the songs.

The practitioners of the New Sound, observes Tinio, “are imitating a sound, a music, but they’re not writing new sense into this sound. The sensibility is still rural. They’re groping towards a more urban sensibility in song—as the Bagay poets did in poetry—but they’re not there yet.”

As Estanislao puts it: “Sa musika, hanggang ngayon e romantic pa tayo. Iyakan tayo nang iyakan. Lahat e luha, pasakit, hinagpis, pighati.”

The Juan de la Cruz tried to break away from the persistent preoccupation of local pop songs with the subject of love, particularly the unrequited kind, but the Manila Sound brought it back with a vengeance.

It is true the Manila Sound generally treats the subject with humor and a generous helping of irony. “Taghiyawat sa ilong” in Pers Lab is certainly several generations removed from “Wari ko ba, sinta, ako’y mamamatay / Kung di ikaw ang kapiling habang buhay” in Ang Tangi Kong Pag-ibig.

Many of the New Sound songs, moreover, make few references to Diyos and langit, two of the most overused words in local pop songs, and clearly a reflection of what Tinio calls a rural—basically feudal—sensibility.

Still, the ironic treatment of love isn’t really new: Hahabol-habol and many songs of the Fifties did it before. Likewise, feudal values continue to crop up in the new songs. Kapalaran presents a very real social problem in the simplest terms (“Bakit ba ganyan ang buhay ng tao, / Mayro’ng mayaman, may api sa mundo”), but answers its own question with a typically feudal explanation: that’s luck, fate, kapalaran. Even Bakit Ako Mahihiya?, with its superficially defiant Women’s Lib tone, speaks of a man’s love as “ang tanging aliw ng buhay ko.”

For all its shortcomings, however—or perhaps precisely because of these shortcomings—the New Sound is in its own way an accurate reflection of the present social situation.

The feudal content of the lyrics, the colonial origins of the tunes, give us a clear picture of how far we still have to go, in this seventh decade of the 20th century.

Commenting on the Western orientation of the New Sound, Jim Paredes says: “I think that’s what we are. Our music reflects what we are. Right now, even if we’re going original, meron pa ring traces ng colonial. What do we suppose we should do, cry over it?”

No, of course, we shouldn’t cry over the present situation. But neither should we glory in it, neither should we accept it as a permanent, immutable condition.