Reclaiming Filipino musical identity and tradition against U.S. empire
Left: Lt. Col. Walter H. Loving, Founder and Conductor of the PC Band (National Archives, 1936) / Right: Soloists of the PC Band at the White House (The Evening Star, 1909)

Reclaiming Filipino musical identity and tradition against U.S. empire

Mary Talusan Lacanlale (CSU Dominguez Hills) urges for a reexamination of Filipino banda (brass band) music under U.S. colonial rule not just as instruments of empire, but also reflecting a continuity of Filipino traditions.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Not only instruments of empire

"Western music, what we might refer to colloquially as classical music, was considered the marker of a civilized culture," began Mary Talusan Lacanlale, assistant professor of Asian-Pacific Studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills. "I want to argue that the meaning of authenticity, or what we generally think of as cultural distinctiveness from the West, especially when applied to the music of lowland Christian Philippines, must be redefined and reevaluated because it has been for far too long deployed in the racial imagination of white American thinking as a way to disguise Filipino autonomy, self-determination and identity."

In a colloquium on May 19, 2021, cohosted by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies, Talusan presented stories about musicians of the Philippine Constabulary Band, formed during U.S. colonial rule, to underscore the musicians' abilities to maintain their Filipino identity and resist empire.

This research will be published in her forthcoming book Instruments of Empire: Filipino Musicians, Black Soldiers, and Military Band Music during U.S. Colonization of the Philippines (University Press of Mississippi, 2021).

Hearing with an imperial ear

Talusan began by listing the racial stereotypes of Filipinos as natural musicians and westernized people. This renders invisible the agency of Filipino artists even if some Filipinos support these ideas because of the positive portrayal. She called this "hearing with an imperial ear," which erases centuries of Western musical tradition in the Philippines prior to U.S. colonial rule. "I want to focus on how we can listen differently to Filipino performance to hear the ingenuity, creativity and continuity of the banda tradition," she added.

When she looked into the history of the Philippine Constabulary Band, Talusan found that the organization was sent to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair not as a display of Filipino artistry, but as an example of the success of "civilizing of Filipinos by American colonialism." Any praise the musicians received were a nod to America's "benevolent" role in the colonial project because newspapers claimed that the Filipino men were picked at random and taught musical skills, ignoring the influence of hundreds of years of European music in the country. 

"These newspapers shaped our imperial ears towards hearing the Philippine Constabulary (PC) Band," Talusan explained. "An important theme in these news reports on the PC band was the portrayal of Filipino achievement in western music as somehow aberrant. And it was sold to and believed by the American public because of the stereotype that Filipinos are natural musicians."

The banda tradition continues

At the time of the 1904 World's Fair, music was used as "proof" of civilization. But Talusan clarified, "I think it's even more crucial to understand Filipinos' own thinking about what they're doing when they're playing music and not so much focusing directly on the musical elements, or the genres themselves." Filipinos considered their playing of military band music as a continuity of their own tradition of banda, not necessarily as an assimilation to American values.

Through her research, she found newspaper clippings of Filipino banda musicians playing as soloists, which allowed audiences to hear the delicate melodies and know individual members of the band. "Filipino musicians were often promoted as these little brown men taught by American colonialists to become super musicians," she said. "But actually soloing is a feature in lots of forms of Indigenous Philippines music."

Still, people had questioned whether the PC band was only imitating Western music and not necessarily playing it, and famous conductors tested the band by asking them to sight-read compositions they had never heard before. The musicians were only given proper credit when they proved that they could read music because in the banda tradition, musicians valued memorization over reliance on the written score, Talusan explained. She argued that only examining the musical elements themselves to judge and define cultural difference is a highly limiting lens of analysis.

The PC Band musicians would also take risks and sing during their performances, which Talusan said emphasized their identity as people with homesickness and deep, personal feelings and not just as instrumental musicians who entertained the audience.

"It is important for us to reorient the way that we analyze Philippine music," she added. "Filipino distinctiveness definitely existed, not only in the musical composition itself nor in the genre but really in the performance style, as well as the conceptualization of music and music making."