Born on the 12th of June
I was born June 12, 1968, 7:30 in the morning, just as government employees near our home were singing the national anthem. They called me Bayang, as it is an ongoing Manobo tradition to name the newly born child after the first sound heard or first thing seen. A neighbor gave birth when the priest arrived in his Toyota, and the baby was named Toyota.
Both my parents are full-blooded Manobos of Bunawan, Agusan del Sur. But since we were Christianized, my parents had to add Junelie (born in June) to Bayang.
As Christians, our parents settled in a community of Christian Filipinos who settled in Bunawan. At four, I used to play at our neighbor's kids but felt somewhat always out of place. Maybe because even if I tried to speak their language, they knew I was different from them. The kids had heard stories of these Manobo neighbors who had no education, were not clean, ate foods they didn't eat, did things they didn't do. They would bully me, saying I smelt bad, that I come from a witch family. The worst part of it was that I started to abhor being called Manobo. I tried to be different, as I grew older. I tried to speak their Visayan language, learn their ways, so I could be accepted as their peer.
I never thought much of the importance of my birth date although when I was in grade school I felt proud every year when everyone in our town was celebrating it with the colorful parade from different sectors, the Philippine flag flying all over town, on houses and jeepneys, and I'm waving it on a stick with my new clothes on. I asked my Mama, "Did they know it was my birthday?" My Mama told me I was blessed and should be proud I was born on Independence Day, the day when we finally won our own freedom as a people and as a nation. But then again, I never understood what my mother was talking about. I was just happy that everybody was happy I was celebrating my birthday with them.
Life was hard for our family. I had to ask our parish priest to help fund my schooling from high school to college. A parish scholar they call it. In exchange, I had to maintain a grade average of 86, plus clean the seminary house, help cook, and lead the youth choir in the liturgical celebration on Saturdays and Sundays. I told my self, I would get an education so I could help my parents alleviate our lives.
With the help of our parish, I moved to college in Davao, staying at my sister's home. At first, it was hard for me staying away from my parents to adapt to the culture in the city. I even had to stay in the formation house on my junior year.
I was constantly thinking of bringing back to my town what I had learned, and to give back to my church the goodness they showed.
But destiny intervened. My other sister got pregnant by our town parish priest. I hated the priest and stopped going to church for months that even my mentors were worried. Instead of guiding me to overcome my emotions, they let me go, afraid I might hate the church and not perform my duty as catechist.
While still in limbo, I shifted my major to English. It was then that I met Joey Ayala who was directing the play Ang Misyonaryo with the choir I belonged to as part of the play. During break time I used to play the guitar and sing some of Asin's songs. Joey approached me asking if I wanted to join his group.
Eventually, without noticing it, I became part of the group. We had performances in Davao and a national tour. At first I was hesitant with the content of Joey's songs, afraid the military would pick us up anytime since the NPA and military were battling it out in Davao.
With Joey Ayala at Ang Bagong Lumad, I started to have a second family away from home. I heard that chanting sound again, the sounds of my childhood, so familiar to my heart, mind and ears. The sounds I had hated. Slowly, through Joey's music, I was healing myself. I was going back to my roots, to the tribe I hated because of the discrimination I suffered.
Through our performances, I started to sing and dance the Manobo dances, mixing the steps with Bagobo, T'boli, B'laan and even Pangalay, a Tausug dance. It was not hard for me to learn the steps. Even the chanting came so naturally because when I was young I'd seen Manobos in a circle under the full moon, during good harvest rituals, chanting and even drinking the blood of a chicken. I think that's why my playmates used to call us witches.
I have often wondered, "Was this a coincidence that I met Joey who was into ethnic music? Was this a message that I should learn to love my own culture and be proud of it?" People would tell us after each performance that we made them happy and proud to be a Filipino with our own sound and instruments.
Through their reactions, I started to think of what I've missed, regretting my rejection of my tribe, of not learning my own language, that I would cry. I then told myself it was not the end. I started to feel proud of being a Manobo.
I graduated from college, and decided to join Joey in Manila. It was another culture shock.
Life was really fast, but gradually I managed to go with the flow. Shows here and abroad followed. This was in 1991 to 1995. We grew individually and, finally apart.
As a solo performer, I've encountered a lot of hardships. When I left Bagong Lumad, bands were at the top, and alternative songs were also the trend. To be part of the scene, I composed my own songs. Unconsciously, I wrote songs about my tribe, my childhood experiences and came out with my first album Bayang Makulay. I never thought that I could write songs when I was with Joey. Why should I, when Joey's songs were good?
Music is my soul, my heart and mind that are why I can appreciate any kind of music. The songs I am doing right now just come out naturally. It is because I've seen and experienced them. I don't mind singing pop songs. I don't put limitations to myself. I can sing anything and I don't mind people telling me that it doesn't fit my image. As long as I can still sing songs for the masses, I will go on performing. As long as I can compose songs for women or workers or farmers or children of war or peace. Without knowing it, those people who listen to my songs have made me realize that I am performing an important role in their lives.
This alone keeps me going.
It's another Independence Day, another important day of my life. Every year, we encounter problems in the country. Now it's the war in Mindanao. People are tired of it all. Filipinos fighting with one another. Are we free? To me it's just a fake freedom. People are not free yet from poverty, slavery. Farmers have no land they can call their own, tribal minorities in the list.
At least my music is free, free for everyone to listen to in my performances or from my album.
We are celebrating my birthday again! Life has to move on. Filipinos have to move on. I know we can do it in unity After all our trials, still we smile and survive! We have these positive traits, being united when it is needed. We can still smile or dance even if we are down. We can help each other when somebody needs our help. We are not afraid to stand for our rights.
Even with the problems in this country, I'm proud to be called a Filipino now and for the rest of my life.
printed in Philippine Star, June 12, 2000