By Virgilio A. Reyes Jr.
There is a new recipe for Pinoy music floating on the airwaves that goes like this:
“Take one Filipino-Canadian bass player, add songs he wrote on cruise ships in the Caribbean, and marinate for 19 years. Combine with one Mexican-American Grammy-winning arranger of salsa music. Then enjoy this Latin jazz album of cross-pollinated melodies, rhythms, and genres from two North American musicians with a passion for the flavors of Afro-Cuban music.”
The Filipino-Canadian bass player referred to is Chris Trinidad, whose parents left the Philippines in the ‘70s for better economic opportunities.
Trinidad grew up and studied in Vancouver before studying jazz at Capilano College in North Vancouver and becoming a musician aboard cruise ships on the Caribbean for some three years. As a high school student, he had taken a master class with percussionist Jack Duncan, whom he met again to play with his band Shango Ashe some 10 years later.
Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, he met Christian Tumalan from Mexico, leader of the Grammy Award-winning Pacific Mambo Orchestra. He also worked together with celebrated musicians such as longtime Santana horn section members Bill Ortiz and Jeff Cressman.
Among musicians he has worked with to produce this new sound are Carlos Caro on instruments such as congas, bongo, guiro, and chekere; Colin Douglas (timbale kit, clave, bells); Ortiz (trumpet); Cressman (trombone); Jamie Dubberly (trombone); Tony Peebles (tenor saxophone); Anthony Blea (violin); Tod Dick (flute); and Juan Luis Perez and Christelle Durandy for voice.
These diverse people have collaborated on an album produced by Iridium Records, entitled Con Todo, which is notable for its Caribbean and Hispanic influences. Trinidad had composed eight tunes recorded in Con Todo on board the Royal Caribbean cruise ships.
His songs have Spanish titles like “Ojos Abiertos” and “Hasta Entonces, Mi Amigo”. This harks back to pre-war Philippines when Spanish was more widely spoken than it is today. Trinidad is one of today’s youth interested in learning Spanish as part of Filipino heritage.
Turning to native Filipino music, Trinidad had learned to appreciate the kundiman and harana that his grandmother had brought to Canada in 1984. At the same time, he explored the kulintang music that he had heard played by Maguindanao music master Danongan Kalanduyan.
For the second album Subla Neokulintang, the bass player collaborated with Kalanduyan, Fil-American Bo Razon, and Frank Holder to fuse the kulintang with the form and harmonies of Western European art music. The kulintang is as close as the Philippines gets to the pre-Hispanic Asian tradition.
Kalanduyan has passed on, making this last recording all the more significant.
Third album Cancion Tagalog reworks traditional Tagalog songs like “Mutya ng Pasig” and “Sampaguita” to the rhythms and beats of Cuban music such as the bolero and the danzón, making it the most innovative of the three works.
In his introduction to Cancion Tagalog, Trinidad asks the question: “In what ways might Filipino composers incorporate the rich polyrhythmic musics of Cuba, which were originally a blend of Western European (Spanish, and later, French) form and harmony, and African (Yoruba and Bantu) percussion musics? What if Cubans had a chance to hear the rich rondalla traditions of the Philippines? Could there be a musical bridge between the Philippines and Cuba, given their shared Spanish colonial history?”
“This project is my artistic response to those questions,” he concludes.
In Spanish times, it was Mexico as the Latin American viceroyalty through which Spain ruled the Philippines. The Caribbean was one step removed from the Philippines, which did not have direct links to it. In neither case can Philippine music be said to have strong influences from them. It is rather directly from the Spanish that one hears the fandango, the jarana, the jota, the polka, and the zarzuela. Admittedly, there is also a habanera in Philippine dance.
It was during the American Commonwealth period that both jazz and Latin American music made their influence felt in the Philippines. Filipino jazz musicians were famous in Asia then, and President Manuel L. Quezon danced a mean tango. Such Latin American music and rhythms such as tango, mango, mambo, cha-cha, and samba became familiar to Filipinos via movies, radio, and television.
Before the Second World War, Manila was the sole capital in Asia where people could feel at home simultaneously with local folk melodies, American jazz, Latin American tunes and rhythms, and even Balinese music.
It would not be far-fetched to say that Filipinos as a seafaring folk in touch with Latin America, North America, and Europe would also be cosmopolitan in their approach to music.
Making use of his background and exposure as a Filipino exposed to North American and Caribbean influences, Trinidad has thus embarked on a bold experiment in Cancion Tagalog which would blend Filipino music with these different modes.
Trinidad has attempted to give such traditional classics as “O Ilaw” and “Bayan Ko” a new twist by using other instruments within them such as the saxophone or introducing elements from the Cuban danzón or the cha-cha.
It is interesting that Trinidad gives special emphasis on how music also links us to revolutionary traditions, as do “La Marseillaise” and “Bayan Ko”. Even the pandemic in the Philippines has now resurrected “Do you hear the people sing?” in a Filipino protest song against the government. So why should Cuban rhythms not animate the kundiman as well, which was used by the Filipinos to subvert the Americans in the early time of occupation?
A historical footnote: Despite the Cold War and American pressure, the Philippines and Cuba had continued to maintain embassies in each other’s capitals and they instinctively recognized the need to keep in touch in light of shared history and colonial domination. Music is one way of uniting those common threads of culture and history.
Those who feel strongly attached to the traditional ways of interpreting our Filipino songs may not always agree with the ways in which they have been reworked by Chris Trinidad and his team. However, the 21st century may be a time to listen to new and innovative interpretations by millennials and foreigners appreciative of our traditions as well. Venceremos.