She’s on a Mission from the Ancestors

Grace Nono at the gathering of drummers, Slet Bubeniku, in Prague, 2010 (Photo by Karel Suster)

Grace Nono at the gathering of drummers, Slet Bubeniku, in Prague, 2010 (Photo by Karel Suster)

Grace Nono is a beloved Filipino artist whose melodic and catchy rhythms have earned her the Filipino Katha Award for best World Music Album three separate times. Still, Grace’s music goes much further than winning awards or making people dance. For Grace, her music is an expression of her mission, which is to have the voices, cultures and arts of the indigenous people of the Philippines heard and appreciated.

This strength and confidence in her career, however, was fostered and has grown over time; it was not innate. Grace had to battle external and western influences in both her musical style and personal search for self throughout her education in the Philippines and the beginning of her musical career. This evolution has allowed Grace to arrive at the point her musical and academic career is at today.

Growing up in the final decades of the 20th century, Grace began singing like many Filipinos of her generation who mimicked western singers and their sounds. She also became acquainted with European classical music in school. This combination of western musical influence and schooling encouraged Grace to sound like her Western icons and to measure herself according to those standards rather than those of her own Filipino counterparts. It wasn’t until just over 15 years ago that Grace’s career and goals began to take a different path, when she began to promote Filipino oral storytelling and indigenous culture over Western style music, education and values.  

Grace first came across the word “oralist” after meeting with Datu Migketay Victorino Saway, who is the leader of the Talaandig people.

Born and raised in the river valley of Agusan in northeastern Mindanao, Grace’s mother was “a brilliant educator” and her father, “a passionate grassroots activist.” Both of her parents played an influential role in the evolution of Grace’s academic and activist careers, and they also allowed her to be herself and express her own personality as an artist. This passion for education and activism, combined with her unique talents, brought about one of the most successful musical careers for a Filipino artist, one that simultaneously injected indigenous cultures and traditions into mainstream Filipino media.

Grace appreciated the top-tier schools she was able to attend, but she also felt the alienation in trying to assimilate and learn a predominantly western curriculum. There was something her education lacked, but she wasn’t able to pinpoint what it was. After struggling with this for quite some time, Grace met two elderly singers in her own province, which shaped her future and that of the Tao Foundation.

Grace first came across the word “oralist” after meeting with Datu Migketay Victorino Saway, who is the leader of the Talaandig people. The Talaandig live on Mt. Kitanglad, Bukidnon, in Mindanao. Datu Migketay’s father, Datu Kinulintang, was truly an indigenous Filipino “jack-of-all trades,” who performed the roles of a ritualist, oralist, mediator, herbalist and many other functions in the Talaandig community. Grace began to understand the importance those roles played in indigenous communities and how the tradition of oration and storytelling is central to the personality and character of the communities. As Datu Migketay explained to her, “an oralist performs the role of oral historian to its people.”  

Since this encounter with Datu Migketay, Grace has abandoned her desire to mimic western artists and has instead become an “oralist” herself. She is now one of the biggest proponents of the arts and

storytelling of indigenous Filipino communities. Grace accomplishes this not only through her musical career, but also through her academic work as a lecturer on ancestral and local knowledge. She is also the founder and leader of the Tao Foundation for Culture & Arts.

The Tao Foundation provides a platform for dialogue and interaction between Filipino primary and secondary oralists, communities, schools and audiences. It works to empower [communities] through cultural education, research and publications, stressing the importance of ancestral and local knowledge amid an increasingly globalized and modern Filipino world. The Tao Foundation not only maintains and shares this ancestral knowledge to keep traditions alive, but it also highlights the relevance and pragmatic importance of ancestral knowledge today.

Grace strongly tries to overcome the idea that Filipinos are an inferior people who have no culture and civilization apart from the legacy of western colonialism. “The reality is, the little knowledge and appreciation Filipinos have for indigenous oral traditions is the result of the circumstances of our history,” she explains. One of the Tao Foundation’s principal projects has been to record the songs of Philippine oralists like Mendung Sabal of Surallah, South Cotabato, Datu Yadup Salvador Placido and Bae Angela Placido of Agusan del Sur, Grace’s home province.

Grace Nono (Photo by Neal Oshima)

Grace Nono (Photo by Neal Oshima)

“Working with oralists has deeply influenced my performance practice, so that I began to specialize in the performance of oral chants, especially those with sacred themes, in the last 20 years,” Grace explained at the concert in New York called “Songs for the Beloved: Sacred Chants from the Philippines.” Appearing with Grace were indigenous musicians Charles Wandag (aka Badjao) and Bo Razon. Wandag performed Kalinga chants and instruments like the tongatong (stamping tubes), gangsa (gongs) and his versions of Philippine boat lutes. Razon played the laud (long-necked guitar from the Philippine rondalla ensemble), the gimbal (skin drum), babandil (small bossed gong), among other instruments. For these artists, the songs evoke the “Beloved” in spirit, water, flame, tree, voice, instrument and machine.

The evolution of these indigenous traditions, expressed through the combination of ululation, choruses, murmurs, drones, silences and reverberations, enables the awakening of sacred and traditional values and culture that had been placated or pacified through western colonialism.  

 “This story about my encounter with oral singers is part of a larger story of what I know now as the marginalization of indigenous knowledge systems, or in Tagalog, katutubong kaalaman ng bayan – our shared ancestral heritage that have been repressed since the onset of the centuries of colonial experience,” Grace says. “These collections of knowledge however, could not be fully silenced, because they are integral to who we are. Bringing them out into the open where they can be heard and shared, and allowing them to shine their beauty, power and relevance to our modern realities ushers us to a place of greater self-acceptance and healing.”

Grace and the Tao Foundation encourage relationships to be forged between multiple generations to bridge the gap, as well as to continue the transmission of culture and traditions into the future. In her words: “For those who are new to this subject, it is easy to dismiss the knowledge of ancestral chants, stories, healing and other arts as inconsequential. That is far from my experience, however. What appears to have little value, because they are not quantifiable or easily translatable to currency, can be powerfully transformative, inside and outside.”

Dusty Cooper

Dusty Cooper

Dusty Cooper is a vagabond at heart who is currently finishing up graduate school in San Francisco. He is a learner and a teacher currently researching Thai nationalism and Burmese migration while promoting cross-cultural communication and cooperation on a global scale.