Whenever the discussion turns to trailblazing Filipinas, people mention the same names over and over again: Gabriela Silang, the first woman to lead an uprising against the Spaniards; Helena Zoila Benitez, for being a pioneering educator; Dr. Fe del Mundo, the mother of Philippine pediatrics; Lualhati Bautista, an award-winning feminist writer; Corazon Aquino, the country’s first woman president; and Lea Salonga, the first Asian to win as best actress in the Tony Awards.
Apart from the aforementioned popular personalities, there are many other women who also deserves attention for their outstanding role as torchbearers of the Filipino culture. Before we identify who these women are, it is important for us to appreciate first what being a culture-bearer entails.
Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell, an African-American singer-songwriter and music educator, described culture-bearers as a “person who has consciously embodied culture and is in the process of transmitting it.”
Guided by that broad definition of who might be described as culture-bearers, this essay will focus on the accomplishments and contributions of three amazing women: Angelita Pasamba (rondalla education), Damiana Eugenio (folklorist), and Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa (cultural researcher and performance artist).
For example, Ms Pasamba’s work in promoting rondalla becomes all the more significant an era where Filipino youth are far more familiar with Korean pop songs than traditional Filipino music.
A music education graduate from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, Pasamba served as the first rondalla conductor of Ramon Magsaysay High School Manila. She held the job from 1962 until 1970, when she was promoted to be the music supervisor for the Division of City Schools – Manila (this writer interviewed her in 2012 for a research on the school’s history). She is now based in southern San Francisco in California, United States2.
After many years of achieving victories in several national competitions, Mrs. Pasamba and her students made a recording of nine musical pieces titled Philippine Rondalla under the auspices of Vicor Music and American producer William Leary in 1969.
Pasamba is listed in the recording as the arranger and conductor. Philippine Rondalla was hailed during the 1971 Awit Award as the Best Special Recording of the Year. To date, she said she has probably arranged a hundred or so musical pieces such as “O, Ilaw,” “Hindi Kita Malimot,” and “Katakataka.”
What makes all these achievements more remarkable is the fact that Pasamba had little knowledge about rondalla prior to being asked to teach it. “What do I know about rondalla? But later on, I fell in love with the instruments,” Pasamba once said. “Rondalla requires someone who is fond of learning,” she added.
Damiana Eugenio and Ligaya Fernando-Amilbangsa also displayed the same curiosity and willingness to discover aspects of the country’s cultural heritage throughout their lifetime.
An author and professor of literature, Eugenio came to be regarded as the Mother of Philippine Folklore because of her seminal work Philippine Folk Literature, which compiled myths, riddles, epic tales, and the like from various parts of the country.
It must have required Eugenio much perseverance to do this since most of these stories are passed from one generation to the next orally. Without her hard work, we might have difficulty appreciating how Ancient Filipinos excelled in literature and how imaginative their minds were.
That point cannot be overstated knowing that Spanish and American colonizers essentially obliterated the Philippines’ past as they sought to portray Filipinos as savages (and hence, in need of their ‘benevolence’).
This year, Fernando-Amilbangsa received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for her efforts in preserving and propagating ‘Pangalay,’ a folk dance from Sulu which means “temple dance” and “gift offering” in Sanskrit.
A native of Marikina, she moved to Mindanao in the late 1960s after her marriage to Datu Punjungan Amilbangsa. In a significant way, she was able to showcase a snippet of Sulu’s to the rest of the country and the whole world4.
Pasamba, Eugenio, and Fernando-Amilbangsa may have worked on different things in their lifetime, but there’s a unifying thread in their endeavors. All three of them showed to us how loving one’s craft can be used in rediscovering aspects of our culture with the ultimate goal of making future generations appreciate and nurture their heritage even more.
At a time when most Filipinos seems to take their cultural heritage for granted in the face of globalization and regional integration, the need for more culture-bearers is as critical as ever. Otherwise, the alternate scenario is just too heartbreaking to contemplate.