Listening to Pinikpikan’s Atas CD I was reminded of two of my earliest experiences in the Philippines. In 1980, on my first visit to my then-wife’s home in La Union, I offered to cook a dish of which I’m inordinately fond: Szechuan duck. My then-father-in-law offered to kill a duck so I could do my stuff and a moment or later came the sound of thuds and continuing, terrified squawking – my father-in-law was beating the poor duck to death with the flat of his bolo. It horrified me on two counts: first, it seemed an awful way to kill an animal and second, despite my father-in-law’s fond belief that the flesh would taste better prepared that way, the flesh of an animal that dies in fear become hard due to the release of adrenaline.
What I didn’t know then was that my father-in-law was preparing the bird according to a Cordilleras dish which requires a chicken to be killed in such a way, Pinikpikan. This was the name adopted by the quasi-band Pinkipikan, at the suggestion of artist Ben Cabrera, at a Baguio arts festival where singers, musicians and artists jammed with instruments ranging from traditional two-string lutes to cooking oil cans. Later they moved to the Lemuria Inn in Pasay City, and elsewhere and the result was a CD, Atas, now very hard to find.
My second memory was reading of a Filipino band which had tried its luck overseas and failed. The reason, they complained, was racism, they were rejected because they were Filipino. It was a ridiculous excuse at a time when Lea Salonga and a host of talented Filipino singers were storming the world with Miss Saigon and Freddie Aguilar’s haunting Anak had only recently gained a global audience.
What was wrong? When I heard the band’s music it became immediately apparent – their music was derivative, little more than cover versions of Michael Jackson hits being offered to a world that could listen to the real thing. They may have been Filipino but their music was not.
Atas is a rare gem gleaming in the mire of derivative me-too “OPM”. It is resolutely Filipino, challenging and vibrant, taking as its heart a range of regional rhythms and styles from Ifugao to Mindanao with an eclecticism that embraces Jimmy Hendrix, acid house, trance, groove, hindu and muslim elements and a variety of influences packed so tightly together that a Swann Morton scalpel couldn’t cut between them, with the remarkable, raw, sometimes operatic, voice of Grace Nono leading the vocals.
Anyone looking for quaint museum pieces of ‘ethnic minority’ music will be sorely disappointed, Atas treats all music equally, borrowing and transforming as the senses and spirit of the moment demand and in a way that invites the listener to be a participant. It is a sensual collection that says ‘If you want to danced, dance, if you want to sing, sing. If all you want to do is tap your feet, that’s okay, too, but do something and feel the spirit within”, yet it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
If Atas can be said to have a message, it is probably one unintended by the Pinikpikan group: A culture is not a fixed system, it is a structure, like an earthquake-proof building, that must move with the environmental forces imposed upon it, or collapse under the weight of its own archaism. One will not find ‘the Filipino’ by defining what the Filipino isn’t, by attempting to set aside Hispanic/ American/ Japanese/ Chinese influences but by accepting these influences as part of the heritage of the culture, absorbing them and transforming them into something uniquely Filipino and accepting them as part of being a Filipino. The Filipino is the sum of his or her heritage, that identity will not be found by looking for it but by being it.