Monday, April 19, 2010

Cool like Jimi

The Cherry Blossom Festival in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles

One thing about Filipinos that has consistently impressed me is their seemingly inborn affinity for music. Now, a few months ago I lamented the poor state of popular music in this country, and nothing since then has changed my mind about that. But on an individual level, Filipinos seem to easily and accurately pick up tones and particularly rhythms. Granted, the oft-repeated scene of the Filipino trying to imitate an English song – and failing to get more than one word in five correct – will never stop being comical to me. But give a Filipino an instrument and a few days to practice, and you’ll probably be surprised with his or her progress. (Unless that instrument you give him happens to be my own guitar, in which case after a few days the strings will have all snapped and the body will be split open. Wasn’t happy about that.)

It’s a generalization to praise the musical ability of Filipinos, and it’s actually a common cultural stereotype here, but it’s been borne out many times with my kids. Even the little ones man the tambourines with respectably solid results during performances. I think it all stems from an upbringing that rarely lets a day pass without some kind of song ’n’ dance – it gives them the ability to keep a beat with almost instinctive sureness.

Personally, I couldn’t even nail the simple eight-count when they tried to teach me. Now, normally I don’t perform simply because I hate performing, but the gap between my skills and those of Filipinos is an added incentive to never get onstage and embarrass myself. (I’m sure the fact that Filipinos grow up dancing is one reason they don’t understand why I don’t want to. Or why I can’t master simple routines. Or why the youngest child at my center has better moves than I.)

I won’t deny that the constant emphasis on dancing and singing is wearisome to me. Every event requires some kind of dance performance, usually totally unrelated to the actual event. I’ve literally had to hide at times to avoid performing. I’m sick of turning down requests to help choreograph dances, and I know Filipinos are judging me in some inscrutable way when I don’t want to join the disco.

Disco at Barangay Granada, Bacolod

But all that said, I’ve enjoyed watching my kids hone their skills. My supervisor, unsurprisingly, puts much emphasis on the music program at my center, and that has resulted in a surprisingly robust set of instruments – including several guitars and bandoria (mandolins), a nice drum set, and many smaller pieces. And the kids actually use them on their own initiative: almost every day the music room resounds with guitar riffs and overpoweringly booming drumbeats. (The music room is rather too small to do its job properly.)

I love music, even if I can’t produce it myself, and among my favorite activities at my center are listening to the choir practice and watching my boys rehearse for a performance. Yes, they play the same songs over and over, and frequently their selections are awful; but it’s the fact that they’re playing them with some skill and for the most part without any kind of formal training that makes it enjoyable.

And sometimes they surprise me and pull something decent out of their collective hat. My effort to expose them to good music has been, I’m afraid, mostly a failure – they listen politely and then run back to the easy and bland comforts of Taylor Swift – but every once in a while I have the pleasure of listening to one of them pick his laborious way through the opening notes of “Hotel California” or some other classic.


And just a couple days ago I managed to instill a significant measure of awe in the center’s best guitarist by showing him Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock performance. After the tassels stopped flying and the warped brilliance of the “Star-Spangled Banner” subsided, I asked him, “Are you going to learn that? Be cool like Jimi?”

And he replied solemnly with the only acceptable answer:


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