- They were the anthems of a generation angered by the Philippines’ weakness and the looming dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos 50 years ago
- Now old comrades from the era have worked with hip-hop, rock, ska and punk rock bands to revive the songs in hopes of stirring today’s youth to demand change
The bell still tolls for veterans of a period of unrest that rocked the Philippines during the first three months of 1970. Known as the First Quarter Storm (FQS), the movement mainly consisted of students and other young people enraged at government subservience to foreign powers and the looming dictatorship of then-president Ferdinand Marcos.
Two years later, Marcos would impose martial law that effectively remained in place until he was deposed in 1986 by massive demonstrations. The music produced by activists and artists in the years before Marcos' downfall live on as a reminder of resistance to his rule.
These songs, with lyrics about liberation, genuine democracy, and an end to elite rule were not heard on radio or television. However, they reverberated through university halls, the back alleys of slum neighbourhoods and the parliament of the streets. Some of the people who took part in the resistance have recently revived the music of their youth.
Unang Sigwa, or "first storm", is both an album of demonstration hits and a history lesson; it will be released in February to mark the 50th anniversary of the FQS. The project was made possible by the First Quarter Storm Movement (FQSM), an alumni organisation of sorts for activists, and Surian ng Sining (Analyses of Arts), a non-profit organisation for protest art.
It's a collection of 12 tracks that were popular among activists and the youth, but performed by rebellious bands from Manila's current music scene. The album is aimed at today's young music fans, and project organisers hope it instils more than mere nostalgia and writes a new chapter in the story of Filipino protest music.
Bonifacio Ilagan is a celebrated playwright and filmmaker who was an artist and activist in the late 1960s and an active participant in the FQS. He put together the album with old comrades.
"We wanted to connect with the present generation. The bands we approached play a variety of genres but we retained the essence of the music. The album is a statement that tells everyone that the present nationalist and democratic movement has a glorious history and has been proven just, correct and valid," says Ilagan.
Singer Jess Santiago helped produce the album. He compares the Marcos period with the rule of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been accused of human rights violations during his war on drugs.
Because of the similarities between the two eras, Santiago hopes people listening today will "gain a renewed interest in studying the FQS and the period. But more importantly they should ask themselves how they will respond to calls for more meaningful changes in society."
The start of the FQS can be traced to January 26, 1970, when Marcos gave his annual State of the Nation address and triggered a street battle between demonstrators and law enforcement that raged into the night. Two people were killed and several injured, according to the authorities.
That incident set in a motion a series of protests that drew up to 100,000 people to the presidential palace, the United States embassy " which was seen as a monument to continuing colonisation of the Philippines " and other areas in Metro Manila, the greater capital region.
Many Filipinos became radicalised and had an intense desire for change, and this naturally made its way into music.
Santiago made his name writing some of the best-known protest songs of his generation. His passion for music was in large part ignited by the cultural aspects of the FQS. He remembers how their own oral tradition of sorts caught on.
"Protest music spread throughout the country quickly. The songs were easy to learn, lots of people could play the guitar and they were always performed at mass actions to liven up the occasion," Santiago says.
Ilagan notes how "early on, youth leaders had become aware that for their messages to reach the masses, it should also take on cultural forms. Even before I was an activist I had already seen protest performances at school and on the streets," he says.
Many " if not all " of the songs from that era carry no credit. They were attributed to collectives and cultural organisations instead of individual songwriters, showing that they were not intended for personal gain or fame, but to serve a cause.
"When someone started singing, many of us instinctively knew the words. Back then, we had so few mediums of expression, so music became an important part of the movement," says Ilagan. "If I were to name the most popular song from those days, it would be Ang Masa ("The Masses"). It was sung everywhere and it captured the audience every time."
The artists involved with Unang Sigwa admit to fearing veterans of the era might not agree with youngsters tampering with protest songs. Some of the songs were marching melodies or in the style of kundiman, the traditional Filipino ballad which usually has a waltz-like rhythm. In contrast, the new versions are performed in contemporary styles such as hip-hop, rock, ska and punk.
Thankfully, Ilagan says, the songs have been generally well received.
Federico Dominguez, a 67-year-old who plays with a young blues-rock band called The General Strike, played harmonica on the kundiman classic Mendiola. The title refers to the area around the presidential palace, which has witnessed anti-government rallies over the years.
He recalls first hearing the song in 1974 as a newbie activist in the southern city of Davao, far from Manila, where the FQS raged.
"We hopefully retained the spirit of the song, but it was definitely a challenge to make it appealing to young people today," he says.
Another notable track is Manggagawa at Magbubukid ("Workers and Peasants") which Pia Pimentel, singer with world music band Pasada, had a difficult time with. The new version is a medley with a variety of tempi, which Pimentel described as "stressful but satisfying". The result is an eclectic anthem full of percussion and violins, and calls for solidarity among the masses.
These histories encased in song remain a testament to the struggle, vitality and urgency of the FQS.
Unang Sigwa will be launched on February 23 at an open-air concert at the University of the Philippines in Manila
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