10 Monday Jun 2013
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by Luisa A. Igloria
Review of Song of the Babaylan: Living Voices, Medicines, Spiritualities of Philippine Ritualist-Oralist Healers, Grace Nono (Institute of Spirituality in Asia, 2013)
In the “Invocations” chapter of her newest book, Song of the Babaylan: Living Voices, Medicines, Spiritualities of Philippine Ritualist-Oralist Healers (Institute of Spirituality in Asia), singer, scholar, and grassroots cultural worker Grace Nono recollects an episode of illness in childhood. As she lies in an upstairs bedroom of her parents’ home in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur, she hears her father calling her name outside in the yard. She writes, “Several times he called, but not to me; he seemed to be addressing the wide, open night sky.” Later, her father tells her that he was calling to her soul to return to her body and restore her to health. It is quietly striking that this anecdote is found so close to the book’s beginning “Methodology” section— for what it accomplishes in an immediate way is the grounding of the text and its curator within a network of relationships where “research” cannot ever be divorced from lived reality and vice versa, where one’s sense of rational reality cannot ever be divorced from a sense of the unknown, the mystical, from dream or spirit.
I have followed and greatly admired Grace Nono’s career for many years, from the time I met her when she was a college student in one of the English or literature courses I taught as a very young instructor at the University of the Philippines in Baguio. At this time she was also just beginning to hone her voice and craft as a musician in Baguio’s many folk houses. Our lives intertwined in more personal ways in the years after that, and I had the good fortune to work with her on the written aspect of some of her earlier indigenous music revitalization projects. Most perhaps know Grace primarily through her powerful singing voice and her enchanting stage presence. But what is so wonderful about Grace is her absolute commitment, through all that she has done through the years, to the goal of deepening our understanding of our shared indigenous, musical, cultural, and spiritual roots.
In regard to this new work, I purposefully refer to Grace Nono’s curatorial role, not to diminish her solid accomplishments and gifts as a writer, scholar, and thinker—but in order to reiterate her deep understanding of the basic principle of a shared ethos that simultaneously defines an individual and her communities. Song of the Babaylan’s most powerful message is that all of us—acting not as one person alone, not as one government or nation by itself, but rather in conscious recognition of each other— are ultimately responsible for the longevity and survival of human tradition.
Babaylan Mendung Sabal, South Cotabato
The Philippine babaylan, powerful shamanic figures from precolonial times and known by variant names throughout the archipelago (bailan, anitera/o, diwatero/a, catalonan, mambunong) were said to have been banished en masse at the time institutionalized religion was enlisted in the work of colonization. Keepers of ritual, poets, priestesses, healers and repositories of natural and tribal history, they were viewed as threats to the goals of colonial order, and rightly so.
As shamans who were the living embodiment of a world view of interconnectedness, they had access to the ground-level realities of experience, and held the keys to a vast network of alternative communication systems that included dreamwork, herbology, native agriculture and economics, epic poetry, folklore, fable, talinghaga or metaphor, among other things. Doubtless, to the outsider, these community figures were not only mysterious but frightening, and could only be dismissed by their demonization as practitioners of savagery or “paganism”, run out of town, whipped or beaten (like Dapungay in Cebu, Negros and Panay, Caguenga in Cagayan, Yga in Nueva Ecija and Santissima in Iloilo, for daring to lead local rebellions), killed (like Tamblot of Bohol, Sumoroy of Northern Samar, and Tapar of Panay) or jailed (like Papa Isio of Negros, who died in Bilibid Prison in 1911).
Babaylan? I thought they were all gone, remarked a young student-acquaintance not too long ago, almost in the same way one might talk about an extinct species. They are very much alive, as this book affirms, in words and in recorded song and chants, and in practices whose continuity we need to safeguard.
In this generous work, Grace has gathered the voices of living babaylan. The book’s ten major sections are devoted to babaylan using their own words to describe their chosen “genre” or main mode of work to channel the spirits for ritual, healing, pedagogical or other purposes: Aragoy and Gannay through Dawak, Babo Samida and Ama Maugan through Daging, Ka Mila through Subli, Undin through Tod-om/Gudgod chants, Nong Cabeza through Dalit, Josefa/Manang Lita through Mangurug, Minan Nenita through Turon, Mang Henio through Angba/Ba-diw, Mendung through Lingon Loos, and Inday Titang through Sinuog.
In these chapters, what emerges most clearly in my reading is not a picture of babaylan as passive or empty mediums through which an external or transcendent substance or knowledge is simply sieved and absorbed. Rather, I am struck by how the babaylan are very physical and human examples of what it is like to be intensely open to the encounter with both benevolent and potentially malevolent influences, which are typically seen not as extreme polarities but as aspects ranged along a spectrum of human or worldly experiences and attributes. And I am also struck by how in turn, all who come in contact with them must actively participate in the encounter with ritual, song, or dance.
While the babaylan generally work as intermediaries with the spirit world in order to address or assuage human experiences marked by illness, death, conflict, hardship, as well as celebration, in the stories of encounters with them gathered here, there are numerous references to the role or attitude of those who seek their help. Not only must the supplicant comprehend that mutual respect is the foundation for any invested exchange—s/he must also manifest a willingness to work through the layers of resistance or potential antagonism that any of a number of biases might provide (a Western-centric education, gender or class assumptions, a purely rationalist outlook, habits of thinking of feeling that may have been strengthened by exposure to certain types of media, etc.).
Song of the Babaylan is a rich offering that was made possible with research and publication support from the Institute of Spirituality in Asia (ISA). It comes to us through the efforts of Grace after many years of research in between her busy performance and academic schedules (most recently, Grace has completed course work as a Ph.D. candidate in ethnomusicology at New York University, with her dissertation focusing on voice, babaylan, and globalization). This book represents, in Grace’s own words, a labor of love, fully shared with and supported by her musical collaborator and co-recorder Bob Aves; and with editing work lovingly supervised by Carolina “Bobbie” Malay. Overflowing with compelling photographs and beautiful artwork by artists like Brenda Fajardo, Ana Fer, and Perla Daly, replete with historical and documentary evidence, it is the gift that has come together after countless travels to remote villages to meet the babaylan, listen to their stories and songs, share betel nut leaf chew and meals with them. It is a beautiful testament to the power of collaborative work and energy, and now it is something that we can also share.