August 29, 2006

Ethereal and Enchanting

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“Dosayan, dosayan, your name is my protection. Give us peace and unity here on Earth. Bless us with rain to heal and appease;” certainly a prayer and a hope for the ages. Award-winning Filipino traditional singer and cultural preservationist Grace Nono delivered this and more Friday night during her performance at Barnes Hall. The above-mentioned song goes on to ask for cooperation between people and happiness for all — the singer asks for fruit from the trees that God created and humans watch over.

Nono’s performance, which included eight songs accompanied by dance and image, a question-and-answer session and several short videos of traditional prayer, was put on by the Cornell Filipino Association, a cultural organization made up of about 100 undergrads, grads and members of the local community.

Nono began the night by introducing herself. She explained that she began singing as a young girl in Agusan, Mindanao, “copying” the current popular songs such as Madonna’s ‘ Like a Virgin.’ As she got older she became interested in the traditional Filipino prayer songs taught by the elders and began to seek out teachers. Today, Nono performs worldwide, not only to preserve her culture but also, she says, “as a continuing search for self-understanding.” She sings as a way to connect with the divine, “as a way of being true to dynamic historical processes that have given birth to music,” and — most importantly — she says, “it’s a way of finding my voice. And I mean by that, not only my voice, but the voice of my ancestors, my people, the landscape. . .” Nono described the traditional Filipino prayer music she sang in three ways. First, she says it is contemporary — it varies and changes with each singer and with each generation, always evolving. Secondly, it is popular. Nono’s songs are songs of the people, passed down through innumerable years. And lastly, the music is heritage-based, drawing from centuries-old traditions.

Nono kicked off the performance by showing the first of three prayer videos. In each, a Filipino man or woman would recite a traditional prayer. Common themes existed throughout all of the videos. The prayers asked for peace and unity, good health and good mind for loved ones, guidance for the country’s leaders, respect among the leaders and healing for the land. Nono’s songs themselves echoed many of these prayers, asking for good health, joy and rejoicing in God and all things. In several of the pieces, Nono attempted to encourage the audience to clap along; unfortunately, no one could keep a beat. In one particularly memorable song, Nono danced before a series of images of disaster and destruction in the Philippines, while singing what translates to, “Won’t you pity me? / Won’t you help me? / Someone will repay you / Much more than what is given.”

Before Nono sang her final songs, Filipino Association co-chair Jane Maestro-Scherer stood up to begin the question-and-answer session and asked if anyone was breathless. It was clear that the entire audience was not only breathless but also speechless. However, some brave soul finally asked a question and it was smooth-sailing from there. Curious audience members wanted to know if there were many people left passing on the traditional music, if there was any sort of effort to bring it back and how Nono found songs to sing if the art was dying. Nono replied that there are many elders and teachers who continue to worship through song and chant, but that it’s a long and difficult process to find new songs. She said it was an effort after 400 years of colonization and oppression but it is possible to find and build on what exists. Nono also spoke of the conscious effort to renew the music, to see again its “beauty, dignity and spirituality.” One particularly moved audience member gushed for several minutes, elevating Nono’s performance to almost inhuman status, to which Nono replied, “thank you very much, but don’t worry, I get stressed too.”

Nono’s final pieces were two of her favorites, about yearning for yesterday, “when the earth was like a basin that was not cracked,” and coming home. At the close, the stirring performance and the beautiful singer received a well-deserved standing ovation.