Saturday, May 10, 2008

Got this email from a dear old friend

Dr. Titus Levi, an economist specializing in economics and the arts, just returned from a trip to the Phillipines to see his girlfriend Christine, a professor doing research on indigenous peoples. Titus and I did high school together in the very boring city of Lakewood, CA ("Tomorrow's City Today" was their motto), and were, along with Ken Robinson (also a professor) and Steve Kramer, pretty inseparable friends.

He sent me an email with the subject line being "A sort of imperialist abroad." Some key passages:

We Americans don’t bother to learn much about our dabblings with empire building except in the midst of a crisis like what we’re mired in now. Make no mistake: Iraq is but the most recent fling dating back to the our intervention in the Philippines.

Confronting our imperialist tendencies really knocked me back a notch. Signs of empire percolate up from the ground in all kinds of places and all sorts of ways: in the reluctantly-spoken English of educated elites, and in the utter fluency of children more interested in speaking English than Tagalog or Ilongo. In the name brand eateries from the US of A: Krispy Kreme, Chilis (eating there in Manila just seemed strange and disorienting, all the more so since I would almost never eat in a Chilis in the US), and of course, the ubiquitous McDonalds (although the locals call it McDo).

It also crops up in less obvious ways: the near-wholesale adoption of our government structure, educational system, and certain values. Most acutely, I saw it in the lust for “The American Dream” of home ownership, even though home ownership (especially new home ownership) remains out of reach for many Filipinos. And this all seems especially strange to me as an American since Filipinos have a national temperament (if a culture can be said to have such a thing at all) that stands at a wide distance from America’s. Whereas we are standoffish and bluntly direct, Filipinos tend to be warm and aggravating indirect. Whereas we push to the next accomplishment, Filipinos seem more likely to stand pat. Whereas we are driven and forceful, Filipinos struck me as relaxed and loose.


The last leg of the trip included another “it had to happen moment”: an hour of American Idol, followed by Pinoy Idol, topped off an entertainment “news” program on Filipinos who have achieved some success in various talent contests, from American Idol to one lass who came in Second Place in a worldwide McDonald’s employee talent content. Not kidding; I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Anyway, about all this [Filipino obsession with schmaltzy American pop songs]…

First, Filipinos would do themselves a big favor if they would give up trying to sing like Black Folk. I know we’re cool and hip and all that, but really, find your own groove. The next big thing is not going to be the last big thing. The reason why Black Folk have been at the forefront of pop music for 100 years is that we innovate.

Second, lots of contestants on these shows are wearing out their voices. Sad but true. If these idol shows wanted to do some good for the world, they could throw in a bit of vocal coaching to keep these kids from hurting themselves.

Third, these shows seem to be as huge in the RP as they are in the US. Apparently PI brings in a 50% rating and a 70% share or something like that. Or at least, that what I was told.

Fourth: melismas [ed. note: in music, the technique of changing the note/pitch of a single syllable of text while it is being sung -- think of "ba-an-ner ye-et wa-ave" in the national anthem] have their place. Alas, not many folks can keep them in tune. I think my ears are still ringing from all those out-of-tune passing tones I heard that night.

And it’s not just in the shows. In Christine’s building there are no fewer than three practicing videoke junkies who sing with varying degrees of intonation problems. Again, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Then again, I had my own bout of Philippine music making at Christine’s parents’ house in Iloilo. On the last night I was there, Christine started hammering on the piano in an attempt to get me to serenade the family. I wasn’t much interested since I was feeling less than solid vocally, but being the wuss that I am, I caved. So here I am, a Black Man, singing “Windmills Of Your Mind” and “Sunrise, Sunset” in Iloilo. And Christine’s dad is singing along. Apparently Fiddler On The Roof is a favorite. Oy vey! More strangeness in warming our hearts by the embers of the dying fires of a former empire that just lingers on and on.

When I read emails like this from Titus, when I meet him and Steve for our once-in-a-while hangs where we shoot the shit and catch up with one another, I'm always, always reminded of the line from Talking Heads's "Once in a Lifetime:"
And you may ask yourself
Well -- how did I get here?

How, indeed. Many thanks, Dr. Levi

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