Musical nation

Tue, 10/28/2014 - 09:03
(originally published in SCMP, Sep 14 2006)
Our neighbours live only part of the time in their house. But we always know when they're home: you see, they sing. This makes them typical Filipinos.
Hundreds of years back, our Spanish colonisers marvelled at our aptitude for playing instruments and singing. It seems ingrained in our character, and you can see our musical authority manifested in Asia's bars, clubs and cruise ships. Filipinos are the region's troubadours and minstrels.
Music even plays a part in our politics. The ability to belt out a song is useful to a campaigning election candidate. Beleaguered politicians seek solace in melodies. An American journalist recalled how, after a stressful rally against the Marcos dictatorship, an opposition leader went home to a karaoke party.
When Ferdinand Marcos himself was overthrown, he and his family fled to Hawaii aboard a US military plane. It can't have been a pleasant flight: Imelda Marcos reportedly sang throughout. Given her voice, it's a wonder her family didn't throw her from the aircraft.
Our current president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, is widely disliked and the target of coup attempts, so who knows what forlorn melodies rend the night in the palace? Perhaps presidential guards even respond with the country's favourite ironic cheer for amateurs - "More! More! More practice!"
So central is music to our culture that it wasn't long ago that generations of children were forced to study the piano. Many Filipinos can also strum the guitar, but there are now more nefarious devices. Aside from the karaoke, there's the dreaded Magic Sing, a microphone (which you plug into a TV) that stores 2,064 songs.
The point I'm trying to make is that while most Filipinos like singing, not all of them do it well.
Which brings me to my neighbours. When they sing, they observe the usual Filipino rules: never feel embarrassment, or shame; always sing loudly - even (especially) if you can't carry a tune - and even if everyone else is sleeping.
I've heard our neighbours claim that their house has brought them bad luck. I'm not surprised. The howling that comes from it no doubt attracts all sorts of dark spirits. I can easily imagine the conversation among the hellish visitors: 
Demon 1: So, why are you guys here? 
Demon 2: We heard this unholy, blood-curdling scream of summoning. 
Demon 3: You know, I'd swear it almost sounds like 'Fernando' by Abba.
Years ago, in a Manila beer garden, two men dedicated a karaoke number to one of the patrons, a military officer. After singing, they shot him dead: it turned out they were communist assassins. It worries me that I should recall that murder, shortly after talking about my neighbours' singing. Maybe I should just buy a Magic Sing and join in.

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