The inventory: The songs that Ferdinand Marcos inspired

These are not ideal circumstances, I must admit, but when former president Ferdinand Marcos – dictatorial, controversial, polarizing thirty years on – was buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani yesterday despite a flurry of opposition from critics fearing historical revisionism, I ended up thinking of all the songs that were inspired by the Philippine strongman. He ruled the country for twenty years, brought it defining infrastructure projects, drained its coffers and deprived its people of basic rights – and that’s a very simple way of putting it. I’m a guy of nuance, but the debate around this hasn’t been filled with, although we all universally agreed at one point that we will not go back to this. And now, here we are, arguing again.


I won’t try to dig deep into how Marcos was. I was born after he was ousted in 1986; all I have going are stories – both Martial Law atrocities and anecdotes from my grandfather, a loyalist born in Ilocos (and who was “thankful” on Facebook yesterday). Instead, this is about the songs he has inspired, beginning with, well, a staple during his presidency, a song performed by children after the National Anthem. “Ang Bagong Lipunan” (as with most hymns, we’ve no precise idea who sang it) was composed by Felipe Padilla de Leon and penned by Levi Celerio, both of whom would later be named National Artists for Music. A staple, so to speak, since the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, it outlined Marcos’ vision for a country, one where insurgency is squashed – the communists were Martial Law’s raison d’être – discipline is paramount and things are just looking up. It declared that this is a new Philippines we’re living in now. Of course, there was more to it than that.


Some would say Martial Law ushered in an era of prosperity for the country, but others would talk about the disappearance of basic rights – thousands of people, opposition leaders and dissidents and anybody who pissed them off tortured, killed or simply disappeared – and a rampant corruption that set the Philippines back many years. Official narratives were prevalent, so those who had something else to say turned to the arts. The folk rock scene of the 1970s led to many songs that leaned more on social commentary, from the likes of Asin and Coritha. Heber Bartolome’s “Oy Utol, Buto’t Balat Ka Na’y Natutulog Ka Pa”, was more straightforward than most, with its lyrics chastising the Filipino for sitting idly while their rights are being stripped away. “Ang dapat sa atin ay tawagin: mga gago!” (This PCIJ story on the interplay between music and politics is a good read.)


Much less straightforward, but just as pointed, is Celeste Legaspi’s “Saranggola ni Pepe”. It is, on the surface, a whimsical song, a children’s song even, from one of the era’s most popular actresses and singers. Go on YouTube and you have comments from children of the 70s remembering how they danced to this song in school. But the song was really, subtly, about Martial Law. Composed by her husband Nonoy Gallardo, it was written when, in Celeste’s words, things got “weird” after the Bagong Lipunan kicked in. “Ayaw namin ‘yung masyadong, ‘ang bayan ko!'” she told InterAksyon a few months ago. “He wanted to use imagery … [which] will not really talk about death and persecution and loss of independence and freedom.”


Marcos was ousted in 1986, a spontaneous release of anger in the most peaceful way possible – twenty years of pent-up emotions boiling over in just four days. Since then, we have continued to grapple with the legacy of the first People Power Revolution. I have written about Dicta License’s “Alay Sa Mga Nagkamalay Noong Dekadang Nobenta” before, as it’s one of the songs that always comes to mind that addresses just how far we’ve come since democracy and basic rights were restored. In the thirty years since the ouster, the Marcoses have managed to stage a political comeback, with Imelda and two of her children assuming positions in government – and Bongbong even coming so close to being vice president last May. The so-called millennial was blamed for being so forgetful, for seeing the Bagong Lipunan as an ideal. Who could blame kids for craving order when all they see is chaos, however? I’d say it’s not just the young ones but all of us. It’s not a collective amnesia – we repeat the details over and over – but we became complacent with the symbols we’ve won, that we cease to defend them constantly. Now, we have a dictator buried in land hollowed for heroes.


Okay, this last song is a cheat. “Here Lies Love”, as with almost all of the songs on the album of the same name from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, is about Imelda Marcos: a “disco” project exploring what made the former First Lady tick. It did end up causing a bit of a stir, mostly because of the star power involved – Florence Welch is one of the many singers who performed as Imelda – but the album really is an exploration of Ferdinand’s rise to power, and fall from it, albeit from the perspective of his wife, and a figure from her childhood. I listened to it again before hitting publish on this thing, and recounted the stories as I already knew them from when I was young. That narrative remains the same, although, yes, it’s much more complicated than “Marcos is bad”. (Equating all this with “Aquino is good” is definitely doing the country a disservice.) So, how did we get here? I don’t really know. If I may share my two cents – at the risk of excessively politicizing this thing – I say this: bury him wherever. It does not change a thing about what he’s done. It is up to us to constantly fight for that, though. [NB]

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