The origins of Filipino folk music have been rooted deeply in the Philippines’ multifaceted history, serving as the unwavering thread that binds the Filipino people together across different periods in time. From the indigenous period, the Spanish and American occupations, well up to the Martial Law era, folk music has served as a vessel for passion for stories, preserving our culture, and expressing the indomitable spirit of the nation. With just how inextricably woven this genre is with the fabric of Philippine history, folk music has continuously risen as a powerful testament to resilience, identity, and a shared sense of nationalistic pride.

The Philippine Folk Scene — A Few Centuries Ago

Long before any sort of foreign influences reached the shores of the country, the indigenous era saw the birth of folk music as an integral aspect of communal life. Various tribes across the peninsula utilized this sort of music as a sacred means of storytelling, or a rhythmic retelling of myths, legends, and tales from their existence. Using indigenous instruments, these tribes encapsulated the sounds of their communal gatherings into their music –– which eventually led it to emerge as a living testament to the diverse cultures that thrived on the Philippines’ many islands.

However, with the arrival of the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, folk music became a poignant expression of resistance and resilience. Faced with religious conversion and cultural assimilation, Filipinos clung to their musical traditions as a clandestine means of preserving their identity. The “kumintang” and “balitaw” evolved as melodic forms of protest, carrying the weight of unspoken resistance against colonial oppression. Each note became a silent anthem –– a harmonious declaration that the spirit of the Philippines could not be silenced.

Following that period, the American occupation in the early 20th century ushered in new influences that eventually became interwoven with the existing folk traditions. Filipino folk music, adapting to the changing times, absorbed elements of Western musical styles. Yet, it remained distinctly Filipino, a testament to the adaptability and resilience of a culture navigating the ebb and flow of external forces. The “kundiman” with its sentimental melodies, became a symbol of both love and a yearning for national identity, reflecting the complex emotions of an era marked by transition.

Illustration by Karl Elnas.

1960s – 1970s: Folk Music as a Nationalistic Force

But as these historical periods went by, folk music eventually emerged (or as some may believe, evolved) as a potent force of nationalism. While it became the guardian of stories untold, the keeper of cultural legacies, and a resilient voice of a people asserting their identity in the face of adversity –– its mission never wavered and eventually led the genre to find a revival by the 1960s.

Fueled by a growing sense of nationalism and a desire to reconnect with cultural roots, musicians during this time sought inspiration from the indigenous sounds of the past. This pivotal period saw a rallying cry for a nation eager to assert its identity beyond the echoes of colonization. Against the backdrop of political and social upheavals of the martial law era, the folk group Asin emerged as a formidable force in the Philippines’ musical landscape. 

Their music, characterized by poignant lyrics and melodic arrangements, not only entertained but also served as a rallying cry against the authoritarian regime. Songs such as “Himig ng Pag-ibig” and “Masdan Mo Ang Kapaligiran” became anthems of resistance, embodying the spirit of a generation fighting for change. Even as you look back on it, Asin’s legacy extended beyond the realm of entertainment –– for they played a crucial role in galvanizing social movements and fostering unity during a tumultuous time.

In the early 70s, Florante, who has been recognized as the Poet Laureate of Folk, also elevated the genre with his poetic compositions. His tracks “Handog” and “Abakada” demonstrated his ability to weave intricate narratives into musical masterpieces –– becoming a literary exploration of Filipino life, culture, and societal nuances. Even his legacy is one of lyrical brilliance, which has shaped the perception of folk music as a vehicle for profound storytelling.

1980s: Bridging Indigenous Roots with Modernity and Breaking Gender Stereotypes

Eventually, the decade of the 1980s witnessed a musical revolution led by Joey Ayala, who sought to bridge the gap between indigenous sounds and contemporary folk. 

Ayala’s innovative approach, evident in songs like “Magkabilaan” and “Walang Hanggang Paalam,” showcased a harmonious fusion of tribal rhythms and modern melodies. His work became a testament to the resilience and adaptability of Filipino folk music –– proving that tradition could coexist with the avant-garde. Ayala’s musical experiments not only challenged the artistic norms of that era, but it also sparked a much-needed conversation on the preservation of indigenous cultures in the face of modernization.

On the other hand, Heber Bartolome, a minstrel for the masses, continued to utilize folk music as a platform for social commentary. His compositions, including “Tayo’y mga Pinoy” and “Lupa,” resonated with everyday Filipinos, tackling societal issues and cultivating a sense of national pride. Bartolome’s work exemplified the power of folk music as a mirror reflecting the joys, struggles, and aspirations of the common Filipino. Through that, Bartolome’s songs became anthems that fueled the spirit of resilience and unity, echoing the sentiments of a nation in flux.

Coritha, dubbed the Queen of Folk Rock, also made significant strides in the 1980s by breaking gender stereotypes within the genre. Her powerful vocals and socially relevant lyrics challenged conventional norms, adding a feminine perspective to the predominantly male folk scene at the time. Her hits, “Pinay” and “Ako’y Isang Pinoy” not only managed to highlight her vocal prowess, but it also contributed to the much-needed diversification of narratives within Filipino folk rock –– addressing topics on identity and empowerment.

1990s – Present: A Means of Honoring Tradition and Exploring Our History

By the 1990s, folk had grown past its conventional definitions and offered more than enough room for artists to play around within the genre’s realms.

One prominent figure during this era was Bayang Barrios, an influential Filipino folk singer known for her soulful voice and commitment to socially relevant themes. Similar to Ayala’s style, Barrios seamlessly combined indigenous sounds (and instruments!) from her Lumad roots with modern elements –– creating a powerful and resonant musical expression. With her lyricism tackling issues such as social justice, human rights, and the struggles of marginalized communities head-on, Barrios is recognized for inspiring a new generation of musicians to explore their cultural roots. 

As the new millennium dawned, Noel Cabangon emerged as a contemporary troubadour, infusing Filipino folk music with a modern sensibility. His soul-stirring renditions of classics and original compositions like “Kanlungan” resonated with a generation hungry for introspection and nostalgia. Cabangon’s ability to seamlessly blend traditional folk elements with a contemporary sound ensured the genre’s continued relevance. In doing so, he became a torchbearer for the ongoing and continuous evolution of Filipino folk music.

On both sides of the scene, Grace Nono’s dual role as a singer and ethnomusicologist brought a scholarly depth to Filipino folk music. With the album “Opo,” she delved into the roots of Philippine music, exploring indigenous sounds, rituals, and folk traditions. Nono’s work not only preserved these cultural elements but also presented them to a wider audience, fostering appreciation for the diversity of Filipino musical heritage.

Interestingly, it was also during this period that the 1990s also witnessed the rise of folk-inspired bands that incorporated elements of traditional music into their sound. As the mainstream soon witnessed, acts like Eraserheads, Yano, and Rivermaya blended folk sensibilities with rock, pop, and alternative influences, creating a new wave of Filipino folk-infused rock. Yet these inspirations didn’t just stop there. 

Today, we’re seeing the likes of acts like Ben&Ben, Munimuni, and The Ransom Collective who still continue to draw inspiration from regional folk traditions and have always managed to infuse their music with a distinctly Filipino flavor. The popularity of these acts combined has contributed to the mainstream acceptance of folk-inspired sounds –– reaching a wider audience and influencing subsequent generations of musicians. 

A Continuing Symphony of Tradition and Innovation

Illustration by Karl Elnas.

As exemplified by the years, the narrative of Filipino folk music is an evolving symphony –– one that is shaped by the diverse voices and perspectives of these iconic artists. From the revival in the 1960s that breathed new life into the genre to the ongoing contributions of contemporary troubadours like Noel Cabangon, each artist has left an indelible mark on Filipino folk music. The echoes of tradition harmonize seamlessly with the innovative spirit of the present and future –– ensuring that this musical genre continues to resonate, telling the stories of the Philippines across time.

As the world traverses through this harmonious odyssey through time, the legacy of Filipino folk music stands as a living testament to the resilience and unwavering pride of a people whose stories have been passed down through melodies. In each note and lyric, the spirit of the Philippines resounds as a powerful and enduring force that encapsulates the nation’s vibrant history, cultural heritage, and unyielding commitment to preserving its unique identity through the universal language of music.

As Filipino communities evolved and struggled through different points in history, folk music remained a steadfast companion –– echoing the shared experiences of triumphs, struggles, and the enduring spirit of the nation

A version of this story appeared in Billboard Philippines’ folk issue, dated February 15, 2024.