Reclaiming my Ilokano heritage

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Word has it that Laoag was beautiful so I was excited to go there, first, to honor an invitation to speak talk before the National Confederation of Cooperatives (NATCCO) made up of 650 coops all over the Philippines, and second, to visit a place I have never been.

It was also my first time to visit this Marcos enclave that, for the longest time, was not in my list of places to go to, for that reason.

I made sure I visited every site I could within the two days and one night I was there. With a vehicle provided by NATCCO and some of their members serving a tour guides, my assistant and I were off to a grand adventure.

We first went to Paoay church, which is quite beautiful and impressive, an iconic historical treasure. When we got back to the car, one of our guides asked me, quite hesitantly, if it would be all right to bring us to sights associated with the Marcos family history. I sensed the discomfort in his tone even when I immediately said yes. He said he was not sure if I would feel offended by the question. I laughed and assured him that I would find the experience most interesting.

We proceeded to the “Malacanang of the North,” a sprawling residence constructed in the Lumang Bahay style — a two-story structure with large capiz windows and huge family living rooms and terrazas for entertaining visitors. A few rooms had some memorabilia of Imelda and Ferdinand. But what impressed me most was the view of the landscape along Paoay Lake from the second floor terraza.

According to our guides, until recently, the Marcoses would stay in that house on occasion. But since the government seized the property, which was built on public land about a month ago, it is unlikely that their vacations there will continue.
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We then took a quick drive to Sarrat to see the church were Irene Marcos and Greggy Araneta were married in the ‘80s. We capped the day’s tour by visiting the Laoag Kapitolyo where Governor Imee Marcos holds office. I was surprised that within seconds after I got out of the car to take photos, a group of journalists recognized me and began interviewing me about why I was in Laoag. Was I there for sightseeing? A courtesy call, perhaps? I merely smiled in response.

Soon after, the head of security and some passers-by came up to have their pictures taken with me. I was actually surprised by this. I did not think I would have fans in this part of the country where my political opinions could be anathema to the majority. At best, I expected some politeness, but I was amazed at the warm greetings and affection that I experienced not just in Laoag but practically everywhere we went in so-called Marcos country.

The next day, we drove to the mausoleum where the late Ferdinand’s corpse lay preserved in wax. I had seen pictures of it but seeing it “live” (no pun intended) evoked different feelings in me. Here was a man who had dominated so much of my generations’ formative and adult years. Mostly, he instilled fear and loathing.

Countless conversations, speculations, and for many of us, our hopes and dreams for the future, were shaped largely by this powerful dictator. Some of my classmates lost their lives under military rule.

Marcos sowed fear and disillusionment among many of my generation. And yet, there he was, lying before me — a small man who hardly looked like what he was when he was alive and omnipotent. The dramatically lighted elevated coffin, the solemn music, and the feigned “reverence” effect the curators tried to create, hardly made a dent on me.

Gawking tourists were whisked by too quickly and we only had a few seconds to absorb the surreal scene. To me, he did not look at all like a great man who could have sung My Way with commitment. In fact, he looked puny and concocted in his waxen state.

Furthermore, he was dead. And I am alive living in a country now governed by the son of his most bitter enemy. I smiled at that extreme irony.

We then drove to Bangui, an hour and half from Laoag to see the wind turbines along the coast. I was quite impressed by these engineering marvels, solid environmental structures that we should consider assembling in different parts of the country.

We took our lunch in one of the nipa hut eateries along the beach that served native dishes such bagnet, pakbet, freshly-caught squid and rice. Too soon after, we had to rush back to Laoag for my talk before the NATCCO delegates.

The topic of my inspirational talk was excellence, leadership and volunteerism, which was received quite well, thank God. I then opened myself to questions from the audience. There were a lot of questions that were artistic, social and political in nature. And there was a gentleman who asked if I could please share my thoughts and feelings about being in Marcos country.

I hesitated for a moment, knowing that I could be treading on dangerous ground if I was too honest. But what the heck, I decided to tell it the way it is.

I told him that I found Laoag and its surrounding towns very beautiful and that I was proud of the fact that I am of Ilokano descent, my father being from Bangued, Abra. I said I would like to return with my family and learn more about this part of the Philippines.

I then told him that seeing the waxen body of Marcos at the mausoleum brought mixed feelings. Here was a man who, when I think about it, actually taught me so much about democracy, human rights, fairness and decency by the way he so brazenly trashed these values. I said that perhaps his role in my generation’s life was to set a negative example for us to learn the opposite. I also observed the truism that in death, this once rich and powerful man could not take his power and material wealth with him.

But I added that, Marcos’ brilliance could not be denied.

I was quite surprised at the audience’s reaction. They applauded.

The two days in Laoag gifted me with two epiphanies. First, that Laoag is as much my country and everyone else’s as it is the Marcoses.’ I should visit the northern part of the Philippines more.

These two days in Laoag also made me reflect on the power structure in the Ilokos which remains highly traditional. Are there other leaders from this region aside from the negative example of Ferdinand Marcos and the current warlords who dominate its politics, and the revered Diego and Gabriela Silang, who have that desirable quality of greatness that could change the Philippines for the better?

The Ilokos region has malingered in traditional politics for too long. There must be people out there who can bring out the true greatness of the Ilokano by contributing to the best interests of the entire nation.

The second is a new desire to get in touch with my rich Ilokano heritage. While I grew up in Manila and have only been to Abra twice, and once to Laoag, my relatives on my father’s side are Ilokanos. My siblings and I were raised in a household ran by Ilokana yayas and all our maids were Ilokano. Two of my older siblings speak Ilokano.

I can trace my musical roots to my great grandfather Lucas who wrote zarzuelas, an uncle also called Lucas, who wrote music and played a mean jazz piano, and my father Jess, who learned to play the piano by ear and, I was told, rendered Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue beautifully.

Perhaps I should give my Ilokano genes more credit than I have in the past and embrace my Ilokano heritage more as part of who I am.

The enchanted life

By Jim Paredes

As a photographer, I am always looking for subjects to shoot. They could be big or small wonders of nature, people, situations, buildings, an object, anything that can tell a story however short or long. My desire is to capture them from my point of view share them. In the process, I have learned to pay attention as much as I can to everything around me.

Even before taking up the camera, I had already made efforts to try to be observant. It is not that difficult since I have a natural curiosity for things and people. As an artist, I think this is important to have. I have made songs inspired by things someone has said, about the beauty of women, historic experiences I have been witness to, and the many waves of sadness and joys, dramatic or otherwise, that have touched the shores of my emotional life.

Being observant, or paying attention is the key to having access to enchantment and inspiration. And to one whose eyes are open, the world is overflowing with things of beauty and wonder to constantly crow about. I can get quite excited about what may seem ordinary to many people–leaves on the ground, sunsets, faces of regular people, shapes and textures of things, contrasts, the play of shadow and light on objects, the female form, landscapes, practically anything. I especially enjoy portraying ordinary things in new ways by capturing them with new angles or points of views as they interact with their surroundings.

The process of paying attention requires one to have the mind of a conspiracy theorist which rejects the usual explanations and ways of explaining and understanding something, and instead will find an angle that no one has thought of. It is a mind that likes to connect things in unpredictable wayds, to uncover or make new relationships or meanings between disparate objects, of previously unrelated events, of people and circumstances, and present new ways of looking and understanding them.
Always looking for a new story, or an old one but retelling it in a new way, the creative mind is always in search of the unique, and likes erasing the dots previously connected and reconnecting them for new configurations.

Try to play this game in your mind: imagine that everything that you encounter everyday shows up precisely to meet the appointment it has with you. Take a look at the meat or fish you are having for lunch. Imagine what it took to bring this precise food on the table. Who caught the fish, or killed the animal? Which market was it sold in? Imagine how exactly THIS particular meat ended up on your plate. Isn’t that mindboggling? When you try to imagine the history, circumstances and the possible implications to you of why something is there in front of you, it can leave you speechless.
Now apply this to other things, to the people you meet, the places and surroundings you see, the encounters you do not usually give any thought or attention to. Looking at things through the portal of wonder can make everything absolutely amazing that one can’t help but see ‘this and that’ as elements of a divinely inspired ‘plan’ or conspiracy.

Enchantment presumes a capability to have a fresh mind capable of dropping previously fixed set meanings of things, existing relationships and imagining new ways to perceive them.

The minds of poets, painters, musicians, artists of all kinds seem more attuned to this kind of looking at life. They know how to create worlds, and can easily make mountains out of molehills in a good way. They live for moments when they can take the magic wand of creativity and imbue the ordinary, the mundane, the normal with magical powers to surprise and delight their audiences.

Is this kind of perception only available to artists and the like? While it is common to them, I think anyone can develop it. You will need to learn three things to be able to do this.

Firstly, you must entertain your imagination. You must allow it to fly freely, to allow it to go anywhere without censoring. This is easier said than done. Often we do not allow ourselves to wander and entertain thoughts that are not socially approved or may not be morally acceptable. It goes without saying that you must be able to suspend judgments, conclusions and allow new ideas and ways of looking at things to take charge.

Secondly, you must develop a grateful heart. This is important because only the grateful can see blessings and gifts everywhere. If you are not capable of appreciating the small things, you may even miss out on the big things. Believe me, there is a lot of inspiration inside you and out there that are just everywhere for the taking.

Thirdly, you must make it a discipline. Yes, you must make the first two rules a practice until it becomes second nature to you. The capacity to be enchanted by everything is a wonderful gift that will bring you great opportunities to be creative and whole!

Take note that there is a lightness component to all of this. By this I mean one must be able to not take oneself too seriously. There will be times when you will be more creative than at other times. For the moments when you are not inspired, relax and just accept it. Shrug it off. Try not to be too judgmental towards yourself.

To be enchanted is to be able to suspend disbelief. It means that we must entertain the thought that anything is possible. Without this, we will not be able to detect the ‘impossible’ even if it does happen. Notice how the saddest people on earth are also the hardest to please? They are also very serious people. They are stuck in a world of expectations, meanings they can’t suspend or drop for the sake of entertaining other possibilities.

I leave you with a quote from German essayist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal. He says, “Reality lies in the greatest enchantment you have ever experienced.” I truly believe this. Reality can be the greatest ‘escape’ you can ever have if you are capable of inspired living.

Music then and now

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 18, 2014 – 12:00am

I have not written too much about music. I find writing about music difficult. Some things are best experienced rather than tossed about in your head and later on laid out and written down logically for people to read. It is easier to experience the Beatles by listening rather than reading about them.

Recently, I gave a talk about creativity and sound. I was invited as a musician to talk about my process of music creativity. I touched on my own early encounter with music and how it became central to my life. In the process, I noticed that the topic of music creativity lent itself to other topics such as self-discovery, spirituality, and personal awakening.

This article will be a simpler discussion. I will share my general thoughts on music as I experienced it growing up and what I think about it in the present.

As a family, there was always music in our house. Instead of spending hours of our childhood watching TV as most families did, we spent it around the music player (or the hi-fi set as it was called in the ‘50s).

We had a few vinyl records. They were mostly American hits, folk songs by the Kingston Trio, Belafonte, Disney albums, Broadway musicals, etc. I remember being so captivated by the recorded sound that I played our records over and over until I memorized practically all of them. I can still remember a good part of them to this day.

It was not hard to understand why I asked for a guitar during my early adolescence. By that time, I had discovered the British Pop invasion and the unraveling of the post-Elvis new music in the US. It was all very exciting. I learned every song I could on the guitar and memorized a whole lot of songs. As far as I was concerned, music was the most important thing in the world and my guitar was the way to know and enjoy music.

Artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Peter Paul and Mary, Marvin Gaye, Jimmy Web, The Temptations and many of the icons of that era of the ‘60s through the ‘70s formed my musical taste. I felt that by learning the songs on guitar, I could learn the songwriting secrets of the best and the brightest musicians of my generation. I learned a lot and in the process and eventually became a songwriter, producer and performer.

The ‘80s brought in music videos and synthesizers. I noticed that the music world quickly changed. All of a sudden, songs had a visual component. When I first saw music videos, I did not know how to feel about it. Not too long after, I decided I did not like them. I felt then that music with videos left very little to the imagination. It was like force-feeding your audience images to stop them from imagining on their own. It seemed to me as though artists wanted greater control on how their audience should react to their music. I also noticed that because of videos, so much mediocre or even bad music began to “look” good, and some good music actually suffered because of bad videos.

Also, with the advent of synthesizers, musicians did not need to learn the chops to play good music anymore. They could now simply cut and paste music, speed up or slow down their playing, or play a song on one instrument like a keyboard, and hear it played back on another like a guitar. Anyone could do music with synthesizers and anyone could sing with the new voice gadgets. While it is true that the new technology of synthesizers and sequencers democratized music creation, it also ensured the massive proliferation of soul-less mediocrity.

I am not alone in saying that the late ‘80s and ‘90s music did not seem to have the same level of quality that ‘70s music had. There was a general sameness in much of the music being created. There was a deficit in imagination. Most of the music was “blah” compared to the glorious ‘70s.

And to me, it did not really get better in the new millennium. Too many people still sound the same. The songs have short, boring hooks that hardly get my attention or interest. More than good melodies and great lyrics, artists now project more hype and attitude than originality and good playing. Many concerts have become primarily visual extravaganzas and mass spectacle rather than exciting, original musical experiences.

Unlike in the ‘70s, there seem to be very few “organic” artists and music makers coming up these days. When I say “organic,” I am talking about artists who are completely original like Dylan, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson and the like who introduced listeners to new, greater experiences of what music could be. They spoke in innovative and clear voices. They thrilled, enthralled, inspired, influenced, shaped and challenged their generation. They were musical giants compared to much of today’s popular artists who merely titillate, amuse and shock mostly through banality and spectacle. I am not even sure if the music industry today could recognize or be interested in an organic artist if they saw one.

I must confess there are only a few artists I enjoy and most of them are not even of the ‘90s or of the present. Among today’s artists, I would consider David Mathews awesome.

I have been listening for years now to artists from different parts of the world. I love Brazilian and Latin music in general. I have not bought any new CDs that were on the US Top 40 playlist the past two decades. I generally shun “commercial” music. I make no apologies about being a snob. Generally, I search for maverick, unknown acts that have something new to say and have yet to hit mainstream.

I have always believed that creators should primarily ask themselves what they want to say first and foremost, and then figure out how they can make their music palatable to their listeners. In today’s world, many artists firstly ask what the market wants, and then mold themselves to fit and cash in on it.

To each his own, I guess.

But I sense the difference between artists who stay on and become icons, and those who are merely “flashes in the pan” lies in the originality and uniqueness of their content.

How does music become universal? For it to become so, the personal, local touch and the truth must shine beyond its intended local audience. What gets people to like something foreign is when the song despite its localized flavor can show a commonality of experience with other nationalities.

Koreans are making it in the world as Koreans and even singing in Korean. So did the Brazilians, Jamaicans, Japanese, Africans, Cubans in the past. I am hoping that one day soon, OPM will also come into its own and contribute to the world.

I know young people may not agree with my views. Maybe I am just too old school. I won’t deny that. And I will also admit that despite my earlier comment, I like some music videos that achieve a spectacular marriage of light and sound. Some cynics suggest that perhaps much of rock ‘n’ roll and pop may have run its course and something new must happen. I don’t know.

I just hope that a new vibrant musical era begins again where artists rediscover the power of substance over style, message over attitude, honesty and integrity over excessive commercialism. I like the music world to be run by music creators, songwriters and true lovers of music, not just the music business.

On becoming a people person

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 11, 2014 – 12:00am

I can finally say that I am a people person.

I wasn’t born like this. For years, I was extremely shy and had such a hard time taking the initiative to join a group activity, start a conversation or make a friendship. I was a lonely introvert who felt happy and functional mostly in one-on-one situations, or in the company of really close friends and family.

Growing up, I kept most of my teenage angst to myself, maybe sharing just a little with my girlfriends. I might say I was a serious, brooding, moody and withdrawn person when I was young.

Even when I was already performing with APO, I felt uneasy being recognized on the street and praised, even if, admittedly, I craved the approbation. If you went up to me in the early years and told me how much you liked something I had done, I would have seriously considered the possibility that you were greasing up to me to sell me something.

I suffered from being insecure, and at times felt incapable of being content and at peace with myself. I was my own most vicious critic. I knew how to beat myself up and I did it often. Little did I know that behind that inner tempest was a laboratory that was cooking up something.

It took me a while to find out what it was until one day, I realized that I was probably on my way to becoming an artist. An artist — yes, a title conferred by the world upon many people I admired. I initially recoiled at the thought, thinking that I must be suffering from a great self-delusion, megalomania or a grandiosity complex. It took a few more years before I could accept it beyond intellectual understanding to an emotional one. And once I did, I pushed myself to become a fairly competent artist.

My journey to self-acceptance was slow but it led me to a place that became increasingly comfortable as I traveled on. The deeper I went into the woods, the more I began to feel more at home with myself. Things felt right. I even began to see that what I perceived as my faults and imperfections were part of my character that somehow brought an identity to my work.

And as I became more accepting of myself, I began to be more accepting of others and started to enjoy the company of more diverse kinds of people. I ventured out of the comfort zone of my usual circle of friends in show business and cultivated intimate friendships with other kinds of people that I could not have done before. When I learned to let go of a lot of my self-absorption and began to listen, I felt even more creative as an artist.

I began to enjoy my music and performances more and more as I watched people enjoy them. My growing confidence in my chosen field led me to writing, which I have been doing for more than a decade now. I also got into teaching in a university and conducting workshops.

I can describe the process I went through as something of a “creative opening” or an “awakening.” I learned to trust my intuition more and I was eager to share my work with other people.

Looking back, since then, I have been riding a streak of creativity which ebbs and flows, but has not stopped. I feel that I have tapped into the energy of the universe and I have that power to “drink the Pacific Ocean in one gulp,” to borrow a Zen imagery.

All these things have made opening myself to others and allowing them into my world a most pleasurable experience. I have lost nothing by doing it. In fact, I have gained so much by meeting others and listening to their stories.

I actually hold dinners for people I do not know. I call these events Passion Nights where I ask strangers over to talk about themselves as the evening unravels.

There is no one out there who does not have a story to tell and I try to look at every person I meet as the bringer of a message, a lesson or an interaction that may have been divinely planned. Some of them will speak clearly and some will be vague and enigmatic. The encounters do not all have to be pleasant or agreeable, but they may be part of some higher purpose that is beyond my understanding.

Am I denying my private space by allowing people access to my thoughts and ideas? Have I become someone who merely plays for the crowd? Have I become addicted to engagement, like a politician who must feel the approval of the masses to feel validated? These are questions that I ask myself and the answer is no! I can retreat into my cave when I need solace. I do not associate being alone with loneliness.

What every artist eventually does is reach out to an audience to show his or her work. One cannot conceive of a world, of any art itself, much less create it, and keep it locked away from possible criticism or praise. Eventually, all art must be released into the world. Heck, even the platypus and the proboscis monkey saw life!

There is saying that goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I believe that when a person has found what he or she wishes to say, an audience will be there to listen.

And that is how, in a convoluted way, I have evolved into a people person.

Fearless predictions

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated May 4, 2014 –

I recently attended a forum on the future of media and its impact on different aspects of our lives. The discussion was mostly about social media; the attendees were interested to know the thoughts of online personalities and their take on the future in different fields.

I was assigned to discuss the changes I predict will happen in the lifestyle arena. Since I had to put on my “manghuhula” cap to come up with predictions, I decided to approach the task the way I use social media — with seriousness, levity and irreverence. I hope you can tell which mode I was in while making each of these predictions, some of which I posted earlier on Twitter and Facebook.

1. A woman will conceive via Wi-Fi within the next five years. But paternity will be difficult to establish because of the Wi-Fi’s lack of a password and encryption.

2. In two years, prayers before meals will be replaced by each member of the family taking pictures of the food for Instagram.

3. A personal black box will be invented that will record the physical condition, conversations, activities and sights seen by a person in the event that he dies unexpectedly. It will be in the shape of a tiny ball implanted in the scrotum. With the penis serving as antenna, it will continue to ping like the real black box found in airplanes for a full month until the battery runs out.

4. People will tire of posting food photos before eating. The new trend will be to post food photos after digestion.

5. Restaurants will start to offer “flavored Wi-Fi” to go with the food you order.

6. If Andy Warhol predicted in the ‘60s that everyone would be famous for at least 15 minutes, in the near future, everyone will be famous or infamous for at least a tweet, an FB post, or a blog entry. With the tools of social media available to all, each person in the world will potentially be a power center of influence, albeit fleeting.

7. A great number of people will voluntarily upload sex videos to end the anxiety about personal scandal. If everyone uploads his or her own sex video, it’s one less worry off people’s backs. What else can one possibly do to shock the public after that?

8. We will see the world as borderless. Because most everyone will have become a netizen in the next five years, we will have emotional investments in places and peoples we used to not even think about, much less cared for. We will finally realize that we are all part of one humanity.

9. Chaperoning young teens when they go out on dates will be a thing of the past. Instead, strict parents will monitor their children’s body parts by embedding them with CCTV cameras to protect their chastity and to monitor overall sexual behavior.

10. Sadly, we will give up more and more of our privacy. But the issue will be reframed into one of “personal sovereignty” and this will capture the imagination of a lot of people. (I am not sure if I read this somewhere so please consider this as a disclaimer, just in case.)

11. Safe sex advocates will realize that online sex is, in fact, the safest sex of all and will ask for its legalization.

12. A cult will rise that will look at the present times as the end times and interpret the trials and condemnation of famous people like Oscar Pistorius, et al as the beginning of Judgment Day where everyone’s sins will be known and judged by everyone else.

13. People will be able to have complete romantic relationships without ever having met. They will fall in love with projections they and their partners send out through social media. But their relationships can also end just as quickly with a delete button when the “thrill” is gone.

14. The battle about when to use and not use social media in public will continue to be endlessly debated. Therefore, there will be as many “free” Wi-Fi zones everywhere as there will be WiFi-free zones.

15. Social media will force major religions to overhaul their practices and even some of their beliefs. There will be “monks without monasteries,” as intuitive healer and writer Carolyn Myss describes people who are not religious but highly spiritual. Literalism and dogmatism will eventually give way to the more persuasive, more engaging power of the symbolic that people will appreciate more.

16. It has always been my belief that the Internet is the physical infrastructure we need to allow people everywhere to experience the Oneness we all long for. The religions that embody the spirit of Oneness and consistently pass on the experience to humanity in a renewable way will be the dominant religion of the future.

17. When famous people die, their social media accounts will be auctioned off like real properties and personal belongings, so that buyers who are fans can continue running them.

18. Lastly, the Google Glass gadget will be extremely popular and will evolve into “Google Skin.” This gadget, which will cover the entire body, can be instructed verbally to make the wearer feel many sensations that a real body can, and more. For example, you can order it to make your nose experience certain smells like your favorite cologne.