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Reflections on OPM: Foundation for Philippine Progress & NWFASA 2023 Collaboration

August 20th, 2023 | By Jan Edrozo

Isip Amerikano, pusong Pilipino. Utak Amerikano, pusong Pilipino.

Kuya Roger Rigor, long-time educator, community advocate & OPM proponent (being one of the original members of VST & Company), leads the Foundation for Philippine Progress (FPP) OPM workshop at the NWFASA 2023 Conference standing in front of a purple, magenta screen with OPM in bold. .
Kuya Roger Rigor, long-time educator, community advocate & OPM proponent (being one of the original members of VST & Company), leads the Foundation for Philippine Progress (FPP) OPM workshop at the NWFASA 2023 Conference at Saint Martin's University in Lacey, Washington. Original image courtesy of: Benneth J. A. Sison, Structural Engineer, NWFASA Photographer & Video Contributor

Isip Amerikano, pusong Pilipino. Utak Amerikano, pusong Pilipino”. Kuya Roger Rigor repeats these words, pointing to his temple, and then to his heart. “Mind of an American. Heart of a Filipino.Kuya’s words echo in the warm community room of Saint Martin’s University. It’s a cloudy Saturday afternoon in Lacey, Washington and no one seems to notice the light pitter patter of rain pelting against the glass pane windows. Instead, students listen intently as discussion of Original Pilipino Music (OPM) opens.

On April 15th, 2023, I had the rare opportunity to volunteer with the Foundation for Philippine Progress at the Northwest Filipino-American Student Alliance (NWFASA) annual conference. NWFASA, a collective of Filipino youth and collegiate-student organizations across the Pacific Northwest, finally rolled out its first ever in-person regional conference since the pandemic.

For some students, this was their first time meeting their peers over a series of workshops and activities; for others, this was a reunion almost three years in the making. The spring conference, hosted on the sprawling verdant grounds of Saint Martin’s University, is a weekend-long event for students to learn about leadership, networking, and team building.

The annual NWFASA conference enables students to build a strong and unified Filipino/a/x community between all participating organizations, increases education, awareness and promotes student activism and involvement.

Jordan Faralan, community advocate and National Chairperson for Anakbayan-USA based in Seattle, opens as a keynote speaker at the  a NWFASA 2023 conference.
Jordan Faralan, a social justice youth worker, community organizer, and National Chairperson for Anakbayan-USA based in Seattle, opens as a keynote speaker at the a NWFASA 2023 conference. Original image courtesy of: Benneth J. A. Sison, Structural Engineer, NWFASA Photographer & Video Contributor

Jordan Faralan, a NWFASA 2023 keynote speaker and the National Chairperson for Anakbayan-USA based in Seattle, explains:

“The theme for NWFASA conference this year is ‘Magsamasama at Sumibol’, which is essentially blooming together as one”.

She likens the diasporic nature of our Filipino community - where an estimated 10 million Filipinos are abroad and/or working overseas - to seeds blown and scattered across the world. Though they were swept away from their homeland by historic winds of time, eventually they take root, adjust, and grow to bloom. Jordan hopes that the conference will help attendees “feel the unity and the growth that has been happening among them whether they knew it or not for the last several years even under the pandemic.”

Jordan Faralan, a social justice youth worker and event curator seeking platforms to uplift community art & culture through interactive storytelling and innovative execution, explains the theme of the much-anticipated NWFASA 2023 conference as cherry blossoms are in full bloom, spring, and a mix of excitement and inspiration are in the air.
Jordan Faralan engages with students and explains the theme of the much-anticipated NWFASA 2023 conference as cherry blossoms are in full bloom, spring, and a mix of excitement and inspiration are in the air.

In the spirit of "Magsamasama at Sumibol" and blooming together to further Filipino community development and advancement, the Foundation for Philippine Progress partnered with NWFASA to host an interactive OPM workshop as part of the conference’s activities. The educational workshop contextualizes the history of OPM and analyzes its socio-political-cultural impact.

Foundation for Philippine Progress at NWFASA 2023 Presents

Original Pinoy Music (OPM) in America: Cultural Roots and the Blooming of Fil-Am[erican] Identity in Contemporary Pop Culture

Roger Rigor or Kuya Roger, as many students better know him, is a beloved educator, community advocate, and the acting Board Vice-President of the Foundation for Philippine Progress. This year he was also appointed as one of the NWFASA 2023 conference keynote speakers, and currently leads the foundation’s OPM workshops.

As one of the original members of the renowned Filipino disco band of the 70s, VST & Company, Kuya Roger commands a level of authority and engages students in thought-provoking discussion as the OPM workshop explores the search, expression, and ultimate reclaiming of Filipino identity through the lens of music. When asked what he hopes students gain when attending the workshop, Kuya Roger takes a moment to contemplate his response:

First off, I’d like to just say that these students make up the new generation of Filipino-Americans who are more aware of their roots, simply because of the current technology that allows them to literally feel being back in the Philippines. Having said that, music and the arts, culture, history, even Philippine society as it evolves along their virtual commute with their families, become very familiar, if not personal.

So, how this connects to OPM: music is part of a people, their sentiments, and the social environment of their times…I describe OPM as sort of a release from western cultural hegemony – when once-upon-a-time, we were judged by how great copycats we were of western pop icons…to appreciate the fact that there was a decade in the 70s when pop and ethnic artists became aware of their rich culture and diversity…and only now, are we reviving that energy.

The least that I would like the students to feel after they attend this workshop is for them to realize that there is richness in our culture and our history; that expressing this richness at this juncture of our history, has a purpose and it cannot be more urgent.

If one is an artist, they recognize the significant role of culture; of art that is truly based on our people’s struggles and quest for emancipation…that they can get a glimpse of this in what OPM was, an overview of the past and an expression of hope as we all move forward to a brighter tomorrow."

Kuya Roger Rigor in front of purple OPM presentation and  engages with students at the FPP & NWFASA 2023 OPM Workshop.
Kuya Roger Rigor engages with students at the FPP & NWFASA 2023 OPM Workshop. Image courtesy of: Benneth J. A. Sison, Structural Engineer, NWFASA Photographer & Video Contributor

Students' faces glow, alit with purple and gold as Kuya Roger points to images and timelines showcasing the evolution and eventual birthing of OPM. Against a backdrop of a technological, socio-political and cultural change, we listen to sound bytes from Eddie Mesa, Diomedes Maturan, and Elizabeth Ramsey from the 50s, which depict the so-called copycat era when music from the Philippines was not entirely “original”, but rather emulated and took inspiration from current (western) world trends.

The slides continue and we witness how the advent of electric instruments welcomed in new bands like RJ & The Riots and the “MASA” Idols while the 60s’ flower power was highlighted in music best exemplified by Juan de la Cruz or Tessy Alfonso (Sampaguita). Notes of colonial influences, escapist lyrics, and imagery of love and colorful dance floors flood the room as we enter the 70s and listen to the new era of Manila sound that defines iconic bands and musicians: from Roxas Boulevard Bands, Frictions, APO Hiking Society, and VST & Company to Florante de Leon, a pioneer and leading advocate for Pinoy folk rock.

By the 80s, Filipino legends like Joey Ayala, well-known for his love of indigenous Filipino instruments, heralded Philippine ethnic music as he combined sounds of Filipino ethnic instruments with modern pop music. Meanwhile Filipino folk musician and singer-songwriter, Freddie Aguilar, crafted songs that targeted social injustices. Aguilar’s popular rendition of "Bayan Ko" would eventually become the anthem of the opposition against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos during the 1986 People Power Revolution. This growing body of Philippine musical social artists ushered in the dawn of OPM.

Original Philippine / Pilipino / Pinoy Music

OPM blended Spanish and American influences while incorporating Filipino instruments and traditions like the Harana and Kundiman - serenades that characterized romantic pursuits with gentle wooing using love songs often performed communally. After all, traditional courtship in the Philippines did not just involve two people, but their families as well. This long-held family value stems from the respect that a man is expected to have not just for the woman, but for the community of people who love and raised her.

OPM. Original Philippine Musicians finally found their voice. They crafted songs that contextualized their unique perspectives and environments; nodding to ancestral roots with indigenous instruments and honoring their heritage of romance. OPM inspires dialogue reflecting on all matters of the Filipino heart - pusong Pilipino.

Reflections on OPM & Filipinx Identity

Kuya Roger Rigor discussing OPM history and national identity at the FPP & NWFASA 2023 OPM Workshop.
Kuya Roger Rigor discusses OPM history and Philippine identity at the FPP & NWFASA 2023 OPM Workshop. Image courtesy of: Benneth J. A. Sison, Structural Engineer, NWFASA Photographer & Video Contributor

Kuya Roger explains that while OPM was a term that was established in the 70s and 80s as a way to label Philippine pop ballads of their time, it is now a catch-all term for a variety of music produced by Filipinos. Reflecting on modern day OPM, he proceeds to highlight OPM artists like Ruby Ibarra, a Filipino American music producer, who raps in Tagalog, Waray, and English and contextualizes her lyrical, edgy music with concerns of cultural heritage weaved into her own immigrant experience as a Philippine-born immigrant in the United States.

Kuya Roger pauses, and turns to the group to pose a question:

How is OPM different from Western Americanized music? Is it even different?”

The room grows quiet. An internal dialogue occurs before the room erupts again in chatter to discuss thoughts on OPM and inevitably Filipino/a/x identity.

Foundation for Philippine Progress & NWFASA 2023 OPM Workshop attendees connecting with Kuya Roger and relating on their experiences with Filipinx identity through the lens of OPM
FPP & NWFASA 2023 OPM Workshop attendees relating on their experiences with Filipinx identity through the lens of OPM: April Yabes (left), Daniel Caldeira, Kuya Roger Rigor, Emma Cavin, Alex Villamor, and Kennedy Jurada-Cain.

April Yabes, a first generation student at Central Washington University and Filipino American Student Association (FASA) Vice President, signed up for the OPM workshop because she wanted to learn more and noted:

“I needed to enlighten myself in that genre and, since I’m not very musically inclined, I felt like I should also learn more about that aspect of being a Filipino […] just being in that workshop gave me a reconnecting with my own roots.”

During the workshop, April reflected on her immigrant experience in the US and expressed a particular need to learn more about Filipino culture, history and her own identity despite being born and raised in the Philippines; an archipelago colonized by Spain for 333 years and later, by the US for another half century. Recognizing the adverse effects of colonial mentality, she’s still coming to terms with what it means to be Filipino - particularly in America, where cultural assimilation is all too common in the proverbial land of an immigrant melting pot. The need to heal, decolonize, and (re)define Filipino identity becomes an ever-lingering, omnipresent question. April is not alone.

Another FASA student hailing from Central Washington University, Emma Cavin, is a second generation student and identifies herself as Filipino-American: half Filipino and half White. As someone reconciling with two identities, she relates:

“I attended the workshop because I wanted to know more about the Philippines, the history, so I can get a grasp on Filipino culture better [and] I can incorporate it into my life.”

Emma expressed a hesitance to call herself “fully” Filipino because she lives a predominantly western life in the US, but noted a key moment during the workshop that gave her a breath of reassurance. It was when Kuya Roger pointed to their minds: “Isip… Utak Amerikano” and in tandem, students touched their hearts: “Pusong Pilipino”. Though small, for Emma, the gesture felt significant. “That resonated with me a lot especially since I was trying to find my Filipino roots", she says; agreeing that though our minds may be of American upbringing, we could still be united by our Philippine hearts.

Emma was thankful for the foundation's workshop and Kuya Roger’s insights. It was a moment that freed her from a false dichotomy. She allowed herself grace; giving her permission to embrace her own unique perspective being both Filipino and American. She welcomed a new source of pride in being a blend of both worlds.

Kennedy Jurada-Cain, another first generation college student and Filipino American Student Association Officer who attended the workshop with Emma, shared a similar experience:

“I just wanted to learn more about Filipino music in general because I felt like I didn’t have too much knowledge of it [...] I have a small playlist of Filipino songs and stuff like that beforehand” (pointing to Spotify on his phone) “but I didn’t really know the history or the general impact that Filipino artists have.”

Also having a mixed heritage background like Emma, Kennedy felt a renewed sense of pride in his Filipino identity when reflecting on OPM.

“When I think of OPM, I think of a blend of different styles [...] people of mixed Filipino heritage creating their own music and being proud to represent being Filipino even if they weren’t born or raised in the Philippines.”

Kennedy appreciated Kuya Roger’s rundown of OPM history and the discussions in the workshop that encouraged participants to not just note the timeline of music, but consider how OPM artists inspire personal introspection while awakening a larger social consciousness to the Philippine perspective: “I was personally surprised by how big of an impact that Philippines has had on the music industry [...] and how influential Filipino artists were.” Kennedy is joined by several other students whose initial encounters with OPM started as friends' suggestions or on their phones where Spotify and/or Youtube algorithms recommended artists both new and old.

During discussion, Alex Villamor, a second generation student at Central Washington University scrolls through his Spotify app to highlight some recent tunes he’s listened to - from Freddie Aguilar classics to more modern Zack Tabudlo pop culture hits. Alex was drawn to the workshop out of curiosity:

“Music is a big part of my life. I’m also a musician, I play piano guitar, [and] other instruments so I like learning about different types of music in any genre - especially [because] I wanted to connect more with my culture.”

During the workshop, he shared:

“What surprised me was that OPM wasn’t really original back then, and it took the western style and tried to incorporate it into Filipino culture. Now it’s so much more distinct. I’d say it’s also a combination of many more things now, but it creates a really new sound which is really nice.”

When asked what qualities of OPM stood out to him when he started listening to the genre more, Alex reflects on his own limitations as a Filipino American who feels hindered by his current inability to speak Tagalog fluently. He agrees that there is a power, a particular beauty in OPM. In spite of language barriers, OPM for him, is very much an emotional and familial experience. Whether it's from the tone of voice or intonation, he describes that:

“Definitely for me, even if I don’t really know how to speak Tagalog or don’t really understand it, it’s still resonating with me”.

Alex adds that his father, who immigrated from the Philippines in the 80s to the US, is also a musician. Alex enjoys playing and relating to his father with music. It became a healthy medium, a shared common ground for them to communicate and express themselves - a bridge that not only promotes family bonding, but fosters a deeper connection to his own Filipino roots.

What is OPM to you? Why is OPM important for our community?

Kuya Roger sits in front of workshop with "Solidarity Forever!" sticker on his laptop as he walks through OPM wokshop and students discuss how OPM expressed the struggles of human rights development in the Philippines
Kuya Roger looks pensively into the crowd as students relate to OPM and discuss how it is a conduit for creative expression of love, the struggle, and hope that inspires collective action towards Philippine progress.

Kuya Roger implored the crowd framing questions like "What is OPM to you?" and "Why is OPM important for our community"? Wanting to weigh in on his thoughts, I asked Kuya the same questions. He replied:

“The term OPM suggests a realization of being a Filipino artist, expressing what is meaningful to them through their unique perspective of struggle and perseverance…that we are now able to create songs in our uniqueness in culture, having a diversity of languages, expressions, nuances, and artistry. It is important for our young artists to know that OPM is the seed that can bring forth a full blossoming of Filipino[(a/x)] expressions, of its aspirations and of its pride…. mindful of the current challenges of the times upon its people, its home and its nation…”

These questions remain with me long after Kuya Roger’s OPM workshops end. Even weeks after the conference, I found myself nodding in agreement with students who reflected on their experiences searching for what it meant to be Filipino and learning even more in the process as they discovered OPM gems - struck by notes that just “hit different”.

Thinking back to my initial encounter with OPM, I distinctly remember searching for Filipino music after I exhausted my Spotify playlists littered with Korean, Vietnamese / Vietnamese American, Japanese, Spanish, even French musicians. It was late into the night, at the height of the pandemic, with the blaring screens of my monitor - I found myself scrolling… asking:

Where are we?

Where... who is my community?

Who are our Filipino artists, musicians, and xyz?

What started as an initial spark of curiosity eventually led to an insatiable need to learn more. Spotify, Youtube algorithms, family and friends fed me Filipino artist recommendations. I listened and sang along to words I didn’t quite understand, yet my heart understood. I cried. I researched translations and occasionally grew frustrated with Google search results that were lacking in cultural interpretation. I yearned for learning, a deeper understanding - I wanted more.

I was born in Ilocos Norte, Philippines and immigrated to Seattle when I was three. As an Ilocano, I also did not learn the country’s main language, Tagalog, as that was not the language primarily spoken at home. Concerned about being placed in ESL classes, my parents felt it would be better to have me stick with just English.

Fast forward to 2021 and at the height of the pandemic, I was researching lyric translations of APO Hiking Society’s “Panalangin (prayer) song all so that I could sing a prayer for a loved one sick with cancer over the phone - a gesture of love since I could not hug or hold him in person. Not with quarantine. Not with thousands of miles keeping us apart. I memorized lines from Silent Santuary’s “Sa'yo” (particularly drawn to a cover by Ysabelle Cuevas) and sung along to Zack Tabudlo’s “Binibini” all so that I could feel more connected. Connected.

Slowly but surely my relationship with OPM became a linguistic means to learn Tagalog, which opened a whole new world of expression for me. There’s something about the rhythmic poetry of Tagalog words that awoke something in me; perhaps it's the blood of my ancestors that stirred. OPM enables me to connect and communicate with loved ones at a different, deeper level, while also exploring my own identity as I grapple with what it means to be Filipina in the 21st century.

I related with Alex as we both agreed that OPM is indeed an emotional experience. It is a creative medium of expression, helping us connect with loved ones and tap into a world of understanding in spite of language barriers. Music is argued to be a love language. After all, a heart has no words, yet listening to its beat can pull and sway us towards ideas, actions, and people. Musical notes evoke pain, passion, fear, frustrations, joy and peace - all shades and expressions of love not bound to the laws of space or time. Even if we are separated by different generations, lands, cultures, and hence languages, music in the end still has a way of bringing us together.

There is a creative power in OPM that unlocks in us the ability to express, explore, and hopefully better understand love - for ourselves, for our community, our countrymen and our homelands.

Like many of the students, I’m thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Foundation for Philippine Progress and NWFASA OPM workshop. These organizations provide safe spaces that allow us to engage in collaborative exploration, community building, and ultimately healing in all artistic forms. I highly encourage others to support the Foundation for Philippine Progress and NWFASA’s endeavors, attend and definitely volunteer for future events like the OPM workshop.

Filipinx students from all across the pacific northwest gather at the closing ceremony of the NWFASA 2023 kick-off event.
Filipinx students from all across the pacific northwest gather at the closing ceremony of the NWFASA 2023 kick-off event. Image courtesy of: Benneth J. A. Sison, Structural Engineer, NWFASA Photographer & Video Contributor

In the final moments of the conference our keynote speaker, Jordan, looks out optimistically into a sea of new and familiar faces, and smiles. She draws strength in knowing there is resilience in the Filipino people. Eyes bright, she reminds us:

“We’ve gone through so much in our history - there’s so much in our history that shows us that we are a legacy of resistance and resilience [...] Even if we are plucked from our homeland, if we are scattered across the world: Filipinos will always find each other; Filipinos will always fight back; Filipinos will always remember where we came from and it’s inherent in us to remember, but it’s also really important that we come together intentionally. So I would really just want people to take away that: We’re strongest together.


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