As the new National Artist for Music, the composer, educator, author and ethnomusicologist has made a name as a contemporary artist who successfully delivered the sound of the Filipino culture to the hearts of its people, as well as draw attention to these melodies from all over the world.
Although his first National Artist nomination in 2009 was marred with controversy, President Benigno Aquino 3rd has finally given Santos this long-overdue honor in the musical field. It was in June 20 that the list of new National Artists was announced, with Santos’ name secured among the six Filipino icons given the much-coveted title.
“Of course I am happy [to be named so],” Santos began. “Anyone who has been given the honor of National Artist will feel the same way. I do what I love and being given an award for my work gives me the drive to continue what I am doing. It inspires me to do things better,” the renowned musician told The Sunday Times Magazine during a one-on-one interview in his Quezon City home on August 23.
Surrounded with musical instruments and artworks from north to south of the Philippines, Santos’ home speaks of his creative brilliance and passion for the arts, specifically in ethnomusicology, which is the study of music that focuses on the cultural identity of a nation.
Through the years, Santos has traveled all over the Philippines and in different parts of the world to discover the sounds of indigenous people; to witness how music is incorporated in their daily lives; and to preserve the traditions that were born before modern civilizations.
Today, he remains busy with his task as lecturer, professor emeritus, and Center for Ethnomusicology head at the University of the Philippines College of Music. He is also working on four other commissioned works from abroad including Japan and Vietnam. Moreover, he is still very active in spearheading different musical events in the country and abroad, such as the International Rondalla Festival that has become an annual event since 2004.
With much to be proud of, Santos has always been inspired to create his compositions and concert masterpieces based on “rituals,” much like how tribes from different parts of the country use music in the same regard.
Of his works, he is most proud of “Nagnit Igak G’nan Wagnwag Nila” (Alingawngaw ng Kagitingan), which he composed as a tribute for the Philippine Centennial celebration at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP); as well as his compositions “Awit ni Pulau,” and “Siklo,” which are popular pieces performed by many to this day.
“I am inspired by works that come from artistic traditions of indigenous communities in the Philippines as well as those from the Southeast Asian region. From my formal training in classical music to being exposed to the music of different communities, I incorporate different styles and orchestral instruments like the Javanese gamelan to the kulintang to create diverse musical pieces,” the renowned musician shared.
Telling the story of his musical journey, the vitality that Santos exudes does not reveal his venerable age of 73. He smiles with every recollection, laughs at controversies that have come his way, and passionately explains the importance of music in Filipino lives.
“It is our cultural identity, without it, we will be lost. We should become educated on how music has affected the lives of people in the past and even at present, so that this may become a tool for national pride and our country’s development,” he shared.
Family of artists
Among six siblings, Santos is the youngest in the family. While his father took care of business, his mother looked after the household. Influenced by his mother and grandmother who both love playing the piano, Santos and his siblings were exposed to music early on.
“Since my mother and grandmother played the piano, they exposed us to different music at the time and so each of us developed our own artistry. My oldest sister has a beautiful singing voice, my second sister was a pianist, and the other was a violinist. My brother took up painting, and continues to be one of today’s popular emerging artists,” Santos shared.
Growing up, Santos recalled how his siblings were taken to concerts within the metro, which frustrated him then because he was always the one left at home.
“Being the youngest, I always had to stay home. But I listened to music on the radio and to our family’s records. The music industry was very different then. Contemporary music wasn’t even conceived at the time,” he shared.
Besides music, Santos was also involved in their local parish in Pasig, which was still part of Rizal province then. Although he had an inclination towards music, he revealed how he almost went into the seminary after graduating high school.
“Yes, I wanted to be a priest,” he chuckled.
But his artistic side and his openness to possibilities made him reluctant to pursue a life in the church.
“I thought twice whether or not to go into seminary. Although I wasn’t in any romantic relationship at that time, I considered how it might be possible for me to want to get married in the future,” he said.
Learning along the way
After much thought, Santos opted to enroll in UP’s then-Conservatory of Music where he received his Bachelor of Music in Composition and Conducting in 1965. Coincidentally, Santos shared the same classes, the same birth month and grew up in the same province with another newly conferred National Artist for Music, Francisco Feliciano. He is in fact the godfather of Feliciano’s son.
“I really liked music but never did I consider being known in this field. I just kept on doing what I had to do, attend my classes and joined competitions,” he said.
However, it wasn’t until he entered the Bonifacio Centennial Competition that he fully realized his future in the field of music. He was up against professors, school mates and other talented composers, but out of many entries, he won second place in the competition’s Symphony category.
After graduation, Santos worked as assistant to the secretary of UP’s Music department. Part of his responsibility was to assist in assessing incoming freshmen into the college, but admitted that he was not as effective as he hoped to be.
“The students that I thought could make it failed in their first year!” he quipped.
Incidentally, it was during his years in UP that contemporary music begun to come into consciousness. “There were new sounds being heard. Electronic was being introduced but it wasn’t so popular yet. Of course people were still into classical music and no one knew what these sounds were.”
After a couple of years doing administrative work in UP, Santos decided to pursue further studies in Indiana University where he received his Master of Music (with distinction) in 1969.
He subsequently went to study at the State University of New York in Buffalo for his Doctor of Philosophy, which he received in 1972. While in school, he met his Filipino-Chinese wife, who was then studying Educational Psychology.
“We were together for some time. I was 29 then and she was 32. I wanted to get married so I can focus on getting my doctorate. However, her parents didn’t approve of me so we had to use the little resources we had. Luckily we knew some people who gladly helped us in the most budgeted wedding of all time,” he joked.
With only about 20 guests, and with some friends helping out and even playing three roles as a photographer, sponsor, and coordinator all at the same time for their simple wedding, the couple tied the knot before returning to the Philippines after over five years of living in the US.
Attention to musical roots
While in the States, Santos was more interested and focused on learning about electronic music. However, upon his return, he realized that he had little use of his knowledge as technology was not as advanced in the country at the time.
Even as he settled again in the Philippines, he made sure to attend summer courses in New Music at Darmstadt in 1974, and in Special Seminars in Ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois in 1989. He was also mentored by Dr. Jose Maceda, another National Artist who founded the UP Center of Enthnomusicology.
“Dr. Maceda was the one who really influenced me into ethnic music. He was conducting classes, seminars, and also spearheaded the acquisition of the Javanese gamelan. So that’s when I started studying ethnomusicology,” he said.
A few years later, he was appointed Dean of the UP College of Music in 1978. It was his turn to spearhead musical events, author research and studies, and travel the country to explore and determine different ethnic traditions and their music.
“We have over 100 ethno-linguistic groups and 87 language groups. We have diverse indigenous groups from the Ifugaos of the north to the Maranaws in Mindanao. From north to south, there is a lot to discover,” he said.
“But what I noticed when I first went to their villages was that they were ashamed of their culture. They were ashamed of their practices because they were already being marginalized. But slowly, they opened up. Recording and hearing their beautiful sounds, they became proud of their culture, which in a sense is also the pride of the whole country,” the National Artist said.
To this day
Besides heading the UP College of Music when he was only 37 years old, Santos has also been appointed president of numerous institutions and organizations such as the Asian Composers League, National Music Council of the Philippines, and Music Competitions for Young Artists Foundation.
He also briefly held the position of artistic director at the CCP but his tenure was cut short six months after he was awarded the artist-in-residence at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Italy.
He was further invited as composer-in-residence at the Bellagio Study Center for the Rockefellar Foundation in 1997.
Through his hard work, he was a recipient of an Achievement Award in the Humanities from National Research Council of the Philippines in 1994, and was granted fellowships from the Asian Cultural Council and the Ford Foundation.
While his wife passed away at the time he was UP Dean, he has since lived with his two daughters—one who is pursuing further studies in the art of dance, while the other is in banking and finance.
He still continues to spearhead events, lecture at the UP campus, co-author research papers and books on ethnomusicology, and compose works that embody different cultural sounds.
“If there’s one thing I can hope for when it comes to music in the Philippines, it is for the government to open more avenues for learning in culture and the arts. Specifically for music, I hope support will not only focus on the creative aspect, but also in the technical side, such as sound recording and music development,” he suggested.
“We should also focus on preserving the traditions of the tribes. We have so much to be proud of in local music, literature and art but sadly, most of the country is still not aware of these. They make up our cultural identity—this is who we are. This is how we can develop and move forward. Most importantly, this is what makes up our national pride,” Santos concluded.