Freddie Aguilar as maestro for arts and culture.
It was the last thing my friend expected to hear in the remote Swiss mountains more than 2,000 feet above sea level. It made him so proud.
With its simple yet meaningful lyrics and poignant, infectious melody that seems to flow from the singer's heart, 'Anak,' even now, does not fail to strike a responsive chord in the listener's heart whatever language one speaks. For the record, it has been translated into 29 languages, with 55 versions throughout the Philippines, the United States, Europe and Asia. According to Billboard, it was the No. 2 world hit of the 1980s.
With that singular song, Freddie as a Filipino artist has done more for the Philippines than any person who has held the chairmanship of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. In fact, he has been playing a pivotal role in promoting Filipino pop, rock and folk music for decades, crafting songs in Filipino that evoke nationalism, convey timely social messages, and transcend social classes. Like our native version of Bob Dylan, he has been channeling music to wail like the prophet Jeremiah against society's ills for years, starting with 'Magdalena' on prostitution, then 'Katarungan' on injustice, and, recently, 'Para sa Tunay na Pagbabago' on the drug menace. His songs like 'Mindanao' and 'Luzviminda' convey his deep-seated love of country. His soulful rendering of 'Bayan Ko' in the 1980s became the anthem that galvanized people from all classes to unite and demand change in the country's leadership. Indeed, with his unheralded achievements and advocacies, he can hold his own against other artists who now sit in cultural agencies.
And they say Freddie is not suitable to be NCCA chair-a comment disparagingly expressed with an elitist sneer and a raised eyebrow.
One sector contends that Freddie should just stay where he naturally belongs: performing live in bars and folk houses. The disdain is that of the ladies of society captured in one of his songs: 'Tingin sa iyo'y isang putik, larawan mo'y nilalait Ikaw ay di maintindihan.' Have they forgotten Toulouse-Lautrec and other French impressionist painters who got their best inspirations from such places in Paris? Picasso frequented those places, as did Baudelaire, Rimbaud and other poets who launched the symbolist movement which, in turn, inspired T.S. Eliot and other modern poets. As a young writer, Hemingway crafted some of his best novels and short stories in such nightspots.
And they say Freddie does not deserve to be in that 'lofty' seat as NCCA chair.
Their narrow-minded argument is that he is not qualified because he does not hold a postgraduate degree. Nick Joaquin was only a high school graduate yet he was extolled as a National Artist-and deservedly so. Did Bill Gates and Steve Jobs need academic degrees to succeed? No, but they had a vision and the will to pursue it. The writer John Le Carre once remarked that the desk is a dangerous place from which to see the world. And most artists with PhDs are academicians who prefer to work behind a desk.
Yes, he may not be 'Dr. Freddie Aguilar.' But that's all right, for he prefers to be simply called Ka Freddie. It defines him as an artist of the masses. It carries something far more meaningful than a lofty academic title: an educated mind that is honed by immersive experience. He did not finish college, but his education comes from his interaction with ordinary people: pakikisalamuha sa masa, hindi sa libro. He grew up soaking the life of the ordinary man, as a street musician, and then a folk club and bar musician. He is a son of ordinary folk. It's a perspective that has made Edgar Reyes, Rogelio Mangahas, Botong Francisco, Jose Blanco and others like them authentic creators of art, not the perspective of a degree-holder sitting in an ivory tower.
After all, as activist historian Fe Mangahas pointed out in a recent article: 'One need not know everything about all the arts and disciplines within the NCCA. One only needs patriotism, integrity, talent and the heart of an artist or a cultural worker to know some things about the NCCA.'
With the current administration's campaign of fostering change, it is about time we promoted a truly people-oriented culture and arts that will include the nonelite-the masa that had been excluded for so many years. Consider the classic rice cake we call bibingka. It is commonly cooked in a clay pot lined with banana leaf with live charcoal on top and at the bottom. That's the art of cooking a perfect bibingka. The elite members of society have been 'cooking' the programs and activities of Philippine cultural agencies for so long. It's about time we focused on the bottom of the cultural bibingka.
So let's not misunderstand Freddie too quickly. Instead, let's give him serious consideration. As a Filipino musician and artist who appeals to both the masses and the elite, he could be what the country needs at this moment: the maestro who can orchestrate a people-oriented culture and arts that will set free the spirit, creativity and energy of artists and cultural workers nationwide.