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Grace Nono: The return of the native.

It's time to sing again,' says Grace Nono. 'Like they say, use it or lose it.'

We are packed into the artist's study, where she is deep into rehearsals for 'Gugma,' her April 23 concert at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

The repertoire for 'Gugma' will draw largely from Nono's 2009 album 'Dalit,' a collection of traditional Visayan love ballads, although 'laments' would be the more accurate description, given the songs' tone and content.

'Kung Imo Ako Talikdan,' 'Panamilit' and 'Anugon,' among others, are reflections on love and loss that draw on the deep well of romantic melancholy in the Filipino heart.

Nono is a little out of breath after running through 'Kalibutan Nagdumili' and a couple of other numbers. Since returning from a teaching stint at the Harvard Divinity School, she has performed only sporadically, and is still getting her singing lungs back.

The room is dominated by a large statue of Shiva Nataraja-the Hindu god depicted as the Lord of the Cosmic Dance, weaving the never-ending cycle of creation, preservation and dissolution of the universe.

As one might expect of any scholar's cell, the walls are lined floor-to-ceiling with books, their titles revealing the owner's far-ranging interests: from shamanism, mysticism and comparative religion to ethnomusicology, Philippine anthropology and post-modern philosophy.

Arrayed in the center are bassist Glenn Bondoc and guitarists Erskine Basilio and Pepe Ednave, poring over the scores spread before them. The charts were originally arranged for guitar and octavina by Nono's musical collaborator and one-time partner Bob Aves, and it takes a bit of work to transpose them for two guitars and bass. Not a problem, though, since all three are seasoned session pros and music teachers.

Radical departure

It has been at least eight years since I last saw Nono, just after the release of 'Dalit' on her own independent Tao Music label.

The album was a radical departure from Nono's previous works, which showed a steady evolution from its beginnings as a kind of world music fusion toward a deeper immersion in the chants of the babaylan, the indigenous shamans of the Philippines.

It was, in fact, her encounters with various tribal elders in Mindanao and the Visayas that led her to the dalit: apparently, after teaching her the various sacred chants, they liked to unwind by singing these decidedly secular songs.

But the release of 'Dalit' came just as Nono was about to depart to pursue her doctorate in ethnomusicology from New York University. One thing led to another, Grace became Dr. Nono and was soon caught up in the academic whirl of fellowships, exchange programs and research grants.

This left precious little time for performing, apart from the occasional demonstration as part of a seminar or lecture tour.

'We only played the repertoire twice, once during the album launch and another time at the National Museum in Singapore,' she recalls. 'But two years ago, we played at the UP Visayas in Iloilo. We played mainly chants, but for the encore, I sang one of these and the audience loved it. They really relate to it. That's why I want to tour these songs in the Visayas and Mindanao.'

'For me,' she adds, 'it's happy music, even though they're laments, because they have the power to transform sadness. These songs are our blues.'

Musical teeth

In the meantime, Nono has to get back into fighting shape, as it were. Having cut her musical teeth as the frontwoman for Baguio-based band the Blank back in the 1980s, including a residency at Kuh Ledesma's Music Museum, Nono is no stranger to the physical demands of live performance.

But she also knows that at 51, she can't push herself the way she did 30, or even 10, years ago.

In fact, a few years ago, she had a major scare when she suddenly lost her voice.

'I couldn't even talk,' she recalls. 'I felt like it was the end of my life. My god, I was so afraid. I tried therapy, acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine. I had a concert in New York in 2012 and I managed to get through it, but my voice was kind of gone.'

Killer pace

When she returned to the Philippines in 2013, she consulted another acupuncturist who correctly diagnosed the problem: a combination of allergies and acid reflux.

'It was the stress of working on my Ph. D. that brought it on,' she says. 'I never had allergies or acid reflux before. It was the most stressful thing I ever did. The pace was killer: nonstop reading and writing, 18 hours a day, to finish my dissertation. It just wasn't healthy.'

She had to turn down numerous invitations to perform since returning to the Philippines, but she has slowly regained her singing voice.

'I learned a few techniques from my therapy that I didn't know before, so the way I use my voice is more healthy now, I can last longer.' she says. 'Before it was all emotion and no technique. Now I appreciate it more. That's the beauty of Mercedes Sosa, Caesaria Evoria, Miriam Makeba-their voices are full of the history of the world.'

'Sound of my history'

So is Nono's. A few days later, after she had had some time for reflection, she e-mailed this note:

'You asked about my voice. My voice is the sound of my tiny and travel-weary frame. It bears traces of the voices of my family members, friends, mentors, role models, strangers who made an impact on my life. It is the sound of my history and the feelings associated with each biographical milestone: My parents' deep love for me as their only child; the loneliness of leaving my home in Agusan at the tender age of 12 to study far away (at the Philippine High School for the Arts), then Baguio, then Manila; the righteous anger of youth in search of change and meaning; the supreme blessedness of motherhood; the heartbreak of failed relationships; the excitement of finding my vocation in the musics and cultures of our people; the exhilaration of traveling to over 20 countries to sing, study, speak and teach; the panic of losing my voice in the last few years and relief from finding correct diagnosis, and with that, my voice again; the gratitude for life, love, family, friends, mentors and social movements committed to the good; and the humility of living in God's grace. My voice is not perfect but it's mine and I'm grateful for it.

'I am very happy to sing again. I have truly missed singing, having spent the last almost two decades singing sporadically so I can devote more time to study and writing/ publishing two books, with a third one on the way. It is time to give singing to a more central role in my life again, to awaken the power of embodied and ensouled sound especially in these trying times.'


Of course, performing remains just one aspect of what has emerged as Nono's life work, which is the preservation and transmission of the various oral traditions of the country's indigenous spiritual teachers-the babaylan. She juggles the dalit with the sacred chants that she learned 'straight from the mouths of the elders.'

She continues what she calls her 'cultural studies,' traveling extensively throughout the country to seek out the caretakers of this oral wisdom.

Her formal studies have given her a context and a language with which to share the knowledge she has gathered from her journeys. Nono is currently working on her third book, provisionally titled 'Babaylans Sing Back: Philippine Shamans on Voice, Gender and Transnationalism.'

She has also transformed her family home in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur into a School of Living Traditions, a sort of nongovernment organization and community center for tribal elders and their would-be acolytes. Every other year, she hosts a gathering of elders from various parts of the country, representing distinct indigenous traditions, for a unique encounter.

Strange feeling

'In the last two decades, I have been spending a lot of time in other parts of Asia, Europe and North America, to study, to sing and speak about Philippine cultural issues to Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike,' she writes.

'What many don't know, however, is I've also been regularly and quietly coming home, sometimes twice a year, to take care of my mother until she passed away in 2012, to be near my beloved daughter, and to continue to learn from various elders.

'Whenever I meet friends here, they often ask: 'Are you back for good?' The question always gives me a strange feeling because no matter where I am in the world, I mostly deal with matters of Philippine import. As they say, it is not just the origin and destination that matter but the border crossings and movements, back and forth, between the two.

'My travels have particularly allowed me to contribute to building bridges between local, national and diasporic communities because Filipinos are now all over the world.'

It's ironic that Nono has become what her mother always dreamed she would be: a teacher. She just sort of took the long way home.
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Publication:Philippines Daily Inquirer (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Apr 16, 2017
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