Jess Santiago Jess Santiago


In appearance, he is by all accounts the hallmark of a quintessential activist; shoulder-length hair, rimless eyeglasses and other familiar trademarks of the 60’s Hippie and Beatles generation, such as a lean, slender body, emaciated and undernourished, wearing blue jeans and a brown military-style jacket, the soft, uneasy smile… almost shy, the humble gait.
He strums the guitar and his long-nimble fingers dance on the strings producing sounds by themselves. He sings, his voice fusing with the melody from the guitar melding into one, yet producing a multitude of paradoxical sounds - melodies, soft-firm, husky-flowing, distant-committed, all suggesting longing, hope, love and humour.
Jess Santiago’s genius is difficult to ignore. Listening to him belt his own songs in front of the small crowd of Filipinos in Western Sydney, one wonders why he is not singing in front of a packed crowd in Sydney’s Capitol or State Theatres. In the Philippines, he was the Institute of the Philippine Language’s Poet of the Year twice in a succession. Santiago was also awarded the Mother Country Award by the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in recognition of his role in the people’s music movement in the Philippines. This icon of alternative music, literally ‘came, saw but did not conquer Sydney.’ And Sydney has missed the rare chance of meeting and listening to this living gem of Philippine art and music. So perchance I may invite the interest of those who would happen to read this article.
Undoubtedly, his genius achieved first recognition as a poet, but it is in his music that he is most popular. The power of music, His Holiness, Da Lai Lama aptly explains, “Among the many forms in which the human spirit has tried to express its innermost yearnings and perceptions, music is perhaps the most universal. It symbolizes the yearnings for harmony, with oneself and with others, with nature and with the spiritual and sacred within us and around us. There is something in music that transcends and unites. This is evident in the sacred music of every community - music that expresses the universal yearning that is shared by people all over the globe.”
The Music of Jess Santiago
The music of Jess Santiago is inseparable from his poetry. His book of poems GITARA (Guitar) as the title suggests, is replete with music imagery. He writes: Kaya nga gusto ko’y lagi kang That’s why I want you there
Nakasakbat sa aking balikat, Slung upon my shoulder,
Isang riple, A rifle,
Sandata’t kalasag sa panahong Weapon and shield
Mapagkait at marahas. In a depriving brutal time.
Gayunma’y batid mo: Still you know:
Isa lamang akong mangingibig I am but a lover
Na hinaharana ang pulang silahis. Serenading the red glow of dawn.
That Jess Santiago is a child of the 70’s, the decade of turbulence, of the Marcos despotic regime, a decade where more than 650,000 activists were killed or disappeared, tortured, their humanity desecrated in every known form; where corruption reached its pinnacle and the rich and powerful became synonymous with government positions. The 70s was the decade the Filipinos want to forget and avoid talking about. Where does our fear of telling our history come from? Instead of being proud of our kababayan, our kins who offered their lives fighting for the rights of the oppressed and exploited, we are somehow embarrassed and even blame activists for their own tragedy. The world, including us, hailed the courage of the Germans who together destroyed and collapsed the Berlin Wall to unite East and West Germany. We offered our most venerated praise to the struggle of Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and yet we return to our comfort zones and build statues of heroes of hundreds of years ago, so distant from our present. We hail Ghandi and wear shirts emblazoned with the face of Che Guevarra. Instead we are nailed to the past and squeeze every lesson we could learn from our centennial heroes, continuing to bury the heroes of our time, failing to learn from their struggles, their victories and mistakes and fail to continue what they began. The turbulence of the 70s paved the way towards the People Power Revolution of the 80s that placed the Philippines on the world stage of global change. The 70s-80s legacy of global change was People Power, now so commonly adopted in other countries. This is something of which we should all be proud. And this cannot be told without mentioning and remembering the struggles of our brothers, sisters, parents, uncles and aunties, teachers, students, workers, farmers, nuns, priests and concerned politicians who put themselves in the front line to achieve peace and alleviate poverty. Did People Power achieve its objective? In fact People Power was again used to unseat another President whose corruption has become so blatant many believed she has even out-corrupted Marcos. With two People Power Revolutions, why is the country still wallowing in poverty? Jess Santiago offers an answer as he sings, ‘Nag People Power 1/Nag People Power 2/ Ang buhay nati’y di pa rin nagbabago/ Ngunit hindi pa rin tayo natututo.’ (We’ve had People Power 1/We’ve had People Power 2/ But alas our life hasn’t changed/And alas we’ve never learned).
Song of hope, song of dream for our dear Philippines
The most meaningful song of hope and promise for a country which is perpetually destroyed by natural calamity, human depravity and political venality cannot be better expressed than in Santiago’s Pitong Libong Pulo (Seven Thousand Islands).
At mula sa guho tayo ay babangon And from the ruins we shall emerge
Pag-asa’y bulaklak na muling sisibol A flowering promise of seasons regained
Sa kinalugmukan ating ititindig And from our grief we shall carve
Ang bansa ng ating mga panaginip. A country of our persistent dreams.
Year in and year out, the land of the morning sun, by a stroke of
geographical fate is forever besieged with perpetual calamities: typhoons, floods and earthquakes … and the government that incubates greed and power and unleashes them with impunity at every opportunity. But the dream that someday the seven thousand islands, dispersed and so disunited will one day converge to be firm and as one, sambayanang bigkis ng isang lunggati, payapa’t malayang kayumangging lahi. What would be more inspiring as one remembers the destruction left by Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, to hear this song, summoning hope and valour that alas from these catastrophes Filipinos will emerge again and again triumphant and united.
The Humour of Jess Santiago
Writing the foreword to his book of poems, Delfin Tolentino Jr describes Santiago’s poems to have the power and efficiency of a gun, a weapon for a just and humane society. The landscape of his songs invoke a powerful yearning for love, for freedom, a cry for equality and justice, often dismal and forbidding but as Tolentino Jr expounds, “… the music that resounds in this landscape is not a wail of desperation but music meant to soothe or inspire… and humour. The listener of Santiago’s songs will be reminded of the unique Filipino culture in his song ‘Onli in da Pilipins,’as he sings .. ‘Saan ka makakatagpo sa bawat banyo ng tabo...’ (Where can you find every bathroom a dipper). Filipinos in Australia will laugh as we are reminded of a Filipino worker who was sacked by his employer for using ‘tabo’(dipper) in the toilet.’ He reminds us of how ingrained American consumerism is in our language as he continues.. ‘Lahat ng toothpaste dito’y Colgate/ Ang tissue paper ay Kleenex/refrigerator ay pridyeder’ (Every tube of toothpaste is called Colgate/ A roll of tissue is always Kleenex/The refrigerator is Frigidaire). Then he reminds us of the continued repression of human rights in the Philippines with his ending lines …’Dito halos araw-araw/May aktibistang pinapatay/Pero tayong taumbayan/Wala pa ring pakialam.’(Only here almost daily/an activist is killed/But what do we care, people/ We still don’t mind). Humour abounds in getting old reminding us that getting old is not too bad at all. It is a sign ‘…na mahaba-haba mo nang pinagdaanan.’ (You have been there, done that). And all of us are also going to walk the path of aging … ‘medyo nauna ka lang.’ (Only you are ahead).
His kind of love song, so subtle and so pure, so very Filipino but yet universal in implications, full of softness and humility, his humour finds its way in his love song, Laging Ikaw (There’s Always You).. ‘Ikaw ang niyog, sa puto bumbong. Sa kare-kare ikaw ang bagoong.’ Only a true Filipino can conceive such seeming irony and retain the air of sincerity, loving and humour because no matter that bagoong ay mabaho. Without it kare-kare is tasteless.

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