detail from Labels for Hair Ribbons by Manuel Ocampo a delectable selection of oriental appetizers
Thursday, June 17, 2004

: . All Together Now, Part I

Marangal na Dalit ng Katagalugan by Julio Nakpil

The Star-Spangled Banner, according to one feisty informant in John Langston Gwaltney's classic Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America, is nothing more than a "warmed-over drinking song." Far superior in her mind is the "Negro National Anthem" -- Lift Every Voice and Sing (listen to a clip). One could hardly blame her taste in music. Lift Every Voice and Sing is indeed moving and unlike its martial counterparts -- "Ang mamatay ng dahil sa iyo", "Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons!", "And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air" -- bloodlessly so. Most other national anthems, official and unofficial, are unispired compositions. Only those deeply patriotic or piss drunk can appreciate their melodic or lyrical qualities.

What could have been the Philippine National anthem, Marangal na Dalit ng Katagalugan is no exception. Composed by Julio Nakpil and commisioned by Andres Bonifacio, whose widow, Gregoria de Jesus, Nakpil later married (and outlived), the 1896 "Himno Nacional" brings tears to ones eyes for all the wrong reasons. But there are few aural reminders of the contigent -- if not dissonant -- origins of the Philippine nation more affecting than hearing the "Marangal na Dalit" for the first time. Unlike most of you who either live in or travel frequently to the Philippines, I've only heard what Ambeth Ocampo calls the "shadow anthem" of the Philippines recently while in search for something only tangentially related to the song. I've always wanted to hear the song having read about it many times and unexpectedly -- on Philippine Independence Day no less -- there it was.

This belated and fortuitous encounter with the underside of "official" national history, a relic from the long vanished Republic of Katagalugan, brings to mind the paradox at the heart of all national imaginings. For while nations may turn chance into destiny and accident into fate, nationalism actually thrives on what it cannot contain. Take nationalist education, a topic on which Conrado de Quiros has written one jeremiad after another. Whatever its virtues, nationalist education and all other nationalist projects, are means without ends. Intended to inculcate nationalist feeling, its reason for being actually hinges on the expectation that those born Filipino are never born Filipino enough. For if Filipino-ness were indeed an essence, then there would be no need to learn say, the national flower or the national fruit -- Filipinos must always already know them instinctively. But then there would be no need for national museums or national libraries or national historical institutes to remind Filipinos of what they truly are. The state of emergency is thus the nation's default mode; nations can live on only if their constituent parts were a little awry, ever so slightly out of place. Being Filipino is therefore an endless process of becoming one. Filipinos cease to be when they become fully themselves.

Benedict Anderson has claimed that singing national anthems conjures up a sense of simultaneity that serves as a model for and a means to national imagination. By singing in chorus, discrepant temporalities are harmonized into homogeneous empty time:
    [T]here is a special kind of contemporaneous community which language alone suggests -- above all in the form of poetry and songs! Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing an experience of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance.* Singing the Marseillaise, Waltzing Matilda, and Indonesia Raya provide occasions for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community. (So does listening to [and maybe silently chiming in with] the recitation of ceremonial poetry, such as sections of The Book of Common Prayer). How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and as we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound.

    *Contrast this a capella chorus with the language of everyday life, which is typically experienced decani/cantoris-fashion as dialogue and exchange.1

I am reminded of the dramatic re-enactment of a First Quarter Storm rally in the film Dekada '70. So much money was spent on that scene and yet it failed give a sense of that "special kind of contemporaneous community" that singing the Lupang Hinirang was supposed to have conveyed. The crowd was simply not in chorus, the r's in "Perlas ng silanganan" were slurred rather than rolled, and there was that moment of hesitation, that pause for breath, before "Aming ligaya nang pag may mang-aapi", as if the student activists, with their fists raised, had to ask themselves if they were truly happy to die for the oppressed motherland. In cinema as in life, nothing breaks the illusion of unisonality -- and the homogeneous empty time which nations occupy -- than singing national anthems. For in chiming in with the the national community, one is always haunted by the fear of being out of tune and off key. Like toeing the nationalist line, singing national anthems requires several anxious balancing acts. The imagined sound that connects fellow nationals is thus the sound of one person struggling to sing along but never quite doing so in time.

1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Rev. ed. (New York: Verso, 1991), 145:

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