The music festival that wants you to care about cultural preservation

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Hip-hop artist Curtismith played on the first night of the seventh edition of Malasimbo, a music and arts festival known for championing indigenous culture and the environment. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — At the Malasimbo music and arts festival, there are 5,000 people of about 30 different nationalities. There are Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Japanese, among many others, and like them, I am a foreigner here. I am Filipino yet I do not belong to the community of Puerto Galera nor have I been to the other municipalities of Mindoro.

With the French, the Vietnamese, the Italians, and the Manila-based Filipinos, we are all in the same boat. We all went to Malasimbo for a weekend getaway far from home. Most festival first-timers know little about the culture of the place, and initially came expecting good music and a nice view.

This influx of foreigners during Malasimbo is best explained by the festival’s goal, which is to precisely target travelers to boost the tourism of Puerto Galera. The income boost of resorts and other establishments, jeepney, tricycle, and other transportation services also follow during the festival season.

But things are not what they seem. Peel the festival’s layers and one will see no money, but something else.

Soul powerhouse Apartel came out in white and black suits. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Ara (left) and Hubert d'Aboville, husband and wife, and founders of the d'Aboville foundation, which gave birth to the Malasimbo music and arts festival. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Husband and wife Hubert and Ara d’Aboville, the founders of the foundation (d’Aboville foundation) that birthed Malasimbo, were foreigners once. By 1981, before they got married, Hubert, a Frenchman, fell in love with the Philippines, and Ara, a Filipina, with France. The former was on the verge of resigning from a timber business, whose operations in the Philippines he headed, while the latter quit her job from the InterContinental Hotel in Makati to jet off to France, where she sold necklaces in Avignon.

As they ran away from their jobs, their parallel fates brought them closer to each other. They were meant to do something else.

It was fate for Hubert, who descended from a blue bloodline of Brittany’s nobility, and became known for his trips around the world, to settle with something as spontaneous as tourism. In the first place, when he was being hired by the timber company, he answered, "Thank you sir, I don't want to work. I am happy-go-lucky. My needs are very, very little. I don't need a job. I don't want a job."

Ara, who did odd jobs in France, once approached the head of a tourist agency in a convention in Paris and said, “I want to invest in building the Philippines as a destination.” She landed a job at the agency, but not for long.

The two eventually got married, with a dream to have a house in Puerto Galera, on the island they so love.

Before it became their favorite getaway for the weekend, Ara discovered Puerto Galera on a slow wooden ferry boat during her “beach bum” days. “I fell asleep during the trip. When I woke up and opened my eyes, we were just entering the bay, and from a dream, I woke up. I said, ‘Oh my god, what was this place?’ I was so awed by the beauty.”

For them to own a piece of land in the area was also nothing short of fate. The day after Hubert and Ara’s 10th wedding anniversary which they spent in Puerto Galera, they were able to find a piece of property — where the Malasimbo amphiteater now stands — from a woman who showed them a land title document that said: 10 hectares and 1 sq. m. It was 10 years and 1 day. Hubert says, “We embraced each other, and in two hours, and it was done.” Ara called the land “hulog ng langit.”

The couple had four kids — Emmanuel, Olivia, Maïa, and Alexandra — who all grew up as they were building their house on Malasimbo mountain. Ara says, “Our whole idea is to live in nature, so that our children can really develop roots.” Hubert adds, “The roots for our family, for our kids, will never grow in the city, will never grow on cement, on concrete. Roots can only grow on the ground, on the soil."

As their property eventually grew to 40 hectares, they built a farm (which they called Demo Farm, Inc.) of rice, coffee, horses, and carabaos. On Easter, they would invite their neighbors for pancit and lechon. “We made sure na magkaroon ng kaugnayan sa mga tao, because we are foreigners here,” tells Ara. “Lahat ng mga hindi namin kilala, iimbitahin namin so that they would feel that we are not intruding in their place and that we don’t mean anything, that we are not landlords. We are just regular folks like them.”

Young R&B artist No Rome playing at the Mangyan Village stage. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Miro Grgic, co-founder of Malasimbo, and the festival's musical director and sound engineer. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

In 2010, Miro Grgic, Olivia’s partner and sound engineer-producer-DJ extraordinaire, was trying to put up a festival in the Philippines, after working in many festivals abroad. “I was proposing my idea to many producers and promoters in Manila,” he says. “But at the time, no one was really into the whole festival idea. Nobody thought that it was gonna take off. But I really wanted it to be a catalyst. I really knew that it would do something proper.”

Little did Grgic know that he only had to turn to his partner’s family and their backyard to find the perfect festival venue. “I ended up having a partner in my father-in-law because my wife said that he wanted to do something to help boost the tourism in Puerto Galera. And being Croatian-born and raised, tourism is kind of in my blood. We’ve been doing festivals for a long time. One good thing for tourism is a festival.”

As they planned the first Malasimbo festival, the family enterprise grew. Miro was put in charge of the music, of getting the live acts, while Olivia, then a budding artist, was to be the curator of the artworks to be installed on the mountain. Hubert and Ara, through the d’Aboville foundation, made sure to have Puerto Galera’s indigenous people, the Mangyans', participation. Although then, they only knew the Mangyans through their baskets and handicrafts, the couple made sure that “the first beneficiaries of the festival [would be] the people of the place.”

Besides this, the family also wanted the festival to be environment-friendly. “[For] the first Malasimbo, the plan was to buy a ticket, plant a tree,” says Ara. “If you buy a ticket, plant a tree, that tree will be named after you, in the sense that you will be back every year too look at that tree, and to see that it’s growing. But financially speaking, it was not doable,” and so the family turned to other reforestation initiatives.

From there, the four pillars of Malasimbo were born: music, arts, indigenous culture, and environment.

Soul/R&B singer June Marieezy headlined the festival on its last night. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Electronic music artist Migi De Belen, a.k.a. Nights of Rizal. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

The first pillar is the most obvious to the regular festival-goer, because that’s what they usually go for. “[Music] is universal,” says Migi de Belen, a.k.a. Nights of Rizal, one of the artists who played at Malasimbo’s seventh edition. “It’s one of the easiest ways to communicate without having to use words. It can bring people together despite their [cultural differences] and belief systems.”

Young R&B artist No Rome, who played on the festival’s Mangyan stage, sees the musical aspect of the festival as something more integrated with its other pillars. “Music has always been a very big soul part of art,” he says. “Although people like to divide music from art — it’s always called music and arts festival — the best thing about music is that it’s certainly a form of art, which is like how painting is, and drawing, and collage. Music is also a collage of everything, like how we are as people. We’re all patches of something.”

The visual arts play an equally powerful role in the festival’s thrust as well as the overall experience of being on the mountain. The artist Agnes Arellano, whose installation is based on an ancient myth in Bicol about a moon goddess, says, “The visual arts is one way of bringing people to a different consciousness. You may not be able to say it in words, you may not be able to protest in rallies, but your art can say what it is you’re fighting about or advocating. It can reach people on a spiritual level through the vision.”

Arellano has been known for her sculptures of goddesses, which she creates “to make people aware of the deity within us. I want them to be aware of this female inside everyone, male or female.”

In dissecting the musical aspect of Malasimbo, Grgic acknowledges a certain genre bias: “We’re more of a niche thing, soul-jazz-world, we don’t do much rock music at all.” Although Malasimbo has room to grow out of its niche, there is still a certain diversity, not just in the artists’ mixed bag of native origins, but in musical perspectives. “I’m always looking for a new band that’s doing something different,” Grgic says.

The artists Agnes Arellano (left) and Billy Bonnevie at the Mangyan Hall. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Eping Mayot, a teacher from the Hanunuo tribe of Mangyans. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

As people in headphones dance along to the silent disco around the Mangyan stage, on a spacious hut below, called the Mangyan Hall, sits a small group of Mangyans selling their baskets, beads, woven mats, and embroidered clothing. They enjoy the silence beside their hall, and stay guard for any interested buyers who might come their way. Although the goings-on on the main stage are not their thing, they are happy to have taken part in the festival, and to be given a space where they can sell their wares.

“Although kaming mga Hanunuong Mangyan, hindi kami mahilig sa mga ganyang may tugtog na may sayaw-sayaw, pero ‘yung pagdami ng tao na dumadayo dito, isang malaking tulong sa amin na kami’y inaanyayahan din,” says Eping Mayot, a teacher from the Hanunuo, one among the eight tribes of Mangyans.

Na-i-po-promote namin 'yung aming sariling gawa,” he adds.“Nakikilala ng iba’t ibang mga tao [na] kami mismo ang may-ari ng produktong ito, ng kulturang ito. Ang ibig kong sabihin, aktwal talagang nakikita ng mga tao galing sa ibang bansa, na, ah, may ganito pala sila, may katutubo, may Hanunuo Mangyan, may ganito silang uri ng produkto, may ganito silang kultura. Hindi 'yung sa libro lang.

The d’Abovilles’ first personal contact with the Mangyans was through Mayot. During the first Malasimbo, Mayot plucked the courage to ask Hubert for financial help in finishing her studies. With a little help from their friends, such as Gail Alvarez from the Alvarez foundation, Ara and Hubert got Mayot through college. Now, she is a Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education graduate, with a major in English. Ara helped formalize the Mangyan’s ancient syllabic script in public schools in the area, which Mayot now teaches, along with Hanunuo culture, to young Mangyans.

Mayot expresses a strong desire to preserve her culture, and to pass it on to next generations. She talks lovingly of suyot and bugtong, oral traditions that may be comparable to the Tagalogs’ own kwento and bugtong.

As Mayot and I sit on the bamboo floor of the Mangyan Hall, her voice is drowned by the drums and gongs of the performance of the neo-ethnic group, Kawangis ng Tribu from Palawan. Nevertheless, I could hear her clearly: She longs to make a book of her suyot, and makes sure that her students learn not only suyot or the surat Mangyan, but all that which makes up being a Mangyan, “na dapat matutunan din ng bagong henerasyon … pangunahing layunin [ay] para hindi mawala.

Beside Mayot’s woven pieces lies a book with the cover: “Mangyan Treasures: The Ambahan: The poetic expression of the Mangyans of Southern Mindoro, Philippines.” I pay her for my own copy, and before going to bed that night, I open the book to be reminded by the roots of our musical way of thinking.

The author, Antoon Postma writes: “The ambahan is undoubtedly a poem, even by modern standards, but at the same it is a song as well. In that respect, the oriental concepts of poem and song are different from those in Western Cultures. Asian indigenous poetry does not exist as an entity separate from song. Poem and song belong together, and, as in the case of the Mangyan ambahan, it is presented in a recitative and chanted way.”

I fell asleep with all the voices I heard that day forming an imperceptible song in my head, where lyrics and melody did not exist, only poetry.

Singer-songwriter-producer Jordan Rakei from London. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Luke Pretty from Canadian electronic act Tennyson. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

This year’s Malasimbo features about 150 artists, a huge leap from the previous editions. But the scale-up did not come without costs and compromises. There were even news buzzing around that there might not be a next Malasimbo.

“Every year, we scramble not knowing if we can do it next year again,” says Grgic. “Every year is difficult, we struggle to make ends meet. It’s very difficult to bring thousands of people up a mountain.” But the “passion project,” says Grgic, is something they won’t give up on.

Grgic puts his trust on local artists not just for their talent, but for the holistic view of keeping the local economy in circulation. “With all these massive international bands [that come to the country], all the ticketing money, all the corporate sponsorships, leave the Philippines. It doesn’t bring tourists to the [country]. It’s nice that all these big bands come here,” but according to him, promoting local talent more helps the money stay here, and curating a good mix of international and local acts keeps the festival’s musical integrity.

Even the participating Mangyans benefit directly from the festival in terms of their livelihood. Mayot says, “Sa totoo lang, dito talaga sa Malasimbo festival, sulit na sulit 'yung pagbenta namin. Hindi ko masasabi na napipilitan na lang kami magbenta kasi kailangan ng pera. Dito, maganda talaga 'yung pagbili. Hindi rin sila nagrereklamo na, ay, ang mahal. Lalo na 'yung mga dayuhan, ina-appreciate talaga nila.

For Hubert, the financial burden of sustaining the festival needs the help of the government. “The difficulty is that we cannot sustain such a big project without the government — national, local — being strongly with us,” he says. “Because a festival doesn’t make money. It’s impossible. Nowhere in the world a festival is profitable. If we want at least to make it balanced financially speaking, it is important to have the local authority, the provincial, and the [national] government.”

Ten-piece horn-based group Brass Pas Pas Pas Pas. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Jazz/R&B rapper RH Xanders. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

It’s an alternative eco-tourism project, according to former Presidential Adviser on Environmental Protection and now a board member of the d’Aboville Foundation, Sec. Neric Acosta. “What we're really trying to do with the d'Aboville Foundation and other initiatives — and Malasimbo is just one clear example — [is] to inject or introduce something that is out of the mainstream mass tourism goal ... really understanding tourism in a more holistic framework, which in this case this year, is really about indigenous culture, ritual, music, and how these are all reflected in the fact that nature is revered as opposed to nature being commodified.”

“When you say eco-tourism, it's really ecology in tourism. And if you don't have ecology, there won't be that kind of tourism,” he adds. “If you destroy gems like Palawan, Boracay, Puerto Galera, all our reefs, diving spots, and forests, and whatnot, you destroy the very reason why you should be able to have tourism in the first place.”

Malasimbo’s four pillars are seen through this vision of alternative and holistic tourism, and on a smaller scale, the overall genuine experience of being on the mountain. This four-way division is a mere projected attempt to make foreign minds understand, to help them integrate themselves in order to belong to even just a moment where they are allowed to hit gongs and drums with the locals, to years of memory, brimming with conversations and interactions not just within Mindoro, but the rest of the Philippine islands.

Because in the end, music, arts, indigenous culture, and nature are all one — integrated parts of a whole that we experience altogether and at once: our identity. Poem and song belong together.