By Allison Sokil
I am sitting in the back of a streetcar on my way to see the 2020 Polaris Prize shortlisted quintet Pantayo and recording artist L CON perform at the Jam Factory in Toronto’s East End. As we pass the Financial District, the buildings begin to thin, getting shorter and wider, stacks of rust-coloured bricks and blocks. Everything is a little quieter now, even with the hum of dinner traffic, commuters, and tourists heading to Leslieville and the Beaches. The evening is thick with the heat and humidity of a cement city in late summer. I wipe my brow and shift my weight as we cross the river and powdery pink clouds gather and settle behind me. I pull the cable at the station stop, crossing the street as soon as the streetcar sings farewell with its brisk dingding!
The Jam Factory is on the second floor of a two-story historic building that originally housed the Shirriff marmalade factory during the early twentieth century. “Merchants of Green Coffee” and “Café & Jam Factory” are painted in tall block letters on the street-facing wall. I recognize the poster for the show near the entrance and make a note of the performers in a little black notebook––L CON, Pantayo, and LAL––observing for the first time that this concert is a part of Venus Fest, a Toronto-based not-for-profit music festival and concert series working to “address historical marginalization and discrimination within the music industry while re-sounding the future.” The bands are just finishing up a soundcheck as I reach the top of the stairs. I am early and the show is running late, which works in my favour, giving me a little time to catch up with the many familiar faces of artists and producers and friends in the room.
As night falls and the heat simmers, the show begins with Pantayo’s performance. Four instrumentalists and vocalists set up in the spotlight with a microphone in the centre of an impromptu stage against the back wall. Each member plays an instrument and sings; collaboration and community are central to the group with a Tagalog name that translates to “for us.” The kulintang instruments are aligned and centered at the front: the agung, a metal kettle gong hung vertically and played with a mallet; the sarunay, a struck metallophone with eight tuned metal plates strung together on a wooden rack, often used as a training instrument; and of course, the kulintang, a name for the instrument, ensemble, and genre, featuring a set of horizontal pot gongs pitched from lowest (left) to highest (right). The bass and synth player grounds the sound with pop cues and electronic timbres, complementing the percussive gongs and individual voices. Each part blends and breathes to create that sense and space and heat of collective music-making as communal practice. The sound is collaborative and referential in nature, each voice integral to inspiring and sustaining the next, and the next. As Kat later explains, “the nature of kulintang music [is] as a centrepiece for community gathering.” Gathering frames and shapes their performance, extending to embrace the night.
The intimacy of gathering imbues Pantayo’s sound and ethos. According to the Oxford English Dictionary “to gather” means to unite, to bring together, to assemble in one place, to collect. From the Maguindanaon and T’boli peoples of the southern Philippines to the diasporic kulintang ensembles and artists in North America and beyond, Pantayo, as a collective of queer, diasporic musicians, gathers the multiple threads of kulintang traditions in the loose bounds of Canada and, specifically, the Indigenous lands of Tkaranto. This community gathering becomes a project of the self and the sonic. Kat describes kulintang as primarily “an oral tradition, passed down from teacher to student and through families.” She continues, “as immigrants and diasporic Filipinos, we didn’t necessarily have an immediate teacher, an in-person teacher, when we started our journey playing kulintang.” Despite this absence, Kat, in Tom Tom magazine, explains how, “learning about kulintang affirms what we already know in our bodies: music traditions are part of our DNA and that our desire to express ourselves through music is very closely related to our cultural identity” (2020). To learn these traditions, the group turned to the “written word”: musical transcriptions, preserved archives, and contemporary recordings. Thus, Pantayo navigated “the process of playing the traditional aspects of the music through learning transcription of an oral tradition.”
This process of pedagogical gathering and collecting was, at times, heavily mediated and dislocated, as the materials were “filtered three times––or even more. The person who transcribed it is one filter, the person who edits it and then publishes it [are two more].” Though these texts and archives remain indispensable for many diasporic musicians––Kat emphasizes that Pantayo was only “able to get these resources from the internet and also from personal connections in the Filipino community in North America”––an absence remains in the fragmentation of this gathering process. They missed that which exists beyond documentation and the text: the context. She continues, “it doesn’t come with the history that comes with learning from a teacher, or from a family member.” This displacement in turn affects the sound, a sentiment exhibited in Pantayo’s unique conceptualization of “kulintang music as an instrumentation that we can combine [with] pop music structures.” As the members continue to learn about kulintang traditions and make new connections with teachers and ensembles in Southeast Asia and North America, the band is collaboratively and transnationally building new contexts across multiple communities, emphasizing the processual and evolving nature of traditional music-making. Thus, they continue to gather “more of the history, more of why the tuning sounds this way, why the patterns of pieces sound like this, why the flow is a certain way” as they go. Pantayo, as a sonic gathering point and queer autopoietic “audio diary,” becomes a curation of the sounds they grew up with, the sounds they love today, the sounds that they want to learn more about in the future, as they continue to create and perform together.
Gathering for Pantayo, “for us,” thus, also involves a form of queer diasporic world-building, a way of seeking out and defining material embodiments and disparate homeland connections in and through particular sonic practices and paths that diverge from the linearity of strict “traditional” or “pop” genre-based confines. These “queer orientations” (Ahmed 2006) allow a musical community to come together, to take a breath, to recover and create an “otherwise,” so beautifully articulated by Crawley as that which “bespeaks the ongoingness of possibility, of things existing other than what is given, what is known, what is grasped” (2016, 24). Pantayo encourages expansiveness in their possibilities of being and sounding; a proximity shaped by navigations of queerness, diaspora-ness, Filipina-ness, Canadian-ness, kulintang traditional sounds, and tempered by the North American music industries. Queerness becomes a sonic articulation of individual and collective movement through this evolving and shifting contemporary sound-space. As an aesthetic and embodiment, Pantayo’s queerness is, therefore, multifaceted. Eirene reflects on “how being an all-woman ensemble is queering kulintang, in a way,” as kulintang music-making in North America remains “an activity performed only by men” (Balmes 2018, 139). Kat notes that Pantayo’s collaborative work involves “a vision to make sure that we work with queer folks […] because we don’t have to explain a lot of things that are part of our experiences.”
In terms of musical performance, Pantayo proposes that, “there’s also a little bit of queering in that––because traditionally kulintang music is played sitting down outside in the rice fields––we bring [this music] on stage, we bring it to churches, any kind of venue––a garage, a bar.” “Where we take the physical instruments into physical spaces also has something to do with [a queer] approach,” considers Kat. This transient spatiality mirrors each band member’s individual negotiation of queer diasporic life on Turtle Island and beyond. Jo points to this relational embodiment as a processual expansion of “what is perceived as Filipino music.” Pantayo’s contribution is, thus, additive, amplifying “the many possibilities of ways that Filipino-ness can be experienced and expressed through music and art.” Through their sonic world-building, Pantayo asks us, their listeners, their extended community, to “think about what creating ‘Canadian’ music is,” and to contend with what “traditional music” could be and sound like. There is a stunning resonance between queerness and tradition encapsulated in the theorizing and sonic expressions of Pantayo’s work. As Muñoz avers, “queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future” (2009, 1). Traditions parallel this temporal imaginativeness, as sounds and practices “which appear or claim to be old [but] are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented” (2012, 1).
This inventiveness is sonically imbued in Pantayo’s musical composition and performance as a way of sounding out the stories that they need and want to tell. After almost eight years of workshopping the materials that they had gathered and shared with their communities, Pantayo’s self-titled debut album, produced by Alaska B, confidently announces “Heto Na,” which roughly translates to, “Here we go!” As the third track on their album, “Heto Na” is equally anthemic and atonal, with danceable polyrhythms, gong-punk girl-band vocals, and electronic glitches and synths. A reinterpretation of the OPM (Original Pilipino Music) disco records from the 1970s, “Heto Na” asks its listeners to “own up to that funky shit” and dance. A reminder that remains particularly poignant as we collectively navigate a pandemic-altered world.
“Taranta,” the song featured in their stunning 2020 Polaris Prize short film, created by award-winning filmmaker Tricia Hagoriles, declares: “we’re not world-star / cuz we are world class sisters / gonna confront the system with our feet worn / listen to the beat of these instruments / sound of our resistance / we won’t be your enemy / but if you fuck up here we go. Jo notes that although the album is not all “this is our refusal of the system, of the man,” it is still powerful “for us to be taking up this indie rock spaces…it’s a step […] We want to take up that space, and just be, and make music.” A song charged with sonic and lyrical ferocity, “Taranta” is an album point that allows the listener to gather strength through the lines, “Natataranta, huwag mataranta / Natataranta, hoy umayos ka!” [“Panicking, don’t panic / Panicking, get a hold of yourself!”]. Thinking about the prominent placement and rock timbre of kulintang in this track, I hear a resonance between its sound and Kat’s description of “the kulintang riffs as kind of in place of a lead guitar riff in the song structure.”
Their second single, the ethereal “V V V (They Lie),” assembles Pantayo’s shared love of synth-pop sentiments and commercial songwriting. There is a syrupy sweetness to its sound, despite the unmistakable lyrical critique, that recalls their shared memory and joy of making the song. In an interview with Killbeat Music, the quintet explains: “The composition of the song was a lot like a cup of bubble tea. We added 2 cups of blended percussion as the base, then some analog synth tapioca pearls to keep the texture interesting and fun, and finally topped it off with a few tablespoons of fresh tropical vocal fruits for some added sweetness” (2020). Saccharine, sharp, and satisfying.
Reworking the folk, the pop, the traditional, and the sounds and spaces between, Pantayo is a sonic gathering point “for us,” for a meal, for the future. The breadth of the communities they gather––queer, women, diaspora, Filipino, kulintang, gong-punk, traditional, pop, Canadian––is illustrative of their craft and skill as individual and collective music-makers. While they assure me that their community-building and creative “process is definitely not linear, whether we choose it [to be] or not,” their musical impact still remains a holding point or “a centrepiece for community gathering.”
Allison Sokil is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholar and Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnomusicology at the University of Toronto. Her research interests include intersections of popular music, sound studies, music technology, and feminism and her work explores multifaceted understandings of sound, space, and affect in the recording industries in Canada and the U.S.
Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Balmes, Christine, et al. 2018. “Sonic Collectivities and the Musical Routes of Pantayo.” In Diasporic Intimacies: Queer Filipinos and Canadian Imaginaries, edited by Robert Diaz et al., 135–146. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Chiong, Rachel Evangeline. 2020. “Toronto Ensemble Pantayo Revolutionize the World of Filipino Percussion on Debut Album.” Exclaim! May 5. Accessed December 7, 2021. https://exclaim.ca/music/article/pantayo_album_review.
Crawley, Ashon T. 2016. Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility. New York, NY: Fordham University Press.
Gregory, Allie. 2020. “Pantayo Share ‘Heto Na’ Video.” Exclaim! March 25. Accessed December 7, 2021, https://exclaim.ca/music/article/pantayo_share_heto_na_video.
Hobsbawm, Eric, Terence Ranger. 2012. The Invention of Tradition. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Hudson, Alex. 2020. “Toronto’s Pantayo Offer a Glimpse Inside Their Isolational Spaces While Shining a Light on “Magical” Kulintang Music.” Exclaim! May 6. Accessed December 7, 2021. https://exclaim.ca/music/article/toronto_pantayo_kulintang_interview.
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Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York, NY: New York University Press.
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