Pantayo: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: An entrancing blend of modern electronica and traditional Filipino kulintang music.
File next to: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, Nonesuch Records
Playing: Day Three of WL16, Sunday February 14 at The Garrison. Get tickets!

There is so much amazing music being made by the various cultural communities in the GTA that doesn’t get heard by the rock-dominated mainstream music scene. We were thrilled to discovered Filipina septet Pantayo when they performed Wavelength’s co-presentation at the Music Gallery’s X Avant X festival this past fall, and were equally thrilled to invite them to perform at our winter festival. Tomorrow night’s performance at the Garrison will be a wonderful opportunity to warm up and shake off the winter blahs with your Valentine(s).

Who is Pantayo, and how did you come to be as a musical group?

Pantayo is Christine Balmes, Eirene Cloma, Michelle Cruz, Kat Estacio, Katrina Estacio, Marianne Rellin and Joanna Delos Reyes. We’re a bunch of queer Filipinas from the diaspora who met at a point in our lives when we wanted to explore and re/connect with our culture and perhaps indigenous roots. Coming together was basically a process of coming to terms with our identity as settlers and diasporic folks. We found that we were all drawn to music; each member has their own musical influences, but we all knew that we wanted to know more about this rhythm-heavy percussive music from our homeland.

How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it — or anything like it — before?

Katrina: I would describe it as resonant clanginfg metals similar to bells and chimes that play layered rhythms and beats. These instruments can be really loud in a small space!

Michelle: It’s a soundtrack to a thousand warriors marching and charging. And also a lullaby to sleeping babies.

Kat: We play metallic polyrhythms, percussive beats, with uptempo influences — it’s like the sound of multiple bodily functions in movement, in harmony with each other, and necessary. These days, we are incorporating more of the (Western) music that we grew up with, so hopefully that shines through somehow. It’s sometimes loopy and dance-y, sometimes post-rock analog drone-y. The only thing that remains constant is that it is gong-based.

Kulintang music has a long and rich history. Did you grow up with this music, or is it something you learned about later in life?

Katrina: It’s a mix of both. Some members (myself included) were introduced to it in elementary school because it was a way to teach kids about music theory. We didn’t really pay attention to it until before we started Pantayo.

Michelle: I did not grow up with kulintang music, nor did I know what they were supposed to sound like. Aside from seeing it at a relative’s home as a kid, I don’t have any other memories of being exposed to kulintang music as a kid.

Christine: The first time I got acquainted with it is when I took a kulintang course at the University of Michigan from an ethnomusicology professor who was visiting from University of the Philippines, Fe Prudente. Then I went to the Kapisanan Centre in Toronto and saw a kulintang set that nobody was playing in the studio. I met Alex Punzalan the first time that way, then we both got involved with Santa Guerrilla. He and I went to California around 2010 to learn from Danny Kalanduyan. Then in 2011, I went to the Philippines to learn from three Maguidanaon musicians who came to visit my uncle’s house. In 2012 we started Pantayo! In 2013 we learned from Maria Oyog Todi and Andrea Todi (from the Tboli tribe).

How does kulintang from the Philippines differ from other gong music of Southeast Asia, such as gamelan from Indonesia?
Kat: What a heavy question! Christine took an entire course that could answer this question, haha. But to put it simply, the instruments and ensemble parts are different, but scales and purposes in the community might be similar. Honestly, we’re still learning. It should be pointed out though that what we play isn’t “traditional” kulintang at all. We made this YouTube playlist that has some examples of what would turn up if you searched for kulintang. Pantayo’s music is quite a departure from that.

Christine: This might be a helpful reference if we’re doing a comparison.

The whole ensemble is called a kulintang ensemble, named after the main instrument, the kulintang. There are plenty of indigenous groups in the Philippines that play kulintang in the Philippines, but the one we are most familiar with is the Maguindanaon. Other Indigenous groups like the Tboli might have less or more instruments depending on their tradition. The kulintang ensembles are all percussion-based but gamelan might also include wind and string instruments.

Like other gong music from Southeast Asia, kulintang is based on a pentatonic scale. Different rhythmic parts of each instrument interlace with each other to create polyrhythms. Kulintang instruments are hit with wooden beaters and mallets, similar to instruments of the gamelan. But other gong-based instruments in the Philippines, such as the gangsa of the Northern Cordillera people, are hit with the palms of the hands.

Different people play different instruments, but similar to gamelan, individual musicians also need to be skilled enough to switch instruments within a performance. Both men and women can play the kulintang instruments. The gangsa tradition in Northern Philippines, however, is usually comprised of men. The individual gongs of the kulintang set are tuned as a unified harmonic ensemble — you cannot switch one gong from a set and have it fit another set. Usually the instruments of a gamelan are tuned to each other, but with Pantayo, we got the instruments at different times, so they aren’t exactly all made and tuned to each other. We spent a good amount of time trying to figure out the notes and tones of each instrument that we had when we collaborated with Yamantaka // Sonic Titan for the soundtrack to the upcoming video game Severed by Drinkbox Studios.

What have been some of your most memorable performances so far?

Katrina: X Avant X at the Music Gallery. The space and the organizers allowed for the music to be revered and for us to talk and have the audience actually listen. It wasn’t a typical club / bar venue, which was nice.

Michelle: X Avant X as well. It’s the most we’ve ever challenged ourselves as a group! Reworking our songs and creating a set for X Avant X and welcoming a new band member has been a big growing experience..

Kat: I’m echoing all the sentiments about X Avant X, and I’d like to add that that was probably the most fun too! Also, when we played Yonge-Dundas Square as part of Kultura Filipino Arts Festival last summer. Performing in front of Filipinos is very unnerving for me because of what “Filipino music” is expected to be, but afterwards it felt satisfying. Another one was with Grace Nono. There was something about performing kulintang / indigenous music and chants in a structure / institution like a church. It felt like… reconciliation and healing.

Christine: I remember our first big performance was at OISE for the Memorial of Roxana Ng. That was the first time we’d ever had all these ensemble instruments and musicians playing different rhythms. We worked so hard to be a group together. We knew our parts and they all fit together like a puzzle. I felt like we were complete, and even had an excess number of players because we were joined by Roxana’s students Conely de Leon and Valerie Damasco. We played for 30 minutes and we had a repertoire of like seven songs or something. We also worked with spoken word artist Bea Palanca, and arnis practitioner Paul Limgenco, and to have movement — martial arts indigenous to the Philippines — along with our songs somehow tied everything together. I felt that our community representation was very strong. It felt like a real bridging between various communities. Academic and artistic, Filipino and Canadian. Science and art.

I also fondly remember playing at Unit 2 for Whippersnapper Gallery’s Taking Place Festival in 2013. It was such a treat to be playing with indigenous artists and musicians at this community space that was not in the downtown core and sort of out of the way. It felt like intentional community building and it was so great to be in the company of such amazing indigenous, queer, and people of colour artists in Toronto / Canada.

What do you want audiences to take away from your shows?

Katrina: I’d like the audience to find what’s familiar about it, as opposed to looking for what makes it different. If they feel like grooving to the rhythm, then move and dance with the music.

Kat: They don’t have to like it, but it would be nice to acknowledge that this music and culture exists. I hope they feel connected to their own bodies — we do play music that you can feel in your bones — and connected to other human beings, and to the earth.

Christine: 1) The Philippines has a rich musical tradition that has similarities with Southeast Asian gong traditions, but also has its own characteristics indigenous to Southern Philippines. 2) As Filipinas in Canada, we are involved in a community of people around the world who are yearning to get connected with indigenous traditions as a way to empower ourselves and our community. 3) At this day and age, it is important for musicians and artists to be aware, mindful, and critical of how they use indigenous arts and culture, and to be ready to be taken to task when we are asked about it. It is irresponsible not to do that.

7. Do you have any plans to release any studio recording in the near future?

Yes, a studio recording is definitely in the works. Stay tuned!

8. What excites you about making music in Toronto? Are there other local artists you want to shout out to?

Katrina: The fact that the city has so much talent within, yet we are influenced by the various cultures and experiences of its people. The challenge is to find alternative places to find these musicians that aren’t part of the popular / mainstream scene (a.k.a. white).

Kat: Toronto has been the environment where I felt that it’s okay (and even encouraged) to explore your own culture. We’ve been so fortunate to meet and be exposed to musicians whose work reflects both their culture and the music that they dig so much. I’m hoping we can do the same with Pantayo. I feel that this richness is very unique to Toronto, and it’s cool that Wavelength is a platform where we could present these explorations. I hope that future programming would grow to include more racialized people, whether their music is cultural or not.

A friend once asked me who my favourite band was, and I replied with, “I have a lot of favourites!” Then my friend responded with, “If you say you have a lot of favourites, that means you don’t have a favourite.” So many of our peers in music, dance, art and theatre are doing really cool stuff, so yeah.

Christine: I do feel like we are part of an intergenerational, interracial, and intersectional community of artists and organizations who have and continue to make beautiful and socially conscious work that is rooted in our different identities. For example, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, April Aliermo and Daniel Lee of Hooded Fang / Phèdre, Casey Mecija and Ohbijou, Lido Pimienta, Kapwa Collective, Whippersnapper Gallery, Kapisanan Centre. In Canada we have Indigenous musicians and artists such as A Tribe Called Red and Tanya Tagaq, also Malika Ahweri and Melody McKiver who are also doing great work. We are so lucky to have gone up in a Torontonian art scene that feels supportive and open to the spectrum of gender identities. There seems to be opportunities available from the institutionalized art funding organizations.

What can we expect for your Valentine’s Day set at Wavelength on Sunday? Anything special planned?

Katrina: Shh, just come.

Michelle: Hey Wavelength, can we have candygrams for all?

Kat: BRING EARPLUGS. With love, Pantayo.

Don’t miss Pantayo when they play The Garrison Sunday February 14 for Wavelength 16. Get your tickets or festival passes here.

— Interview by Jonny Dovercourt