January-June 2004
Special Election Issue
The Campaign

Songs in the key of politics

Filipinos love to sing — especially when they're campaigning.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos use their singing talents to win votes.

IN A country as crazy about music as the Philippines, it is not surprising that even politics has a soundtrack. Long before showbiz and media personalities dominated Philippine political life, music was already part of it, from the revolutionary songs that boosted the morale of the indios revolting against the Spaniards, to the different anthems Filipinos were made to sing before they were finally able to belt out “Lupang Hinirang” in public.

Song merged with struggle to form new musical languages during the colonial times. The late 19th-century kundiman (love song), for example, gave frame and form to subversive war songs during the revolution. Being courted was not a woman, but freedom for the Motherland, most famously embodied as “Jocelynang Baliwag.” The songs of lament would continue even after the Spaniards left, and through the American and Japanese occupations. When elections finally became part of the Philippine political life, though, music remained as a constant presence, and it was only a matter of time before campaign jingles caught the politicians’ — and the public’s — fancy.

A jingle is basically a candidate’s musical score, but its usefulness lies in its being a mnemonic device that compresses name, program, and platform into a two-minute rhyme. The best ones play endlessly in one’s head. Blaring relentlessly from motorcades and speakers, a jingle enlivens the crowd before the big speech. Its mission is simple: Disarm the voter with a good harmony before drilling the message home. Speeches are all the same and easily forgotten, but a great jingle lingers.

That is why much care is given to the selection of a candidate’s theme song. From Senator Panfilo Lacson’s “Si Ping ang Kinabukasan (Ping is the Future),” to former Senator Raul Roco’s “Iisang Bangka (One Boat),” to President Gloria Arroyo’s energetic “Go, Go, Gloria!” the campaign jingle has been an election staple for the last 50 years. Even neophytes Fernando Poe Jr. and Eddie Villanueva have their own jingles. They appeal to the Filipinos’ melodic sensibilities, inventiveness, and political preoccupation. And like the government of this country, their origins can be traced to America.

Political songs emerged in the land that would be the United States of America as early as the 1700s. They were elegies lamenting the pains of a nation being born-identity, oppression, injustice, and class struggle. By the 1780s came the first known election song for America’s first president: “God Save George Washington” was sung to the melody of “God Save the Queen.” It also began a tradition where election jingles were sung “to the tune of” an existing popular composition.

With the advent of published sheet music in the early 20th century and the introduction of radio sets, the ground was set for an innovative medium to be exploited by the American capitalist spirit. A mix of clever lyrics and a memorable tune gave birth to the advertising jingle. Salesmen used it to ply pianos, typewriters, tobacco, and petroleum. Astute politicians later adapted this template to sell themselves to the American public. Most notable among them was the Depression-era and World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His theme to lift America’s morale was the optimistic “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

ALL THESE developments would filter into the Philippines, but it would only be after the war that Filipino politicians would have real use for campaign jingles. The first to use one was Manila city mayor Arsenio H. Lacson. Riding an emerging American musical trend of sensual African drumbeats and Cuban rhythms, the “Lacson Mambo” contributed to the mayor’s victories in 1951, 1955, and 1959. Bloc voting had been abolished in 1951, which meant that major party affiliation was no guarantee of election success. Each candidate was left to his own campaign initiatives. This was a time when there was one radio for every 100 Filipino and television was just being introduced to a mass market. Nevertheless, Filipinos made sure they were up to date with musical trends from overseas, and the mambo had just the right mix of Latin beat and Hollywood flair to catch their attention.

At the time, the country’s charismatic defense secretary, Ramon Magsaysay, was about to run for president. He was quick to take the public’s musical cue. Composed by Raul S. Manglapus, the syncopated rhythms of “Mambo Magsaysay” soon had Filipinos tapping their feet and swaying their hips. But the infectious song’s charm also lay in its straightforward English-Tagalog lyrics:

Everywhere that you would look/was a bandit or a crook/
Peace and order was a joke/’til Magsaysay pumasok/
That is why, that is why/ you will hear the people cry/
Our democracy will die kung wala si Magsaysay.

The jingle was crafted around Magsaysay’s image as a fighter against communist guerrillas. It was one the United States adored. The words seem harmless. But in the context of America’s concern with communism infiltrating Southeast Asia, a different shade surfaces. “Our democracy will die kung wala si Magsaysay” is a faint reminder that Magsaysay — and only Magsaysay — could save this nation from the communists. (Gentle persuasion or subtle mind control is the listener’s prerogative.)

The song also complemented the defense secretary’s American-style “Magsaysay is My Guy” slogan, which the candidate brought to life by being the first to go to the mountains and barrios to personally talk to the people and shake their hands. Previous candidates had either refused to campaign actively or left the road trips to their party’s lieutenants. The people decided it was really time to “Mambo na!” and voted the burly Magsaysay as president in 1953.

ONE LEGACY of “Mambo Magsaysay”‘s success was that the “Savior of the Nation” theme would be a recurring motif for successive election jingles. Magsaysay’s “Mambo” would also survive long after his death in March 1957. But nothing that followed would capture the spirit of the times as “Mambo Magsaysay” did. Presidents Carlos Garcia and Diosdado Macapagal had no jingle so strongly associated with them as Magsaysay’s was, perhaps because they had sedate and rather bland personalities that did not lend well to snappy tunes.

In the uprising against the conjugal dictators in 1986, anti-Marcos demonstrators merrily sang songs of protest.

When the 1965 presidential elections came around, Senator Ferdinand E. Marcos campaigned on the sheer force of his will and intellectual brilliance. His oratorical genius could hold any crowd from any province in thrall. He also had no use for corny melodies when he had his own personal jukebox: his wife Imelda, who would forever be associated with the sappy “Dahil sa Iyo (Because of You)” and later, the sappier import, “Feelings.” (The shoes would come even much later.)

Imelda Romualdez honed her warbling skills trilling to U.S. soldiers in her Leyte hometown at war’s end. After marrying Marcos, her singing helped seduce votes for her husband. Besides, a statuesque beauty serenading on the campaign trail was a new thing for the barrio folk. Once she did a duet with Marcos, the crowd was won over. Imelda was the perfect foil to Marcos’s brooding intensity. The marriage seemed perfect. In reality, it was not, but the Marcoses were politically in sync enough for their partnership to become the infamous “conjugal dictatorship” by the next decade.

The 1965 presidential campaigns of Macapagal versus Marcos underscored the growing symbiosis of politics and media. Music was no longer enough in a campaign billed as the “battle of books and film.” Marcos struck first with the hagiographical For Every Tear a Victory: The Story of Ferdinand E. Marcos. Macapagal countered with Macapagal the Incorruptible. The next arena was the silver screen: “Iginuhit ng Tadhana (Destined)” portrayed Marcos as an intellectual and hero. “Daigdig ng Mga Api (World of the Oppressed)” illustrated Macapagal’s grandiose blueprint to deliver the masses from poverty.

Marcos emerged the winner. In his inaugural speech, he first publicly mentioned his “mandate for greatness.” What he didn’t say was that he was determined to be the first reelected president four years hence.

It was only after his costly reelection in 1969 that a few opposition senators began to deduce Marcos’s true intentions. The deteriorating economic situation would ferment social turmoil. Student protests, agrarian unrest, unchecked criminality, and an overblown “communist threat” were exploited with Machiavellian precision to create a climate of fear and paranoia. Everything was set for Marcos’s most audacious political undertaking.

THE CAMPAIGN jingle was one of the casualties when martial law was enforced on September 21, 1972. It died along with the other freedoms of expression. There were no “real” elections for the next 14 years as the dictator replaced democratic institutions with authoritarian rule.

Marcos as “Architect of the New Society” was indoctrinated to the public with the mantra-like “May Bagong Silang (A Rebirth).” For a time even schoolchildren — who heard it played after the national anthem — intoned its lyrics, set to a march:

May bagong silang
There is a new birth
May bago nang buhay
There is a new life
Bagong bansa, bagong galaw
a new nation, a new movement
sa Bagong Lipunan
towards a New Society
Nagbabago ang lahat
Everything is changing
Tungo sa pag-unlad
Toward progress
At ating itanghal Bagong Lipunan
and let us show a New Society

But many saw through the manufactured reality. Those who refused to pick up a gun instead picked up the guitar-the protest song was being resurrected. Words and music were no longer to celebrate and rejoice but to resist, to educate, and to indict. Songs became cultural weapons to fight the Marcos propaganda wars. This was the era of the poet-singers Jess Santiago, Heber Bartolome, Coritha, Lolita Carbon, and Paul Galang, as well as the folk bands Asin and Inang Laya. Their songs echoed the plaintive cries of victims of exploitation, torture, corruption, and poverty.

Bartolome’s first composition, “Oy Utol, Buto’t Balat Ka Na’y Natutulog Ka Pa (Hey Brother, You’re Already Skin and Bones and Yet You Still Sleep),” is a searing indictment of his countrymen’s antipathy as their basic freedoms were blatantly being stripped away. “Oy, Utol…” specifically addresses the conditions of martial law’s introduction:

“At kung tayo’y nanahimik
And if we remain silent
Huwag kayong magalit
Let’s not get angry
Ang dapat sa atin ay tawagin
What we deserve is to be called
Mga gago!”

Toward the song’s end, the shame turns into anger and anger into an unmistakable call to rise up:

“Subalit hindi ganyan
But this should not be the case
Hindi tayo dapat ganyan
We should not stay this way
Marami nang nahihirapan
Many are suffering
Marami nang sumisigaw
Many are already screaming
Marami nang namimilipit
Many are wrenching in pain
Maging ako’y nahihirapan
Even I am hurting
Kaya ako’y sumisigaw
That is why I’m shouting

Meanwhile, in “Halina (Come)” Jess Santiago offers an ode to the sexual abuse victim, dispossessed landowner, and lowly squatter-the invisible Filipinos who have no voice in their own country. The lyrics are raw and personal, the music intimate and unadorned. So are those of Paul Galang’s “Pira-pirasong Balita (Pieces of News),” but the tone is angrier. Offering alternative snapshots of Filipino life ignored in the Marcos-controlled press, the song ends with a stinging rebuke:

“‘Di ko matanggap
I cannot accept
ang laman ng pahayagang
the contents of the newspapers
Walang laya’t walang bibig
that have no freedom, no voice
Natatakot magbunyag ng totoo
Scared to speak the truth
Balitang radyo at telebisyon
Radio and television news
Panay panloloko!”
are all deceptions!

These underground songs of rage and dissent would pervade to the end of the 1970s and into the early 1980s, when an exiled opposition leader decided to come home.

IT WAS foreign, but there was no better anthem than “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” to augur Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr.’s return to the Philippines after a three-year exile in Boston. Its opening verse alone could be read as an appeal to his countrymen:

“I’m coming home I’ve done my time
Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine
If you received my letter telling you I’d soon be free
Then you’ll know just what to do
If you still want me.”

The next stanza is a metaphor for the anxious returnee who may not find freedom in his homecoming:

“Bus driver please look for me
‘Cause I couldn’t bear to see what I might see
I’m really still in prison
And my love she holds the key
A simple yellow ribbon’s what I need to set me free
I wrote and told her please….”

Ninoy Aquino was assassinated shortly after he arrived in his home country on August 21, 1983. Sorrow and outrage over his death literally changed the nation’s political color almost overnight. Marcos had appropriated the flag’s traditional red and blue for his Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement). Aquino’s widow Cory seized the yellow sun to signal a bright, new hope for the nation. In the run-up to the 1986 snap presidential elections this devout Roman Catholic woman appeared to have the Divine Composer on her side. Between chants of “Laban (Fight)!” and “Hindi ka nag-iisa (You are not alone)!” her rallies were punctuated with “The Lord’s Prayer,” the “Hail Mary” or a recitation of the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary. The campaign was turning into a battle of faith and conscience.

Musical expression rode a new surge of unbridled nationalism following the travesty of the February 7, 1986 elections. From the initial appeals of civil disobedience to Cardinal Sin’s call to EDSA, “Onward Christian Soldiers” reminded Filipinos the nobility of standing up for what is right. So, too, did “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the U.S. musical “Carousel” that became another opposition rally staple. But nothing could surpass the poignancy of Freddie Aguilar’s haunting rendition of a 1920s’ poem, “Bayan Ko (My Country),” which would later become the anthem of the first People Power Revolution.

After 20 years in power, Marcos was toppled by a four-day people’s revolt. On February 24, 1986, Radyo Bandido’s lone announcer June Keithley resurrected the “Mambo Magsaysay” to shore up the morale of those facing tanks in the streets. The next evening her playlist included The Zombies’ hit “She’s Not There,” a send-up to the Marcoses who were then already on their way to exile.

Barely two months later, the Jim Paredes-penned “Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo” (official English title: “A New and Better Way”) celebrated the rebirth of democracy in the Philippines. Sung by 15 Filipino artists in “We Are the World” fashion, “Handog” was a fitting coda to the greatest political phenomenon of the decade. For several years afterwards, each People Power anniversary would be celebrated with a free public concert featuring many local singers and bands.

Before “Handog,” Paredes’s group, the Apo Hiking Society, had used political satire to hit the Marcos regime. Their “EtonAPOsila” concert series was a sneaky wink at the phrase “Heto na, pusila, pusila! (He’s here, shoot, shoot!)” This was the alleged phrase uttered by members of the Aviation Security Command who escorted Aquino out of the plane and right into a hail of bullets.

A YEAR after the fall of Marcos, the Filipino flair for campaigning had come roaring back. May 11, 1987 was the date for the first free congressional elections in nearly two decades. The raucous song-and-dance atmosphere would return with it. In the race for the senate, a standout was Ambassador Leticia Ramos Shahani’s ingenious “Sha sha sha, si Letty Ramos Sha” jingle. Shortening “Shahani” to “Sha” familiarized her Indian surname to voters, and turned a perceived liability into a danceable catchphrase. Her camp also had the smarts to request the Comelec to allow the word “Sha” to count in the ballot.

In 1992, her brother Fidel V. Ramos would jig to the tune of “La Bamba,” perhaps to deflect his stodgy and serious image. By then even the vaunted “Cory Magic” was fading; her anointed, Ramos, barely made it over the vociferous Miriam Defensor Santiago who ran solely on an image as a no-nonsense anti-corruption crusader. Santiago’s penchant for spewing witty sound bites also made her a media sensation. Elections were now more colorful than ever.

The perfect marriage of entertainment and politics occurred when Joseph E. Estrada became president in 1998. Running on sheer charisma and practically 100-percent awareness from the lower economic classes, it was a no-contest from the beginning. Perhaps a precursor of things to come, the Estrada-Angara jingle was the lyrically inane “Sha la la la la.” It was also a tune then senatorial bet Vicente ‘Tito’ Sotto III would sway to while on the campaign trail, usually accompanied on stage by Joey de Leon and Vic Sotto, who made two-thirds of the Tito, Vic, and Joey comedy team. Campaigning had now hit rock bottom as they became indistinguishable from the noontime variety show like the one hosted the Sottos and de Leon.

Estrada’s rivals were determined not to be outdone. Miriam Defensor Santiago’s second attempt at the presidency was scored to the symphonic “Star Wars” theme. Her image was now the Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker seeking to destroy the evil Galactic Empire and restore order to the galaxy. But it was still Estrada who waddled into Malacañang, which he proceeded to turn into his personal fiefdom. Midnight drinking sessions, crooked business deals, numerous mistresses, and links to illegal gambling would dog him for the next two years.

The beginning of the end for the Estrada government came in October 2000, when Ilocos Sur Governor Luis ‘Chavit’ Singson publicly accused the president of accepting huge jueteng payoffs and other kickbacks. The unexpected revelation shocked the legislature into action. On November 13, the House of Representatives sent four impeachment charges (bribery, corruption, betrayal of the public trust, and violation of the constitution) to the Senate. Three weeks later, the historic impeachment hearings began.

IT WAS during this time that a mysterious recording called “Huling-Huli (Caught in the Act)” suddenly surfaced. Sung to the 1960s tune “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, its lyrics poked fun at Estrada’s alleged complicity with provincial jueteng bosses. The song was credited to the “Ousters Band,” which sounded suspiciously like Ramon ‘RJ’ Jacinto and his band, The New Riots.

Huling-Huli” was a smash hit among the growing anti-Estrada public. It was also the carrier single of “The White Album: Erap.” This 10-cut collection (with the bonus track “Jinggoy Boy”) was a musical score of the president’s supposed sins. Songs and titles spoofed hits of the 1960s and ’70s such as “Jueteng Lord” (George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”), “Wonderful Erap” (Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight”) and “Evil Ways ni Erap” (Carlos Santana’s “Evil Ways”). Soon text messages were encouraging listeners to buy the album, duplicate it, and share it with others. The Internet would make it available worldwide.

The “White Album” was followed by “The Gray Album: Erap.” Again by the Ousters Band, the 13 cuts chronicled the aborted impeachment trial that would culminate in Edsa II. All the principal characters in the trial were mentioned: Jose Velarde, Emma Lim, Estelito Mendoza, Loi Estrada, Clarissa Ocampo, Jaime Dichaves, and George Go.

Unlike its predecessor, Edsa II was a marathon concert for the youth from the start. Teenagers and those in their 20s came, sang, danced, moshed, and stayed around the Edsa shrine until January 20, 2001, when Vice President Gloria M. Arroyo appeared onstage there and sworn in as president.

A carny atmosphere had prevailed throughout, and Edsa I veterans Freddie Aguilar, Jim Paredes, and Danny Javier had found themselves sharing the stage with pop star Gary Valenciano and the sonic charge of rockers Razorback, Rivermaya, Greyhoundz, and Wolfgang. But the crowd reserved their loudest whoops for the Ousters Band, which gave live performances of its “hits” during the last days of the Estrada presidency. Strangely, no one thought of playing the Van Morrison classic “Gloria.” For a 36-year- old song, the words remained eerily appropriate:

“Like to tell ya about my baby
You know she comes around
She about five feet four
From her head to the ground
You know she comes around here
At just about midnight
She make ya feel so good, Lord
She make ya feel all right
And her name is G-L-O-R-I-A

Then again, three years later, many Filipinos were not feeling so good about President Arroyo. In December 2002, she announced that would not seek the presidency in 2004. A year later, however, she retracted that statement.

IT HAS now come to this: two senators (one former, the other current), an actor, a preacher, and a self-proclaimed billionaire seeking the presidency against the female incumbent. Curiously, there are more campaign jingles than there are candidates. Surveying just the major contenders, former Senator Roco applies the principles of market segmentation. He has a jingle for every occasion. There is the overall “Iisang Bangka (One Boat).” “High Hopes” is sung by children and geared toward the parents — education is one of Roco’s priorities. The target audience of “Kaming mga Babae (We the Women)” is obvious, while “Roco Rock” (sung to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) seems to be aimed at the campus crowd.

Iisang Bangka” is a faint allusion to Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” — A fearful nation cries for the steady hand of a trusted captain to guide its future.

“Sa isang ama nagtitiwala
In one father we trust
Sa kanyang daan naniniwala
in his path we place our faith
Bawat kapamilyang Pilipino
For each Filipino family
Itinuturing siyang Kapuso
one heart with us
Raul Roco, ating sandigan
Raul Roco, our pillar
Raul Roco, ating kapitan
Raul Roco, our captain

Senator Lacson’s original theme was “Isipin ang Kinabukasan (Think about the Future).” But after a clever rearrangement of letters, the truism answers itself like a Zen revelation: “Si Ping ang Kinabukasan (Ping is the Future).” Borrowing a trick from U.S.President Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory, its melody is Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” It is also straight to the point:

“‘Pag si Ping ang aking pangulo
When Ping is my president
Tapos ang hirap, tapos ang gulo
Difficulties and disorder will end
Ibang-ibang sa gustong pum’westo
(He’s) different from other candidates
Buo ang loob, walang takot ito
He is steadfast and fearless
Si Ping ang kinabukasan”
Ping is the future.

Still, considering where he stands now in the surveys, his 2001 senatorial jingle may also be appropriate — the “Mission: Impossible” theme.

Televangelist Eddie Villanueva offers a biblical sermon accompanied to Yoyoy Villame’s folksy drawl. Like Senator Lacson’s, it is clear-cut:

Malubha ang sakit ngayon ng ating bansa
Our nation is gravely ill
Nakawan at korupsyon nakakahawa na
theft and corruption is contagious
Marami ng taong gobyernong nagpasasa
many public officials are enriching themselves
Nagmana sila Adan at Eba
inherited from Adam and Eve
Kaya si Brother Eddie na ang ating iboto
so vote for Brother Eddie
Nang tumino na ang ating gobyerno
for a righteous government

Movie king Fernando Poe Jr. reinforces his persona as the unassuming Filipino everyman with the buoyant “Bagong Umaga (New Morning).” FPJ’s is perhaps the most ethnically Filipino tune. “Bagong Umaga” is sung by chanteuse Bayang Barrios and was a finalist in the 1996 Metropop Music Festival. It also fits his slogan: “Sama-sama, Tulong-tulong sa Pagpapanday ng Bagong Umaga (Together Let Us Build a New Morning).”

No concession was made to include the words “FPJ,” “vote,” “panday,” or “Da King,” in the lyrics. As is, the song already contains a litany of useful idioms to both the voters and FPJ himself:

“Nasa iyo ang kapangyarihan
The power is in you
Nasa iyo ang pagkakataon na tagumpay
The moment of triumph is within you
Bawat problem ay may kalutasan
every problem has a solution
Sa isip mo, huwag malilito
In your mind, do not be confused
Nasa iyo ang kinabukasan
the future is in your hands
May bagong umagang parating
a new morning is coming

When the question arose regarding whether or not Poe was a natural-born Filipino, Tito Sotto and Joey de Leon reworked the lyrics of Florante’s classic “Ako’y Isang Pinoy (I Am Pinoy) into a ditty called “Siya’y Isang Pinoy (He Is Pinoy).” Now that the Supreme Court has dismissed the case questioning Poe’s ability to fit that criterion in the Constitution, the tune has new resonance.

The handlers of FPJ’s running mate Loren Legarda have also been busy transforming the folk song “Leron Leron Sinta (Leron, My Love)” into the cheeky “Loren Loren Sinta (Loren, My Love).” Showing a flair for synergistic cross-promotion this was also the title of an ABS-CBN television show Legarda hosted last year.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s campaign jingle, however, is the runaway winner for unabashed aplomb. “Go, Go Gloria!” exhorts voters to go for experience and excellence, and elect the one who “has no equal”:

Ang kailangan ng bayan natin
What our country needs
Pangulo na magaling
is an excellent president
Ganap ang karanasan
thoroughly experienced
Ating maasahan
we can depend on
Gloria, Gloria, go, go Gloria
Gloria, Gloria, go, go Gloria
Subok na ang kanyang galing
Her abilities have been tested
Bayang malayong narating
The country has progressed much
Walang kayang tumapat
No one can measure up to
Kay Pangulong Gloria
President Gloria

For all that cheerleading, though, Arroyo’s handlers have still seen it necessary to borrow a trick from some senatorial candidates, raiding today’s current play lists for a supplementary jingle. Thwarted in its attempt to snag the omnipresent “Otso Otso” song popularized by comedian Bayani Agbayani, the Arroyo camp settled for the less popular “Pito Pito,” that was sung originally by funnyman Willie Revillame. (Composer Lito Camo sings the GMA jingle version.) The bouncy tune is well liked by the lower classes, a segment of society that has never been quite receptive to the president. Another jingle aimed specifically for Mindanaoans is also set for release later in the campaign.

Of course a good jingle — even a great jingle — is absolutely no guarantee of election success. Most will probably be forgotten before the year is over. But to the serious political strategist, the campaign jingle remains as indispensable as the poster, the newspaper advertisement, and the handshake. Before the war for the hearts and minds can be won, the battle of the senses must be fought.

If only politicians didn’t have the bad habit of later leaving us whistling in the dark.