Voice coach Zebedee Zuniga twists his hand in the air, and the melody of a tender and haunting lullaby, Ili Ili Tulog Anay, begins.
“Little, little, sleep now / Your mother is not there / She went to buy bread”, sing the six members of Alamat, seated in a circle. Then the hip-hop beats come into play; the traditional lullaby from the Philippines, known as oyayi, is fused with more contemporary sounds.
It’s a Monday afternoon in the Viva Records studios, and Alamat, one of the label’s up-and-coming bands, is rehearsing their next single. They are part of a new wave of groups, often referred to as P-pop, flourishing in the Philippines.
In recent decades in Japan and South Korea, J-pop and later K-pop have become huge cultural exports. K-pop is now a multi-billion dollar industry; Korean group BTS was the world’s top-selling group for the second year in a row last year. In the Philippines, record labels are hoping the country’s music scene could get a slice of that global success.
P-pop groups are influenced by K-pop, but there is also a growing willingness to experiment with the diverse languages and cultures of the Philippines, which are sidelined by the country’s mainstream pop culture.
Such music has developed loyal fanbases in the country and is beginning to find success overseas as well. Alamat’s debut single Kbye debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s Next Big Sound chart, while fellow P-pop group SB19 was nominated for Billboard’s Top Social Artists category last year. .
Korean and Filipino entertainment companies are investing in the trend in hopes of finding the next global stars, said Ian Urrutia, music writer and founder of Nyou Philippines, a Manila-based music and entertainment PR agency.
“In terms of the production process and music creation, many entertainment companies have hired top K-pop producers to pitch their talents,” he said.
Jason Paul Laxamana, creative director of Alamat, said he hopes to embrace the coaching and discipline that has shaped the Korean pop industry and embrace “the fact that K-pop has been able to take over the world without having to give up Korean”.
For Alamat, language is particularly important. Each member of the group comes from a different part of the country and sings in their own ethnic language.
In addition to Tagalog, the main language of the Philippines, these include Ilocano, Kapampangan, Bicolano, Waray-Waray, Bisaya and Sambal.
It’s very unusual for mainstream pop.
“There is a notion that one language is superior to others,” said group member Taneo. “It’s part of our mission that the younger generations, in particular, are proud of their own roots.”
Laxamana said he remembers being a student and wondering why he never heard songs in his ethnic language, Kapampangan, played on the radio. Little has changed since then.
“All I heard were songs in English, Tagalog and eventually Korean,” he said.
Malls are reluctant to play songs in other Filipino languages, believing them to be less glamorous.
The same goes for some radio stations, he added.
Filipino languages - there are as many as 182 – are often wrongly downgraded as dialects, said Ruanni Tupas, a sociolinguist at University College London who has studied the role of Filipino languages in P-pop.
“This is how colonial education was formed for the benefit, for example, of the English language. English was taught as a language, but the rest of the Filipino languages as dialects,” Tupas said.
Speaking Filipino languages is associated “with coming from the provinces, from the lower class. It is associated with lack of education,” Tupas said. “It’s always been attached to Filipinos losing their own self-confidence.”
Groups like Alamat and SB19 have helped change that perception, he said.
Alamat supporters believe the band’s distinctive style could help them stand out internationally, but band members say that, for now, their goal is to grow and shape attitudes at home.
“We want our fellow Filipinos to dance and sing to our music and make them proud of our own cultural diversity and multilingualism,” said Jao, a member of the group. “We want them to hug each other.”
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