The Long History of Filipino Musicians Playing Western Music

In reading the 16 September 1904 issue of The British North Borneo Herald, I came across a reference to a band from Manila that passed through Sandakan. This is what was reported:

“A STRING BAND, comprising two violins, a clarionet, mandonline, guitar and trombone, arrived recently from Manila on their way to Singapore, and during a brief interval here fulfilled several engagements, including one at the Sandakan Club on the evening of the 6th. . . The music, besides containing elements of popularity, reached at some points a high artistic level, and such were features that combined to win for the players a verdict of emphatic approval.”


Over a century earlier, in 1788, navigator John Meares recorded similar comments about a band that he heard perform in Zamboanga, on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. To quote,

“We were equally surprised at hearing a very tolerable band of music, which was composed of natives of the country. –It consisted of four violins, two bassoons, with several flutes and mandolins. This unexpected orchestra [was] acquainted with some fo the select pieces of Handel; they knew many of our English country dances, and several of our popular and favourite tunes; but in performing the Fandango, they had attained a degree of excellence that the nicest ears of Spain would have heard with pleasure.” (page 44 of this book)


Filipino musicians can be found playing all across Asia today, and that has been the case for a long time. In the late nineteenth century there were Filipino musicians in King Norodom’s court in Cambodia and in the 1930s they played in jazz bands in Shanghai.

So while I’ve long known about this, I’ve never understood why this was the case. Not, that is, until I recently started reading D. R. M. Irving’s Colonial Counterpoint: Music in Early Modern Manila (Oxford, 2010).


What Irving demonstrates in this book is that there was a rich experience of musical contact and exchange between Spaniards and Filipinos that began not long after the Spaniards established their control over the Philippines in the sixteenth century.

Filipinos therefore learned Western musical forms long before many other peoples in Asia, and that to some extent can explain why they started to be sought after in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when aspects of Western culture started to take hold in other Asian societies.

However, this also makes me wonder about the contacts between other peoples in Southeast Asia with other Europeans like the Dutch and the Portuguese. There were people who learned about forms of Western music from them as well, like people on Java and the Malay Peninsula. Why didn’t they end up playing at the Sandakan Club in British North Borneo or in jazz bands in Shanghai?