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?

2 Responses to “The Long History of Filipino Musicians Playing Western Music”

  1. I think the reason that you give – that the Filipino musicians had a head start in their contact with western forms – is very important. In some places, it had to do with the low societal status of musicians in the local cultures. Foreign musicians like those in the Philippines did not feel stigmatized.

    The circuit of Filipino musicians through Southeast Asian society is a fascinating and understudied phenomenon. In a place like Vietnam, the earliest opportunities for professional musical education for Vietnamese only began to arise in the late 1920s and by the late 1930s the number of professional calibre musicians was still limited.

    Musicians who had a high enough musical aptitude to play at bars, hotels, dance halls for foreigners / colonials could make very good money. And the Filipino musicians had a reputation for very strong technical ability on their instruments.

    I’ve only been able to learn the names of a few musicians who were active in Vietnam. They were often known by their first names – Matheo and Catalino played with Phùng Há’s cải lương troupe. Others mention musicians named Manny and Domingo. Ross Santos and Eli Javier led a bands in Saigon for a time. There was also a “Freddy Combo.” Jimmy Bex was another musician.

    Later on Filipino musicians played in rock bands at U.S. bases.

    • Yea, I need to read more of this book, but the fact that Filipinos learned about Western music in churches (I’m guessing) helped “elevate” the status of musicians, whereas musicians in other societies did not have that same setting. Like in the Dutch East Indies, for instance, the situation would have been different, even though there must have been contact with Western music for about as long as in the Philippines.

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