Singer and Broadway sensation Lea Salonga walked into a studio in Manila with a list of songs. They represented the Philippines’ three cultural regions and many languages, selected from a lifetime’s worth of research by preeminent musician, scholar, and producer Ryan Cayabyab.
Salonga picked songs that appealed to her, both artistically and personally. Her mother had sung her the delicate “Ili Ili” and several others when she was a child, and came to visit during a session. The Tony Award-winning actress and vocalist, used to selling out prestigious venues worldwide, harnessed this connection and dived into the repertoire with heart and grace.
Her powerful emotional ties and artful interpretation shine on Bahaghari (“Rainbow”; release: November 3, 2017, via Naxos Distribution), GLP Music’s latest release chronicling the traditional songs of the island nation. Producers tapped a series of young arrangers to craft the right musical settings for Salonga’s powerful voice, including Salonga’s brother, Gerard. They are straightforward, highlighting the songs’ melodies, words, and Salonga’s wonderfully expressive voice.
“This project felt like the perfect opportunity to introduce the languages of my country to a bigger world. A world that might not be aware of the intricacies and differences between these languages,” Salonga says. “As a Tagalog speaker, many of these tongues feel very foreign and strange, and since there’s always a danger that these languages won’t be spoken by future generations, there was a need on our part to preserve them in some way.”
Bahaghari joins GLP Music’s growing catalog. Founded by Angela Jackson and Rex Niswander, the label aims to deepen connections to language learning and preservation via compelling music. Jackson came from a background in media and corporate communications, a highly successful career that brought her into collaboration with international colleagues. That work opened her eyes to the importance of new language acquisition and language retention in diaspora. She launched an education nonprofit Global Language Project, which brought language learning to under-resourced schools and learners. Jackson teamed up with Niswander to create musical projects that furthered these same goals.
Through a mutual friend, Jackson and Niswander were introduced to Salonga. The singer agreed to participate in their next project. Jackson was intrigued by the educational and cultural resonances an album of songs in Filipino languages might have. She was struck by the state of many of the country’s languages–Salonga sings in several endangered languages on Bahaghari–and wanted to find a way to highlight them.
“There is a large Filipino diaspora in the US and around the world. They have very tight ties to their homeland, yet many children in the diaspora don’t learn Tagalog or one of the other languages,” she explains. “We hope this album can become a resource for families and young learners in these communities, inspiring interest in these languages and their wonderful songs.”
To reach for this goal, Jackson and Niswander knew they needed highly knowledgeable and dedicated collaborators. “The spirit behind the project really came from the team, a collective that has deep expertise,” says Jackson. “There’s Lea, whose contribution is central. Ryan is a leading light in Filipino music and straddles the academic and pop worlds. The album’s designer, Lucille Tenazas, is Filipina, and the liner notes were written by a respected Filipino author, Floy Quintos. They all share a real passion for the country and the language and the culture,” a passion that’s audible on Bahaghari.
Cayabyab is a leading composer, arranger, conductor, and film scorer. He has researched his country’s musical traditions, as well as championed new voices, via a songwriting competition he founded and as a judge on several popular TV talent shows. His deep knowledge of Filipino music proved key to the project.
“I had to choose the most popular folk songs from each region – but there are many to choose from!” he recalls. “The Visayas region has other subregions but I chose one song each from the Cebuano and the Hiligaynon languages. In Mindanao, the main economic and cultural centers either speak Cebuano, Hiligaynon, or Tagalog.”
Capturing the diversity of languages was only one part of the puzzle. Cayabyab also wanted to make the album musically interesting, taking listeners through different moods. “The songs had to be varied in subject, in emotion and in tempo and rhythm,” Cayabyab notes. “The collection could not all be slow songs or only celebratory songs. We had to have a good representation not only of language but of a variety of subjects and emotions. This would hopefully make for a lovely aural spread.” Bahaghari moves from the sprightly “Leron Leron Sinta” and the playful vocal layers of “Sitsiritsit Alibangbang,” to the gentle sway of “Magtanim Ay Di Biro” and the pensive “Matudnila.”
Diversity also reigned in the arranging process, which Cayabyab handed over to several arrangers and musicians. “I was surprised by his proposal, that six different arrangers and performers each work on a few songs. I was skeptical about it, but it actually worked perfectly,” recalls Niswander. “For one thing, the arrangers were so good. They were following Ryan’s directions but they each had their own style.” The arrangements revolve around piano and guitar, with gentle percussion, vibes, flute, and other colorful elements to play off Salonga’s rich voice.
That voice is the thread tying Bahaghari together. “Because the arrangements were all so different from one another, I needed to stylistically adapt my vocals to fit them while holding on to my own voice and how I sing,” reflects Salonga. “The more playful stuff, like ‘Pobreng Alindahaw,’ was just so much fun to do in the studio, and some of the more dramatic music, like ‘Matudnila,’ was straight from the heart. The melodies are just as informative as the lyrics, so I latched on to them.” Listeners will as well, forging new connections to these songs and languages.