Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities: Poetics, Society, and History

By Herminia Meñez Coben. 2009. Ateneo de Manila University Press. 402 pages. ISBN: 978-971-550-583-3 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Oona Paredes, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

[Review length: 1052 words • Review posted on March 23, 2011]

This recent offering from the Philippines’ premier academic publisher showcases the oral traditions of ten different minority ethnic groups from across the archipelago. A brief prologue about establishing indigenous Philippine verbal arts as a legitimate and significant literary legacy may lead readers to expect yet another storybook, perhaps with undiscovered or otherwise novel material from the under-appreciated indigenous minority communities of the Philippines. To be sure, much of the material presented here will be unfamiliar even to most Philippine specialists. However, that is not what this book is about, nor is it its particular strength. Readers anticipating a straightforward collection of folk stories may be disappointed, though only momentarily.

Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities makes a case for appreciating “[t]he centrality of verbal art, and the central role of verbal artists, in social life” (1) amongst the archipelago’s indigenous minority peoples. The author accomplishes this by first placing Philippine verbal arts within the larger cultural context of island Southeast Asia, reminding us of the power of the spoken word—at times practical, at times supernatural, and always a performance art—vis-à-vis politics, religion, and ethnic identity. Coben then explores individual oral traditions by highlighting specific themes or tropes drawn from within each community’s experience: ecology, religion, violence, gender, subsistence, internal and external politics. The role of place is also made salient as it is shown inflecting particular cultural forms, social histories, and political expectations. It is therefore not only an informative tour of the indigenous minority experience of the modern Philippines, it is also an introduction to the many rich threads that render them both peculiar and common.

Coben brings in the texts belatedly, only after the reader is shown how to experience them. In this manner she is able to effectively show the dynamism of oral literature and why it remains relevant even in this century of dizzying global mass communication. Thus she brings it to life on the page: these verbal art forms are clearly not a fossilized ancillary to present iterations of “traditional” cultures but something actively reconfigured at every turn to respond to modern, everyday realities. She in fact compares them to jazz, which manages to be both structured and freeform in performance. This, in turn, supplements our understanding of the relative lack of interest of such groups toward converting oral traditions to written forms, even after the advent of widespread literacy. Their orality persists, she convincingly argues, not because they lack the literacy to write down their stories but because orality itself is a vital, culturally meaningful medium, its dynamism entirely appropriate for, perhaps even required by, their specific social, political, and emotional needs.

The selections represent the great diversity of minority cultures in the Philippines: four groups from Luzon (Isneg, Kalinga, Ifugao, and Kankaney), five from Mindanao (with Subanon, Bukidnon, and Bagobo from amongst the Lumad groups, and the Tausug and Sama Dilaut from amongst the Muslims), and the Mangyan as the lone representative of the Visayas region. Given that Coben avoids merging these distinct cultures into one generic tribal blob, the book’s geographical breadth is more than impressive—it is exemplary. And for deftly placing particular oral traditions within a specific social organizational context and analyzing their cultural significance in this manner, Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities really deserves to be called an ethnographic study, with each chapter a well-contextualized world of its own.

Whilst it is up to other scholars with more expertise to determine the accuracy of her depiction of the other nine ethnic groups, for my part as a specialist on the Higaunon, I can say with some authority that her analysis of Bukidnon poetics (chapter 7) hits all the right notes, even helping me to make sense of some of the esoterica related to their Ulaging epic. Even though I was already familiar with nearly all of her sources for that chapter, she still managed to teach me something new. That said, perhaps the only thing one might find wanting is a more explicit methodology. Coben draws from a wide range of existing, previously unconnected work to weave each study together. Were these secondary sources augmented by field research? There are certainly many moments throughout the text during which highly authoritative statements are made in the absence of specific citations. Given the strong ethnographic quality of the text, the reader may assume field knowledge, even if it is not what the author wishes to imply.

Occasional inconsistencies like talking about the “Bukidnon” (Higaunon) of Bukidnon province as if they were in the neighboring province of Cotabato—at seemingly random points of the text—may also sow unnecessary confusion. As a specialist I assumed she was striving for technical accuracy and referring in those particular sentences or paragraphs to a related population (the Ilianen Manobo) at the border of those two provinces. But a more explicit methodological statement about supplementing the scant information on the Bukidnon with material from a closely related group (and validating that relatedness) would have been useful. These silences in terms of methodology, along with some minor editorial matters, may prove distracting to some, but Coben’s wide-ranging synthesis is valuable in itself to transcend these technical limitations which, at the end of the day, are relatively common imperfections.

Coben deserves high praise for masterfully pulling together so many disparate traditions in one study without sacrificing any of the complexity that a focus on a single culture normally provides. These different oral traditions are not simply compiled into a collection of quaint folkloric content, as if to presume the universality of their significance as literature. Instead, Coben carefully builds the cultural foundations and the social/political/historical context of each specific community to present their oral traditions as living, ever-emerging, and re-emerging art forms.

For this anthropologist, at least, the author’s ability to present these particular verbal arts to us as vivid, meaningful, and active traditions—focusing on the how and why of their cultural significance—is what makes this particular work a truly enjoyable read. It provides delightfully comprehensive data on oral tradition and cultural history that should make it attractive to area specialists. At the same time, Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities is so clearly, accessibly, and, yes, entertainingly written that it would do well as a textbook as well as a major reference for scholars of area studies, folklore, anthropology, and even ethnohistory.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.