My alternative education

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By Arnold Alamon

Wrapped in Grey

Tuesday, June 17, 2014


I WAS the resident music freak in high school. And in many ways I still am. But instead of the bulky cassette tapes that I saved for in time for my Friday visit to Musicvision divisoria to purchase whatever the defunct Jingle Magazine or MTV recommended, I now have ripped Mp3s in portable drives running into the hundreds of gigabytes.

It has been a labor of many years, this hoarding obsession for coolness. That’s it, for the most part, I recognize that has been my primary motivation. From taking the cue from my elder brother about what is cool which at some point ranged from Michael Jackson, to Duran Duran, up to U2 and The Cure, I went out to venture on my own delving deep into darker unconventional bands such as Joy Division, The Church, and XTC.

In hindsight, the music I gravitated to in high school was a useful marker for a unique identity at a time when all my peers wanted to do was to fit in. There I was the music curator of my batch, at least, that was how I wanted to be seen, canonizing the best and worst musical tastes.

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It was an education in itself, this music obsession. How do you differentiate for instance the sound of U2 and The Smiths? They couldn’t be poles apart – the former anthemic and masculine; the latter, insular and twee, and yet they were both sanctified as cool by the British rock press by way of Jingle. But then you read up that they were essentially varying expressions of youthful discontent emanating from the troubles of Ireland and Britain under Thatcher.

I entered college knowing that I may have been ill-prepared for Chemistry and Math, but I knew I was cool by virtue of my musical taste. But sooner than later, I found out that it didn’t matter much what you listened to. It was about what you read. And the same slew of categories of what was considered sound ideas came from varying sources each with their own tenor and mood.

Just to illustrate my point, Bono would have to be the equivalent of Karl Marx in my view even though I can sense that this is a cringe-worthy statement for those who have outgrown their tolerance for the over-the-top self-importance of the frontman and his band. Robert Smith would have to be the Michel Foucault musical equivalent or it could also be Andy Partridge. But the boy bands? They would have to be some iteration of structural-functionalist thought.

This was also the time when at the University, there was a resurgence of local alternative music. I look back at my college days proud to have been there when the Eraserheads were king and yet there were just about everywhere on campus hanging out with the activists and resident bohemians.

But for me it was the likes of Yano, Buklod, Jess Santiago, and Gary Granada which proved to me that music could go beyond indicators of coolness. Yano did not have the luxury of being ironic as they riled against the state abandonment of education which was already a painful reality then. Buklod, particularly their first album Buhay at Bukid, gave me a greater understanding of the political economy of the nation than any academic text. Kuyang Jess and Gary were classic troubadours, in each of their songs, a thorough lecture on the contradictions we are all mired in and despite these, also the embedded hope for national redemption in their mournful tropes.

It was a heady time being at the University and being caught by the intellectual and cultural currents of that time. In the classroom, one is taught the systematic ways of understanding the problems of the nation. But outside, there is another world of learning that one can immerse oneself in.

I remember after an all-nighter finishing the Rosales saga of F. Sionil Jose, I walked in a daze around the academic oval one early morning weighing heavy on my young mind the exhortation of duty to nation that the book demanded from the reader. Blaring from the earphones of my walkman was not The Cure but Gary Granada’s raspy voice detailing the ironies of urban squalor.

I am now convinced looking back that these local artists provided me a greater education than any of my favorite British bands. I would even be brave enough to put forward the realization that I learned more from them as compared to my esteemed Sociology professors.

When I want to be nostalgic, I dig deep into my collection and play the music of my disenchanted youth. But when I look toward the future that we all share as a nation, it is Buklod and their likes that I turn to – timeless artists who prove that music is not just about being cool but can also give birth to a new world.

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(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on June 17, 2014.

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