9 Muses: Gingee, Diwata of Music
9 MUSES // Created in collaboration with Jodinand Aguillon as part of his arts residency at Pineapple Lab and shot on location in Manila, PH. Inspired by the "Siyam na Diwata ng Sining/Nine Muses of the Arts" sculpture by Napoleon Abueva at UP Diliman and goddess/oracle cards, this series re-envisions modern Pilipina muses as "Diwata Cards" which can be pulled for words of advice for those seeking inspiration.
When I first heard Gingee's song "Gong Spirits" last year through a HATAW video, it had me instantly shook. As she invoked ancestral spirits through rolling drumbeats, kulintang (gongs), and kumbing (jaw harp), I felt transported, letting the chiming of gongs vibrate through me, stirring hidden memories in the blood. Hearing a fellow diasporadical Pinay singing about our ancestry, using Indigenous instruments mixed with synths and spoken word blew my mind, and I felt so awed and stoked that there was someone out there making such uplifting and creative music. Multiple DMs and interesting synchronicities later, we actually ended up meeting through mutual friends very shortly thereafter in NY. Flash forward almost a year later, and Gingee happens to be in the Philippines to tour and perform at the Malasimbo Music & Arts Festival at the same time I'm there for work and Jodinand Aguillon, the artistic director of HATAW (and the art director for this series), happens to be doing an arts residency. In fact, the whole 9 Muses series was born out of her suggestion that we link up and create together while we all happened to be in the same city - very true to Gingee's super collaborative spirit. We've only met in person once before, but seeing her again in Manila and doing this project together with Jodee feels like something meant to be coming full circle, and also somehow like meeting up with old friends. Funny how the internet can do that. Gingee's one of the first women I featured on Hella Pinay and I've covered each of her projects fangirlish-ly ever since; I even used her music in my fashion show last summer. So to be shooting and interviewing her in the Philippines with a certifiable all-around dream team feels almost surreal.
Marjorie Light, better known by her stage name Gingee, is a DJ, producer, and vocalist repping her Filipina-Los Angeleno roots with a unique blend of electronic, hip hop, spoken word, live percussion and Indigenous instruments from the Philippines, joining fellow contemporary kulintang fusion artists like Kulintronica and DATU in pushing for more visibility for Pilipinx sounds and artists in the current musical landscape. She has performed at Coachella, SXSW, FPAC (Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture), done remixes for artists like legendary underground rapper Aceyalone, and collaborated with renowned chefs like Yana Gilbuena of Salo Series on kamayan pop-up dinners. Most recently, Gingee performed at Gongster's Paradise at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center at the end of May, the first kulintang festival in the western hemisphere that brought together traditional and contemporary artists to celebrate the life of Pilipino-American father of kulintang, Danny Kalanduyan.
Gingee is also a poet, writer, educator, and cultural advocate who's been involved in the Pilipinx arts scene since she was a teenager. When she speaks about our community, she truly radiates the spirit of Kapwa through her passion and thoughtfulness, through how clearly she wants us all to come up and shine together. As a young teen, Gingee got heavily into riot grrrl and feminist, D.I.Y. punk culture, publishing her own zine and selling it at school; she contributed to poetry publications like Disorient and is on the first Pilipinx-American spoken word and poetry CD, and performed at poetry events at SIPA (Search to Involve Pilipino Americans) in Historic Filipinotown. At Pitzer college ("a very liberal school"), she created her own majors, Women of Color Art and Activism and World Performance Traditions. It was during this time she discovered the decolonization work of Leny Mendoza Strobel through her seminal book Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization Among Post-1965 Filipino Americans [sidenote: if you haven't read this yet, plz do], which later led to Gingee contributing a chapter to Strobel's anthology Babaylan: Filipinos and the Call of the Indigenous about the different artists she'd met in LA that were fusing together Pilipinx culture in their own way. As an educator, she's taught writing and music workshops all over Los Angeles, as well as DJing and music production at an after school program through the Youth Policy Institute.
Her stage name Gingee is actually a family nickname, taken from the Brazilian jazz song "Dindi" by Antonio Carlos Jobim, of which her dad changed the spelling. Through the times we've talked, it's clear that Gingee's family's support has played a big part in nurturing her as an artist; from her dad helping hook her up with a hard-to-acquire kulintang set through his connects at UP, to her and her siblings throwing Magic Garage parties literally in their garage with the blessing of her mom, who she also credits as a huge inspiration. Her roots hail from Manila on both sides (Pasig and San Juan) and she also has family in Samar; her parents immigrated to LA in the early 80's, followed by her older sister and maternal grandparents after she was born.
Read on as we discuss how she feels that Pinxys being underrepresented in the media might actually be a blessing in disguise, how knowing ourselves and our culture can help Pilipinx artists to finally break through, and how this extremely multitalented artists fuses different parts of her identity to create totally unique, yet still very Pilipinx, sounds.
Hella Pinay: You have a long history of involvement in the Pilipinx arts and music scene in Los Angeles. Can you tell us a bit about how you got your start there?
Gingee: I started out as a spoken word artist - poetry - and I got involved in the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture. There's this whole older generation, maybe like 10 years older, that were like us, that I was looking up to as a kid. Like all the people from FilAm Arts, the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture, all the people involved in that whole scene. I did a lot of shows, I did some poetry publications. I was on the first Filipino-American spoken word and poetry CD called In Our Blood with LA Enkanto Kollective. So I was part of all this cool shit growing up - 15, 16, that's when I started. I got really lucky in that people took me under their wing basically.
How did you start using kulintang in your music?
In school I started taking Balinese gamelan - because I mean, obviously I would have taken Filipino music, but it was not available. That was my struggle in school, like there were no Filipino history classes available, no Filipino music classes available. Basically I was realizing that my culture was being erased, or it was not available. I was not being validated. So I had to go out and search for it. I had to go out and take Philippine history class at another school, and then I complained to my school and they put in this Filipino Experiences class.
So I was taking Balinese gamelan and all these other classes about world music, and that's where I got exposed to gongs. And I was taking the dance as well, I studied in Bali for a little while in college, and then I took a class about Southeast Asian music, which included kulintang. So I learned about the intricacies of it. I had always seen it but I didn't learn in detail about it until then. So basically I was like, I gotta get my hands on one of these instruments. My dad said he knew people who worked with the University of the Philippines, so we asked them and bought a kulintang set and got it shipped. So I got one and then I just started playing around with it and started making recordings. I started combining my spoken word poetry with the music and just put it all together, in the form of rapping over beats as well as on computer programs and learning how to record. And then at the end of college instead of doing a thesis I did a performance.
For my final thing I put together this show that was a reflection of my identity as a Filipino-American, and I also took Nepali folkdance and music that I learned when I was [studying abroad] in India and I put in some of those as well. And then I did some like, feminist punk rock songs and stuff. That was the beginning of the whole "Gingee" thing. That was 2006. Then I learned more about music production and I came out with my first full album [self titled] in 2011, finally, and I produced the whole thing, and that incorporated some kulintang sounds along with different electronic sounds and hip hop and rapping as well.
From then it just became more of a conscious thing. The whole reason I began doing it is because gongs were part of the original Filipino culture before colonization, before the Spanish came here. So I wanted to go back deeper in the roots and use that. And I was also learning about this whole decolonization concept. My work is a fusion, obviously, because I'm from LA and it's me translating this Filipino culture into my own identity of what's around me, the different types of music that are around me. We're not very visible in American culture and I find it kinda sad because I'm also a DJ. Most other cultures, you can find something to represent them - but a lot of times with Filipino music it's like, What do I play? I don't know. So I wanted to fill that void, making a Filipino sound that uses Filipino sounds, so when you listen to it you can tell it's something Filipino. So I started incorporating different sounds, kulintang, tinikling, sampling stuff basically.
I got a lot of inspiration from the global bass community; that's this whole subgenre of underground music, which can include anything from moombahton, zouk bass, kuduro, dancehall...I ended up blending those influences with my vocals and percussion. Global bass blew my mind when I first heard it and I thought, this is a format for us to get our native sounds in a contemporary, new, fresh context.
How do you feel like the reception has been, do you feel like you have to explain a lot of what you do to people?
For the most part, when people see the kulintang visually they're like Wow, what is that? I've never seen that before - that's what I get most. And people usually respond really well to it and I usually explain to them that it's a Filipino instrument. So it's kinda like exposing other people to our culture, something that most people haven't been exposed to. And there are a few different artists now doing this in the states, using kulintang. So I'm not the only one who's doing this. I try to be very clear that I'm not doing it in a traditional way, I'm doing it in a contemporary way. I'm doing my own interpretation of it. I'm not claiming to be real, authentic, indigenous melody or something. It's important that we're respectful of these artforms and acknowledge that it does come from an indigenous source and they have their own specific ways of playing it. That said, there's different ways of playing it within different tribes and even within Southeast Asia itself; these gongs are found in different contexts within different cultures and they play them in different ways. So the way I see it, I'm playing it in my own way in LA. But I've asked several people, Is this OK that I'm doing this? Most recently I was talking to Mario Lim, an artist I met in Davao, part of Kalumon Performing Ensemble, and they said, If in your heart you feel like you're doing it from a good place, then that's a good thing. You're helping the culture, ya know? Cuz if you're like Oh we gotta respect it, we can't ever touch it or do anything, that's kinda like you're saying it's frozen, it's stuck, it doesn't evolve. So this is kinda keeping it alive and evolving in some way. If it makes people think or question it or even criticize it, then maybe that's a good thing.
It's like starting a dialogue.
Again, we gotta be careful because we're in danger of recolonizing, especially as Westerners...so I question it all the time. But it's all just sound, it's an instrument. Was Jimi Hendrix being disrespectful of the guitar by like, playing it with his mouth, ya know? [laughs] We gotta be able to push our artform. And it would be great if more resources were available so people can learn more about Indigenous culture and not have to search so hard for it.
Even coming here [to the Philippines], being here, being face to face with the Filipino culture, it's a learning experience. We spend all this time as Filipino-Americans yearning for this sense of identity, this sense of connection, but then it's like Oh people aren't that into tribal stuff cuz they wanna be Western! I guess I find that ironic cuz we're like, But wait, the tribal stuff is really dope. We love the textiles and we love the music, and I feel so blessed to be part of this community of Filipino artists worldwide that are connecting and having dialogues about these things. We should know about each other and we should collaborate and help each other out. At the end of the day, I feel like we need to enter the arena, we need to get in there you know? Not necessarily mainstream, but we have so much to offer that like, why not? We can't be absent from this world conversation that's happening with art and music. Not that we are but, it doesn't hurt to be out there even more because from what I know in Western music, we're absent, we're not there. If we don't [cross over] we're just preaching to the choir. Just sticking to our own thing. Which can be cool and useful as well, but I'm just like, damn, I wanna include our culture too. Like why can't we be part of it all?
Obviously as Filipinos, we're very proud of our culture. We're part of this whole "Asian" culture in general, and I feel like it's racism towards Asians that's keeping us from breaking through. We have to educate the masses to not just see "Asian." Cuz it seems like the Asian-ness comes before, people see that and they have this thing, they think they know what it is. So it takes people like us to defy that and to show people, hey man, we're human.
We are part of society, a big part. Not just stereotypes.
We have souls, we have visions, we have things to say. And you know, being a woman, it's also a struggle to be taken seriously by male artists.
What do you encounter being in the music industry?
I feel very blessed because I've encountered lots of love as well, but not everyone's gonna love everybody, everyone's not gonna wanna include everybody, and that's OK. Nobody owes anybody anything. That's why I'm so glad to find people like you, and like Jodee, and all these people that exist mostly in the online world, but more and more I'm meeting people face-to-face and it's great because it's like, this is our community. This is where we start. If we don't know ourselves and our own culture - that's the foundation of it all. Then we can go out in the world and present what we do and how we're gonna do it.
One of the things that's very important to me in this work is to have different representations of ourselves out there than what's in our traditional or mainstream media. It's like, we're here. We exist.
It's true that Filipino culture is underrepresented, but maybe that's a blessing in disguise, because we then get to define our culture, instead of having corporations possibly misrepresent it. I love the fact that Filipino culture is emerging more and more, such as in the culinary field and all the talk about 'Filipino food is the next big thing.' It's about time, just hope that the Filipino artists, cultural workers, and organizers will be on the forefront of the movement and also get credit and compensation for their ideas and labor. Would definitely be nice to at the very least find our culture and history in libraries, included in school curriculum, and reflected in the media.
How was your experience performing at the Malasimbo Festival and in Manila? Were there any other artists that you connected with and want to work with or perform again with in the future?
Touring in the Philippines was a dream come true. I was always curious about the music scene there and eager to learn more about what was going on. Malasimbo was AMAZING! Imagine taking a long boat ride to the most beautiful island covered by coconut trees and white sand beaches. Then continuing up the mountain until you hit a huge grassy, hilly venue with tons of art, sculptures, more coconut trees, an Indigenous marketplace, and of course great music as the full moon shines up above. I got to do the silent disco with a ton of other DJs playing everything from house, world, hip hop, trap, glitch and other genres. Needless to say it was a magical experience. The crowd there was pretty mixed, locals and foreigners all partying together with eclectic taste in music. Some artists I met on my trip include the Diegos (DJing duo of Diego Mapa of Pedicab and Diego Castillo of Sandwich), Kristian Hernandez, similarobjects, Shannon Conrado, and Ize of Buwan Buwan Collective. Did some great gigs at Black Market, Z Hostel, Chotto Matte and Bowery as well. The whole Makati scene is poppin and I can't wait to see what else is cooking there next time I go. I also got to go to Davao and meet some local musicians, namely Mario Lim of Kalumon Performing Ensemble, who perform traditional and contemporary kulintang music and dance. And of course a highlight was getting to do the photoshoot with you, Jodinand and the other muses at Pineapple Lab!
What's your favorite part of being a musician and performer?
I love feeling people's energy while I perform - whether they're dancing, clapping along or just bobbing their heads. If it makes an impact or helps people get free in any way I'm pretty happy - I love representing for Pinay women/WOC and exposing people to sounds they haven't heard before. I just feel super lucky to be able to share my musical journey with people, creating my music and live performances have been a way for me to build a sense of identity for myself, in a world I don't see myself reflected in, and hopefully it inspires others to create as well.
As a "muse," what advice do you have for other creatives looking for inspiration?
Focus on one song/piece/project, from start to finish and go from there. Don't be afraid to do the unpopular or uncool thing. If you focus on building something for a long time you're bound to get somewhere with it. Take classes and learn technical skills so you don't have to depend on others. Make your vision a reality-- however you can, with whatever you have!
Are you working on any upcoming projects?
K!mmortal and I just made the compilation [Tunog Tao] which was cool. [We] were like, we gotta link, we gotta know each other to build a community. These people are so humble and hidden in a way, so I wanted to shine a light on them and be like, Hey if I get some love, you should get some love too. Let's fucking spread it around. This should be about community and not just like, I'm gonna come up and like...If I'm gonna come up we're gonna come up together. That's the only way. But at this point I wanna come out with my next EP or LP, I've just been playing so many shows and doing so many things and community stuff I need to come back and work on my own artistry again. I've been working on stuff here and there, it's just like when I get back home I think I'm just gonna like, get in there and shut out the world for a little bit. And like, I quit my job and everything, I'm trying to go all in on this like, living the dream you know. [laughs]
It'll happen. It's happening.
It's an adventure. It's a challenge. It's worth it.