Overseas Filipino Musicians and the Geographies of Migrant Creative Labor


A review of Western Music By Its Others: Overseas Filipino Musicians and the Geographies of Migrant Creative Labor, by Anjeline de Dios.

Angeline de Dios’s dissertation contributes to the larger body of academic research on Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) that include seamen, maids, construction workers, nurses, and specifically, to the expanding research on Filipino entertainers in hotels, clubs, restaurants and theme parks in Asia, and cruise ships in various parts of the world. Her research explores the creative labor sector by Filipinos at the margins of the entertainment industry – those performing on cruise ships, and in hotels and theme parks in Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and Malaysia. These venues provide a platform for performances of well-known Anglo-American popular music for the purpose of enhancing the leisure atmosphere of these places. She focuses on the space of the live entertainment industry, a space inhabited by government agencies, managers and booking agents, employers and musicians, and the complex negotiations that take place here. Lacking the same physical attributes of western pop stars, Filipino musicians have to be versatile in order to compete with their Caucasian and African-American counterparts. By shifting attention from authenticity to flexibility, de Dios proposes a broader method of valuing musical production, one that takes into consideration the precarity of working in the transnational environment of a post-Fordist economy.

This dissertation comprises seven chapters. The introductory chapter challenges notions of authenticity and originality in the music produced by Filipinos, both in the Philippines and abroad. Drawing on two instances of purported inauthenticity by Filipino musicians, the first an account by Pico Iyer (1988) of his encounter with Filipino entertainers who successfully mimic the inflections of the well-known American singers they aim to imitate, and the second by ethnomusicologist, Frances Densmore (1906), of her dismay at observing the erosion of Filipino indigenous music due to Americanization, de Dios prefaces the continued pressure of pop musicians everywhere to be original in their choice of repertoire, and for non-western musicians to perform music that is consistent with their cultural background. Although she does not deny the remnants of American imperialism or the hegemonic impact of the Anglo-American popular music industry on the music produced, de Dios nonetheless places her work within the frame of scholars such as Krystyn R. Moon (2010) who favor a more fluid understanding of the exchange of culture rather than the Eurocentric notion of cultural authenticity based on race. She also distances herself from postcolonial scholars who are still governed by the rules of authenticity and originality in their efforts to identify resistance and hybridity in the music and literature produced at the periphery.

In chapter two, de Dios defines the scope of the “periphery” she is focusing on. She identifies the difficulty of studying popular music production due to its “manifold sociality” (p. 22), and refers to Georgina Born’s (2011) four planes of social mediation to illustrate. She then adapts this framework into a three part model for her study of popular music (re)production, one that omits musical genres, on the basis that other scholars, such as Stephanie Ng (2005,2006) and David Cashman (2014), have already determined the predominance of Anglo-American mainstream popular music in the repertory of Filipino musicians abroad. Instead, de Dios directs her attention to the socioeconomic aspects, which she divides into three sociospatialities, in her engagement with Overseas Filipino Musicians (OFM). The first, the front stage, looks at music not as art but as entertainment, in particular live music entertainment. It takes into consideration the importance of the performance and all that entails – the interaction between musicians, as well as between musicians and their audiences, that takes place on stage or from the stage. Here, musicians not only make music but also perform the role of service workers in providing affective labor to their audiences. Hence, the front stage “constitutes the creative product of live music entertainment” (p.31). The second sociospatiality, the back stage, highlights the further peripheralization of OFM. Perceived as less authentic performers of western popular music due to their race, they also face the stigma of hailing from a country that exports service workers for the hospitality industry abroad. Using Althusser’s (1971) interpellation theory, de Dios points out the entrenched stereotypes based on gender and race among the employers in this industry. While individual reputations could overturn such stereotypes, employers’ interpellations weigh heavily on the ability of OFM to secure employment and wages comparable to those of their western counterparts. De Dios’ third sociospatiality, infrastructure, involves the training and preparation of OFM for deployment overseas. Within the infrastructure are the managers and agents who are responsible for marketing these musicians to employers, and the government agencies given the authority to verify the legitimacy of these individuals as performers. These third party intermediaries work together within a tenuous system of less clearly defined channels of the transmigrant labor industry. Three areas of precarity are identified here: the “politico legal” of countries sending and receiving workers; the “organizational” of those training and managing OFM; and the “representational or discursive” in the ways OFM are labelled and marketed (p. 41).

De Dios notes that historically, the performance of music has been consciously presented as effortless, thereby obscuring the effort and labor involved in its production. However, with the growth of the recording industry, musicians began to question this idea as their livelihoods were being jeopardized by the emergence of radios and jukeboxes (Marina Peterson 2013). Acknowledging Simon Frith (2011) and Richard Dyer (2002), de Dios points out that entertainment producers require special training and the ability to understand the needs of their diverse audience in order to succeed. In the case of the OFM, she stresses that their labor and skill rest not on their ability to imitate the original artists of the songs they sing, but in their ability to conform to the flexible working arrangement required to perform on a transnational stage.

OFM work in an unpredictable environment involving short term contract employment lasting a few months. Due to the constant change of employers, they have to be very versatile, or as de Dios puts it, to accept the “normalization of fluctuations” (p. 54). The entertainment industry is, in itself, fraught with uncertainties since individuals come together, temporarily, in order to collaborate on “projects” (p. 55). These individuals rely on their reputation or referrals from reputable sources to secure participation in these projects. In the case of OFM, de Dios questions whether the individual reputation can trump the collective one, based on race. Since Filipinos are well known for providing service-type labor internationally, is being ‘Filipino’ a benefit or a detriment to the OFM? De Dios points out two contrasting views about Filipino musicians – one, as the accommodating entertainer able to please both employers and audiences; the other, as the mimic lacking creative talent. Whichever the connotation, OFM cannot avoid wearing the “badge of nationality” (p. 63) in their transnational employment endeavors. Furthermore, the types of jobs are often already predetermined based on nationality (Philip F. Kelly 2009) or city of employment (Chris Benner 2002, 2003). Third-party intermediaries are also important cogs in creating and perpetuating these images of their workers. In the Philippines, the Philippines Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) contributes to the precarity of its workers as it tries to mitigate in their interest.

In chapter three, de Dios begins by explaining how the analysis of sound has been neglected by music geographers, in favor of visual sources such as music catalogs and music videos. Field recordings, according to de Dios, contain a wealth of data because they capture the instance when the performance occurs, the ‘live’ of live music entertainment that reveals the “microgeographies of live performance” complete with “human and non-human sounds” (p. 76). Using phonography as a means of gathering information enabled her to temporarily obscure the physical appearance of the OFM, and all the non-musical baggage that entails, in order to pay close attention to the sonic impression of their performance. Furthermore, using an audio rather than video recording device allowed her to be a less obstructive observer, and a more engaged listener of the actual performance. However, she cautions against being an over engaged listener in a mode of entertainment meant to serve an auxiliary role in these venues. While she was effectively performing her role as an audience member, she admits that the imbalance of power between herself and her subjects inevitably impacted the responses of some of her interviewees. On the other hand, being a Filipino abroad herself helped her in establishing a sense of kapwa Pinoy (p. 84) which made the OFW more willing to open up to her.

De Dios starts chapter four with a historical account of the Filipinos’ engagement with western music. Since the 18th century, Filipinos have been performing throughout East and Southeast Asia, where they were respected as capable musicians of western music. However, even then, they were perceived to be subordinate to European and American musicians because they were not racially authentic performers of this music. Furthermore, male Filipino musicians dominated the Asian music scene during this time, with women relegated to playing secondary roles as singers, dancers, and sometimes, prostitutes. Since the 1980s, the deployment of Filipino workers overseas has been handled by the POEA. This has proven problematic for musicians since musical performance is considered a less valuable occupation than other service occupations, such as nursing, because it is subject to the fluctuations of the entertainment budgets of employers. In addition, musicians on cruise ships have also been misrepresented as competent seamen. In order to remedy the negative image of Filipino women working as hostesses and dancers, dubbed japayuki, in Japan, the POEA established a method of training and testing for performance artists that did not really provide the actual skills required to work in the live entertainment industry, but consequently led to corrupt practices between agents and testers. The testing program was eventually abolished in 2006.

For this dissertation, de Dios employed multi-sited ethnography. Ten hotels and three theme parks, and a cruise from Penang to Phuket were selected. De Dios elected to focus on the types of performance venue rather than the host country of the OFW, hence Macao, Hong Kong and Singapore were chosen due to the preponderance of themed entertainment venues there such as theme parks and casino resorts that cater to locals and regional tourists. In addition, Hong Kong and Singapore have been hosts to Filipino musicians since the early 20th century. She also conducted research in Manila and Cebu City, where the agents of OFM are located. Manila continues to be the hub for prospective OFM as most of the agents and recruiters, as well as government agencies issuing visas, are located there. Fifty-four OFM and twelve agents were interviewed for this research project. De Dios opted not to interview audiences of the OFM or their employers because the diversity in the audience demographics presented a challenge in conducting an in-depth study, while the kinds of employers varies from company to company.

In recounting her experience with Lia, a Filipino gondolier/singer working in a casino-resort in Macao, de Dios sets the scene for chapter five – the front stage of live music entertainment. DeDios explains that music in themed leisure venue enhance the experience for their customers. Having a live gondolier sing to you contributes to the imagined Venice in the minds of the audience like no other piped-in music can. Hence, live music is a “distinct creative product” (p. 130) that has economic value for the performers and their employers, and social value for the consumers. The front stage is more than a physical space where the performances take place. “The front stage refers to a dual sense of performance: in  its specifically creative iteration as a live production of organized sound” and “embodied and interactive service work” (p.133). By performing well known mainstream western popular music in these leisure venues, OFM create “new, in situ experience[s]” (p.134) of this music for the audiences, ones that place the music in new contexts within the venues.  According to de Dios, OFM typically perform in two types of settings the “dedicated performance setting” (p.136) where performances are scheduled at specific times, such as a marching band performance or Broadway-type musical production, on clearly marked-off areas that separate performers from their spectators either through a designated parade route or raised stage; and “ambient performance settings” (p.139) where music is not the main offering but serves as “an aural backdrop” (p.141) for other activities within the venue like eating and drinking. In the second setting, interaction with the audience is required by the employers. However, both settings share a common thread – their peripheral status within the leisure venue, in that the performances are not the main reason for the audience’s presence at the venue.

OFM are affective laborers who provide “entertainment service” (p.145) to their guests. Having a good rapport with their audiences can ensure contract renewals in the future. On another level, the skills of the OFW in hotels and clubs lie in their ability to perform a wide repertoire of over a hundred songs in order to anticipate and accommodate the musical needs and requests of their diverse audience. De Dios explains that Filipino musicians make a great effort to learn songs requested by the guests and to constantly update their repertoire in order to remain competitive in the industry because they and their families in the Philippines rely on the salaries earned. Furthermore, showbands on cruise ships show their flexibility and ability to read music well by serving as pit orchestra members for the stage musical productions that are centered around various themes, or as backup musicians for guest performers.

Chapter six takes us to the back stage, where interpellation shapes the image accorded to OFM by employers, agents and even the musicians themselves. OFM working abroad have to compete with musicians from the west and the Asian region, as well as local musicians in their host country. Hence, they strive to live up to the reputation accorded to OFM of being pleasant, hardworking and ever willing to please their audience and employers, sometimes even to the point of being exploitable by employers, while agents market their performers as high quality but affordable talent. Although many Filipino musicians have formal musical training, they tend to receive lower salaries and less benefits than musicians from the west. Musicians from the west also perceive them to be of a lower status because of the country they come from. This is due to the tendency to lump all OFM together despite the high achievement and good reputation of many class A musicians. Filipino lead performers on cruise ships even play down their roles in order to avoid incurring the jealousy of musicians of other nationalities, who generalize Filipinos as lower level workers on-board ship.

The positioning of OFM as cheap talent has had negative repercussions. Their peripheral status has been intensified by their categorization as regional instead or international talent, resulting in their receiving an “expat on a local” contract (p.192) that involves less salary and benefits. Consequently, Filipino musicians holding permanent residence status in other Asian countries consciously distance themselves from the OFM. In short, the “Filipino brand” (p.201) carries with it positive connotations of talented, hardworking and versatile musicians on the one hand, and negative ones of mediocre musicians relying on provocative costumes and dancing, on the other. Individuals with experience and abilidad (expertise) (p.203) can overcome these negative stereotypes, while those who are abusado (wasteful) (p.211) can further sully the reputation of the OFM.

In chapter seven, de Dios looks into her third sociospatiality, the infrastructure of creative labor. Here, she problematizes the issue of agents offering cheaper rates for the musicians. Is their purpose solely to undercut other agents in securing jobs for their stock of performers, or is it a marketing strategy that takes the strained and unpredictable entertainment budgets of venues into account? In what ways do agents contribute to the precarity of OFM by their manipulation of rates and other benefits? How is the POEA complicit in compounding this precarity? The role of the agent is to achieve “the optimal mix between ‘cost’ and ‘quality’ through every booking they negotiate” (p.224). De Dios’ fieldwork, however, reveals that some agents are unconcerned about maintaining the good name of the Filipino musicians, and are instead marketing low quality musicians on the basis that individuals should have the opportunity to find employment abroad should employment not be available locally. However, while the collective reputation of OFM holds sway over their ability to secure favorable employment packages, de Dios’ research showed that the individual musician’s track record can weigh more heavily in the employers’ decisions to hire. Nevertheless, de Dios relates an incident of an agent undercutting another in order to secure an entertainment contract for the opening of a five-star hotel in New Delhi. The offering of C class musicians at the prestigious event caused Filipino musicians to be blacklisted in India for several years.

There is a consensus among de Dios respondents that the POEA hinders the deployment of OFM. Their responses range from frustration at the amount of bureaucratic red tape they have to overcome in order to work abroad, to disgust at the level of corruption occurring there. This disjuncture between the goals of the agents and the POEA has led to a “weakening of the global competitiveness of OFM in live music entertainment” (p. 234). The inability of the POEA to effectively evaluate the competence of musicians, the policy of requiring musicians to work in the Philippines for two years prior to applying to go abroad, the slow processing of employment contracts and the misclassifying of musician on cruise ships as seafarers were some of the reasons de Dios’ respondents gave for the “infrastructural misalignment” (p. 234). Interviews with musicians also reveal a complicit relationship between agents and the POEA. Agents, with the support of the POEA, charge exorbitant fees to process the applications of musicians wanting to go overseas, while the POEA officials subsequently expect generous bribes from the agents to guarantee the smooth flow of the application through the official channels. Some musicians, eager to circumvent this procedure and to avoid the excessive costs, have taken risks by going abroad on tourist visas. Agents create, package and market OFM under the Filipino brand. While unscrupulous agents can tarnish the image, concerted efforts by agents to export only high quality Filipino musicians overseas can potentially challenge the current preference for black or white musicians.

The concluding chapter revisits “where popular music ‘gets’ to when it gets to the periphery” (p. 276). The periphery engaged by de Dios in this thesis “encompasses mutually constituting spaces where different roles, practices, and domains of social ability inter-act, along the rim of an aesthetic, ideological, and industrial core” (p. 281). She leaves behind the dichotomy and mental and menial labor in her discussion of creative production in order to pursue the idea of “entertainment as entertainment” (p. 282), where the practitioners hone their craft through hard work, innovativeness, and the mental exercise of reading their audience and anticipating their needs within this entertainment-service industry.  Despite possessing individual reputations, OFM cannot escape from the collective racial identity, and the interpellations attached to it. The Filipino brand, with its emphasis on flexibility, makes OFM the ideal labor for post-Fordist production. By looking at the periphery from the inside, de Dios dissertation exposes the struggles and discrimination experienced by the OFM, and reveals their efforts to overcome them. She concludes by appealing for reform in the labor migration policies of the Philippines government, in particular where certification of performers is concerned, in order to alleviate the precarity faced by OFM.

By taking the focus away from authenticity to flexibility, de Dios’ dissertation provides a means to value the musical production of creative laborers at the periphery of the entertainment industry. Her research provides a geographical perspective to the typically ethnomusicological views on contract entertainers. By delving into the relationship between OFM, their agents and the Philippine government, she improves our understanding of the depth of political involvement in this industry, and helps us grasp the complex and often inept system at work. Her study also points to the increasing prominence of Hong Kong and Macac as travel destinations in Asia for both domestic and Asian tourists. The emergence of cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macao as cultural cores in China, whose influence radiates to the other surrounding areas within China and the Asian region, demonstrates that the west is not the predominant core of cultural influence here. The number of Filipino musicians performing in smaller cities in China indicate that the musical entertainment of choice in leisure venues in Chinese core cities does influence the entertainment decisions in their own peripheries. A study of these new cores of cultural influence would increase our knowledge of the attraction to OFM. De Dios’ study also reveals the emergence of musicians of other nationalities, namely those from countries in Eastern Europe, who challenge to the livelihood of OFM. These musicians from other peripheral countries do not only pose a threat to OFM because of their skin color, but because musicians from Serbia, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia, for example, often have similar formal musical training and the ability to read music as the Filipinos. Musicians from Latin American countries like Nicaragua and Colombia, on the other hand, often excel in the performance of dance music and acoustic strolling band-type music. There is, therefore, potential for further research in the area of peripheral musicians working in Asia beyond those from the Philippines, and an impetus to study their threat to the monopoly of OFM in leisure entertainment venues abroad.

Stephanie Sook-Lynn Ng, Ph.D.
Ethnomusicologist and Independent Scholar
Michigan, USA

Primary Sources
Interviews with fifty four Overseas Filipino Musicians
Interview with twelve agents representing Overseas Filipino Musicians
Participant-observation on a cruise from Penang to Phuket, theme parks in Macao and Singapore, a casino-resort in Macao, and hotels in Malaysia and Singapore

Dissertation Information
National University of Singapore. 2015. 337pp. Primary Advisor: Lily Kong.

Image: Photo by Anjeline de Dios.

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