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A Brief (selective) Overview of Filipino Church Music

The Philippines is the only Christian nation in Asia. Ferdinand Magellan, the first sea explorer to lead an expedition around the world, introduced Catholicism to the island nation in 1521. Sacred and folk music after this era demonstrates Western and indigenous influences.

The Philippines is the only Christian nation in Asia. Ferdinand Magellan, the first sea explorer to lead an expedition around the world, introduced Catholicism to the island nation in 1521. Sacred and folk music after this era demonstrates Western and indigenous influences.

The Spaniards ceded the country to the U.S. after the 1899 Spanish-American War. Presbyterian and Methodist missionaries—who entered along with American soldiers—brought the English language, English hymns, and Protestantism. The Philippines is now the world's third-largest English-speaking country.

According to the Filipino National Commission on Culture and the Arts, both Protestant and Catholic churches began to introduce more congregational participation and local dialects into liturgical music.

“We developed our own hymnody around the 1950s and 1960s, with words and music composed by Filipinos, yet the melodies are very similar to Western melodies in structure and harmony,” Joel Navarro says.

With so many sub-cultures scattered across more than 7,000 islands, Filipino folk music includes indigenous instruments such as bamboo beating sticks, xylophones, nose flutes, and gong sets. But Amy Navarro says that while these may be used in places such as the Asian School of Music, Worship and the Arts (one of many places where Joel taught), churches don't generally use indigenous instruments.

Instead most church musicians accompany songs with guitars and, sometimes, a tambourine.

“Instruments are becoming accessible to churches in urban centers, so chances of finding a piano are greater than before. Generally, only bigger, more affluent churches can afford a piano and several other instruments. Much bigger churches will have a keyboard, a synthesizer, and a few more instruments. Far less than one percent of the churches will have a pipe organ, and these are most wealthy churches. The last church we used to attend in the Philippines just bought a $300,000 pipe organ,” Joel says.

“I think it sends a bad signal when they go and buy something like that especially because of the poverty in the Philippines,” Amy says.

Joel agrees: “Even the American missionaries were against the idea. But that is what happens when you get a lot of donors—CEOs of Shell and other petrol industries, World Bank executives, and wealthy ex-pats—who are able and willing to give money to hear that kind of music in church.   Doesn't it grab you that in this Philippine church, the Filipinos are still second-class citizens and that much of the decision-making authority rests on the multinationals?”

They recommend Of Songs, Words and Gestures: Rethinking our Filipino Liturgy by Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano (see fifth item under Publications), a slim book that critiques borrowed forms and styles of church worship in the Philippines and presents indigenous concepts for worshipping with more cultural sensitivity.

Amy notes that Filipinos started writing contemporary Christian music in the 1970s, when a Christian broadcasting company began sponsoring an annual songwriting festival and contest.Jesuit music meditations are also very popular with both Protestants and Catholics. Some Filipino groups such as Hangad and Bukas Palad also produce music videos.

Filipino churches today sing “a mix of hymns and contemporary songs. Whether we use hymnals or overhead projector is dependent on the wealth of the church,” Amy says.      

“The transplantation of America is evident in mega churches where you find thousands of people congregating on Sunday and worshipping in English. These are the more affluent churches, with about 20 musicians, a set of drums and percussion, several woodwinds, brass, and about five keyboards on stage” Joel says.

“Some of these worshippers are Filipinos who have been in America for a while. They bring back with them the influence of their American worship experience. In general, there is an unfiltered adoption of the American worship music experience. This has also reached the smaller churches in the provinces, but to far lesser degrees,” Amy adds.

Joel feels ambivalent about this influence.

“As a classically-trained musician who also respects the music of our traditional peoples, I confess to some discomfort at the total assimilation of contemporary popular culture. However, as a person of faith, I look at music simply as a tool. No matter how much I love music, world music cultures, and the musical heritage the Western church has given to the world, music will still be, and must be for me, a means for bringing, enriching, and nurturing a people of faith,” he says.

“Music itself can not exist for its own end; it is not the Way, the Truth and the Life. Jesus is. Music is one of those things that will bring you closer to God. Just as you have different kinds of people, you have different kinds of music. There is room in the kingdom for them, if one claims that every inch of creation belongs to God. The bottom line for me is transformed lives, unified communities of faith, decent and humane societies, and the redemption of culture.”

“My sense is that churches who have congregations that are fairly new in the faith will take to contemporary music readily. But people who grew up in the faith tend to look in traditional or newly composed hymnody lyrics that are more substantial and which have a timeless appeal. Some of the traditional hymns are now reinterpreted in a contemporary fashion.”

Since moving to the U.S., the Navarros have experienced similar re-setting of hymns to contemporary sounds at LOFT, the Calvin College Sunday evening service.

“The words are still as rich and stirring. I am all for it, especially when I see so many of my Calvin students at those services singing these re-interpreted hymns with their whole being. The whole experience moves me so very deeply that it sends back profoundly moving memories of my college years with InterVarsity. So again, I see this contemporary worship music experience in the context of music as a tool for inviting, informing, and inspiring people in their walk with God,” Joel says.