Decolonizing Voice

March 23, 2016
Grace Nono, HDS Visiting Lecturer in Women and Shamanism
Grace Nono, HDS Visiting Lecturer in Women and Shamanism

Scholar of Philippine shamanism, ethnomusicologist and singer Dr. Grace Nono who currently serves as Research Associate of the Women's Studies in Religion Program and HDS Visiting Lecturer in Women and Shamanism, delivered a performance-lecture for the World Religions Café on Wednesday, March 23.

Grace spoke about the mutual imbrication of precolonial Philippine oral songs and indigenous (pre-Christian and pre-Islamic) religious traditions, and how these came under the silencing regimes of the Spanish and American colonial forces because of the role they played in reinforcing indigenous peoples' identities. Observing their power in shaping indigenous subjectivities and loyalties, the Spanish and American colonizers spared no time in introducing "superior" colonial repertoires and ways of singing to replace the indigenous practices. Such replacements were also intended to facilitate the conversion of indigenous populations to the colonizers' religions. The consequence was whole generations of Filipinos—except those who successfully resisted the colonial forces—succumbing to a "cultural amnesia." Many abandoned indigenous sonic worlds, and along with them, indigenous religious ways.

In addition to tracing the Philippines' "sonic colonization," Grace shared her music autobiography starting as a good postcolonial singing only songs taught to her by formal education, religion and the mass media: institutions inaugurated by the colonizers. All was well until leaks in the colonizer's sonic and religious containment became apparent. By accident, she heard song performances by oralist elders in her own home-province in Mindanao (southern Philippines). Some of the singers were babaylan (roughly translated as shaman ritualist-oralist-healers). This ushered Grace on a lifelong process of decolonizing her voice and religious practice through protracted engagements with the babaylan and other elders. Citing native scholars, she defined decolonization as the process of "healing colonial trauma" (Linklater 2010: 217-218) by "restoring cultural practices, thinking, beliefs, and values that were taken away or abandoned but are still relevant and necessary to survival" (Yellow Bird 2012: 3). Decolonization is also about "birthing of new ideas, thinking, technologies, and lifestyles that contribute to the advancement and empowerment of Indigenous Peoples" (Yellow Bird 2012: 3). Asserting the power of voice as site of decolonization, Grace punctuated her talk with performances of oral chants with sacred themes that were taught to her by several babaylan and other oralist singers.