Interpreting the National Anthem

As a lot of you have probably watched last Saturday on May 3 (May 4 in the Philippines), Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao floored Briton Ricky Hatton after only two rounds to claim the Light Welterweight title at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Chosen to sing the Philippine National Anthem “Lupang Hinirang” was concert king Martin Nievera. True to the trend of singers in previous Pacquiao matches, he sang a personalized rendition, this one started slow then picked up in tempo after the fourth stanza and ended with the last, sustained high note. This drew criticism from the National Historical Institute which said that the national anthem must always be sung according to the original arrangement and is not subject to the singer’s interpretation. It has even reached the attention of lawmakers who said aloud that Nievera might be investigated for violating some law or another. (Whether or not it is comparable enough to other more blatant violations to merit this level of attention is another matter.) In his defense, Nievera said that he did his rendition because he was “doing it for the Filipino people”and that he’s not apologizing because there is nothing to apologize for.

I have to disagree with Nievera. I believe what he did borders on disrespect and insensitivity. I’ve heard the national anthem re-interpreted by various singers, but this is the first time I’ve heard someone actually change the tempo between stanzas and speed it up. I could not believe my ears. Nievera actually dared to do what no one else, to my knowledge, has done before. I didn’t like it. Keeping the tempo of the national anthem consistent is sacrosanct and not subject to “tweaking” and innovation. but it’s not just this that riles me. For the last few Pacquiao matches, the national anthem has always been sung at a tempo different from the original, and often with the last few notes sing ritard, specifically beginning from “ma-ma-tay ng da-hil sa ‘yo.” (The italicized syllables.) I’m getting the impression that singers feel that the original arrangement is too plain, bland, boring, not uplifting or inspiring enough, and therefore needs to be adapted to modern tastes.

Excuse me, but apparently the composer felt that it was uplifting and inspiring enough to motivate Filipinos. Certainly during that period of upheaval during the Philippine Revolution it served as a rallying cry and was embraced by Filipinos fighting for independence. Although we are not in a state of turmoil (or at least, not on the same scale or nature as our ancestors), but the national anthem still serves us well, and we should cherish it. It stands on the merit of the words and the music, so it is not necessary to modify the latter just to make it sound “better.” From listening to the judges’ comments on “American Idol”, there are some songs that are timeless and don’t need changes in the arrangement to make them sound fresh and relevant. The “Lupang Hinirang” is one of them. Simple can be elegant. Americans may take liberties with “The Star-Spangled Banner” but that’s their anthem and their rules. We have our own. Moreover, the anthem belongs to the entire Filipino people. Singers who render it according to how they feel disregard the feelings of Filipinos as individuals, and as a people. He or she does not own the song and therefore cannot just do what he or she pleases with it.

One more point. Since Pacquiao’s matches command a global audience, those tasked to perform the national anthem should realize that they will singing in front of a live and televised audience of different nationalities. Since the “Lupang Hinirang” is one of the less well known anthems internationally (as with the overwhelming majority of anthems), how can foreigners know what is the proper way to sing it if the singers assigned keep on changing the arrangement and personalize it according to their individual and highly subjective tastes.

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