(first published on Technorati on 10/09/11)
October 08, 2011 – In my hometown of Union City earlier today, I attended my very first Balagtasan Debate forum with my parents. The event was hosted by the City Council of Union City and the San Francisco Bay Area Filipino Community, featuring young Filipino-American spoken word poets on the first event and three prolific poets who flew all the way to the Philippines to hold a Balagtasan forum to Filipino-Americans familiar with the poetic debating and to those who have never seen or heard of a Balagtasan forum, such as myself. I have attended, watched, and listened to poetry events before during my school days, from watching my former high school’s Forensics Club to even listening to local poetry slam sessions at the neighborhood coffee shops. Today was the first time that I attended a type of poetry event that has solid cultural ties to my ethnic roots.
Balagtasan is a form of poetic debating that was founded in the early 20th Century (around early 1920s) during the American colonization of the Philippines. The term was coined from a prominent Filipino poet of the late 19th Century, Francisco Balagtas (1788-1862), often referred to as the Filipino William Shakespeare. Balagtas was known for his collection of epic poetry, most notably Florante at Laura (Florante and Laura), which was considered Balagtas’ poetic masterpiece. His poems were written in Tagalog, which was crucial to the Filipino linguistic identity during that time because the Filipino language back then was written predominantly in Spanish.
The Balagtasan forum consists of three poets: the two opposing debaters and the mediator of the debate. The subjects of debate are often of social or political in nature, rooted from the years of its first foundation, where poets, scholars and nationalists often argue and rebut over issues related to their cultural identities and their plights under American occupation of the country. Today, issues such as divorce and even the use of modern technology are some of the popular topics that are debated thorugh the Balagtasan forums.
The Balagtasan that I attended today had the poets debate over the issue of corruption. As common knowledge for every Filipino around the world, corruption in the Philippines is one of the biggest problems that the country is still struggling today, even way before the country was liberated from foreign occupation (Spain, U.S. and Japan). The topic of the debate was “Should the leaders or the citizens be blamed for the country’s ongoing corruption?”
The poets in this event, all male, appeared in Barong Tagalog, traditional Philippine embroidered formal garment. Female poets appear in Baro’t Saya dress, the equivalent to the male Barong Tagalog. The entire format looked synonymous with the modern lyrical showdowns, such as the “Yo Momma” jokes in (American) Hip-hop culture, but rather than exchanging verses aiming to insult the opponent, the debaters use all forms of lyrical word play and deliver them with their utmost attitude to show their intent of their views of the overall issue. The poets were not just merely memorizing their poetic spoken word intended for their opponents, but they deliver them as if they were simply free-styling from their minds and hearts that give the entire Balagtasan forum engaging to the audience. The poets deliver their spoken word with so much passion that there are at times where they perform as if they were doing stand-up comedy to even singing their words. Even the mediator also delivers his words in to playful speech that spices up the amusement of the entire forum. Like the lawyers preparing for their opening statements and possible rebuttals to their opponents before the big event, the poets also prepare their verses to recite with some ad-libbing here and there when needed.
The Balagtasan was a very popular form of amusement among Filipinos during the early 20th Century until the end of World War II, where Western pop culture took over the Philippines’ own cultural ways of entertainment. Even if that was the case, the spirit of the Balagtasan continues today, from established schools to various Filipino Communities all around the world. In the U.S. alone, there have been many Balagtasan events in different parts of the country, from simple entertainment to even competitions among poetry clubs and forensic clubs from schools. Many poets see the Balagtasan as an early form of modern spoken word and slam poetry, now popular in the African-American Community and the Latino Community, heavily influenced by modern hip-hop culture. Some even say that the Balagtasan is one of the original roots of modern American spoken word and slam poetry.
The event ended with a playful song, with one of the poets sang an old and familiar Filipino song, while the other two poets spoke out the lyrics from the song, translating it in English at the same time. Overall, I enjoyed the forum and I laughed a lot at some of their points, considering that the host of the event warned the audience that in order to understand the entire debate that you must understand at least 75% or more of the Tagalog dialect due to the poems’ deep-rooted and rich usage of the language. Having raised here in the U.S., sadly I only understood 60% of Tagalog and a lot of the vocabulary used in the poems were very unfamiliar to me.
Poetry is one of my weakest forms of creative writing, with only Haiku poetry as the only poetic form that I write, however I enjoyed watching and listening to Balagtasan poetic debates a lot thanks to this first experience that I had. My family and I, since my parents are close friends with the sponsors of the event, had the opportunity to have dinner with the poets, not for an interview of their expertise of this cultural literary form, but also discuss about Filipino literature in general. As part of my lifelong learning of my ethnicity, I found myself becoming a huge fan of the Balagtasan.
Sources & Supplemental Reading
- Francisco Balagtas (Wikipedia)
- Balagtasan (Speak2BFree)