If one were to gauge web traffic and bandwidth use right now, a chunk could be attributed to debates occurring across social media around the country and wherever the diaspora is.

If a clairvoyant standing on a hilltop were to pick up energy signatures from houses and buildings below, a good number would probably be having a debate over dinner on who or who not to vote for in the coming national elections.

Admittedly, there is an urgency to this election, as reports suggest disinformation is being deployed to sway voters. Some believe this is the case, while others have lost trust in traditional sources of information, such as the media, academia, and national institutions.

Not only that but the next administration will inherit crises ranging from the aftershocks of the pandemic to climate and geopolitical shocks, as well as decades-old local problems ​​like agrarian reform, a lagging education system, and labor issues. If addressing them stays delayed, future lives, Filipino lives, especially, will pay the price.

Social media plays a role in further polarizing political opinions, and this largely rings true in the Philippines, considering that we are among the world’s top internet users. It has been discovered—and exposed by the Wall Street Journal in an investigative series called “The Facebook Files”—that anger generates a lot of engagement.

A lot of the discourse (and campaigning) now happens on social media. Photo courtesy of dole777 on Unsplash

This has made echo chambers worse, putting users in silos that reinforce existing beliefs rather than showing new ideas or opinions outside of one’s box, all in an effort to generate profit through targeted advertising. Whoever wins on May 9, tech companies win more, to the detriment of Filipino society.

So with all this division being sown, how do we protect civil society?

Whoever we support, when the next storm comes, it will be us and our neighbors helping each other out first. The reality, however, is that we might disagree on politics with these same people.

The other side of the coin of the oft-headlined Filipino resilience is the fact that our public institutions still aren’t sturdy enough to be the first responders in most crises, and this is where the elections come in.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely involved with the upcoming elections in your own capacity.

You’ve probably had to deal with heckling and heated discussions. Perhaps, these flashpoints didn’t occur too far away from home, but with friends, relatives, co-workers, and schoolmates. Some have even cut people off from social media and in real life.

Whoever wins on May 9, tech companies win more, to the detriment of Filipino society.

But as illustrated earlier, this harms our social fabric as echo chambers will inadvertently deepen, and we will as a community remain divided, rendering us easily conquered by oppressors foreign and local.

So how can we reach across the growing chasm of our divisive and divided spaces?

Let’s go back to the storms. Let’s remember that at the end of the day, we’re all Filipinos with a shared history. Even if our interpretations differ, we’ve all experienced things like natural catastrophes, poverty, a lack of justice, healthcare, and opportunities.

Meet fellow Filipinos where they are: Remind each other, oneself included, that politics is ultimately not about who your manok is, but about how to respond to issues like endo, the health of lolo and lola, education for our children, rising gas and grocery expenses, rainy season flooding, and pandemic responses.

Just as in yoga where we return to the breath when a pose gets uncomfortable, we constantly recall that our disagreements should only deepen the discussion, not the divide. We need to step back and remember how social media algorithms are exploited and remember that the only enemy is our tendency to make enemies, even if what we all seek is a sense of belonging.

Meet fellow Filipinos where they are: Remind each other, oneself included, that politics is ultimately not about who your manok is, but about how to respond to issues

This simple, even trite, tool is powerful: Pausing and catching the breath when anger flashes have been proven by modern psychology, therapy, and ancient Eastern spiritual traditions to create the space needed for perspective—and empathy—to resume its flow. Right now, listening is more radical than anger.

Anger often stems from love—indignation at injustice—but we must always return to love.

It’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about us.

[Warning: “Mad Max: Fury Road” spoilers ahead]

In “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, the titular character gets involved in a conflict within a parched and impoverished survivor colony. Here, Charlize Theron’s character Furiosa takes “breeding wives” from the colony tyrant’s harem to help them find a better life as women. They leave the colony searching for utopia—the last wild trees and plants—only to find that it doesn’t exist. Instead, they find more wasteland, but they also find seeds, preserved by a band of older women-warriors.

The women-warriors and Max, played by Tom Hardy in this iteration of the post-apocalyptic movie franchise, help Furiosa and the wives return, also with the help of one of the tyrant’s “warboys” who changed heart. Eventually, they usurp the tyrant as they discover that all along, he was hiding enough water for everyone in the colony.

***

April, 2019. Day 1 of a silent meditation retreat. For the nth time, I sit facing a blank wall, my legs folded in a full lotus position.

Here, with my mouth shut, every other sound seems to be highlighted: the faint rumbling of traffic, the chirping birds just waking up, the clang of kitchenware.

Pretty soon, the thoughts become rushing thoughts, thoughts which I’ve tried to avoid but always return.

Why the hell do I do this to myself? I ask in my head, for the nth time.

Four days and ten thousand leg aches later, it hits me—all this is an exercise in confronting my own suffering, my own pain, pain which I often set aside with the distractions afforded by entertainment and workaholism.

A year later and daily meditation seems less like a chore and more like a necessity—like brushing your teeth to prevent cavities. Except here, it’s mental hygiene, and it isn’t just about myself.

It’s about all of us.

***

Spirituality has diversified as more and more Filipinos are exposed to more cosmopolitan worldviews other than traditional Catholicism. Many are also looking back to rediscover and integrate our own indigenous spiritual heritage. Also popular is a kind of secular wellness, the “spiritual but not religious kind”—I’m sure you know the type if not embody it.

As advancing technology continues to reshape the pace of working and living, it’s understandable why we try to make sense of all the newness and uncertainty through spiritual and wellness practices, all the more in times of crisis.

This trend however, has also revealed an underbelly, a shadow, to use Jungian parlance.

Amid the Instagram grids of calligraphy-finished inspirational quotes, wellness retreats, sound baths and integrative yoga looms the shadow of toxic positivity. “Good vibes only, bro,” toxic positivity screams, “stay at home,” it demands, as despite a contagious disease, the poor are forced by hunger out of their homes to look for food.

Toxic positivity is a refusal to process ugly truths starting with oneself, and like teeth unbrushed and a mouth unwashed affecting the ability to savor food and perhaps even posing a hygienic threat, this mental state affects how we experience the world but also how we shape our shared experiences with others. No man, as the cliché goes, is an island. So please, keep your waterways clean.

And yet, toxic positivity is not just annoying, it’s lethal. It’s essentially willful ignorance: the choice to ignore the realities of a problem, ultimately delaying its resolution.

We should stop pitting positivity against negativity and focus on wholeness, on integration. True positivity is rooted in realism, in hard facts, an acknowledgement of what we’d rather turn away from, all to get a shot at actualizing our ideals.

This is tragic in personal matters, but disastrous in matters involving communities, populations, nations. Take, for example, the willful ignorance of certain world leaders when warnings came from scientists and doctors about the threat posed by the most recent pandemic.

***

Looking at Sister Sonia Punzalan, you wouldn’t guess that this Catholic nun and Zen master was an activist during Martial Law, who today continues to minister and assist the widows of extra-judicial killings.

Childlike at 84 years old with laughter coming easy to her, she perhaps embodies holistic wellness, suggesting what a mature spiritual practice is all about. “But be careful not to put your teachers on a pedestal,” she warns, looking me in the eye, “we have our own wounds, too.”

Perhaps we should stop pitting positivity against negativity and focus on wholeness, on integration. Phrased another way, true positivity is rooted in realism, in hard facts, an acknowledgement of what we’d rather turn away from, all to get a shot at actualizing our ideals.

True wellness thus doesn’t turn a blind eye to suffering and injustice. I understand the temptation of toxic positivity, especially in these highly uncertain times. But perhaps we need to leave our mental comfort zones, to enter the wasteland and find those darned seeds.

But don’t forget to return home to the here and now.

That’s where the water is.

The author is a member of Bahay Dalangin Zen Center, which traces its lineage to the Sanbo International Zen line headquartered in Kamakura, Japan. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of any organization.

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In November 2017, a number of my friends cheered as Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential elections. These friends were tired of perceived liberal elitism, generally frustrated with majority views held in our social circles regarding US politics. They worried that educated Filipinos were “copying liberal values out of context.” Some even wanted to move to the States to “practice libertarianism.”

Fast forward to early 2020, and Trump continually dismissed claims that the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was dangerous, citing that America was prepared, all while advisors and experts warned of an impending global pandemic.

As of this writing, the United States has the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the world.

***

Crises often reveal not just individual character, but that of collectives, as well.

And as we’ve been exposed to our government’s character, it’s been harder and harder to defend and deny blatant gaslighting, mismanagement of public resources and disrespect of our time.

Suffice to say, the most diehard supporters of errant leaders the world over have had their faith shaken.

***

As the news cycle and virus coverage plods on, one way people combat anxiety and despair amidst uncertainty is asking questions like “what are you looking forward to after the outbreak?”

Imagining a future as a form of coping is a tale as old as time yet a proactive one at that. It highlights the human ability to still shape our destiny, that we are not simply victims of the whims of both circumstance and those in power.

Some popular things to look forward to #AfterCOVID19 have been #ResumeProtest, #TuloyAngLaban and especially #Halalan2022 as more and more Filipinos see that votes don’t just determine who stays in power or loses it, but who lives or dies in a time of crisis.

Vox populi

The documentary “The Kingmaker,” which debuted locally a day before the Philippines recorded its first COVID-19 case in Jan. 30, portrayed how the current administration was influenced by the Marcos family as a bid to restore themselves to political power.

With their massive, ill-gotten wealth, they’ve managed to secure the machinery to establish a bulwark in specific Philippine provinces, with Bongbong Marcos landing second place in the vice presidential election of 2016. Troll armies, disinformation campaigns, and lately, attempts to rewrite textbook history were pivotal factors in the close-fight and ongoing bid for a recount between candidates Marcos and Leni Robredo.

Since COVID-19’s outbreak in the Philippines, Robredo’s office has utilized its allotted as well as donor funds to respond to requests for aid especially from medical frontliners. Local governments (LGUs) like Pasig, Valenzuela, Marikina and Cainta have also mobilized and shared notes to provide creative and compassionate solutions especially geared towards their most vulnerable citizens. Other city administrations have since deployed strategies inspired by the above.

Social media continues to be ablaze with calls for more accountability, fueled by both traditional and internet celebrities (including those initially holding contrary views), artists and opposition politicians—and the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of average Filipinos behind them.

A clear picture of the president’s and cabinet’s response, following the granting of emergency powers (and not to mention billions of pesos from a reworked 2020 national budget) to his office, remains to be seen. As of press time, Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto was summoned by state investigators on alleged violation of the Bayanihan Act. Netizens were quick to make hashtags such as #ProtectVico and #PeoplePower trend. Immediately after, the state investigation bureau also summoned Senator Koko Pimentel for violating quarantine protocols, despite the justice department calling for “compassion” for the senator.

[READ: The lowdown on the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act]

Social media continues to be ablaze with calls for more accountability, fueled by both traditional and internet celebrities (including those initially holding contrary views), artists and opposition politicians—and the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of average Filipinos behind them.

Good vibes only

Edgar* a UV express driver presently based in Pasig City recalls how vote buying works in his provincial hometown. Votes are not actually bought, but coerced. One candidate’s goons show up with money, threatening harm for not voting for their boss. Immediately after, the rival candidate’s thugs show up with the same “offer.”

After watching “The Kingmaker” “at a time when the [COVID-19] crisis hadn’t intensified,” Arvie Hernandez was pleased that the production wasn’t one-sided, getting viewpoints from major personalities across the spectrum. This made its presentation of the cold, hard facts of the Marcos regime and family more impactful, thus adding validity to certain opinions and rendering others invalid.

Looking back, he hopes more Filipinos will hold their elected officials to higher standards of governance, “hindi lang puro palabok.”

Hernandez works as a cultural worker under the Parañaque local government. If the recent local elections are any indicator, he has hopes for the future. Sure, many traditional trapos cemented power once again, but a crop of leaders embodying the phrase public servant has also emerged, as demonstrated by specific LGU’s responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

He expounds, “isang bagay ito upang mamulat ang botante sa bagong mukha ng lidership… Ito’y unang hakbang para piliin ng taong bayan ang karapat-dapat ng lider mapa-lokal o nasyonal man.”

Meanwhile, Kris* a freelance creative, recalls the day former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos was buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani—the military presence, “red alert” signs and subsequent partying in the cemetery. She remembers her tears, too.

Some years later, she found herself tapped for a national government event which eventually drew flak for accusations of corruption as well as ethical issues. Like many sunk projects, she and others involved were forced to resign—and remain silent. But since watching “The Kingmaker,” she’s been able to vocalize her sentiments.

“It’s all about perception [management],” she’s passionate as she shares, “that is something [traditional politicians] have mastered. But given the current political landscape, I’m really hoping people are more involved and would start asking the right questions.”

Looking back, he hopes more Filipinos will hold their elected officials to higher standards of governance, “hindi lang puro palabok.”

After everything

Aside from the ballot, here are a few more things we can look forward to after the enhanced community quarantine:

  1. Resuming requests at the government Freedom of Information site
  2. Requesting your local Commission on Audit office (every LGU has one, and requests for national audits are also possible) for a report of how your taxes have been spent. Requests can be anonymous.
  3. Checking in on government offices via their social media accounts
  4. Volunteering for verified NGOs and audited government initiatives aiming to ameliorate social and environmental factors in the long-term
  5. If push comes to shove, protesting in the streets.

“But given the current political landscape, I’m really hoping people are more involved and would start asking the right questions.”

If employers are keen to track their employees through 24/7 internet connectivity and work-from-home setups, and if we (for the most part) willingly submit to this, why not subject our leaders to the same demands? Technically, we, the tax paying citizens of the Republic of the Philippines are the bosses of our elected officials, so all the more do we have the right to demand that weekly report.

The Chinese government has also been trying to rewrite its role in the pandemic, painting itself as a hero, donating medical supplies to first- and third-world countries alike. All this, after they’ve silenced the doctors who first blew the whistle on the virus all while resorting to disinformation and conspiracy theories to deflect blame from their citizens to the US government.

The Philippines was late to impose a travel ban on China, citing fears of diplomatic reprisals.

What is a political move for one in power translates to a life-or-death scenario for average citizens.

Ultimately however, it’s not an us-versus-them, red-versus-yellow, Philippines-or-China-or-US, or pro-versus-anti question. The virus, like a natural disaster, cares not about political leanings, accumulated wealth or national allegiance.

It is, however, about our willingness to not let intimidation, jadedness, or fear prevent us from voting for leaders who truly care for our welfare, all while calling out the excesses of those in power. If our inaction can make the wrong kings, our action can also undo them. And more importantly, viruses and storms won’t have to hit us—the most vulnerable—as hard if and when they do hit.

Kris echoes Hernandez in her present hopefulness, musing that “we still have the power. We still have the hand on what change we want our country to have.”

So to those saying that speaking out, responding to intimidation and voicing out concerns is just us being negative? One viral (no pun intended) post put it, “it’s better to be negative than positive these days.”

Names changed to protect privacy. Voter registration for the 2022 national elections opened last Jan. 10 and runs until September 21, 2021—the anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law.

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As the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to ravage the world and country, a picture is forming on how decisions made last year and stretching further back are affecting the present fight against the disease.

Hilda*, a domestic helper who grew up in a fifth-class municipality in Masbate, recalls how her grandmother passed away more than a decade ago. Suffering from a stroke, she was rushed to the sole hospital in their area. Because road infrastructure was poor, they had to take her by sea. Suffice to say, she did not make it.

Today, a strained healthcare system and shortage of professional health workers continues to plague the country. Even the capital, often accused as “imperial,” is not spared from this, as private hospitals in recent days have declared strained capacities.

In light of this, the private sector, from groups of individuals to companies, has mobilized to generate funds in order to secure medical supplies, personal protective equipment (PPE) and even food for frontline health workers amidst the outbreak.

[READ: Support frontliners and underserved communities from home through this website]

Meanwhile, the Philippines’ Department of Health has called for volunteer health workers.

While private efforts remain laudable, the question now stands: Where is tax payer money going to especially in this time of crisis?

Pork, by any other name

What do pigs and honey bees have in common?

These critters are metaphors for government budgets, apparently.

Pork barrel, queen bee funds, priority assistance and development funds, disbursement acceleration, discretionary funds—these are old names for similar systems operating today.

Ateneo Human Rights Center attorney and executive director Ray Santiago clarifies that “the nature of such funds is precisely as the name provides—it is a discretionary fund. All that COA [the Commission on Audit] needs is documentation that such funds have actually been spent. Thus, what is a “priority” really depends on what the holder of the funds deems as such.”

Here, we take a close look at the systems currently directing the flow of public funds through the holders of the “power of the purse”—our lawmakers.

***

Annually, a General Appropriations Act (GAA) is passed outlining how funds will be spent in the coming fiscal year. The latest edition includes provisions for the funding of “aid and relief activities… and rehabilitation of [public] hospitals.”

Does the response to the spreading COVID-19 count as “aid and relief?”

Checks and balances, however, require an item-by-item listing of projects for funds to be disbursed. But given the nature of outbreak, the president recently requested emergency powers—eventually granted by the Congress and Senate—to speed up the appropriation of funds.

Essentially, the executive office aims to create an ad hoc GAA.

A number of us may have participated in the Million People’s March in late-2013 which called for the abolition of the “pork barrel” system where lawmakers were given “priority funds” to use for “pet projects.”

Since the system revamp in 2014, “discretionary funds” have since taken new iterations.

On paper, the annual national budget for “heads of offices” makes the following allotments per congressman: staff salaries, maintenance and operation funds and allowances for travel when they represent their constituents. There is, however, a fourth fund tier that requires more scrutiny.

In September 2019, P10 billion were slashed from the Department of Health’s 2020 budget. That same month, a P100 million budget was allegedly approved per congressman, drawn from the 2020 national budget of around P4 trillion, with P30 million apparently for healthcare with the remaining P70 million going to infrastructure.

Later in October 2019, lump-sum funds that were deemed illegal in 2014’s GAA were deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court. All this, as lawmakers who attempted to question these decisions as late as March 2020 were ostracized by peers.

P30 million “for medical assistance” per solon. That’s a total of P9.09 billion in Congress alone.

A source working with the Office of the Vice President shares that in securing supplies for medical frontliners, barring logistical costs, the price of PPE from medical supply manufacturers they’ve contacted fluctuates between P800 to P1,400.

Meanwhile, an organizer from a citizen movement raising funds for medical supplies gave a starting estimate of around P700 per PPE. Inflation amid PPE demand accounts for these fluctuating price ranges.

Locally-made COVID-19 test kits cost P1,320 versus the P8,500 cost of imported ones, barring shipment fees.

Each congressman can thus theoretically purchase around 21,400 up to 42,800 PPE, or around 22,720 local test kits or 3,500 imported test kits. Multiply those figures by 303 and a picture emerges of each district’s ability to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, Hilda shares that there is still a lack of doctors in their area, with most turning to local faith healers for medical assistance. Between the declaration of community quarantine in Metro Manila and its actual enforcement, a lot of relatives and neighbors from her hometown left the Metro when sea lines were still open to return to Masbate. They have chosen to quarantine themselves at home, in the province.

While call-outs are often criticized (lately by troll armies) as “armchair activism,” recent developments show that power still lies with the people.

Freedom of information

It remains to be seen where the lawmakers’ funds are.

The Freedom of Information Order, which requires government spending to be documented and made publicly available, was enacted in late 2016. Currently, as an Executive Order with the threat of being removed by a future administration, it’s weaker than a law.

Nonetheless, an online, government-run database of government records continues to operate. Aside from requesting for information and data, site visitors also have access to existing requests made by previous visitors.

As of press time, however, on-site request forms remain suspended “due to COVID-19.”

When official channels fail, citizens take to the court of the street—or social media—to voice misgivings, recently towards a perceived lack of response from the national government to the novel virus.

Filipinos have concocted many ways, many recipes, many names by which to cook pork, but Santiago points us to the latest jurisprudence targeting “disbursement acceleration” from the past administration (Araullo vs. Aquino, 2014), maintaining that any unlisted expenditures remain illegal, no matter the intention, no matter the seasoning.

Court action without citizen vigilance, however, is not enough.

The Mar. 24 nighttime presidential address from Malacañang shows that the collective citizenry’s voice has impact. While a controversial bill was passed granting the president emergency powers to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, these powers have been tempered by amendments from senators, all amid a sustained online uproar from average citizens.

While call-outs are often criticized (lately by troll armies) as “armchair activism,” recent developments show that power still lies with the people. Aside from informal methods such as social media, if enough citizens request for an itemization of all government COVID-19 “emergency expenses” via the FOI website, more dents may be made towards more transparent and open governance.

As the national response to COVID-19 unfolds, private efforts continue to funnel aid to the frontlines. While we’re at it, let’s also keep the ball rolling towards our elected officials’ court, keeping the pressure on their privilege.

*Name changed to protect privacy. Keep tabs on the freedom of information site. View a complete database of hospitals requesting aid here and a list of accredited citizen “help-from-home” initiatives here. Additional reporting by Malaika E. Paculan

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In the early ‘90s, then-university student Gunther Frohnhöfer worked at an audio shop to pay for his studies. During his childhood, there wasn’t yet a distinction between “analog” and “digital,” but the winds of change were picking up all around him.

After graduation, he realized he didn’t resonate with his degree, broadcast engineering, but with engineering basics, he delved deeper into the audio world. At this point, CDs were quickly overshadowing tapes and vinyl. Microchips were replacing vacuum tubes. Pocket-size was seen as the new luxury, in contrast to analog setups that ate up half a room. The only vinyl records in the market now were secondhand. New pressings were seen as sunk costs.

Nonetheless, armed with faith in his knowledge and an intuition in the “market’s momentum going up” he decided in 1995 to start Acoustic Signature, a high-end, high-fidelity turntable manufacturer.

With ironic humor atypically German, Frohnhöfer says his gambit was “stupid, you can call it that.” I insist on calling it “brave.” 

“Brave, stupid, both.”

It’s a miracle the company survived to reach the recent resurgence of vinyl, which no one then really predicted.

Today, Acoustic Signature is known for quality turntables. All processes are done in-house in its Stuttgart plant, a city known as Mercedes-Benz’s hometown. The company only employs highly-skilled laborers: watchmakers, jewelers and goldsmiths. The Asian market, Frohnhöfer describes, keeps the company afloat, with 85 percent of its revenue coming from exports to the region.

Here, hi-fi audio expos are regularly held in Tokyo, Singapore and Guangzhou and are known as meccas for audiophiles. Acoustic Signature is recently opening in Manila, and Frohnhöfer is pleasantly surprised at the ardent community here.

High fidelity

Photo by Arnold S. Cruz from the 2019 November Hi-Fi Show

Every year, since 2008, Dusit Thani Makati has played host to arguably the largest of the Philippines’ analog audio fairs: The November Hi-Fi Show. As 2020 marches in earnest, the people behind the show will begin preparing again—sources reveal that it takes up to six months to prepare for each one-weekend expo.

The major conference rooms in the second floor as well as the suites in an entire floor are transformed into mini-theaters showcasing both bespoke and mass-produced analog audio products: Sony showcases side-by-side with Davaoeno hobbyists, for one.

The resurgence of analog audio has become part of our everyday consciousness. Aside from the November Hi-Fi show, there’s also the Satchmi Vinyl Day, and similar expos popping up around the metro. There was a noticeable spike in interest in the last decade tied to hipster nostalgia, but gimmicks come and go while classics are such for a reason.

Hi-fi, or high-fidelity, is not necessarily high-end. Tonyboy de Leon, the man behind the November show notes that names known for high-end appliances don’t necessarily produce high-fidelity audio products. Hi-fi refers to the quality and techniques going into each part of an audio setup, from wirings and needles to speakers. And these, much like the application of terroir, aging and special wood casks among vintners, translate to the “taste” of sound, so to speak.

As such, a high-end electronics brand may not necessarily invest in procedures or materials that make for high-fidelity sounds. High-fidelity audio then is not just a science but an art.

Today, the hi-fi audio market is similar to that of other top-shelf collectibles like watches, classic cars and fine art.

Philippine ear lines

For some foreigners, it’s the Filipino approach to music that fosters a discerning audiophile community.

2019 was Shinichi Suzuki’s second year at the November Hi-Fi Show. Touted as a rockstar for his speaker systems in the high-end audio world, de Leon was initially surprised at Suzuki’s willingness to participate. In person, despite his white hair, he smiles easily, conspiratorially, with the innocence of a boy who just discovered how to build catapults from scrap wood.

One of his favorite Filipino artists is an opera singer based in Taiwan. Last year’s showroom was in collaboration with Harana, a bespoke speaker maker based in QC. Suzuki isn’t very fluent in English, so one of his employees, Filipina Rosalie B. Esguerra interprets for us.

His showroom is quite different from the rest, at least in floor plan. Where others have a square plan with rows and columns of monobloc chairs facing the audio setup, Suzuki’s looks more like an inverted spatula. The first four “rows” consist of single chairs. The last rows have no more than three chairs each.

Where other rooms simply want to house as many listeners, Shinichi wants each of his visitors to immerse in the nuances of his creations.

True enough, sitting at the very front is different from sitting at the fourth row: at the former, voices and trebles are highlighted, at the latter, all the instruments, highs and lows, seem to come at you simultaneously. Suzuki tells me the second row is optimal.

Thinking out loud, he notes that Filipinos are not only discerning of technical details: price points, output-per-watt, and setup-order but also enjoy music viscerally. We take to a song’s warmth, brightness and layering like oxygen.

Claire Jiang, country manager of Jaben Pte. Ltd., a Singaporean company sourcing well-made customizable earphones, shares similar sentiments. She notes how, in contrast to her home culture, Philippine culture is “very music-driven, very singing-driven.”

One of the last-minute presenters, she plans to invite a Filipino company based in Cavite—in a booth next to theirs—to distribute their products through her company. Jaben sells customizable earphones from different brands, and their main focus is “to bring in high-quality manufacturers.”

The sound of music

A speaker setup from the 2019 November HiFi Show. Photo by Arnold S. Cruz

The November Hi-Fi show is both a passion project and business opportunity, but the weights are distributed across different participants. For many of the newer presenters, be it a long-time company like Acoustic Signature or a startup from outside Manila, this is an much-anticipated opportunity to reach a wider market. For some, like de Leon, who has a day job running a repair company, and Victor Sierra, a Cebuano school manager and analog speaker builder by night (more accurately, on weekends), the show is a playground. 

It’s a visceral experience for de Leon, whose recollections of vinyl tie intimately with his childhood memories. Back then, it was a bonding experience for the barkada: when a friend purchased a new record, others would be invited over and the whole gang would listen to each track, flipping through the album art and lyric sheets.

Bonding over raw music and its tangible products, with no other distractions: It’s that purity that de Leon aims to cultivate and revive.

The main audience of such shows are mostly middle-aged, high-income people, but of late, younger folks have been showing up. It seems analog audio was buoyed to survival by the nostalgia of older generations, brought into vogue by the nostalgia of twentysomethings who didn’t even live through the eras longed for and is kept steadily afloat by the fact that analog audio has advantages digital audio doesn’t have.

It seems that in creating technology that’s more convenient, certain advantages were lost, as people are today slowly beginning to realize.

That intuitive ear

Analog audio is part of a greater cross-cultural movement, likely the result of a fast-paced world, where making things speedier, more compact or more convenient isn’t necessarily better. Quality, enjoyment and even community are the prices we pay for perceived benefits. It’s not just in audio but also in fields like cooking (slow food) and wellness (mindfulness).

The Philippines is indeed a market for analog audio, part of a global market influenced by regional differences in labor and raw material, but a local market built on culture. And ours is a culture that breathes music, whose understanding of technology starts with an experience of music.

From the earliest memories of indigenous rituals and fiestas—all communal events—to recent memories of vinyl and analog’s heyday side-by-side with the birth of Manila Sound and OPM, music is the driving force behind our ability to understand the techniques of sound.

There’s still a lot to learn, both technically and culturally, as Filipinos are recently discovering the accessibility of forms like opera and philharmonic ensembles. But that intuitive ear remains.

Indeed, ours is not just a market but a community.

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