Martial Law and Music

By Bea Saban (FHL Intern)


Note: The year 2017 marks the 45th anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law. In the next two months, Filipinas Heritage Library will feature a series of articles on the different aspects of arts & culture in the Philippines during the years 1972 to 1981. The first, on music, was written by our intern Bea Saban, a History major at Skidmore College, New York.


On September 23, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared that the country would be placed under Martial Law, citing the numerous bombings and protests that were said to be influenced by the Communists as justification for the proclamation.

Martial Law served as an attempt by the Marcos government to quell resistance and prevent the spread of radical and progressive thoughts. Control over print and broadcast media limited the public’s access to information and ideas.

However, Martial Law is also remembered as a period where the arts, particularly music, flourished. The former First Lady, Imelda Marcos, was known to have sponsored artists and provided recognition for their efforts, as well as encouraged the use of song to generate positive feelings amongst the public. At the same time, music was a tool for protest and songs were used to draw attention towards national issues.



Music by Filipino artists and groups increased in popularity in the early 1970s. The musical genre known as Manila Sound emerged and flourished. The genre itself drew influences from Anglo-American pop music, was characterized by its catchy lyrics and melodic phrases, and included different aspects from other genres like disco, pop, jazz, and rock. The band known as Hotdog played a role in the genre’s popularity with its hit, ‘Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko’ in 1974, which coincided with the Miss Universe beauty pageant that was held at the Folk Arts Theater1. The youth could identify with Manila Sound because of its irreverent and chiding tones, use of Taglish, and depiction of everyday situations that are seemingly incongruous and startling2. The popularity of Manila Sound was further supported by Memorandum Order No. 75-31 of the Broadcast Media Council in 1975, which required all radio stations to play at least one Filipino composition every hour, a number that increased to three by 1977. Even though the memorandum came from the same government that declared Martial Law, it created “a semblance of an atmosphere of freedom for artists even as summary executions, unlawful detentions, food blockades and other violent measures continued to be imposed on the populace by the mailed fist of the dictatorship”3.



The Metro Manila Pop Music Festival that was held annually from 1978 to 1985 also helped launch the career of many artists including Freddie Aguilar. Although Aguilar did not win the festival, his song ‘Anak’ sold 30,000 copies on the first day of its release and has since been translated into twenty languages worldwide. In spite of the fact that the song was about the fate of children who do not heed their parents’ advice, ‘Anak’ resonated with the state’s nationalism. As Martial Law intended to suppress the radical student movements that were prominent in the late 1960s, “‘Anak’ fed into the Marcoses’ fantasy of themselves as parents of a new nation that was being born out of their ‘revolution from the center’; parents of a prodigal nation and its rebellious youth, now returned to the fold”4. Aguilar’s music expressed problems of the common folk, but since the music industry during Martial Law was monitored by the Broadcast Media Council, social criticism that dealt with ethical behavior and moral responsibility were not allowed5. Even with the repressive conditions of Martial Law, the Filipino music industry was able to grow and achieve a great degree of popularity.

Music was also a way for the Marcos government to draw public support from all over the Philippines. In the context of Philippine politics, wives often took up the mantle of being a ‘partner in politics’ through the ‘feminine arts’ such as hosting, redecorating, entertaining, and managing staff and organizing events6. Thus, cultural tasks in the era fell to Imelda Marcos, who said, “We cherish our culture because in its manifestations lies the meanings of our existence. It contains and nurtures our motivations, our hopes, and aspirations as a people”7. Political commentators noted that during the 1965 election, Imelda Marcos was her husband’s ‘secret weapon’ for attracting the crowd with her beauty and singing voice8. In such occasions, she sang folk songs, especially kundiman (love ballads). The song ‘Dahil Sa Iyo’ was a known favorite of the First Lady and it became her proof of dedication to supporters and loyalists. As Christine Balance notes,

“Within a Filipino Catholic tradition, the figure of Jesus-the-savior underlines both revolutionary and romantic kundimans’ themes of sacrificial love. Exploiting this narrative of self-abasing martyrdom, Imelda the performer always imagined her role as politician’s wife to be ‘star and slave’ to the Filipino people – bound to perform celebrity through poise and fashion in order to give the masses a celebrity to venerate.”9

Imelda Marcos’ use of song is said to be an example of palabas, a dramatized spectacle of one’s private matters. As a result of working closely in politics, the first couple could turn their private lives into public spectacle, staging a stylized version of their intimacy10, and draw support from the people (both local and foreign). Mrs. Marcos’ use of the song worked well until the 1980s. She eventually added public displays of crying which, to the unassuming eye, signifies “the overwhelming power of emotions as they usurp one’s mental faculties and return to the primitive gestural language of tears.”11 This attempt at diverting the eyes of the common people and the international community away from the atrocities that occurred during Martial Law failed. Even so, it is important to note the importance of music in politics through Mrs. Marcos’ actions as an example of how the government helped shape Philippine music.

Aside from veering attention away from the negative aspects of Martial Law, Imelda Marcos also served as a patroness of the arts. Mrs. Marcos was known to have sponsored musicians and composers like Rosalina Abejo, who wrote ‘Overture 1081’ after Martial Law was declared in 1972 and described Mrs. Marcos as her ‘number one patroness’12, and Felipe Padilla De Leon, Sr., who composed both the ‘Bagong Lipunan’ hymn and the ‘Bagong Pasilang’ march that were both performed in the public and private sectors13. As a way to revive national pride, Mrs. Marcos commissioned various projects which gave rise to venues dedicated to the arts, including the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). According to Lucrecia Kasilag, the President of the CCP from 1976 to 1986 (and later National Artist for Music),

“In the early sixties the whole issue of art and culture had not yet entered into the public mind… The issue of total human development… was an idea whose time had not yet come. The emergence of the Cultural Centre under the leadership of the First Lady focused public and national attention on the arts.”14

The CCP became an important venue of the arts, as many musicians were able to perform and work there. But because of the costs in building it and its sources of funding, which included loans, donations, and public money, the venue itself drew criticism, with people labeling it as “a Western-style temple for Western-style arts”15 — a criticism that many felt was validated when Western artists like Van Cliburn and Margot Fonteyn came to perform there. According to music critic and historian Antonio Hila, the attitude was prevalent because “[t]he Filipino has yet to discard his colonial hang-up… colonialism conditioned him to be an inferior person, not fit for the finer things in life… This orientation made it difficult for him to relate to novel things”16. Kasilag has also stated that excellence is often mistaken for elitism and the CCP has rigid requirements in order to meet those standards of excellence17. Regardless of the criticism, the CCP is still an important venue today, and a constant reminder of how the government supported some artists during Martial Law.

Music also served as a tool of protest during Martial Law. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, poets started making the transition to songwriting as a way of reaching out to more audiences. Unlike the mainstream groups that grew in popularity during the 1970s, these musicians were not bound by the Broadcast Media Council and were more daring in exposing the conditions of Martial Law. However, due to the lack of resources, protest songwriters often took their songs directly to the people through live performances or recorded their songs in portable studios and sold them cheaply or duplicated them freely. By the late 1970s, new songs emerged, but according to Teresita Gimenez-Maceda,

“Experimentation with new forms for protest songs began right after the imposition of Martial Law. However, because of the uncertainty of the times, these were not publicly performed until the late 1970s when more and more songwriters became convinced of the urgent need to offer the public alternative songs to the already well-entrenched Pinoy pop music and to seriously look for venues outside the recording industry for their songs to be heard.”18

Artists like Heber Bartolome and Jess Santiago serve as prominent examples of protest musicians. Bartolome’s ‘Oy Utol, Buto’t Balat Ka Na’y Natutulog Ka Pa’ is a dramatization of the conditions of Martial Law and speaks of the anguish, pain, hunger, repression, and fear prevalent at the time. It also decries the passivity still prevalent among Filipinos today and criticizes the populace for not taking action towards the situation19. Another song of Bartolome’s, ‘Awit Ko’, tackles the issue of imperialism, which is seen in the form of the presence of US military bases in the Philippines. Gimenez-Maceda states that although Bartolome wanted to penetrate the industry with socially conscious songs, the industry only allowed him to “go as far as songs that were harmless social commentaries”20, with ‘Awit Ko’ only allowed because of the anti-Americanism that was adopted by the Marcoses at the time.

Santiago’s songs differ from those of Bartolome as they use personal, familiar, and intimate scenes in simple, intimate melodies, but are set against the background of the national condition. The song ‘Halina’ uses three characters and their stories as a way to talk about the basic issues of feudalism, capitalism, and imperialism, as well as mentioning attempts of the government to shield tourists away from sights of poverty. According to Gimenez-Maceda, Santiago meant for the song “to encourage participation among leaders because this is how a song grows and becomes part of tradition”21. By using personal and intimate terms in his songs, Santiago is more successful in the long term in getting people to face the truth. Depending on the method used, protest songs were able to spread their message and highlight issues in a way that the government would not notice.



Even after the assassination of Senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino on August 21, 1983, music remained a method of protest against the Marcos regime. These protests were composed of a broad coalition of different sectors in Philippine society that demanded justice not only for Ninoy Aquino but for the many victims of Martial Law22. Music was a part of those rallies; pop musicians like Aguilar and the Apo Hiking Society sang as they took a stand against the regime. In performing during the rallies, pop musicians were said to be astounded by the richness and depth of the lyrics of protest songs while protest songwriters were surprised at how pop music icons were already experimenting with indigenous music and writing on nationalist themes23. A prominent example of a song performed during these protests is ‘Bayan Ko’. ‘Bayan Ko’ was written in 1928 by Jose Corazon de Jesus and set to music by Constancio de Guzman. Like ‘Dahil Sa Iyo’, ‘Bayan Ko’ is classified as a kundiman, but unlike ‘Dahil Sa Iyo’, which focused on romantic love, ‘Bayan Ko’ is “a public ode of love for country, the type of love that aims to free the nation precisely from its romantic dependence upon another country”24. Although the song was not written during Martial Law, it was made popular after Aguilar sang it at Aquino’s funeral. It successfully reached out to a wide variety of social classes and called one towards civic responsibility. Today, ‘Bayan Ko’ is still a popular protest song.

By examining the roles music played in Martial Law and its growth, we can see that music served a variety of purposes in Filipino society. Although Martial Law is remembered as a dark age in Philippine history where overt political action was no longer possible, it also gave rise to creative means of expressing dissent and exploring social problems.



1 Maceda, Teresita Gimenez. “Problematizing the Popular: The Dynamics of Pinoy Pop(Ular) Music and Popular Protest Music.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 8, no. 3, Sept. 2007, 395

2 Maceda, “Problematizing the Popular”, 395

3 Maceda, “Problematizing the Popular”, 396

4 Tadiar, Neferti X. M. “Popular Laments.” Cultural Studies, vol. 23, no. 1, Jan. 2009, 6

5 Maceda, “Problematizing the Popular”, 398

6 Balance, Christine Bacareza. “Dahil Sa Iyo: The Performative Power of Imelda’s Song.” Women & Performance, vol. 20, no. 2, July 2010, 123

7 Hila, Antonio C. The Musical Arts in the New Society. N.p.: Marcos Presidential Center, 2007, 13

8 Balance, “Dahil Sa Iyo”, 123

9 Balance, “Dahil Sa Iyo”, 154

10 Balance, “Dahil Sa Iyo”, 124

11 Balance, “Dahil Sa Iyo”, 128

12 Sunburst Magazine, January 1975, 28

13 Hila, The Musical Arts in the New Society, 20

14 Hamilton-Patterson, James. America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines. London: Granta Books, 1998, 224

15 Hamilton-Patterson, America’s Boy, 223

16 Hila, The Musical Arts in the New Society, 99

17 Hila, The Musical Arts in the New Society, 100

18 Maceda, Teresita Gimenez. “The Culture of Resistance: A Study of Protest Songs from 1972-1980” Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 3rd Quarter 1985. 29

19 Maceda, “The Culture of Resistance”, 30

20 Maceda, “The Culture of Resistance”, 31

21 Maceda, “The Culture of Resistance”, 32

22 Maceda, “Problematizing the Popular”, 405

23 Maceda, “Problematizing the Popular”, 405

24 Balance, “Dahil Sa Iyo”, 131

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