Brecht songs in Manila


With the world food crisis shading into the world financial crisis, food prices seemed to settle down. Some financial analysts said the food crisis was over: all the basic food prices had come down — except rice and sugar.

I've just been in the Philippines for three months, and rice is more than a basic food, it is a way of life. The Tagalog word for cooked rice, "kanin", and the Tagalog (Filipino language) word for eating, "kain" apparently share the same original root word.

And in the Philippines, after a decade-and-a-half of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, and then nearly 25 years under a succession of incompetent and/or corrupt governments endlessly implementing unfettered neoliberal economic policies, rice has turned from being an export crop to one that is now imported in quantity.

A large proportion of the population do not get enough to eat. Promised land reform is continually deferred. Critics of corruption, especially radio journalist commentators in the provinces, are assassinated and their murders are rarely solved (the Philippines, over the last ten years, is second only to Iraq in terms of numbers of journalists killed). The political and economic system of the traditional politicians and elite oligarchic families has been in chronic crisis for decades.

The country's economy survives on the remittances of an estimated 10 million Filipino and Filipina workers overseas (more than 10% of the Philippines population). For the majority of people there is no real work in the Philippines itself, and they struggle to get by in an informal economy of street trading, domestic servitude and other forms of underemployment, unemployment and begging.

As an actor and singer I was exploring and witnessing theatrical and musical expressions of political reality in Manila. In return, I was offering up unaccompanied performances of songs by Bertolt Brecht, whose work is an essential part of any political-cultural discussion.

I found an immediate resonance for his songs in many different places: seminars, workshops, political meetings, picket lines, while travelling, or late at night over drinks.

One song by Brecht and Hanns Eisler stood out, "The Song of the Merchant" because in it the Merchant sings: "Don't ask me what rice is/ Don't ask me my advice/ I've no idea what rice is/ All that I know is its price".

The combination of Brechtian politics and singing seems irresistible in a country and a culture where karaoke is a naturalised part of almost every social event, from demonstrations to Christmas parties to provincial karinderyas or cafes by the sea.

I formally represented Melbourne Workers Theatre (MWT) in Manila, and had extensive contact and involvement with theatre companies and practitioners, singers, visual artists, and arts and politics academics, over three months.

I both gave and took part in seminars and workshops on Brecht and other topics, with PETA (Philippines Educational Theatre Association), and with Teatro Pabrika (Factory Theatre).

Everywhere discussions were passionate and searching for ways forward, politically, economically, socially and culturally. Everywhere people are struggling and working to understand and change this insane international social order we attempt to live under.

How do we conserve and develop political and cultural resources and a continuity of the experience of struggle for meaningful change? What theatrical, musical and artistic forms can contribute effectively to this? How can we creatively network and learn across countries and cultures to bring about long-term change?

I gave formal greetings from MWT to 1000 delegates of the founding congress of the Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), a new party seeking to refocus those on the left and in the large mass social movements (of workers, vendors, farmers, urban poor, and others), into a political organisation that fights and campaigns openly in elections, on the streets, and in the many different sectors, communities, and regions for meaningful political change.

I sang another Brecht/Eisler song at the conference: "Song of the Patch and Coat", from Brecht's adaptation of Maxim Gorki's The Mother. In that song come the lines: "It's not that we simply need a job/ We need the whole factory as well". In Manila in the last 10 years, many major factories have closed, and remain unused.

It was a little unusual to give greetings from a single cultural group to a congress of a mass political party. However, the invitation to do so was a serious recognition of the need to explore the political importance of cultural work and organisation, whatever unpredictable forms it might take.

Cultural work and expression is different to that of political organisation, but without a political context, cultural work is often socially ineffective and artistically uninteresting. Exploring the relationship of the political to the cultural is always difficult, and is profoundly context-sensitive, but it is more, not less, important to explore this in our age of mass-commodified art, culture and communication.

On March 28, at a Melbourne Workers Theatre free event at 3pm, at Bella Union Bar upstairs in Melbourne Trades Hall, Lygon St, Carlton, I am performing these Manila Brecht songs with Michael Morley, (pianist with Robyn Archer throughout decades of Brecht singing).

It will be a reflection on three months of cultural-political experience in the Philippines.

The crises of the current period have thrown up all the questions of socialism and capitalism in obvious ways yet again. Theatre, culture, song and art are an essential part of exploring these questions, here in Melbourne, over in Manila, and around the world.