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Virtual Collective Memory and Philippine Epics and Ballads

—an interview with Nicole Revel

 

  CSSN Reporter: Gloria Special Presenter: Chen Tingting

  Photo: Zhang Guochan Video Production: Li Xiaowan

Guest:Nicole Revel is Director of Research Emeritus and Professor of Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France. As a linguist-anthropologist, she has made the study of the language, indigenous knowledge and oral tradition of the Palawan people in the Philippines since the 1970s. From 1991 to 2001, she coordinated an international seminar on ‘Epics’ in the ‘Integral Study of Silk Roads, Roads of Dialogue’, a UNESCO program during the Decade for Cultural Development. In the last 20 years, she has built up, in collaboration with others scholars and knowledgeable persons, a multi-media archive of epics and ballads from 15 different national communities in the Philippine Archipelago. It is now housed at the Rizal Library of Ateneo de Manila University and was launched on January 20th 2011.

Presenter: Thank you very much for attending this interview. You have spent 40 years in the Philippines and worked a lot on epics and ballads, which you have recorded, translated, analyzed and then uploaded on Internet. The first question is: what have you got from your work, besides Philippine epics and ballads?

Nicole: You mean my personal experience?

Presenter: We know that you have collected a lot of Philippine epics and ballads, but they are not all you got from your fieldwork. Besides them, have you got any wonderful experiences and something which you want to share with us?

Nicole: I don’t think you can really understand a song or an epic or a long narrative without knowing the culture of the people. So, before I was able to analyze and translate Philippine epics, I had to learn the language. So my PhD is a linguistic description of the Palawan language. As I was living among the upland people, life gave me a gift, and the gift was that when I arrived in Southern Palawan, I attended two weddings. And in the night prior to the celebration, a singer of tales performed an epic. So as soon as I arrived, I was given by life, an epic. And Usuy, the singer of tales, was extremely talented, he was also a shaman. We spent a full year in the forest and we developed friendship so much that when I was sick he came to cure me and when he was dying, I went to take care of him. But I couldn’t save him, it was too late. He was expecting me to go to the hospital on the coastal plain, but it was too far and too late. I wrote about that in “Kudaman”, a book that I have not brought here but I will send it to Dr. Tang. I wrote the life story of the singer of tales and my relationship to him. I think you will like to read and understand my experiences shared with the Palawan people. I have shared my life with them for a long time and we developed sentiments and mutual concern.

Presenter: So you were not only a researcher, but a participant and a friend to the local people. That was wonderful.

Nicole: Yes, we have developed very deep sentiments. I don’t think the work of anthropology can be done very quickly. It takes a long time, a lot of returns and a lot of dedication. So I hope, in your work and in your Academy, you can be given the right to go and live among the people. This is the only way.

Presenter: Yes, that is the necessity for us.

Nicole: It is also a necessity for translating the texts. You need the singer of tales to be with you, to ask him about his opinion in the meaning as you translate, to discuss with him whether the transcription you have done is right or erroneous. Once, in Mindanao, I had to discuss with two shamans as to how to transcribe an epic – two days of discussion! It was so difficult! But some people were very well trained in English, for English is the language of education with Tagalog, the national language. What was important is that we could decide in togetherness what would be the best way to project the song on the page, because it is a projection of time in space, as I said. It cannot be done at random. That is why ethno-poetics is so important: you have to capture by year what are the components, the main features of the composition. Is it measured or unmeasured? Is it with rhyme or no with rhyme? Is it in the form of dialogue? So you have to work with ethnomusicology too. You cannot work continuously for one week on an epic – of course you can, but life takes you away towards something else, to someone sick: for instance , in a nearby place a shaman is making a cure, you have to go there. I was fragile and I was sick with malaria, life is very hard upland in the forest. But I was very motivated to understand them; I was trained before going to the field. I had great Masters (mentors) in anthropology and linguistics.

Presenter: You have a strong heart to do such kind of strenuous work and to do so much contribution to the discipline.

Nicole: You know, that is how you can see who the real ethnographer is and who is not. If he can bear the fieldwork, then he is the real one. If he cannot, if he has to go back to a safe place, or if he only goes to the field for a few days, that is not the real thing. It is somehow fake, too superficial.

Presenter: Yes, that is nothing, actually.

Nicole: So I wish you can have this kind of experience. Because this is the experience of the Other. Who am I without the Other? It also revealed myself to me.

Presenter: It is like a mirror.

Nicole: Yes, they tend me the mirror and I tend them a mirror in return. So it is a reciprocal gift. Without the Other I am nothing, but reciprocally, without me they won’t be aware of their culture and now they are collaborating with high interest. So this is a give-and-take relationship. You don’t take, if you take, you have to give back. It is an attempt to understand, analyze, to master and to translate their language, their conception of life, and their world view. Then you become the translator of their way to think. And it takes a long time, but it is deeply interesting.

Presenter: And the second question is: what kind of difficulty have you encountered during these years and actually you have answered it – you mentioned you suffered malaria during your fieldwork.

Nicole: Yes, you could die with this disease. I had 9 attacks in 13 months. It was very hard.

Presenter: Are there any other difficulties besides malaria?

Nicole: Yes, but I was very fortunate. People in Palawan Highlands were very kind, so I had no difficulties. But other people could be very violent. In the south there was some kind of a war and I could not go anymore. But I had the fortune of going before 2000, I was very lucky. Not everyone is tolerant, but people in Palawan are tolerant. There are many different societies in the Philippine archipelago. I cannot show you the film now, but I included the film in which the singer of tales speaks on the website, There are also many other films to introduce the culture and contextualize the singers of tales and their songs. Each one of the songs is different; each manuscript is done by the scholars or knowledgeable persons who worked with me. So there are different cultures, different sensitivities, and different creativities. You have to give freedom to let the others express themselves according to their Tradition.

Presenter: Yes, that is so wonderful; maybe you could speak for a day, even for a year.

Nicole: This is a long lasting story. Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines provided me with the help of technology, because the President -who is now retired - was also very sensitive to music and poetry and he understood the value of what we have done. So he provided us with the technological assistance in developing this Archive of an Intangible Heritage in order to help the school teachers of his country to know more about different cultures, as there are so many languages in this archipelago. Most of the people are bi-lingual or tri-lingual, they are very talented in language acquisition. The epics among 15 minority languages represent the culture of the respective minorities and they are also a treasure for school teachers. They help these teachers coming from the major language, to know what they don’t know about the people in remote islands and provinces. It has been proven by many studies and experiments that if you teach the children in their mother tongue, you could have a more successful education. And the Philippines are in favor of using mother tongues in primary education, but a lot of work is to be done. Mother tongues are very important. To save the mother tongue is to save a language and a culture. I had prepared a part on that matter but I had no time to say it.

Presenter: The third question is that could you please say something about the virtual collective memory as you just mentioned in the report?

Nicole: Yes. When we had collected the narratives and established the first manuscripts, we deposited them in the archive. But they were not yet digitized. So we had to transfer them from the tapes in analogical to another carrier. And this was done in a perspective of building a digitized archive; then at the request of the President of the University for the school teachers faraway we had to build a website. So there are many steps in the work and that is why it took 20 years. The collective memory we have focused on is the memory of people but we were only dealing with the epics they sing. The sound boxes contain many sung narratives, some groups are extraordinary prolific. I cannot pretend this is an absolute gathering of whatever exists; it is only an insight of what is alive today among 15 national communities. When you open the website, you will see on the map where we have gathered epics and ballads in various islands. You will understand that the building of this archive is tentative, it is not absolute. Collective memory is never absolute. It relies upon several people and generations, and it is always somehow unstable, fluid as the potential singers are in turn becoming. Collective memory will never come to an end. If they say “It is finished”, the virtual memory on the website might re-activate the collective memory in real life. You see, it is, or rather it could be, a stimulating process. This is our aim: to safeguard and to encourage creativity.

Presenter: Thank you very much!

 

Editor: Du Mei     Source:Chinese Social Sciences Net     2013-12-23 10:48:00

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