Spoken word a hip form of storytelling

The spoken word takes more than a smooth tongue that makes sounds twist and dance. It shakes poetry lying still on a page and adds breath, adds rhythm, adds body, adds noise.

Spoken word is not poetry reading it’s performance that hereabouts has been consuming the Filipino literary and arts world. In this year’s second annual SF YouthSpeaks Teen Poetry Slam, three out of the top six winners were Filipinos.

The origin of spoken word depends on the context of the performer and the audience. Some, like spoken word artist Joel B. Tan, credit hip-hop culture. “There’s this kind of hip-hop aesthetic rhythm, beat, use of Ebonics, which speaks to a kind of cool culture, ” he explains.

Others, such as Allan Manalo, artistic director of Tongue in a Mood comedy troupe, see it as another form of theatrical expression. “These forms of expressions go with what’s trendy now, ” says Manalo, who did the stand-up comedy routine. “Comedy was the big hit of the ’80s, and spoken word became the hit of the ’90s. Who knows what’s going to happen in the year 2000?”

Aleks Figueroa, who put together the first Filipino-American spoken word music anthology, acknowledges all these possible antecedents. His reason for putting together “Infliptration: A Youngblood Revolution” was to document oral traditions and pay homage to the Filipino beat poets and writers of yesteryear.

According to Figueroa, poet Al Robles, who co-founded the multidisciplinary Asian-American arts organization Kearny Street Workshop, suggested the CD. “I kind of took it up on my own to produce a CD with a collection of different young Filipino writers and spoken word artists, people you never heard of, seasoned veterans, people you’ll never hear of again, ” he says. The 27 artists all but two from the Bay Area span three generations. The $13.50 CD, sold at Sulu and City Lights bookstores in San Francisco, was released in May 1997.

The name is an ode to predecessors like Robles. “The old-timers call the younger players youngblood, ‘ ” he says. Writers “Jaime Jacinto, Al Robles, Oscar Pearanda, all those Filipino cats of yesterday, they were all storytellers. If you want to get to the root of it, it’s just storytelling.”

The Bay Area spoken word scene allows everyone on stage, experienced or not. Michelle Bautista, former editor of the UC-Berkeley Filipino literary magazine Maganda, occasionally performs spoken word. “A lot of spoken word artists are on the fringe of being published, ” she says. “It is a way of getting a lot of writers opportunities to just perform their work.” While Bautista considers herself a writer who performs spoken word, Tan, who edited the just-released “Queer PAPI (Pilipino Asian Pacific Island) Porn” (Cleis Books, $14.95), doesn’t separate the two occupations.

The spoken word scene has become very cross-cultural, with Filipinos, blacks and Hispanics performing in venues such as the Justice League in San Francisco, La Pea Cultural Center in Berkeley and the Elbow Room in Oakland. Tan, though, believes Filipino-Americans have “cornered spoken word.”

“I think there’s a very distinct Filipino-American spoken word scene, ” he says. “It tends to be a strength in terms of organizing.”

Corporations recognize the art form as a way to speak to a street culture demographic. Levi Dockers, for instance, is sponsoring several spoken word evenings at the Justice League. Figueroa, however, quarrels with the company hosting ethnic-specific events, like black-only spoken word night.

“It’s corporate folks completely segregating the community where spoken word has always been (mixed), ” says Figueroa. “That doesn’t interest me, and it doesn’t sit too well on my tongue.”

While spoken word spans and blends color lines, San Francisco State adjunct professor and author Jaime Jacinto sees young Filipino participants acting out their heritage by instinct. He was one of the judges for this past SF YouthSpeaks Teen Poetry Slam.

It reminded him of balgatasan, a tradition in some Filipino villages entailing an “oratorical performance in which a youth from the town would get up in front of an entire town during festivities and recite by memory classic Tagalog poems.

“It’s a declamation, ” Jacinto explains, “to declaim, to get up and recite with a sort of oratorical flair.” While Tim Arevalo, an 18-year-old gay Pinoy spoken artist, came in first place, Jacinto recalls fourth-place winner Elaine Supremo. A high school junior from Union City, she presented a fiery, riveting performance. “This, ” Jacinto remembers thinking in awe, “is the balgatasan.”

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times