Rom Dongeto and the Revival of a Protest Song

One of the most requested songs in the country’s most popular radio stations and music-oriented TV programs right now is “Tatsulok.” Written and composed way back in the late 1980s by Rom Dongeto of the activist folk-rock group Buklod, the song is presently being performed by rock band Bamboo.

BY ALEXANDER MARTIN REMOLLINO
Bulatlat

One of the most requested songs in the country’s most popular radio stations and music-oriented TV programs right now is “Tatsulok.” Written and composed way back in the late 1980s, the song is presently being performed by rock band Bamboo.

“Tatsulok” was originally performed by the activist folk-rock group Buklod – whose members were Noel Cabangon, Rom Dongeto, and Rene Boncocan. The language is highly symbolic, but the song is a clear-enough reference to the armed conflict between the government and the communist-led revolutionary movement.

The song’s persona counsels a little boy, simply called Totoy, to evade the bombs and bullets that may be headed in his direction:

Totoy bilisan mo, bilisan mo ang takbo
Ilagan ang mga bombang nakatutok sa ulo mo
Totoy tumalon ka, dumapa kung kailangan
At baka tamaan pa ng mga balang ligaw

Totoy makinig ka, huwag kang magpagabi
Baka pagkamalan pa’t humandusay diyan sa tabi
Totoy alam mo ba kung ano ang puno’t dulo
Ng di matapos-tapos na kaguluhang ito

“Totoy is a symbol of the ordinary masses,” said Dongeto, who is now the deputy executive director of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development (PLCPD), a non-government organization. “This conflict is rooted in something, and the song calls on people like Totoy to think and be critical,” said Dongeto.

“Well, it tells them to take care and avoid being killed, but it also calls on them to invert the pyramid,” Dongeto added, “For as long as opportunities and the distribution of resources are not equitable, and the country’s riches are controlled by only a few, the fundamental issues will remain and the war will continue. That is what the song says.”

Hindi pula’t dilaw ang tunay na magkalaban
Ang kulay at tatak ay di siyang dahilan
Hangga’t mas marami ang lugmok sa kahirapan
At ang hustisya ay para lang sa mayaman
Habang may tatsulok
At sila ang nasa tuktok
Hindi matatapos itong gulo

“The socio-political pyramid has to be inverted. It is the organized forces who will interpret how you will do that. But (what is clear is) to do that, you have to overhaul the decadent system that is subservient to foreign interests and the ruling elite,” Dongeto added.

Dongeto wrote and composed the song in 1989. It was a period of escalating struggle between the military and the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA). It was the height of the Aquino government’s enforcement of its counter-insurgency policy, the “Total War Policy,” of which the chief architect and implementer was then Defense Secretary Fidel V. Ramos. It was not only combatants who were bearing the brunt of the war, however, as the guns of state forces were also taking the lives of common folk as well as leaders of the open mass movement, and there were also many civilians getting caught in the crossfire.

“There were many people, ordinary people, getting killed in the countryside,” Dongeto said.

Lumilikas ang hininga ng kayraming mga tao
At ang dating lunting bukid ngayo’y sementeryo
Totoy kumilos ka, baligtarin ang tatsulok
At katulad mong mga dukha ang ilagay mo sa tuktok

The song was one of the first pieces Dongeto wrote and composed upon Buklod’s return to the country from Paris, where an international celebration of the bicentennial of the French Revolution had been held that same year. That same year, it was included in the album Karapatang Pantao, an anthology of songs by various artists, produced by Ed Formoso by special arrangement with the human rights group Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (EMJP) and recording company Dyna Products, Inc. In 1991, “Tatsulok” became the carrier song of Buklod’s second album.

“Tatsulok” quickly became a hit among activists and, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, even enjoyed some mainstream following through Karapatang Pantao. After that the song’s exposure would be mostly among the cause-oriented groups and its allies, until early this year when it once more broke through the mainstream, courtesy of rock band Bamboo which made it the carrier single of its third album, We Stand Alone Together, produced by EMI Music Philippines.

Bamboo the band is fronted by Bamboo Mañalac, former lead vocalist of rock band Rivermaya.

Dongeto said the publisher which holds the rights to his songs, M2K, was approached by EMI Records last year for permission to include the song in Bamboo’s third album. “I didn’t expect them to make it the carrier single,” he said. He is entitled to royalties being the song’s lyricist and composer.

The song as rendered by Bamboo is confirmed to have reached the top of the charts in at least three of the country’s most popular radio stations: Love Radio, YES FM, and Barangay LS. Its music video is also among the top ten hits in the music-oriented TV show Myx.

The audiences reached by “Tatsulok” right now are, to borrow a term frequently used by the cause-oriented groups, spontaneous or unorganized sections of the masses. These are the ones who are giving the song its present status as a chart-topper.

“This says something about the political situation,” Dongeto said when asked for his observations about the kind of popularity that “Tatsulok” now enjoys. “Human rights violations are very grave. People walking in the streets – lawyers, students – are being killed, and only for expressing their sentiments and airing their demands to the government. I think this is a national policy at this point to neutralize them.”

Based on data from Karapatan (Alliance for the Advancement of People’s Rights), there have been more than 850 extra-judicial killings from 2001 – when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was catapulted to power through a popular uprising – to the present. The extra-judicial killings have been condemned even by the international community, including by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International and United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings Phillip Alston.

“The song is still very real, and I think the people can feel it and can relate to what is happening,” Dongeto said. (Bulatlat.com)

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