Pantayo construct new meaning out of familiar sounds by re-contextualizing traditional kulintang music.
In Ocean Vuong’s 2019 book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the novel’s narrator recounts a daily exchange between him and his mother (both immigrants to the U.S. from Vietnam) who reminds him every morning as they walk out the front door, “Remember, don’t draw attention to yourself. You’re already Vietnamese.” That line — a warning, a reminder, a put-down — resonates for many first-generation immigrants and racialized minorities who know only too well what it means to walk through the world as an “other”. As Vuong’s narrator mulls over his mother’s words, he begins breaking them down, reconstructing meaning out of their composite sounds: “already” becomes “all ready”.
Toronto band Pantayo also reconstruct new meaning out of familiar sounds. In the quintet’s case, it’s kulintang, a deeply meditative and melodic gong music from the Philippines traditionally played solely by women, that’s all ready to give new shape and form to contemporary pop, R&B, punk, and electronica. Produced by Yamantaka // Sonic Titan’s alaska b, their three-years-in-the-making self-titled debut album, rooted in kulintang tradition and rendered in a modern context, not only draws attention to their Filipino heritage, it transcends it. Even those unfamiliar with its form will instantly recognize its uniqueness and allure in the opening moments of “Eclipse”. The song grooves, it grows, and eventually envelopes you in its swelling tide. “Divine”, a song I previously described as a “deeply devotional” meditation and affirmation of the band’s connections, is the fulcrum on which Pantayo’s music pivots: on one side, gorgeous R&B and pop sophistication; on the other, the chiming and sometimes chilling sound of kulintang bowls, ringing with truth and rhythm. That same balance makes “V V V (They Lie)” the album’s stand-out “banger”, its rhythm connecting with the body as its repeated lyric “They lie / They will never tell the truth” connects with the head. “Bahala Na” swirls like a spell, a song that sounds like it took form over the course of a long, blissed-out jam session that kicks into another gear halfway through to ensure that no one falls asleep while under Pantayo’s mesmeric spell.
The songs on Pantayo are a break with tradition. That said, it’s indicative of western bias to think of Pantayo’s music as some sort of vessel for bringing kulintang to contemporary genres. It’s like saying pop, R&B, punk, and electronica is the music’s base into which kulintang’s colour is infused. Like Ocean Vuong’s narrator does with his mother’s words, it’s essential to mull that idea over a while and flip the paradigm on its head. Once you do that, the music takes on a whole new context — for the members of Pantayo, kulintang is the essence of their music. It’s already there from the start. It’s all ready to receive the “other” sounds and styles. It is all.