Edru Abraham: An artist's profile

AAAoAAoA Rewind: September, 2007. Warning: this is a 1,300-word story based on my interview with a fascinating character. A worthy read nonetheless. Enjoy!

Edru Abraham. Photo by Jerome Cruz
The performance just ended, and a man in native Manobo costume bowed and acknowledged the audience’s applause. The next performance was about to begin.

“Yeeehh! Bravo! Yehhh!”

Another man in the audience in white polo shirt and a kerchief around his neck shouted praises on top of his voice while clapping enthusiastically. Other people were applauding too, but he stood out from the small crowd. It was famed Professor Pedro “Edru” Abraham Jr., known for his contributions to indigenous music and Filipino performing arts – and his energy.

That day at the modest lobby of the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater in the University of the Philippines Diliman, students played rare Chinese and Japanese instruments like the yangqin and the koto, and Filipino agung, kulintang and Muslim drums. When the artists and students started to chant, Mr. Abraham grabbed some drums and improvised backup music.

It was a glimpse at a world of music, dance, and performance where someone like Mr. Abraham thrives. He was as if on a high with the beat, bobbing his head and stomping his foot along with the rhythm. He would be the first one to applaud and the last one to stop, and after every performance he requested the musicians to play another piece.

“How astounding this music is, and how diverse the sounds we can make from these instruments,” he told the audience, making waving gestures.

Mr. Abraham is best known as the founder of the Kontemporaryong Gamelang Pilipino, popularly called Kontra-Gapi, an acclaimed neo-world music ensemble based in the U.P. College of Arts and Letters where he is also an associate professor in Art Studies.

Mr. Abraham had his training early on as a dancer, musician and mime actor of the Filipinescas Dance Company in the late 60’s under the wings of National Artist for Dance Leonora Orosa Goquingco.

“All the dances we were doing were stylized and outgrowths of the indigenous community and the new theater and art,” he said in an interview after the event.

During rehearsal breaks in Filipinescas, he “fooled around” with indigenous instruments using them to play rock tunes like “Hard Day’s Night” using the agung, a set of wide-rimmed gongs from Mindanao.

“I just fooled around, little realizing that I could draw from this fooling around to create new music,” he said.

Years after his stint with Filipinescas, he went on to found Kontra-Gapi in 1989. “I didn’t really set out to found a group like that,” Mr. Abraham said. “But I think we found acceptance of people from all walks and ages.”

“Acceptance” could be an understatement. Kontra-Gapi with its eclectic, improvisational and even experimental music now performs at least twice a week all over the country and does concert tours abroad. It was honored with Outstanding Achievement Award in Performing Arts by the University in 1996 and has so far produced two albums “World Beat / World Music – Filipino” and ”Gong at Ritmo, Lunggating Pilipino.”

Mr. Abraham’s expertise in this branch of the arts not only grew from something he took interest in while growing up, but is rooted in his very ethnicity.

“I would know more about the Comanches, the Apaches and the American Indians, but I knew nothing about the aetas in the Eastern Mountains, in Sierra Madre and in the Cordilleras who would come visit our town from time to time,” he said, describing the stirring of his awareness as a child growing in an Ibanag-speaking town in Tuguegarao.

“I was just any ordinary Filipino. I grew up in the Methodist Church and was part of the choir and played Bach and Beethoven and followed pop music,” said Mr. Abraham, who eventually decided to explore his and other local ethnicity and culture.

“All these other Filipinos who are marginalized in the consciousness of most Filipinos got me to start considering the state of my own experience,” he said. “And my awareness was amplified, affirmed and deepened by my stay in the University as a student and later as a teacher.”

Another integral influence to his art and approach is the people’s reaction to the martial rule in the ‘70s. “I would lead in rallies and chant in the streets, and I would invent indigenous chants and I also thought it was very empowering for people to make creative noises and scream out their frustrations together,” Mr. Abraham said, reclining on his creaking chair in his faculty office.

Kontra-Gapi performing at the UP Centennial kickoff. Photo by Jerome Cruz.
This explains Kontra-Gapi’s bearing a political statement in its very name (which literally means “to counter defeat” in Filipino) and as a group being founded post-martial law. It shows the artist’s concern not just for music but also for social issues like empowerment and the value of expression.

“My background is very rich indeed, but I also love reading about political issues, current events, things about what makes a Filipino tick.”

And with Kontra-Gapi, he does make people tick. After some performances, people would gather around the instruments and try playing them. “Children would start banging away and I remember one kid said, ‘Alam mo paglaki ko gusto ko tumugtog din ako.’ It’s interesting how even kids like (the music),” Mr. Abraham shared.

For someone not trained in a conservatory, it’s a wonder how Mr. Abraham possesses considerable knowledge in music and a vast experience in the performing arts. He experimented extensively, took every opportunity offered, recorded everything, and brought different instruments together to create new tunes.

And that is, after some sort of brooding, characteristic of moody, artistic types.

“When I do something, I have focus. People couldn’t talk to me when I'm in this level of consciousness. Even at home, when I'm in that creative mood, I'm like in a cave, I'm not even aware people are talking to me,” Mr. Abraham said.

The diverse music and creativity are a trademark of Kontra-Gapi, to whom he imparted his knowledge to hone not just the skills of its members but also their values.

“In Kontra-Gapi, (performers) learn how to do be professional, be conscious of the time, do their best even under the worst circumstances and take responsibility for somebody,” Mr. Abraham said. “I always tell them not to limit their capabilities.”

In fact, a Kontra-Gapi member could play up to fifteen instruments. “Not that specialization is wrong, you need that as a base, but you should expand and learn everything,” he added.

And coming from someone who is an actor, director, dancer, choreographer, musician, composer, voice talent, teacher, writer and producer in one body, this is an honest, tried-and-tested advice.

But among all the adjectives and titles, Edru, at age 70, simply wants to be known as a “person who strives to find his own authentic voice -- a voice that is pure and true.”

“And if other people discover that they could identify with (that voice) too, in expressing their own Filipino-ness, then I'm happy,” he said.

And his dream? For public schools to have their indigenous music groups, loyal to their lineage and rooted in culture.

“Why shouldn’t there be some kind of native, indigenous ensemble as part of our schools? For the most part, it’s all Western – drum and lyre bands, choirs. But why not make it Asian?” he said. “Kahit naman anong gawin mo, dun ka rin naman pupunta. Pilipino tayo eh.”

“It’s an ideal that they’re ashamed, not of their own culture, but the fact that they ought to know more of that and they don’t,” he continued.

Looking at his life, one could make out that Edru Abraham is a man who has decades full of honors and achievements, but he says there is a single reality he is most proud of:

“My children and my grandchildren.”

With that Mr. Abraham paused in thoughtfulness, and then went on talking again about art. #