It's Friday night when you walk into the Old West Country bar in La Trinidad, Benguet, and a Filipino Tim McGraw is onstage. Women in plaid shirts and men in steel-toed cowboy boots and ten gallon hats sing along to "I Like It, I Love It" with Southern twangs, and slip Brad Paisley song requests to the waitresses on paper napkins. Water buffalo skulls, wagon wheels, and photos of Dolly Parton, Dierks Bentley, and other revered artists line the walls. You could be in any Americana decor-decked bar with a half-decent cover band in Texas—but you are in the mountains six hours north of Manila, and country music is the only music that counts.
Locals say the music is an expression of their mountain life, reflecting values of loyalty and honor—and the Philippine National Police (PNP) has taken notice. In January 2017, Tellio Ngis-o, director of the Mountain Province's Provincial Police Office, asked a local priest to write "Drug Free," a country song that would become the anthem of his police's anti-drug campaign in the Cordilleras. While "Drug Free" was first presented on Facebook to the public and regional police in February, a provincial resolution passed in August made it the force's official song, according to the song's creator, singer-songwriter Father Marcial "Marcs" Castañeda. National PNP chief Ronald dela Rosa commended Father Marcs, and said the PNP would consider making it the Philippines' official campaign song against illegal drugs. (They didn't).
Since taking office in June 2016, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has become notorious for encouraging the murder of drug addicts and overseeing a bloody anti-drug crackdown that has left thousands dead. Police have killed more than 3,900 alleged drug dealers and pushers in anti-drug operations and continue to deny activists' allegations that many were executions. They claim the suspects were armed and resisted arrest. Some 2,600 others have been killed in drug-related crimes while thousands more have been murdered in unknown circumstances, according to police data. So-called "vigilante killers"—often masked gunmen riding in tandem on motorcycles—have carried out many of these murders. While Duterte has said "The vigilantes are real, they got it from me," he denies they have ties to the State.
The lyrics of "Drug Free" however do not talk about the rising death toll. They imagine a country "free from drugs," "saving the children," and living a moral life supported by the Church and family. There has been significantly less bloodshed in the sparsely-populated Mountain Province, where police report one person has been killed in anti-drug operations. News network ABS-CBN found 29 people have been killed in drug-related deaths in the Cordillera region as a whole, where Mountain Province is located.
According to Father Marcs, "schools and offices are now mandated to sing [Drug Free] regularly," while 99.9 Country, a local Church-run station that broadcasts across the Cordillera region and most of northern Luzon—the Philippines' largest island—will play it multiple times a day.
There are many reasons why country music has become so popular in the region—it was brought by US colonization, it has ties to Christianity, and it celebrates rural life—but recognizing the deeper reverence local Filipinos have for the cowboy code at country music's core is also crucial to understanding why it has become part of their identity. Self-reliance, dignity, and justice have deep roots in the highlands, just like in the American South. To this day, in some parts of the Cordillera violence between tribes seeking revenge breaks out. Throughout the region, religious devotion exists among the strong themes of conviction and honor.
These values extend to politics as well. In the Cordillera a large percentage of people support President Duterte, who many say personifies the image of the direct, honorable cowboy. But vigilante justice, the working class, and country music have long been intertwined in the region.
Though American country music only arrived in the Cordilleras in the 1930s, these mountains have long had their own version of the cowboy culture. Because of this, indigenous communities see US country music as an expression of who they are. "We like the convictions, we like the image of the cowboy, we associate with the simple way of life in the music," says "Red Fox," a DJ at 99.9 Country, which claims to be Asia's only all-country music station. Like many fans in the area, she names Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, and George Straight as her favorite artists.
Aside from providing the soundtrack for a life of horses and farming, the steel guitars and screaming fiddles open insight into a culture shaped by US colonization. The Philippines has endured the rule of many masters—the Spanish for 300 years, the British for a forgettable 20 months, the Japanese for three years, and the United States for 48 years—but the Americans were the only ones who embedded themselves in the gold-rich Cordilleras. During that time and in the decades that followed, country music and the Marlboro man cowboy swagger gradually seeped into highland life.
After gaining control of the Philippines following the Spanish-American war in 1898, the United States began to spread its influence and quell dissent. In 1903, President Roosevelt signed a presidential order to establish Camp John Hay (also known as the John Hay Air Base) just outside of Baguio, now an urban center of the mountains and capital of the Benguet province. According to historian Alfred McCoy, some of the first Americans to immerse themselves and leave a lasting impact on the region were US lieutenants who led units of the local Igorot population, sent to gain a foothold in the area and squash nationalist uprisings. At times they would incite inter-tribal wars or attempt to starve and scare local tribes. US government officials also constructed roads, opened schools, and developed agriculture. Over the next several decades, Americans capitalized on the region's natural resources. While some set up more informal rackets, such as Lieutenant-Governor Walter F. Hale who was accused of monopolizing the rice trade, others established businesses like the Benguet Consolidated Mining Company. The number of US companies would continue to slowly grow until the Great Depression, when fixed gold prices brought about an explosion in mining production, and by extension, in US presence. With the exception of California, by 1935 the Philippines produced more gold than any US state.
Over the years, John Hay and other military bases scattered around the country employed hundreds of locals and invited the surrounding population to entertainment events, including folk and country music concerts. Popular 1930s cowboy films such as Billy the Kid and artists like Bob Wills and Gene Autry were well-received in the Philippine mountains, according to Andrew "Bobby" Carantes, a country singer, country music historian, and literature professor at the Philippine Military Academy.
Live performance at the Old West / Photo by Sarah Kinosian
Even after the Philippines gained independence at the end of WWII, American country continued to dominate the music culture. Local bands from Baguio would continue to play at US bases throughout the republic and around Asia. In the 1970s, there was a shift in the local industry, with pioneers like Joel Tingbaoen moving from solely covering English artists to translating and composing songs in the local languages of Ilocano, Ibaloi, and Kankanaey that retained the trademark US style and twang, and were sometimes even based on US melodies. The first song reportedly recorded in Ibaloi, for example, was an adaptation of Hank Williams's "Blackboard of my heart." Today artists continue to record songs about unrequited loves, highways, mountains, and economic woes in their native languages as well as English. In "Baguio Country Sounds" Raul Beray sings about the Cordilleras in Ibaloi, while "Bobby" Carantes' "I Miss the Old Baguio," leads the listener on a tour of the city and its surrounding mountains in English.
"It's what was available, so we took it, and owned it. We don't aspire to be something foreign, but we express what is ours in a foreign way. It's a reality that US colonization is in our past, but that's what culture is—a mix of history and current reality. Country music has taken root in the Cordilleras and it's here to stay. It's our roots," explains Carantes. This newer form of Filipino country exists alongside US music. Every 15 minutes 99.9 Country is required to play a Filipino song to comply with a 1987 executive order. In 2011, one of the most famous local acts, Kinnoboyan—which plays country rock using English, Ilocano, and Ibaloi—performed with the US Navy's 7th Fleet Band at a US Embassy-sponsored event, "America in 3D: A Road Show in Diplomacy, Development, and Defense."
Carantes admits that there are aspects of US country music that are just too "American" to resonate, especially those extolling US dominance and patriotism, like Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA," or the chart-topping "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)," written by Toby Keith in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. For Carantes, "We take what we can identify with of American country and leave what we don't. The local language country fills in the rest. It helps preserve our culture."
Aside from connecting to the common themes of rural life and lost loves, local artists celebrate US country's ties to Christianity—unsurprising given 81 percent of the Philippines is Catholic according to a 2010 census. For Andrew Paulino Jr., a top country singer in the area, "Country tells the story of broken hearts well, but it is also a reflection of our Christian values. It doesn't use the F-word, it often talks about God, we sing it in weddings and funerals."
Managed by Fr. Victor Munar and owned by Mountain Province Broadcast Corporation, part of the Catholic Media Network, 99.9 Country will happily spin Reba McEntire's "Back to God," Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel," or any secular, non-salacious song, but listeners will never hear Joe Nichols' "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off" or Gretchen Wilson's celebration of female sexual liberation, "Here for the Party." Filipino artists and fans have largely rejected the boozier party anthems that have topped the US Country charts in recent years, according 99.9 Country's DJ "Windtalker," who started his career as a Christian DJ and says listeners simply don't request those types of songs. A night on the country music bar circuit confirmed that tunes like Florida Georgia Line's "Sun Daze," an homage to getting high by the pool, or Brice Lee's "Parking Lot Party," do not make the set lists. For Windtalker Florida Georgia Line is "very progressive."
The tight ties between the Church and country music explain why the PNP asked Father Marcs to write "Drug Free." And while he says he supports President Duterte's anti-drug campaign, Father Marcs denounces the killings connected to it and is adamant there must be "due process and rehabilitation" for drug users. This sentiment is shared by many leaders in the Church who have started to speak out against the growing death toll. The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has offered to protect police officers who want to testify about their role in the drug crackdown and called for church bells to be rung in protest of the killings. But for Father Marcs, the partnership between the police, Church, and community is stronger in the Cordillera than in Manila, the country's capital, and his song is a reflection of the dynamic. "The lyrics are meant to promote cohesion between the community, the police, the local government, and Church. Here this is happening more. You don't see the daily killings like you see in Manila."
Outside the Church, many in the Cordilleras who voted for President Duterte, like Windtalker, are disillusioned with the "drug war's" high body count, but like his decisiveness and conviction. They say he is a man of his word. "Duterte, he's a shooting cowboy, quick to the draw—a 'Beer for my Horses' kind of guy," he says sitting in 99.9 Country's office, referring to Toby Keith and Willie Nelson's song about men who lynch criminals in the streets then celebrate at the saloon. "In the Cordilleras, if you betray my loyalty, I'll turn on you. Duterte warned people to stop using drugs and they keep doing it. He's making good on his promise."
Sarah Kinosian is boot-scootin' on Twitter.