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Dances with Scarves, Swords and Coconut Shells: Kayamanan Ng Lahi Keeps Filipino Folk Traditions Vibrant in L.A.

There’s an old single-story brick office building on Temple Street in Historic Filipinotown that isn’t likely to capture your attention on first glance, except for the fact that it is dwarfed by towering new condos across the street. But if you were to turn the corner onto Robinson Street, you’d be greeted by the mural of a large, angel-like figure on the side of the building, flying over a Los Angeles cityscape, with downtown, the beach and the Hollywood sign in the distance. From this perspective, there is clearly something special about this place, something the neighboring modern behemoth will never possess.

For beneath one of the figure’s outstretched wings is a set of open glass doors through which there’s a hubbub of activity every Sunday afternoon. They are the sounds of hundreds of years of history being taught and performed, of culture thoughtfully transported from thousands of miles away, of a very large pamilya (family) sharing and exploring its heritage. This is the essence of the volunteer-run Kayamanan Ng Lahi (“Treasures of Our People”), an acclaimed performing-arts organization that is entering its 27th year of celebrating Philippine culture through dance and music.

Burong Talo is a dance from the Tausug people. It is martial arts in dance form, which mimics a fight between a hawk and cat. Singkil is a Muslim Malay dance, with roots in the Indian epic, the Ramayana. In the dance, the lead steps in and out of bamboo poles while manipulating fans or scarves.

Here, upwards of 70 dedicated dancers — ranging in age from 5 to 60 — are scattered throughout the headquarters of the service organization Search to Include Pilipino Americans (SIPA), where Kayamanan meets each Sunday. Small clusters of individuals are gathered wherever there is space to practice, socialize, collaborate, eat, and, most importantly, learn. The dancers are grouped in one of two levels: Pamana, which means “legacy,” kids 5 to 12 years of age; and Sayawit — the conjoined words sayaw, “dance,” and awit, “song” — the adults. In SIPA’s performance space, you can hear the constant tapping of bamboo poles as a group of adults rehearse the crowd-pleasing Tinikling, an iconic dance originally from Leyte in the Visayas that mimics tikling (buff-banded rail) birds darting in and out of traps set by farmers. An anxiety-inducing number to watch, the dancers quickly move between pairs of bamboos sticks as they come together, with the tapping (thus, dancing) swelling to an intense pace. Down the hallway, there’s the beating of coconut shells by boys and men practicing the feverish Maglalatik dance while shouting "isa . . . dalawa . . . tatlo . . . apat" (one, two, three, four), with each person hitting the shells strung across is chest, back, and knees. A mock war dance between the Muslims and Christians over latik, coconut meat, Maglalatik is performed in honor of the patron saint of farmers, San Isidro de Labrador of Biñan, Laguna. In a recreation room deeper in the building, there’s also a ping-pong game in full swing between two kids passing time as their parents rehearse. And in yet another room, a dozen girls sit on the floor with their moms, learning the Tagalog song “Magtanim Ay Di Biro” (“Planting Rice Is Never Fun”). It’s a wonderful cacophony everywhere you turn, as there’s so much heart invested in each activity. It feels electric, uplifting, authentic. That’s the power of Kayamanan.

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As expected, many Filipino Americans are here, but numerous other backgrounds are represented as well: Mexican American, African American, Japanese American, Chinese American, Hawaiian, and more. “We are a reflection of the community,” notes co-founder and programming director Joel Jacinto, “we’re inclusive.” This extraordinary mix of performers — which in several cases includes generations of family members — will spend the next six hours here, as they have for the last few months, perfecting their routines.

Considered the national folk dance of the Philippines, Tinikling features a couple dipping their feet into and out of clapping bamboo poles. 

At this point in time, Kayamanan, just like the building it practices in, is about to embark in exciting new directions. The SIPA offices will soon be demolished to make way for much-needed affordable housing for the surrounding population. Kayamanan too is experiencing its own transformation: first off, the group is moving to a new rehearsal space at Glendale Community College during SIPA’s renovation, after more than a decade in HiFi. Second, the company is preparing for its most ambitious show to date, “Tao Po!” (We Are Here!), a unique exploration of Filipino American culture. Kayamanan is also taking on a new role in the greater Los Angeles community this school year, presenting Filipino performing arts to Los Angeles Unified School District schools as participants of Music Center on Tour. In short, Kayamanan is here, there, and everywhere.

On this particular afternoon, the staff is about to share its new logo with its members, the first refresh since Kayamanan’s founding in November 1990. Its formation was precipitated by a “fateful call” that August between two parties — couples, actually — Filipino American community activists Ave and Joel Jacinto and a former member of the Philippine national folk dance company Bayanihan, Barbara Ele, and her then-husband, prominent Filipino musician Leonilo “Boy” Angos. The Jacintos were recent UCLA graduates who participated in the campus’s annual Pilipino Cultural Night as the dance troop coordinators. “Through that experience, we met a lot of students who wanted to continue their learning of Filipino dance,” says Kayamanan administrative director Ave. “When Joel and I graduated from college, we had the intention to start our own group, but did not know how yet.”

Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Ele had seen traditional Philippine dances performed in small venues here and there, but not with the kind of foundation and rigor that she had been trained with in Bayanihan, which she had joined at 14. “When I came here [in 1985] I saw that there were some things that weren’t done the way I learned, and there was a Filipino American group that my ex was associated with asking for help,” recalls Ele, Kayamanan’s dance director. “He said to me, ‘There are a lot of people here searching for their identities, their roots, and we can do more, we can help them.’”

Both couples witnessed many cultural gaps that needed to be bridged. That’s when Angos made the call to Joel that brought them together. And more than 500 performances and 27 years later, Kayamanan Ng Lahi has continued to spread its influence across Southern California and beyond, in numerous ways: through these Sunday workshops, teaching dances from various regions and the symbolism behind them; regular public performances at the city’s largest venues and most intimate of events, weddings; technical and educational arts assistance to university-based Fil-Am clubs for their cultural events; their music ensemble Dayaw, which trains young musicians to play native Philippine instruments; and its material culture department that researches, secures, or produces Kayamanan’s costumes and props.

Kayamanan ng Lahi performs Ragrasakan | Jorge Vismara
Kayamanan ng Lahi performs Ragrasakan, a dance about basketweaving | Jorge Vismara

“We provide a service to our community,” notes Joel. “Our mission to preserve, promote, and present [Philippine culture] and to educate, entertain and enlighten is not just our attempt to provide information, but to help improve the quality of life for our members.” It’s a responsibility they don’t take lightly.

Kayamanan ng Lahi performs pangalay ha patong,a  dance characterized by two men carrying bamboo poles with dancers placed on top | Jorge Vismara
Kayamanan ng Lahi performs Pangalay ha Patong,a dance characterized by two men carrying bamboo poles with dancers placed on top | Jorge Vismara

Kat Carrido Bonds, theater manager at Cal State Northridge and chair of FilAm Arts, which produces the Annual Festival of Philippines Arts and Culture, immediately knew where to bring her six-year-old daughter when she asked to learn Filipino dance. “Kayamanan is so visible in the community, just the reputation that they have for excellence in practicing and presenting Philippine folk dance and music.”

Her family is a prime example of whom Kayamanan aims to serve. “You’ll have a child who hasn’t danced before, has parents who love her, and want to give her a Filipino sensibility — and maybe one of her parents is not Filipino,” says Joel. “And to have that little one grow and participate, to give her that little spark in her eye, for her to say, ‘I like to be with all these ates (sisters) and kuyas (brothers),’ and have the parents participate . . . it is absolutely transformational. Then you have this intergenerational, intercultural passing of tradition, that if not for Kayamanan, there are not a lot of other ways for this type of cultural education.”

Bonds, whose daughter is biracial, concurs: “Every Sunday [she is] immersed in the culture of dance and music . . . I want her to feel like she’s actively connected to [being Filipino]. I want it to be part of her everyday life, just as simple as eating and breathing, and Kayamanan provides that.”

Back in SIPA’s performance space, longtime member and designer Mark Kaiklian just unveiled Kayamanan’s new logo — the outline of a gem within which three stars float above three rays of sunshine, graphic elements taken from the Philippine flag. Excitement and applause break out in the room, even from the children who have no conception of what a “brand unveiling” is, but recognize a pretty picture when they seen one. The urgency to update Kayamanan’s identity coincides with their upcoming “Tao Pao!” show at the newly renovated John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on September 15, when the group will move beyond their traditional repertoire that has made them one of the most sought-after cultural dance companies in the city.

Kayamanan ng Lahi performs Lawin Lawin, a rite of passage dance that depicts the story of an eagle growing up | Jorge Vismara
Kayamanan ng Lahi performs Lawin Lawin, a rite of passage dance that depicts the story of an eagle growing up | Jorge Vismara

“‘Tao Po!’ means ‘We’re here!’ And it was a very conscientious naming because of what’s going on politically and nationally now,” says Ave. “We wanted to state that Filipinos are here in America, we are contributors to the landscape of America, whether we were born in the Philippines or as Filipino Americans. And the way we do that through Kayamanan is through the presentation of dance, music, and song, and [their connection] to other genres of dance and people in America.”

While Kayamanan has always collaborated with other groups and organizations —“we are seen as an aggregator versus a separator,” adds Joel — “Tao Po” is what Ave refers to as “collaboration intensive,’ with the presentation of non-Filipinos and non-Filipino dance music. Specials guests include Broadway singers Mama Bares, American Idol singer Anthony Fedorov (who is of Russian descent), and the Glendale College Concert Singers, a chorale group of primarily non-Filipinos who sing Filipino songs. Ave shares, “We’re also bringing in other people to assist us in presenting the areas of dance that Filipinos are very prevalent in.”

Joel offers his own take on “Tao Po:” “It’s like a postmodern approach to Filipino American culture, where we’re beyond the folk and the traditional, which is really the realm of which Kayamanan as an arts organization really exists, and we’re contextualizing it today as postmodern Filipino Americans who do hip-hop, do hula, who sing.” He notes, “This is not a snapshot of 50 years ago. To be authentically Kayamanan, we have to find ourselves in it, we have to put our lives into this historical document of Filipinos in 2017.”

They realize there might be some push back from the Filipino American community because of these choices, but the cofounders want to emphasize that “we are here and everywhere.” As Kayamanan — now 100 cast members strong when in full force (30 of which are children) — has been all along.

And what does Ele, as the creative force behind the dances, value most about Kayamanan’s legacy? “You raise awareness, you make people love who they are, discover and reconnect with their roots, because people come to Kayamanan for different reasons. Some just want to dance; some want it because they want their exercise, some just to have friends. Others really want to dig in, to find out more about their identity. And some, they just are curious. Whatever their intentions are, Kayamanan will be here.”

Top Image: Kayamanan ng Lahi performs Singkil | Jorge Vismara

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