Pantayo – an experimental, all-women kulintang ensemble – is a sound evolution that began over meals and music in 2012. Founding members Michelle Cruz (vocals, agong), Katrina Estacio (vocals, kulintang, sarunay) and Kat Estacio (vocals, kulintang, dabakan, programming) met at an Anakbayan fundraiser at Kapisanan, a Filipino cultural centre in Toronto’s Kensington Market. They all shared a desire to reclaim and re-imagine kulintang—a traditional Southern Philippine form of instrumental music composed on gongs. That initial meeting, and shared vision, eventually gave birth to Pantayo.
“We accidentally became a band when we received an invitation to play at an event. We thought we had to introduce the thing that we were doing, and who we were, and the thing became Pantayo,” shares Cruz. “As we continued to grow and learn as Pantayo, the group grew in members. Eirene and Jo came along, and this is when the next layer of magic began to manifest.”
Estacio says that Eirene Coloma’s arrival in 2015 was significant to the Pantayo sound by “synthesizing chords and progressions with our gong tunings.” “We are blessed to have her ear and talent of piecing these together with the complex tones of each gong hit,” she explains. “She [also] has some sick bass lines and synth moves, which make her a great fit. Her vocals also make us melt.”
For Joanna Delos Reyes (vocals and guitar), the ensemble became a part of her life just when she needed community the most. “I [had] recently moved back to Toronto after living abroad for a bit. I became hyper-aware of who I was as a brown, Filipina woman navigating predominantly white spaces, institutions, and jobs. I wanted to intentionally reconnect with my Filipino-Canadian settler identity. Collective art and music making became that way for me.”
The name Pantayo reflects the multi-layered ethos and intentions that drive the ensemble. “Pantayo is an ongoing commitment to ourselves, and to each other,” explains Kat E. “The word roughly translates to ‘by us for us’ [in Tagalog], so the conversations around what our sound is and why we play the way we do and what we stand for as a group is a constant navigation around that meaning. Much like the word does not really translate to one single English word, our initial intent is to make art and meaning that speaks to us and our experiences first. If that translates to something that resonates with other people, then great. If not, then we just accept that what we do is not for them. And we can’t be bothered with that because life is short.”
Describing their sound as “percussive metallophones and drums from kulintang traditions of Southern Philippines, with electronic and synth-based grooves,” Pantayo is a sonic collage of influences that include genres as diverse as R&B to punk. Yet somehow these diverging sounds are both thrillingly challenging and masterfully cohesive. The members say that this is not by chance, but rather a thoughtful, collective approach deeply guided by producer alaska B.
“We strictly workshopped traditional kulintang music during the early days of Pantayo,” says Cruz. “That was very fundamental to the sound that we were able to develop later. We started imagining and experimenting with sounds that were familiar to us like pop and R&B. I guess it was natural for us to gravitate towards these vibes because of our musical influences. It also made making music together so much more fun.” A grant awarded by the Ontario Arts Council to fund their first album made them even more determined to make music that says something with its sound. “We were fortunate enough to be able to work with producer alaska B for our album project and she became instrumental in helping us determine our purpose and what was authentic to us, sonically, personally and together as one unit. It became clear that integrating our musical influences were necessary for us to create music with conviction.”
This conviction has led them to delve deeply into the roots of their sound. During a recent visit to Manila, Kat E. met with Aga Mayo Butocan, a professor and pioneer in transcribing kulintang music at Diliman, the University of the Philippines.
“Ma’am Aga—as she is warmly referred to by her students—explained that the primary purpose of kulintang, based on the Maguindanao Indigenous culture, is for self-relaxation and expression, while also fulfilling a need for playing with and for the community. To see the connection between her teaching and our art-making felt affirming. It feels freeing to know that as long as we are respectful, and learn traditional kulintang pieces as our foundation, that we can add our own influences on it. We use instruments which are visibly Filipino, but how we use them speaks to our different experiences.”
These diverse influences include Delos Reyes’ love of everything from punk and post-punk to girl bands like Destiny’s Child, Cruz’s childhood love of quiet storm R&B and new wave, and Estacio’s love for house, ASMR and new passion for merengue, reggaeton and Latinx pop.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that the music that I grew up with, and the music that I create right now exists because of the contributions of Black people to pop music,” says Estacio. “Blues, rock, R&B, hip-hop, soul, funk, techno, experimental music, jazz, and more all came from Black culture. Even though I did not see Black people in my local community (in Manila) growing up, the influence reached my ears through pop music. I remember listening to my dad’s favourite mixtapes that featured Toto, Starship, and Grand Funk Railroad. I also remember listening to Filipino artists like Smokey Mountain, Asin, and Aegis.”
The album’s songs are sung in Tagalog and English, and were inspired by everything from pain and love to resistance, trauma, hope, and growth, says Cruz. And these powerful stories and mercurial sounds are resonating beyond themselves and their community, including recently making Canada’s Polaris Music Prize long-list.
“It’s been refreshing to see that our music is reaching non-English, heck, even non-Tagalog speaking communities,” continues Estacio. “I love how music is able to do that, and I feel pretty proud to be able to start conversations beyond the confines of language. Whenever I see reviews that seem like they don’t understand what we were doing, I remind myself that it’s actually a good thing—that those are helpful notes to consider when we make more music down the road. The bigger picture here is that we have made a valiant effort in making our voices heard with this record, during a pandemic no less. It’s been a long journey and we’re so glad that people are listening and grooving to it and are able to relate.”