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  • Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities. Poetics, Society, and History by Herminia Meñez Coben
  • Margaret Capili Magat, Independent Scholar
Verbal Arts in Philippine Indigenous Communities. Poetics, Society, and History. By Herminia Meñez Coben. (Manila, Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2009. Pp. x + 392, acknowledgments, notes, references, index.)

This tour-de-force from a Filipina folklorist is a fascinating and welcome analysis of the verbal poetics of indigenous groups from the coastal, inland, and mountain areas of the Philippine archipelago. The work takes a much-deserving subject, the verbal art of ten ethnic groups (the Isneg, Kalinga, Ifugao, Kankanay, Mangyan, Subanon, Bukidnon, Bagobo, Tausug, and Sama Dilaut) and illustrates the centrality of this lore in the social life of the communities, with the addition of a historical context that accounts for the impact of colonial encounters that in turn affected the performance and content of myth, narratives, epics, and chants. Folklore—in this case, the verbal poetics of indigenous peoples—reveal the often violent impact of historical and social change, and as Coben adeptly illustrates, the verbal artists themselves are not just active bearers of tradition but also "agents of cultural change" who balance "the new with the old, while charting a new course for the future" (p. 359).

A graduate of University of Pennsylvania's Folklore and Folklife department, Coben's training in performance theory and aesthetics along with her insights into gender politics and understanding of Philippine history within the Southeast Asian context combine to create a fine analysis that considers the role of women, as well as men, in the poetic lore of the ten groups. The beginning prologue of the book discusses the prevailing opinion among Filipino writers and other scholars about the "insignificance" of Philippine poetry and oral traditions, and it lays the challenge that Coben sets out to refute. And this she does, and with aplomb. Each chapter begins with an overview of the ethnic group, preceded by a short example of their verbal art. Coben then deftly combines a background incorporating history, economy, politics, and social organization with a strong sense of place, followed by a comparative analyses of the verbal poetics of the group in question vis-à-vis the narrative lore of the other groups.

Her broad knowledge of Philippine history allowed Coben to fine-tune her analyses. For example, noting that the Bagobo political organization was a traditional leadership not based on lineage or inherited wealth, that a chief came from a warrior class called magani, Coben writes how this political tradition was kept in place by the Spanish only to be altered drastically by Americans who chose one regional ruler or datu who was given a bigger area to govern. This was the system in place when American scholars studying Bagobo culture arrived in the early twentieth century, and it was thus erroneously understood as "hereditary chieftainship" (p. 265). Such an example reveals the need to analyze traditions with the context of political-economy and social changes, of which Menez is keenly aware.

It is precisely because such well-textured analysis comes from the insights of the author that this reader would have appreciated a short inclusion of the author's background, as it could [End Page 222] have imparted further insight into the interpretation of the material. Although it was obvious that the material being analyzed was in part from the painstaking research of numerous catalogues and private collections, it was not clear if Coben herself witnessed a few of these ceremonies or if she visited some of the places. If so, how did these observations play a role in the description as well as choice of the ten ethnic groups' cultural expressions?

The book is a good choice for advanced seminars in narrative, or classes on Southeast Asian cultures and history, and it could also be utilized in women's studies and, of course, in folklore courses. However, if included in a beginning Asian folklore class, it should be supplemented by explanatory texts on the tools of folklorists, such as genre and the use of the motif index, as basic understanding of common folklore terms needs to be in existence to fully grasp the...


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