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Pantayo - Pantayo Music Album Reviews

The innovative Toronto kulintang ensemble’s debut album is a hybrid of traditional Philippine gongs, electronic production, and Western pop influences.

In the southern Philippines, kulintang music is played by multiple Indigenous groups, including the Maguindanoan and T’boli peoples, during ceremonial and everyday events like weddings and village homecomings. Named after its main instrument, a set of eight knobbed gongs laid on a wooden rack similar to a xylophone, it’s often accompanied by other gongs (gandingan, sarunay, agung) and a drum called a dabakan. Traditionally considered a women’s instrument, kulintang ensembles in the country today include both men and women. When the music was introduced to North American audiences in the 1970s and ’80s, though, it was played primarily by male artists like Danongan “Danny” Kalanduyan and Usopay Cadar.

For the Toronto-based all-women collective Pantayo, who describe themselves as “lo-fi R&B gong punk,” kulintang is a vehicle for exploring their identities and experiences as queer diasporic Filipinas. The group’s five members—Eirene Cloma, Michelle Cruz, Joanna Delos Reyes, and sisters Kat and Katrina Estacio—switch between instruments and share vocal duties, delivering lyrics in English and Tagalog. Produced by alaska B of Canadian operatic rockers Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, with whom Pantayo previously collaborated on the soundtrack to the 2016 indie game Severed, the quintet’s self-titled debut is the result of several years spent honing their sound in Toronto’s arts centers and music venues. Blending atonal traditional percussion, electronic production, and Western influences including synth-pop, R&B, and punk, these eight tracks are joyful, resilient, and wholly contemporary.
In the hands of lesser musicians, the hybrid of styles might come across as gimmicky, but over an economical 28 minutes, Pantayo prove adept at deconstructing genres and building something new with seemingly disparate parts. These songs never rest in one place for long, frequently shifting tempos midway to encourage spontaneous movement. Pantayo’s gongs often feel like additional vocalists, thrumming and conversing with one another as they oscillate between meditative and frenetic rhythms. Opener “Eclipse” begins with a simple kick drum, bass, and gently chiming gongs, before introducing cooing R&B harmonies. Instrumental centerpiece “Bronsé” creeps and reverberates, and the first half of “Bahala Na” floats like an Angelo Badalamenti dream and then descends into a cacophonous psychedelic freakout.

Unlike their previous recordings, Pantayo incorporates vocals, and serves as a love letter to the pop and hip-hop acts that the group grew up with. “Sometimes when I play kulintang ‘riffs’ I am reminded of some pop song I’ve heard and then this idea drives me to hum along with the melody of that song,” band member Katrina Estacio said. During a recent DJ set for Zoom-based queer dance party Club Quarantine, Pantayo paired their own tracks with selections by Missy Elliott and Canadian neo-soul singer Remy Shand. It’s not hard to draw a line between Shand’s 2001 hit “Take a Message” and Pantayo’s self-love ballad “Divine,” which pushes gongs to the background in favor of soulful vocals. Warped four-on-the-floor highlight “Heto Na,” inspired by OPM (Original Pilipino Music) disco songs from the ’70s, celebrates the dancefloor as a safe space for community to gather and be themselves, instructing listeners, “Pakapalan no mukha” (“Own up to that funky shit”).

As their platform grows, Pantayo continue to amplify other queer and diasporic voices, while challenging themselves and their audiences to consider their participation in colonial, patriarchal, and heteronormative systems. On Pantayo, they engage serious topics with the guidance of producer alaska B, who suggested they keep the “vibe a little light.” The record’s most exhilarating moments come when addictive choruses meet undercurrents of rage and frustration, as on the electro-pop anthem “V V V (They Lie).” Though the band likens the song’s varied textures to a glass of bubble tea, there’s nothing sweet about the implied story of street harassment at its center. The narrator hears a passerby say, “Fuck you/Really, really fuck you,” but they choose to roll their eyes and walk on, knowing the culprit is unlikely to fess up. And with the furious rap-punk of “Taranta,” Pantayo sound ready to call bullshit and rally together in sisterhood. It’s only fitting that their name means “for us” in Tagalog—they know they’re stronger together than apart.

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