David Byrne & the Filipino Dictators

I groaned when I first read that rocker turned postmodern artist, David Byrne, had written a musical about Imelda Marcos titled Here Lies Love. Does the world really need another de-politicized musical ala Evita? The musical premiered at the 2006 Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia. Byrne collaborated with British DJ Fatboy Slim to produce the musical. The Adelaide Arts Festival described the production this way:

“A non-stop party, featuring politicians, arms dealers, financiers, artists, musicians and the international jet set. Here Lies Love recreates and musically updates that buoyant mood in a music and theatrical event that hits the highs, the lows, the triumphs, the tears and the eventual fall of this truly astounding political figure.”

It’s not often that a fascist tyrant is described as a “truly astounding political figure.”

Byrne’s official website states that his works are “often described as elevating the mundane or the banal to the level of art, creating icons out of everyday materials to find the sacred in the profane.” There was nothing mundane about life under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos – except perhaps the monotonous regularity of political repression, and there certainly wasn’t anything sacred about Imelda – a woman who traveled around the world to shop at the ritziest boutiques while thousands of political prisoners rotted in her husband’s dungeons.

“Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?
Fa-fa-fa-fa, fa-fa-fa-fa-fa, fa, better
Run, run, run, run, run, run, run away.”

The two ran the Philippines as potentates, creating a government of cronies that was nothing more than a cleptocracy. The people suffered massive human rights abuses under the rule of Ferdinand and Imelda, while the two plundered an estimated $20 billion of the nation’s wealth for personal gain.

Tens of thousands of Filipinos were jailed, forced into exile, or simply murdered. All of that misery eventually caused the people to rise in revolution.

The final straw came when the dictatorship assassinated Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, a prominent opposition politician. On August 21st, 1983, Ninoy returned home from exile, but as soon as he disembarked from his plane at Manila International Airport he was shot and killed, with his murder broadcast on Philippine television. His killing unleashed the forces that would topple the Marcos regime. In 1986, the non-violent People Power Revolution would sweep the dictatorship away as millions of Filipinos took to the streets, driving Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos into exile.

People Power Revolution in the Philippines, Feb. 1986. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Joey de Vera.

As the people took over Malacañang palace where Marcos had ruled, they were shocked at the ostentatious display of wealth.

There were warehouses full of jewels, artworks, gifts, and tribute. Ornate rooms existed for nightly banquets, along with an entire ballroom where Imelda could pass the evening singing karaoke with her rich guests.

And of course there was Imelda’s personal collection of expensive shoes. 3,000 pairs of her shoes were housed in a special five room area of the presidential palace… all at a time when the majority of Filipino children went barefoot and hungry.

According to the organizers of the Adelaide Arts Festival, Here Lies Love focuses on Imelda’s obsessive love of discos, a viewpoint that will no doubt humanize the face of one of history’s worst despots. In all fairness, Adelaide organizers say the musical is a “timeless story with more contemporary resonances than are comfortable.” But that single sentence plucked from the musical’s official press release is the only shred of evidence Here Lies Love may be more than a glitzy production with smoke and strobe light effects.

That the musical is supported by the US State Department should tell you everything you need to know. During the cold war the US backed the fanatically anti-communist Marcos, even as he extinguished the last vestiges of democratic rule. Washington’s cozy relationship with the tyrants in Manila ultimately caused Filipinos to speak of the “US Marcos dictatorship.” This is not likely to be included in Byrne’s myopic look at history, hence the US State Department seal of approval.

I think the world’s people have heard enough about Imelda and her damn shoes. David Byrne could have better spent his talent writing a tribute to Ninoy Aquino, the man who gave his life to bring democracy to the Philippines.

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