David Byrne & the Filipino Dictators

[ Back in October of 2005, I composed an essay about Here Lies Love, a musical produced by postmodernist artist and ex-member of the Talking Heads, David Byrne. I originally intended to publish my article next March when the musical premieres at the 2006 Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia, however recent events have caused me to immediately publish the expose.

On February 24, 2006, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo declared a state of emergency in her nation – the very day the Filipino people were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the democratic People Power movement that non-violently toppled the fascist regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Arroyo now rules by decree, and she has revoked all permits for demonstrations, banned rallies and allowed arrests without warrants. She has also given herself the power to seize media outlets and to direct the army to crush political opponents. In defiance, former President and leader of the People Power movement, Corazon Aquino, led a march of thousands to a shrine commemorating the People Power protests – and they were met with riot police who brutally attacked them with clubs and water cannons. As Arroyo drags the Philippines back into the dark days of martial law, it’s time to examine the rewriting of history being offered by David Byrne’s, Here Lies Love. My original article, written in October of 2005, now follows:]

I groaned when I first read that rocker turned postmodernist artist, David Byrne, has written a musical about Imelda Marcos. Does the world really need another de-politicized musical ala Evita? Byrne collaborated with British DJ Fatboy Slim to produce, Here Lies Love, which will premiere next March at the 2006 Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia. A spokesperson for the festival says the musical depicts “a non-stop party, featuring politicians, arms dealers, financiers, artists, musicians and the international jetset. 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 the artist’s 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. The two ran the Philippines like 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. 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 twitter away the night 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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