FILIPINIANA | IDENTITY

Battle of the wits, Balagtasan style

Michelle Baltazar

Forget rap battles and lipsync battles, Filipinos in the 18th century practiced a far more sophisticated literary expression called ‘Balagtasan’ and one group of Filipino migrants hopes to revive this practice even for one day in Sydney next month.

Balagtasan is named after a poet who was arguably the Philippine equivalent of William Shakespeare in his heydays, Francisco Balagtas. He was a master at creating poems in the ‘awit’ form. While the word means ‘song’ in today’s language, it used to refer to a poem with the following characteristics:

  1. four lines per stanza;
  2. twelve syllables per line;
  3. an assonantal rhyme scheme of A-A-A-A
  4. a slight pause (caesura) on the sixth syllable;
  5. each stanza is usually a complete, grammatically correct sentence;
  6. each stanza has figures of speech (Balagtas used 28 types of figures of speech in his epic work ‘Florante at Laura’)

To put that in modern-day context, Balagtas was so good at his craft that Kanye West and Jay-Z got nothin’ on his verbal jousting skills.

Not that it’s a competition but the traditional practice of Balagtasan is indeed an extemporaneous debate where both sides argue their case in rhyme and in verse. A panel of judges then decide who is the winning team based on their reason, rhyme and delivery.

In the Philippines, where learning the Filipino language is part of the school curriculum, young kids get to practice this old artform, giving them a taste of what public speaking is like but also a better appreciation and knowledge of the national language.

But what about in Australia where it is not mandatory for Filipinos to learn their dialect at school or even at home?

The Tagalog Association of Australia in Sydney has decided to pose that question to the public in a free Balagtasan event to be held on Saturday, August 27 at the Max Webber Library in Blacktown (see poster for details).

A four-person debate team will argue for and against the idea of teaching Filipino-Australians who were born here or grew up here their native language: Dapat ba o hindi dapat turuan ang ating mga anak ng wikang Tagalog? (Loosely translates to ‘Should we teach our children how to speak Tagalog?’)

The community is invited to support the occasion, which the TAA is organising, with the support of the Philippine Consulate, to commemorate the ‘Buwan ng Wika’ (National Language Month). In the Philippines, schools all around the country organise their own events to celebrate the Filipino language in August.

To reserve your seat, contact Lillian de los Reyes on 0416 027 467 or any of the other TAA members listed in the poster.

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