When I met Mervin Clyde Cañanes, known as MC amongst his friends and family, in 2015, I quickly knew he was a musician. We met at a small conference that our organization was hosting at our hub in Tacloban City, Philippines. During breaks for transitions and meals or after the day’s events were over, I would always find him with guitar in hand, and at least a handful of others gathered around singing worship songs.
Now let me be the first to admit that I don’t even register on the scales that measure musical prowess. But what I did recognize about MC and the music that he and his friends were playing was that it was exclusively in English. They had learned popular worship songs from the Hillsong movement stemming out of Australia and songs of popular American worship artists.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon in the Philippines. Every church you visit, whether in metropolitan Manila or Cebu or the the rural provinces, you will find that people have learned songs in what is often their third or fourth language of English. In fact, over the course of the 12 years I’ve been visiting the Philippines, this is an increasingly popular trend.
Particularly in Leyte, the island where MC lives, he tells me that music being written or performed in their first language of Waray is hard to come by. Waray is fifth in the line of the most common regional native languages to the Philippines. Musicians are writing in the more widely spoken languages, such as Tagalog or Cebuano, in order to appeal to broader audiences across the Philippines. “There are actually a few artists that have recorded Waray songs, but then it turns out that they struggle in making their songs known throughout the Philippines,” MC said.
But MC has a different drive. His concern is less about producing music in a language because of its broader appeal. He wants to produce music in Waray for those he knows in his community, with those whom he worships. He takes pride in his language. There is something unique and powerful in being able to connect with the LORD in one’s own language. In the same way we pray in our own language, so an intimate experience like worshipping in song should be available in one’s own tongue.
“Writing songs in Waray, for me, speaks something about identity and privilege,” MC reflected when I asked him about why he feels driven to write in Waray. He recognizes that people identify with music in their own language and that everyone should have the privilege of having music in their own language.
When MC took on an internship this past year with our organization, one of the components of the internship was to learn more about media production, particularly video and audio production. He has used this outlet to, among other things, produce a few video recordings of worship songs he has written in Waray.
While languages are fluid over time, even the popularity of one language over another, MC is finding a real ministry opportunity in producing worship music for those in his proximity to sing during worship moments. And seeing the energy in the room when the Waray people sing in their own language communicates that powerful connection between language and musical expression.