Melissa Orquiza: Leadership Keynote at Global FWN100™ Awards Gala, 2015 Filipina Leadership Global Summit San Francisco

Melissa Orquiza (Global FWN100™ '15) is a distinguished composer and musician for Walt Disney Studios. Among her original song writing credits is McFarland, USA by Walt Disney Studios, starring Kevin Costner.  Melissa was selected to deliver the Leadership Keynote at the Global FWN100™ Awards Gala on October 30th, 2015 at the Marines' Memorial Club and Hotel in San Francisco.

Thank you Filipina Women’s Network for this wonderful event tonight.  Special thanks to my family and especially my uncle, Jesus Disini, who traveled from the Philippines to attend.

Thank you also to Marily Mondejar, Gloria Caoile, Thelma Boac, the FWN Board, the volunteers, mentors, and my fellow awardees for bringing together a community that can openly discuss and problem solve some of the most polarizing issues facing Filipina women today .

I am deeply honored to speak on behalf of my fellow awardees- many of whom traveled from as far away as Israel, Norway, Switzerland, and Dubai.

Please allow yourselves the honor to be celebrated and recognized. Fellow FWN awardees, please stand and let’s applaud their achievements.

When I received the email from Gloria Caoile to apply for this nomination, I did not realize how much FWN would affect change in my own day-to-day life. As a musician and composer working in the entertainment industry, I can tell you from 14 years of experience,  that Hollywood does not deal well with sexism, ageism, and racism for fear of economic or socioeconomic reprisal.  Hollywood’s biggest stars including Jennifer Lawrence, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, and Angelina Jolie have criticized the entertainment industry for its gender- based economic inequity.  SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, has addressed this issue of female ageism by giving its members “transitioning classes” for actresses that are hitting the ripe age of 30.  It’s not only sexism and ageism that plague Hollywood. The industry’s struggles for ethnic diversity, unfortunately, still include Asian caricatures of the “dragon lady,” “the submissive doll” or the “nerdy friend.” This sexist, ageist, and racist status quo permeates every sector of entertainment. Affecting change as an Asian American female composer thus is a deeply personal question.

FWN has helped solidify this advocacy.  In the beginning stages of my career, I grappled with what was expected of me from multiple external factors—my family, my Filipino upbringing, my American workplace, Hollywood (which is its own unique beast) and my diverse group of friends.  I am sure many of you in the crowd can surely relate. How did I resolve to balance these expectations, this advocacy, and preserve my own artistic voice? Let me tell you a bit about myself.

First off, I’m a composer.  Do you know of any female composers? We exist but we are definitely not mainstream.  Secondly, do you know of any Filipino female classical composers, dead or alive? We have songwriters, but we classical composers are a rare breed.   I know that they are out there and I know I can’t be the only one in classical music.  I have looked for them in university music departments, musicians unions, film screenings. Am I alone or does this allude to the issue of ethnic solidarity?

As a Filipina American composer working in entertainment, my biggest musical frustration is the lack of a popularly recognized Filipino “classical concert composer.” The closest we have is Nicanor Abelardo, who is known for his native arts songs.  He lived from 1893 to 1934.

Let me repeat that for you. He lived from 1893 to 1934. It has been almost one hundred years since a strong, iconic, classical, Filipino composer was recognized in the concert world.  By comparison, almost every Asian country has a LIVING classical composer who has written symphonic works that have been played by orchestras around the world. (Tan Dun, China; Ryuichi Sakamoto, Japan; Narong Prangcharoen, Thailand; and many more.)

Melissa Orquiza (Global FWN100™ '15) and family pictured with Filipina Women's Network's Elena Mangahas, Board Chair, Susie Quesada, President and Marily Mondejar, CEO at the Global FWN100™ Awards Gala, 12th Filipina Leadership Global Summit, October 29th, 2015, San Francisco, California.

Melissa Orquiza (Global FWN100™ '15) and family pictured with Filipina Women's Network's Elena Mangahas, Board Chair, Susie Quesada, President and Marily Mondejar, CEO at the Global FWN100™ Awards Gala, 12th Filipina Leadership Global Summit, October 29th, 2015, San Francisco, California.

I thought more seriously about this issue when I realized the recent growth of Filipina American writers in literature such as Mia Alvar and Jessica Hagedorn. The literary world has wholly embraced the immigrant narrative from the Philippines. Why has the classical music community failed to do the same?  Was the lack of Filipino composers never addressed within the Filipino community? The more I dug, the more I realized the answers of what constitutes Filipino music or native Filipino music led to more questions. The question was not just about the anthropological study of Filipino ethnomusicology, but encompassed bigger questions concerning immigration, colonization, assimilation, racism, and social stratification.

There is an interesting quote from, The ‘Round the World Traveller by D.E. Lorenz, PHD from 1925, that insightfully described how Filipinos were perceived at the time Nicanor Abelardo was composing.


Please keep this all in mind while I continue.

As a Filipina, grappling with cultural identity in the arts, my biggest strength is my insatiable curiosity. I feel that the problem solving skills in mathematics, neuroscience, and science, apply completely to the complexities of the musical arts. Hence, my biggest musical problem I’ve encountered.

Two years ago, while accompanying my mother to attend my uncle’s funeral in Quezon City, I arranged to visit the music department library at the University of the Philippines, Diliman. My late uncle was a professor and secretary at the law school and one of the last things he did for me was photocopy hundreds of pages of Filipino songs to play through. As I sat down to study these hundreds of pages, I was becoming increasingly frustrated to see all the songs that were given to me sounded like Spanish cancions and Western songs.  Basically, what constituted Filipino music, according to the collection of the U.P. library, sounded like parodies of Spanish love ballads, tangos, American ragtime, or jazz. Why had the library overlooked indigenous native songs when so many European composers celebrated their folk songs and documented them in classical music?  Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bartok, Liszt, and Chopin all incorporated folk songs and are in the classical music canon. Why hadn't the same thing happened for Filipino classical composers?

I asked myself, should I have gone to a fiesta instead to truly understand Filipino music? Would that have given me a more inclusive representation of the music from a country fraught with cultural disparities? How did a nation that is a haven to so many religions, tribes, and languages have an entire written musical identity distilled into something so elementary? It’s as if you heard a song on the radio, then someone wrote it out for a piano and singer; and those songs were the exemplification of a nation’s musical identity. It’s not only grossly unfair and oversimplified—the questions within the framework of Western classical music weren’t even asked.

Then, I realized the musical infrastructure itself had not supported or encouraged young talented musicians to this classical Western symphonic path, even though the country itself had been ruled by Spain for more than three hundred years. Even Latin American countries, once also colonies of Spain, today have classical, orchestral composers. You don’t have to look far.: Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the LA Phil, is a product of this Spanish classical infrastructure as a native of Venezuela.

The valuation of music in Filipino society was not the primary problem. Almost every Filipino I know can do something musical; it’s the primary way of interacting behind food. Even in the smallest villages, people sing, play the guitar and the piano. Many “untrained” singers have perfect pitch but don’t even realize it. When cruise ships in the mid-twentieth century needed Western music players, they didn’t go to China and Japan. They sought performers from the Philippines because they could feel and play Western music. Then, I realized it immediately.

The problem was lack of opportunity and resources in the Philippines. Talented musicians were getting exported out of the country the same way Filipino workers in healthcare, engineering, service, and labor are today.

With additional research in conjunction with one of the lead scholars in Filipino and US 20th century history, René Alexander Orquiza, Jr. (a Harvard professor who happens to be my little brother), I came to the realization that these questions needed to be asked. Dare we say, they had never been asked critically before.

I am currently working on symphonic transcriptions of native Filipino music, composed, arranged, and translated for symphonic orchestra. Most metropolitan orchestras feature either an Asian composer on their programming or an Asian Cultural celebration. In Los Angeles, the Hollywood Bowl programmed a Filipino Musical Night that consisted of choir, vocalists, and pop groups. The Hollywood Bowl houses two orchestras: the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The question here did not concern resources with the venue. There were no iconic classical Filipino composers whose music they could play.

My hope is that in the future, when symphonies around the world program “Asian” or “Spanish” music, that the Philippines will be included in that dialogue. Why can’t you go to the symphony and see a Filipino composer’s name on the program?

I’m not here to tell the WAY you should affect change.  Every one of these FWN awardees bring their own talents, personalities, and strengths to the Filipina narrative.  I’m here to help you question how you PERSONALLY can affect change. And by that, what is it about YOU that is unique? What has happened to you in the past that has made you stronger? What has happened to your mother, your sister, your grandmother, your aunt, your best friend,  that has helped form the decisions you have made? As an artist , I grapple with these questions everyday. Emotions are universal and integral to good storytelling in movies and television.

From FWN alumni,  Dr. Connie Mariano, who was the physician to Bill Clinton to Keesa Ocampo, the corporate affairs officer for ABS- CBN International and continual philanthropist, to Thelma Boac, one of the few Filipina high school principals in the Bay Area and a leader in civic education, to business woman and grassroots organizer, Marily Mondejar, founding president of the Filipina Women’s Network,  who is currently running for the Democratic county central committee in SF,  to Gloria Caoile, a pioneer in Filipino civil rights, and the founder of the Asian Pacific American Women Leadership Institute, the only national organization dedicated to nurturing and developing leadership skills among Asian American and Pacific Islander women, you do not need to be a filmmaker to communicate what makes us uniquely human and to pass your insight unto the world.

What is it about you that can spark happiness, insight, love, and optimism in others? You need to protect that spark with everything you have.  Do not let others tell you you need to change that spark.  Only you know what is unique to you and oftentimes, it was a hard event that seemed insurmountable but made you the person you are.  Celebrate it. Do not let that fire burn out. That experience, that hurt, that scar is what will give you the strength to affect change. You can affect change everyday by being the best person you can be.

You do not need to be rich, intelligent, famous, or well connected to affect change. You can be a service worker and affect change. You can be a CEO and affect change. You can be a nurse and affect change. You canwork in the police department, like my sister Vanessa,  and affect change. You can be a high school student and affect change.  But, the only way you will have the strength to stand up to the status quo is to know and celebrate what is unique about you. You can be quiet, you can be loud.  You can be aggressive or you can be easy going. There is only one you, and you owe it to yourself, to your family, to your community, and to others to be the best, kindest, strongest, fairest, person you can be. When others see YOU have the strength to question and to follow through, whether you are a CEO or a domestic worker, others around you will question the status quo. You will affect change because YOU ARE CHANGE.

Let me repeat this. You will affect change because YOU ARE CHANGE.

With that said, let’s welcome our leaders of change. The 2015 Global FWN100 awardees.