by Levy Abad
“I’m leaving you tomorrow. I’m heading for the prairie,
I’m taking all my memories of the seasons with your smile
I’m heading there to write my song and sing about a better life
In a place where peace and justice and compassion all abound”
“Heading to Manitoba” is a song that I wrote months before I left Mississauga for Winnipeg. I tried to put my experiences in a song, as this is the only way I can assert myself and contribute socially. In Mississauga, I worked as loader in one of the logistics businesses, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., breaking down paper skids, sorting, and loading. I had to wrap a minimum of 20 pallets, monitor the conveyor lines to load the trucks that delivered the goods to different points of Ontario and other places. I did not really have complaints; actually, I enjoyed the job. Its only repercussion was the negative impact on my health. And this made me entertain a question that I had before: “How long can I do this; I’m not getting any younger?”
During work time, I used to look at the boxes and wonder when I would be able to lecture again and talk about isms and social issues like I did in the old country. I remember being a part of the social movement and how I was always engaged in the politics of human rights and democracy for the marginalized. I helped out with farmers’ issues back then: calling for land reforms, lowering of land rents, campaigns against GMOs. I also helped with workers’ calls for increasing minimum wage and their struggle against contractualization, environmental destruction, government corruption, and other third-world issues that many Canadians are not familiar with.
In Mississauga, I remember being mostly asleep at daytime as I have to regain strength for graveyard shift. When my kids were still small, my wife was the one looking after them. I was the breadwinner of the family, and we managed to survive from paycheck to paycheck. Saturdays were devoted to volunteer work, helping out with a migrant organization by singing and writing songs; and at times, I helped out with discussions on Filipino history and migrants issues and concerns like the murder of Jocelyn Dulnuan (a live-in-caregiver) and the case of Juana Tejada (who was diagnosed with cancer and was about to be sent home despite her having completed her residency requirements. If not for the campaign to stop the second medical test, she could have been sent home). In both cases, we were successful in advocating for their rights. I have the experience of going to different places in Ontario, to research on the varied conditions of Filipino migrants. My music brought me to Ottawa for a migrant’s concert and also to Montreal for a solidarity concert. Migrant stories inspired me to write songs such as “Para kay Ellen, Jocelyn, Sol, and Juana,” which was used also as a musical score in the award-winning documentary “Baby Not Mine” by Shashah Nakhai. That period, I realized that, to be able to assume a leadership role in the community, one has to improve first his economic situation. Since I was still struggling that time, I managed to contribute my time by giving songwriting workshops and talks on history of migration. As if these were not enough, I also attended studies on the scripture and shared ideas on theology of liberation, played the guitar, and sang at church on Sunday mornings.
One time, a friend told me, “It’s good that you still have time for writing songs, but no time for politics.” Actually, there is politics in songs; and whether you like it or not, songs are political. I told my friend that most of my songs are topical or sociopolitical in nature. What I like about songs is that they are affective and effective in articulating the issues of the day. Songs that tackle policies on migration and how to transform a situation to a better one, anti-war songs, songs dealing with human rights, and songs about justice and compassion.
Fast forward to 2013, I have released an album whose theme is human rights, entitled Canadian Experience vol. 1 (Tagalog album). I followed this up in the early part of 2014 with the second album, Never Give Up (Canadian Experience vol. 2). Recently, I released my third album, Rhythms of Compassion (Canadian Experience vol. 3), featuring my originals songs such as “Stand Up for Your Rights,” “Souls Taken Away” (a song about the residential school system), “Daughter She Can’t Find” (a tribute to the murdered and missing indigenous women and girls), and “We Are Migrants” (summing up the history of migration in the province). I was fortunate to have been invited to perform many of my songs at the Rights Fest on the opening weekend of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. In addition to this, part of my volunteer work in the Winnipeg Multicultural Human Rights Forum is to coordinate events, where I also get to perform my songs. Aside from being an expression of my social sentiments and commentaries, my music is also my way of giving back to the community.
Just like how I started my article, I would end this with one of the verses of my song:
“Heading down to Manitoba with a guitar and a song
I bring my heart and soul to Winnipeg to heal and to be strong
I’m heading down to Manitoba, and sing about a better life
And write the best lines of the lyrics of the story of my life
In the land and the spirit of the great Louis Riel.”
* Based in Winnipeg, Levy Abad is a freelance writer who also dabbles in songwriting/singing. He has released three full-length studio albums of original materials.