Ang Kawawang Cowboy: strains of yee-haw in Philippine pop culture history

Your memelord friend is into it. Your high-fashion friend is into it. Your sad indie music friend is also weirdly into it too. Whether you like it or not, the Yee-haw Agenda is here to stay until the next big change in the cultural tides.

The writing was on the wall from the moment our corporate tech overlords introduced the cowboy hat emoji. A lot of international artists, especially among people of color and those who identify with the LGBT community, have co-opted the cowboy aesthetic. The inherent campiness behind it definitely has an appeal, perhaps because the minorities that have consistently been othered by rampant backward philosophies could find comfort in the classic Americana style. A yearning for simpler times. Amidst the chunky sneakers, tiny shades, and large pants of the Y2K aesthetic, Yee-haw wave turns the clock back further. Pre-internet, hell, pre-industrial complex. Going back into these themes holds a promise. A promise for a narrative that’s more inclusive to those who didn’t get the representation they deserve.

But what about us as Filipinos? Is there something about Americana we can connect to?

We’ve definitely had a historically complex relationship with the United States. When it comes to culture though, it’s indisputable that their film, television, clothing, and music has acted as benchmarks for our own. And it seems that at a certain point in time, the mid-century Filipino could have loved the cowboy aesthetic as much as Lil Nas X does today.

In the 1960s, the Spaghetti Western was all the rage here as it was in the international scene. While Americans had Clint Eastwood, we had FPJ. Before his inevitable venture into politics, Fernando Poe Jr. left a rich filmography that defined an era of local cinema. One of his lesser known films, Armando A. Herrera’s Alamat ng 7 Kilabot, has been lauded by those more familiar with his work. Taking heavy cues from the Japanese epic Seven Samurai, it’s a perfect example of a Filipinized retelling of a classic tale. The film was also an early iteration of that thing when an action film stars multiple known leading men, à la The Expendables. FPJ starred alongside Joseph Estrada, Bob Soler, and Jess Lapid, all of whom made careers as top-billed actors in Filipino action films. It’s strange to see that half of these men ran for president, and one actually succeeded. Before they found any seats of power, they sat comfortably in the saddles of their horses.

 

Filipinos, in our own right, have a claim on Yee-haw culture as much as anyone else.

 

Then in the 1970s came Fred Panopio. He made some appearances in these Westerns, but we probably know him better by his music. He has an immense catalog to show for, filled with wistful love songs that he croons and yodels over. There’s karaoke go-to and anthem of camp, Kawawang Cowboy. Surprisingly, his lyrical matter doesn’t stray away from the taboo. In AIDS Doesn’t Matter (Because I Love You), he professes his love for an entertainer in Olongapo. He claims that the stigma around her status as a woman with AIDS will not stop him from loving her. Then there is the creepily ambiguous Ibig Ko Ay Bata that boasts lines like “Kailan magwawakas ang iyong pagtatago / Ako’y naghihintay sa ‘yo.” This was before cancel-culture, and no one can really answer for this. It just goes to show a snippet of the strange, dark past of Philippine music and showbiz.

Beyond pop culture, there are some people who have such a devotion for cowboy culture past any trends or novelties. The men and women of Masbate have dedicated their lifestyles to that of a red-blooded Filipino koboy. Cattle are a main source of livelihood in the province, and the tradition of the rodeo remains alive and well — complete with the hats, boots, and lassos. The koboys of Masbate are the real McCoy, showing that Filipinos, in our own right, have a claim on Yee-haw culture as much as anyone else. The rodeo isn’t just a tourist attraction too, it’s a space for competition, where many hone their skills in handling cattle. In one category, cattle are pinned down and tied up by four-men teams in a situation not unlike real life. There’s even the ubiquitous bull-riding category. It’s not for the faint of heart. Usually, no blood is shed, but it requires some tolerance for moderate animal cruelty.

After this brief crash course on the Filipino cowboy aesthetic, I had my own conflicting feelings. There doesn’t seem to be much sense in romanticising something that has some deeply problematic aspects, but maybe that’s the point. In the American frontier, racism was blatant and black ranchers were widely erased from history. Now with Solange donning shiny cowboy boots, and Lil Nas X teaming up with Billy Ray Cyrus, black people get to reclaim the iconography. Similarly, we get to rewrite the narrative of the Filipino cowboy beyond the face of any infamous politician plastered on a movie poster, or questionable subject matter in song. Beyond our impostor syndrome with American culture. This generation has the chance to radically and unapologetically — bida cowboy.

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