In the darkness, with only a flicker of a candle, I see Jess Santiago strumming his guitar. He has long grey hair. He is wearing glasses and a simple loose brown shirt. The soft light conceals his wrinkles, but not the defiance in his eyes.
He starts to sing with all of his soul, as he always does, and, as everyone who hears him, I am moved.
I am moved not just by the voice that has reverberated around the globe, but by every word in a song he has woven on the fabric of the struggles of ordinary people.
Jess Santiago, more fondly known as Koyang Jess to his friends and comrades, is a respected Filipino musician, artist, songwriter and Asian public intellectual.
Jess Santiago. Photo by Sepbluesman.
I am watching a short video of him produced by Red Ants Production. It was ‘made to defy and circumvent his deportation and that of four other Filipino activists’ by the South Korean government on 6 November 2010.
Santiago went to South Korea to attend the parallel People’s Conference on the G20 Summit, a huge gathering of giant economies, to be held on 11-12 November.
But at the airport, Santiago and four other activists – Joseph Purugganan of Focus on the Global South, Lorena Macabuag of Migrant Forum in Asia, Joshua Mata of the Alliance of Progressive Labor and Roger Soluta of the Kilusang Mayo Uno – were denied entry to South Korea, held for more than two hours and deported back to Manila on the same day.
For a song, indeed, Santiago was barred from entering Seoul. It was a short, soulful song that the G20, a group of the world’s most powerful nations, did not want to hear.
‘I wonder why the South Korean government and the G20 prevented me from playing this song in Seoul. It is quite ironic that the G20, a grouping of powerful and influential nations, would be afraid of songs,’ Santiago says in the video.
Santiago’s Filipino version of Achim Iseul (The Morning Dew) by South Korean songwriter Kim Minggi is the song that the G20 did not want to hear:
grass wet with dew
more beautiful than pearls
Sorrow clings to my heart
like morning dew
and morning on the hill
teaches me to smile
over the graveyard
the sun is a rising flame
the scorching heat
tests my resolve
I will go
to that wild field
I will throw away all sorrow
I will go
(English translation by Sanghee Lee)
Santiago hopes that through the video, he can ‘convey my message of peace and solidarity to all of those gathered in Seoul, challenging the G20 and resisting policies that threaten the lives of ordinary peoples. I also hope that a lot more people will be able to hear and appreciate these songs and be inspired to dream of and work towards a more just and humane world.’
He dreams that someday, he will ‘be given the chance to play his songs in Seoul and eat kimchi with friends and comrades’.
Koyang Jess will wait for this moment and he will not tire of waiting – because over the graveyard the sun, indeed, is a rising flame.