‘Packaging’ Talent: Agents and the Infrastructure of Overseas Filipino Musicianship in Asia

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Across a diverse range of entertainment and leisure venues across Asia, Filipino musicians occupy the center stage. Their dominance as cover entertainers in Asia—whether as show bands in cruise ships and clubs, lounge duos in hotel lobbies, or classically trained performers in specialised theme parks—has been explained in the context of a distinctly ‘Filipino’ facility for musical expressiveness and mimickry (Bowe, 2005; Watkins, 2009). Coupled with narratives of chronic poverty in the homeland and endemic uncertainty in the sector of professional musicianship, this knack for cover performance renders the ubiquity of the migrant Filipino musician predictable and natural.

Going beyond these popular discourses of cultural proclivity and economic necessity, I argue that overseas Filipino musicianship, as a distinct form of migrant cultural labor, can be better understood in terms of its hidden infrastructure—the mundane, behind-thescenes workings of agents who recruit, train, promote, and represent Filipino musicians in overseas markets for live musical entertainment. Agents facilitate the institutional channels
through which Filipino musicians cross borders; moreover, they provide overseas employers with a ready, steady flow of cheap yet high-quality labor for a specialized performance niche by actively managing migrant musicians’ modes of performance, dress, behavior, and conduct for overseas consumption. In consolidating a vast socio-technicalaesthetic assemblage of bodies, technologies, and cultural and economic capital, agents act as crucial hubs (Kiwan and Meinhof, 2011) that ‘package’ Filipino musical talent to meet and in some ways shape the demands of a distinctly transnational cultural market.

My paper will draw from in-depth interviews with seven agents who have each been training, recruiting, and promoting Filipino musicians in cruise ships, clubs, and hotels in Asia for at least 20 years, collectively managing over 500 migrant musicians. By exploring the linkages and fissures of their individual experiences, I hope to foreground the common infrastructure that enables two seemingly disparate sectors of work—cultural labor and migrant labor—to overlap in a performance niche that has become distinctly ethnicized as ‘Filipino’.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2013
EventMigration Infrastructure in Asia and the Middle East - National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore
Duration: 22 Aug 201323 Aug 2013


WorkshopMigration Infrastructure in Asia and the Middle East
OtherAsia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
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