Did You Know That It’s Illegal to Sing the Philippine National Anthem in Bisaya?

Music has always been a powerful means of communication. It has the ability to transcend language barriers—allowing people to connect and understand one another on a different kind of emotional level. Whether conveying joy, sorrow, or unity, music serves as a universal language that resonates across cultures, fostering a shared human experience.

As such, can music ever be illegal?

While music is a form of artistic expression protected by freedom of speech, certain legal considerations surround its use. For instance, copyright infringement, unauthorized use of intellectual property, or the context in which music is employed.

For one, national anthems, as significant musical expressions, symbolize a country’s traditions, history, and beliefs. They evoke a sense of patriotism among citizens, serving as poignant reminders of a country’s glory, beauty, and rich heritage. It is for this reason that, from a young age, as soon as a child enters school, one of the primary lessons taught is the singing of the national anthem. This aims to ignite a love for one’s country and instill a profound sense of pride in everyone.

However, in 2019, the local government unit of Misamis Oriental faced scrutiny when a video surfaced depicting a flag ceremony where the Philippine national anthem was sung with Bisaya lyrics. Oro Tri Media Government Watch took notice of this deviation and subsequently forwarded a letter to the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP). The concern raised was that such rendition did not align with the provisions outlined in R.A. 8491 and its Implementing Rules and Regulations.

The Flag and Heraldic Code of the Philippines: Here’s Everything You Need to Know About R.A. 8491

Is it illegal to sing the Philippine National Anthem, or Lupang Hinirang, in other languages, like Bisaya?

According to R.A. 8491, or the Flag and Heraldic Code of the Philippines, “reverence and respect shall at all times be accorded to the flag, anthem, and other national symbols which embody the national ideals and transitions and which express the principles of sovereignty and national solidarity.” In Section 20, it is stated that: “The observance of the flag ceremony in official or civic gatherings shall be simple and dignified and shall include the playing or singing of the anthem in its original Filipino lyrics and march tempo.”

It is further stated in Section 36 that: “The National Anthem shall always be sung in the national language within or without the country.” The Chief of the Heraldry Section at the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, Teddy Atienza, also added, “The Lupang Hinirang or National Anthem should only be sung in Filipino. Whatever the translation is from Spanish, the Filipino lyrics should still be sung in the ceremony.”

Under the Penalties of RA8491, “Any person or judicial entity which violates any of the provisions of this Act shall, upon conviction, be punished by a fine of not less than five thousand pesos (5,000.00) or not more than twenty thousand pesos (P20,000.00), or by imprisonment for not more than one (1) year, or both such fine and imprisonment, at the discretion of the court.”

A Quick Look at the History of the Philippine National Anthem

Despite the reminders from the NHCP, the Provincial Government of Misamis Oriental stood firm in its decision to play and sing the Bisaya translation of the Philippine National Anthem. As stated by Capitol Spokesperson Carlo Dugaduga, the Bisaya version of Lupang Hinirang will continue to be sung in official gatherings, such as flag-raising ceremonies, until Governor Yevgeny Emano issues a contrary directive.

He elaborated that singing the national anthem in Bisaya holds greater significance for locals as it allows them to genuinely connect with and comprehend the lyrics of the song. Provincial Board Members President Elipe and Gerardo Sabal III echoed this sentiment, asserting that there is no issue with singing the national anthem in Bisaya. As per Elipe, “That song has been sung ever since I became a member of the City Council way back in 1995. Yan ang ginagamit sa Cagayan de Oro City. It doesn’t necessarily mean that its translation in Bisaya diminishes the patriotism in singing the national anthem. I don’t see any reason why the Historical Commission would disapprove.”

But how did we end up with different versions of the Philippine National Anthem? What’s the story behind these translations?

Back in 1898, Emilio Aguinaldo asked the Filipino musician Julian Felipe to create a “stirring and majestic” instrumental that could be used as a ceremonial national march. As a patriot who had been in prison for joining the revolution alongside the Thirteen Martyrs of Cavite, he took inspiration and demonstrated skill and fervor in composing the Marcha Filipina Magdala, later changed to Marcha Nacional Filipina, also known as Himno Nacional Filipino.

The following year, José Palma penned the poem “Filipinas,” initially meant for publication but eventually adopted as the national anthem’s lyrics. In 1920, during the American colonial period in the Philippines, Camilo Osias, with assistance from A.L. Lane translated the poem into English. Hence the birth of “Land of the Morning,” which became the official lyrics of the Philippine national anthem in 1938.

The first Tagalog translation of Palma’s lyrics was made during the Japanese occupation. “Diwa ng Bayan” was used by the guerilla movement HUKBALAHAP. After that, “O Sintang Lupa” by Balmaceda, Santos, and Caballo was used in 1948, after the US Declaration of Independence.

In the aftermath of WWII, the Philippines began to stand on its own—while still dependent on the United States of America—and as a sovereign nation, using the language of the invader in the national anthem felt inappropriate. So, in 1956, President Magsaysay tasked three Tagalogs with translating José Palma’s poem. Tragically, the president passed away in a plane crash in Cebu on March 17, 1957, before having the opportunity to review and approve the translation.

You see, the translations made bear witness to the Philippines’ history—from Spanish to English and Tagalog. Today, the anthem is sung in Tagalog, with official lyrics translated by Felipe de Leon—a version recognized by the National Flag and Emblem Act.

Unfortunately, many patriots contend that Lupang Hinirang did not faithfully capture the spirit of the original lyrics due to an inaccurate translation. This realization inspired the creation of new lyrics that resonate more authentically with the original composition. One notable version is Jess Vestil’s Cebuano rendition titled “Yutang Tabunon.”

Despite Filipino being recognized as the national language, as stipulated in Section 3 of the 1935 Constitution—a national language “based on one of the existing native languages”—debate persists. This stems from the committee’s recommendation that Tagalog serve as the foundation for the national language, leading to ongoing discussions and differing opinions despite having things settled in the 1987 Constitution stating that: “The national language of the Philippines is Filipino. As it evolves, it shall be further developed and enriched based on existing Philippine and other languages.”

While the Malacañang views the change of lyrics as unnecessary, citing that there are more pressing problems the country is facing, this issue regarding the Philippine national anthem underscores the perennial problems of this archipelago: cultural representation, unity, and the balance between tradition and progression. The evolving journey of the Philippine National Anthem—from its creation to the translations and adaptations made—mirrors the struggle for cultural identity and the need for harmonious coexistence among Filipinos.

As one Filipino community, do you think it is right to celebrate diversity and heritage by singing the national anthem in one’s own language? Or should we strictly adhere to what’s stipulated in our law?