The Tam-Awan Village Performers and the Discourse of Authenticity and Tradition on YouTube

The Tam-Awan Village Performers and the Discourse of Authenticity and Tradition on YouTube

Article by Fernan Talamayan.

Abstract: In this essay, I explore the discourse of authenticity and tradition on YouTube. Mainly, I probe the influence of authenticity issues on Filipinos’ understanding of “traditional” performances. To fulfill this objective, I examined people’s understanding of the Cordilleran culture as manifested in various comments on YouTube, particularly those posts that feature the cultural performances of young Cordillerans in Tam-awan Village. In my preliminary investigation, I found that many Filipinos remain unaware of the diversity of cultures in the Cordilleras. I also found that when some YouTubers wrongly identified the source culture of specific rituals and performances, cultural insiders, or those from the region, were quick to correct them. Yet, the most curious finding of my preliminary work on the topic is the notion of authenticity that generally emerges in several comment sections, which reflect an interpretation of cultures that disregards their fluidity and dynamism.

Keywords: YouTube, Cordillera, performance, authenticity, tradition, Philippines
Header image “Youtube” by Esther Vargas is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


Tam-awan Village is a living museum in Baguio City (northern part of the Philippines) that showcases Cordilleran art and tradition. Founded by Filipino artists and philanthropists, the museum provides cultural outsiders opportunities to experience Cordilleran culture through various means, such as sleeping in an “authentic” Cordilleran house or participating in modified versions of indigenous rituals. These rituals are not only exhibited in sculptures and paintings; a group of Cordillerans who call themselves the Tam-awan Village In-House Performing Group perform them in front of tourists and museumgoers. This group, composed of college students from different ethnolinguistic groups in the Cordilleras, regularly performs for tourists and museumgoers every Saturday or special occasions. 

While I discussed the negotiation and performance of Cordilleran culture in the museum’s physical space in my forthcoming publication, here I explore the discourse of authenticity, heritage, and tradition in digital spaces. Mainly, I examine people’s understanding of the Cordilleran culture as manifested in various YouTube posts and comments about the performance of the Tam-awan Village performers. Then I outline people’s appreciation of authenticity and tradition after observing how people express their gaze and thoughts about the young Cordilleran performers in Tam-awan Village.

The notions of authentic and traditional in the performances in Tam-awan Village are interrogated in the context of postcolonial discourse, as the fascination for and perceptions on Cordilleran culture has been greatly influenced by the country’s colonial past (Talamayan, forthcoming). Several works, including my forthcoming publication, established how Western colonialism created and reproduced “primitive” and “savage” depictions of indigenous peoples in the Philippines (Clevenger, 2000; Sit, 2008; Talamayan, 2020; Talamayan, forthcoming; Vergara, 1995). When adopted by Filipinos themselves, Western perspectives reinforce a colonial highland-lowland divide, placing the lowlanders in a seemingly superior position since, unlike the highlanders, they have been subjugated to the Western rule and have been mostly converted to Catholicism, sent to school, and hence “civilized.” In the context of Tam-awan Village, the persistence of colonial mentality contributes to reproducing and correcting the colonial conception of Cordillerans. Logically, these practices could spill over digital environments. As I observed on YouTube, traces of the said issues continue to affect some Filipinos’ understanding and perspective of authentic and traditional performances.

To explain the described phenomenon, it is imperative to establish how people’s notion of authenticity influences their understanding of tradition and performance. The following section situates these concepts in their bigger sociological discourse.

Of authenticity, performance, and tradition

Four key works that support the foundational analysis of this essay are discussed in this section, namely Steph Lawler’s Sociological Perspectives (2008), Richard Jenkins’ Social Identity (1996), Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), and Analyn Salvador-Amores’ Tapping Ink, Tattooing Identities: Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Kalinga Society, North Luzon, Philippines (2013).

Lawler (2008) debunks the Western distinction between “being an identity” (authenticity) and “doing an identity” (performance) by looking at identity as something that is not innate but is always done and achieved (pp. 101, 104). Echoing Goffman’s classic work on identity and performativity, Lawler (2008) argues that it is wrong to distinguish between true and false performances and that the distinction should instead be between “convincing and unconvincing performances: between those that ‘work’ and those that do not” (p. 107). This perspective on performances renders authenticity concerns irrelevant; instead of scrutinizing a performance’s authenticity, one must examine how an actor’s performance becomes effective (or ineffective) in connecting with an audience. 

Connecting these ideas to this essay’s central concern (the performances of Cordilleran culture), I attempt to veer away from questions that determine whether a performance adheres to or reinvents older traditions. If performances are enacted in different contexts and settings, then all performances are authentic in their own right. Phrased differently, questions concerning a cultural performance’s commitment or detachment to older traditions become unimportant. Hence, I suggest that it is more critical to understand how an audience perceives performances, especially in the case of documented cultural exhibitions. How do performances become convincing? What instances allow performances to be subjected to doubts and criticisms?

The authenticity of performances generally surfaces as a concern to tourists and museumgoers when expectations and perspectives of authentic indigenous rituals and dances are not met (Talamayan, forthcoming). This tension between convincing and unconvincing performances results from differing perspectives of tradition among those who perform the culture and those who witness the performed culture. As Jenkins (1996) posits, internal and external dialectic impacts people’s social identification. Hence, perspectives on ethnic performances, which I treat as significant determinants of social identity, are generally affected by the internal and external cultural discourses.

Comments on various YouTube videos about Cordilleran performances show that the authenticity of Cordilleran dancers’ performance is generally questioned when the performers themselves deviate from the “original” Cordilleran rituals and dances (i.e., reducing a two-hour ritual to 15 minutes). I maintain, however, that indigenous rituals or dances, whenever performed by younger generations of Cordillerans in a manner that does not adhere to the way rituals or dances are performed by older generations, remain to be a manifestation of Cordilleran identity (see Talamayan, 2021 and my forthcoming publication for a more detailed discussion). For everything that is performed, whether staged or not, is constitutive of one’s actual identity. I draw this logic from Butler’s argument about Rivière’s theory of “femininity as masquerade” and Goffman’s dramaturgy. Butler (1990) essentially questions what is being masked by the masquerade and posits that “genuine womanliness and the ‘masquerade’ are the same (pp. 71–72). In this sense, instead of hiding the person, it is the mask that constitutes the person (Lawler, 2008, p. 114). To some extent, this idea reiterates Goffman’s dramaturgy, as Goffman argues that performances, far from masking the “true person,” are what makes us persons (Lawler, 2008, p. 106).

Meanwhile, Salvador-Amores (2013) deconstructs the meanings of tradition, modern, and authentic in the context of Kalinga tattoos’ relationship “with technology, mobility, diaspora, and globalization” (p. 8). Salvador-Amores built this argument around Handler and Linnekin’s (1984) notion of tradition, which “resembles less an artefactual assemblage than a process of thought—an ongoing interpretation of the past” (p. 274). These ideas reiterate culture’s dynamism—that it cannot be frozen in time, as cultures naturally change and adapt to present conditions.

Contextualizing this preliminary study in the works mentioned above is essential in analyzing how people question the notions of authenticity and tradition, especially in non-physical environments such as the Internet.

Museumgoers documenting the performance of young Cordillerans in Tam-awan Village. I took this photo in August 2017.

Tam-awan Village performers and the online discourse of in/authentic cultures

YouTube, as a platform, provides avenues for people to share their stories and voices with wider audiences. For tourists and museumgoers, it may serve as an instrument for sharing documented experiences. This section focuses on videos posted by people who recorded and shared the performances of the Tam-awan Village In-House Performing Group on YouTube and the comments of those who viewed the described videos. Most videos examined here feature short dances of Tam-awan Village performers. Videos that commonly receive high engagement are those that mistaken the origin of the documented dance. 

Observing the comment threads on YouTube, people who are knowledgeable of the diversity of the Cordilleran rituals are always quick to correct those who comment wrongly about the performance. For instance, in a 2015 post titled “Ifugao Cordillera Tribal Dance,” a user commented that “this is not an Ifugao Dance, it must be Mountain Province,” and to which another user corrected “Kalinga ah dapat” (It should be Kalinga). After the video owner verified that the dance was indeed Kalinga, he changed its title to “Kalinga Cordillera Tribal Dance.” In other more curious instances, some users attack YouTubers who attribute documented performances to wrong ethnolinguistic groups. 

 Another 2013 YouTube video shares a similar issue; a user posted a video of Tam-awan Village performers’ dance in April 2013 and called the performance “Benguet dance,” perhaps because the museum where it was performed is located at the heart of the Benguet province. Two users commented that the dance was not Benguet but rather Kalinga. There was even a user who commented not on the title but on the authenticity of the performance itself, saying that “kung ano ano ang sinasayaw nyo pinaghahalo nyo ang cultural dance ng cordillera. Nawawala tuloy Yong originality and the uniqueness. PS don’t mess up” (You performers have been dancing randomly, and you are mixing up all the Cordillera cultural dances. In effect, the originality and uniqueness [of each culture in the Cordilleras] is diminished. PS don’t mess up). Another frustrated user said, “Benguet dance daw. Kung mag a upload ka kayo mag tanung muna kayo kung anung tribe yang sinasayaw kalinga naman yan” (Benguet dance they said. Before you upload, ask first which tribe you should attribute the dance to; it is Kalinga). The video’s title has been subsequently changed to “Kalinga (cultural) dance performed in Baguio City.” The in/authenticity of the dance, however, is yet to be addressed by the owner of the video.

 Other videos that do not contain oppositional comments feature the same performances (see “Igorot dance performance at Tam-awan Village, Baguio City,”Igorot cultural dance @ Tam-awan Village,”Young Igorots dancing Canao Pt. 1). It is curious, however, that these videos host similar titles; each pertains to different Cordilleran dances as Igorot. Based on the videos, it can be surmised that those YouTubers who documented the performances are either tourists or cultural outsiders—hence the lack of knowledge about the fundamental difference between various ethnolinguistic groups in the Cordilleras.

YouTube posts and comments presented here reflect Filipinos’ limited understanding of Cordilleran culture. Filipinos would often tag performances as Igorots, the colonial collective term for all the Cordilleran ethnic groups. Some would call them Ifugaos, which manifests their inability to differentiate Ifugaos from the Kalingas, the Ibalois, or the Kankanaeys. Cultural outsiders, especially those from the lowland, tend to identify everyone from the mountain province as a collective group of mountain people. Colonial education may have played a critical role in forming such a perspective, as it reproduced a collective image of the Cordillerans that hinged on the country’s highland-lowland divide. 

Further, it must be noted that the performances posted on YouTube are just snippets of hour-long rituals. Yet, since this is not mentioned in the caption of the videos (or perhaps the video owner is unaware of these nuances), viewers who are more aware of the differences in the details of every performance will argue that the performances posted on YouTube are not true to their origins. In other words, they are accused of inauthenticity. Again, following Lawler, authenticity issues arise when viewers’ expectation is not met (in this case, the “Igorot” performance). However, it is also strange to argue that any of the documented performances are inauthentic. As Salvador-Amores (2013) pointed out, traditions are fluid and dynamic as they change in time, depending on the cultural, social, and economic needs of the bearers of these traditions (pp. 8–9). Simply put, to say that a shortened ritual is inauthentic disregards a culture’s dynamism.


Questions on authenticity and tradition revolve around the underlying logic and schema of performances. Exploring the connection between being and doing an identity provides an avenue for understanding the roots of several authenticity issues on performances. At the same time, it also allows tracing the shifts in meanings of authenticity and tradition. In this preliminary study, I attempted to demonstrate the connection of the offline and online referents of various authenticity issues by noting the positionality of different YouTube users. As I found, some comments of Filipino viewers on several YouTube videos about Tam-awan Village performers reflect a limited understanding of the cultures in Cordillera. The comments I examined revealed some Filipinos’ lack of knowledge about the difference between various ethnolinguistic groups in the Cordilleran region. More importantly, some comments exposed some Filipinos’ more conservative take on what must be treated as authentic.


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