“We’re Finding New Ties and Connections”: An Interview With Micaela Tobin (AKA White Boy Scream)

Mike Giegerich connects with Micaela Tobin to talk about opera performance, pursuing experimental noise, Filipino legends and mythology and much more.
By    January 26, 2023

Image via Rachel Kupfer

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At the Philosophical Research Society, Micaela Tobin’s voice resonates like subatomic particles bouncing around an atom. Inside this wooden library, she sings operatic warm ups and each intonation vibrates with tactile intensity, somehow altering my cell’s microscopic make-up and leaving something permanently changed. Her sweeping vocals belie a down-to-earth demeanor. She regularly laughs throughout our far-reaching, fittingly philosophic interview. Over the course of an hour, we dig into precolonial Filipino myths, music as praxis, and artistic decolonization, but let’s briefly rewind.

Raised in Pasadena, California, Tobin found her voice early from singing lessons in elementary school. While her teacher prescribed her run-of-the-mill pop songs, Tobin’s range had already transcended radio and Disney singalongs . This rapid evolution led her to practicing the quintessential Italian art song “Caro Mio Ben,” a moment that would mark the discovery of the careening range and resonance belting from a child yet to be 10. She would go on to study at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) and UCLA for training in opera performance, but the formality of the craft would eventually wear thin. Rejecting a lifetime of work, Tobin packed her things with her drone rock band and moved to Seattle, diving deeper into the noise world.

As it was, her passion for opera would eventually return and bring Tobin back home. In Southern California, she found the ability to bridge her two artistic callings, gaining a following within the experimental arts scene as the musician imbuing classic soprano stylings with brutalizing walls of sound. Her journey would unfold even further while attending a performance by fellow Filipino artist Anna Luisa Petrisko in the mid-10s. It was there that she heard a deconstructed Filipino lullaby, marking the first time her culture had been reflected back to her on stage.

Inspired to investigate precolonial Filipino culture after this continental shift in perspective, her work became even more nuanced and eventually caught the attention of independent experimental label Deathbomb Arc in 2020. Situated within a global collective of transgressive sound practitioners, she was now naturally pulling from the sonic palate of Merzbow as much as she was from Italian opera vocalists and mythical internet archives. With this inimitable mixture, Tobin had synthesized the inspiration of artists like Petrisko into a practice wholly her own.

In November of 2022, Tobin was tapped by the Philosophical Research Society (the PRS) for a career-spanning talk in their storied lecture hall. Sacred wisdom floated towards the seekers gathered in the auditorium. They echoed what Tobin first channeled into music. She sets the stage for her lecture with a meditative, sound-looping session. With the audience’s guard lowered, she tactfully detailed her experimental ethos which infused traditional opera vocals with deafening harsh noise.

As one might imagine from aforementioned descriptions, Tobin’s sonic framework is a transgressive landscape that makes space for her exploration of precolonial Filipino myths. Those myths — heavily emphasized throughout her lecture — are a key sequence in the DNA of her critically-acclaimed 2020 album BAKUNAWA (via Deathbomb Arc) and 2021 film BAKUNAWA: OPERA OF THE SEVEN MOONS. The two are an intrinsically tied pair of projects anchored by the moon-eating serpent of lore. During her lecture, Tobin revealed that another archetype — Apolaki, the god of sun and war — will function as the foundation for her forthcoming 2023 project: Apolaki: Opera of the Scorched Earth.

The work from Apolaki that Tobin has debuted live has been a brilliant showcase in the evolution of her art. At times more beautiful, at times more abrasive, it pushes her alchemized sound to its absolute limits. Her performances have been particularly engulfed by the viscerality of the in-progress opera. They’ve also deepened her artistic reverence for ancestry and familial bonds as recent shows have even included appearances from relatives. With moments like her mother reading a poem in Tagalog, Tobin has continued to examine the precolonial Filipino spirit that the Apolaki embodies. It’s the type of intellectual investigation that makes her catalog so spellbinding and the promise of Apolaki so great.

With the debut of material from Apolaki fresh on the brain, Tobin returned to the PRS in January of 2023. There, we opened up the institution’s heavy wooden doors for a captivating conversation that zig-zags across the map of the Western musical canon, Pacific Northwest noise, and Filipino culture’s resilience in the face of colonization. Mike Giegerich

How did you discover opera? When did you find your literal voice and your creative voice?

Micaela Tobin: I started singing when I was six-years-old and apparently I started asking for voice lessons around that age. My mother let me take voice lessons finally when I was about eight or nine years old and I was very privileged and lucky and grateful I had parents that were able to get me lessons and supported my study in music. So, I started taking lessons around the age of nine and I remember my first voice teacher gave me Disney songs and pop songs and none of that material ever landed for me, even at that young age, and then finally she gave me “Caro Mio Ben” which is the easiest, number one Italian art song that you learn. It’s from this yellow book, the Schirmer’s book of Italian art songs. Everyone who studies opera, that’s the first song they learn. And it just clicked in my voice. I always had a really big voice and resonant voice, even at a young age. I always felt like my body couldn’t quite contain it and so classical music — opera in particular — really just felt good in my body. It was always easy for me to sing and I just loved, from that young age, singing that repertoire.

I went on to study at the arts high school in LA — the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) — and I was in their opera program. My wonderful mentor Stephanie Vlahos ran the Full Circle Opera Project there. That program really changed my life, we would do abridged operas in high school and so I really developed my love of opera more in high school. And then I went on to go to UCLA for opera performance. It was around that time in college when I started to feel a bit alienated from the artform and having doubts as to whether or not I wanted to dedicate my life to being a performer in this very narrow genre. It required [a] very specific lifestyle, a very specific personality type, and I started noticing I wasn’t quite fitting into that. So after college, I decided I wanted to quit classical music and I told my parents, “I joined a band…and we’re moving to Seattle [laughs]! My experimental drone rock band, we’re moving to Seattle and we’re gonna make it!” That’s what I did and it was a scary choice, but I’m really glad I did it, because through starting to make my own music was when I really started to find a connection to my creative voice … When I came back around to starting to mix back in operatic style and starting to create my own operas, I really felt connected to my instrument in a deeper way because of my experimental practice.

Would you say that pursuing experimental noise was a conscious rejection of your classical training? Or more of an organic change in interests?

Micaela Tobin: A little of both. Consciously, it felt so good to dive into free improvisation, into noise genres, the noise genre and the texture because it was freedom from this very strict aesthetic, the classical canon. I was able to use my voice, discover all these new ways to use my voice and I wasn’t just standing on stage looking pretty, clutching my pearls. I was able to be free in this way and have agency over my body, over the way I presented myself, over what I was expressing that I didn’t find when I was singing other people’s music and singing music that was very old. Although I love the discipline of the classical training, I have a lot of respect for the music itself… It’s beautiful and I still teach standard rep to my students because I think for certain artists it’s important to learn that discipline and that type of resonance in the body is really powerful. But I’m really grateful that I was able to go this other direction.

For a while it was really compartmentalized, like, “I’m not an opera singer, I’ll never sing opera again,” and then after a couple years in Seattle I started to miss singing in that style. I started to miss the discipline of studying music, of listening, of opening up a score and listening to an opera, of learning the material. So that’s when I decided to go back to grad school. I wanted to study more and reconnect with that part of my voice and technique, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. It was in grad school at CalArts that I started making my own operas and having these ideas of, “Oh, I can take textures of noise and looping and feedback and field recordings, and I can also sing operatically and create these overwhelming sound walls.” And a lot of that audience in this really niche, DIY realm had never heard an operatic voice in a basement before, or let alone anywhere. So it became this really interesting, visceral experience to sing operatically in these spaces where that aesthetic is never presented.

When did you realize that you could blend Filipino mythology into your art?

Micaela Tobin: The first time I ever saw Filipino culture and song on stage, in an experimental realm, was in 2016 or 2017 and it was a piece by my dear friend and now collaborator Anna Luisa Petrisko. They go by Anna Luisa, their project used to be called Jeepneys and she did an experimental opera at Human Resources. There was this scene where she did this deconstructed version of a Filipino lullaby and it was a lullaby that my grandfather used to sing to me and that I would sing with him. That moment was life changing for me because I just burst into [tears]. I had such an emotional, visceral reaction to it and it was in that moment that I realized [that’s] what I was missing in all those years of my training and going to the opera and seeing performance[s]. I had never seen my culture performed back to me in that way.

It was so inspiring and I went up to her after the performance with tears in my eyes … I introduced myself and said, “I’m also mixed and I want to work with you, I really want to collaborate with you,” and I went on to collaborate with her on several pieces. But I really owe a lot to her. She has been the ate which means older sister in Tagalog. She’s been the ate for myself and a lot of other Filipino artists in LA that make experimental work, because she’s brought us all together in different ways. I’m very grateful for the community I’ve found that started with her.

Were you familiar with mythic Filipino legends like the Bakunawa from your childhood? Or did that come through research?

Micaela Tobin: It came through research. There were tiny little things I had heard about, like the duende, little stories here and there. But not anything in depth, and even online, I came across an online blog/archive of precolonial Filipino mythology and that’s where I found these stories. After I read the story of the Bakunawa on there, I went on to ask my mom and talk to other Fillipinos and they were like, “Oh yeah, I remember that story.” I know there are some out of print books that you can find on Filipino mythology, but hopefully there’ll be more and more and more because I do think there is this urge, this collective urge to dig into heritage in a different way, and to honor our pre-contact culture.

Having to dig through an internet archive, it sounds like there’s a lack of preservation when it comes to these myths.

Micaela Tobin: Yeah, there is. A lot of the preservation was done by the Spanish when they first came. And the reason they wrote all these things down was so that they could figure out a way how to insert themselves and to erase these things. And again, a lot of that documented history is through the eyes of the colonizers, so it’s difficult. Even looking at my lens right now; I grew up in America; I was born in America; born and raised in Southern California; I’m mixed; I’m half white. So I have a specific lens I also am looking at this material through. I think it’s important to acknowledge that, and in my work, try and acknowledge and excavate that.

That reminds me of your story about a family member being confused as to why you wanted pictures of their farmland in the Philippines. It’s interesting how even being from the same culture, there’s different lenses based on geography.

Micaela Tobin: The way families are split apart by this distance, it’s fascinating to me. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, but also it’s beautiful that we do still have a lot of ties and we’re rebuilding ties, and we’re finding new ties and connections. I love it. It’s definitely one of my passions of my life.

Along with the Bakunawa, what are some of your favorite discoveries you’ve made in your research?

Micaela Tobin: As I’ve read more about the history of the Philippines, precolonial history, and even going back to the Philippines [myself]. Gosh, it’s almost been 10 years at this point. And reading a lot about intergenerational trauma and how postcolonial trauma still exists. And how that exists in the psychology of family dynamics in our subconscious. Those have been some really fascinating realizations for me … my ability or inability to take up space … certain triggers that I have, feeling erased or left out or feeling subservient. I can trace those back now to these things that have happened in my ancestral history, that are responsible for these present-day dynamics. And to me, that’s the most fascinating, poetic phenomen.

I have kind of a mystical story for you. So when I was getting my Bakunawa tattoo on my arm, my dear friend Nicanor Evangelista does indigenous Filipino tattooing patterns on Filipinos. We were doing the Bakunawa, and as he was doing that, I remember it was the first full moon of 2020. That weekend, there was this big fog rolling into LA and we were at his studio downtown on the fourth story, so we were kinda high up. I remember it was part of this ritual we did; I brought Filipino food, I made a chicken adobo, and I brought it for the altar. I brought pictures of my family and sacred objects. We meditated and talked about ancestry and family and the Bakunawa, and then he began the tattoo. I was looking out of the window and I was in a very meditative, calm state. I remembered a dream that I had when I was little because the color of the fog was kind of green as it was rolling down into the parking lot.

[At] the house I grew up in in Pasadena, we had a pond in the backyard … it was never filled with water when I was growing up, it was kind of this empty, leftover, tacky pond from the 1970s. But in my dream, it was night time … I walk out on the patio and the pond is filled with this fog and it’s the same color fog. There’s this serpent going in and out of the pond like this [motions hands] and I remember not being afraid in my dream. You’d think a little girl having a dream like this, it’s a nightmare, but I remember in the dream I felt this sense of awe. And then I remember jumping into the pond and riding this serpent in the pond and it was this really sublime kind of feeling. Maybe even that was one of my earliest feelings of the sublime. And it was in that moment while I was getting the tattoo, I was like, “Oh my god, that was the Bakunawa,” in my dream when I was a child. So I don’t know, that was a really powerful experience for me and definitely something in the spiritual realm that I hold dear. That really affirmed to me of what I was doing and that I’m supposed to be making this work.

Image via Rachel Kupfer

So you have the objective research alongside the spiritual experience of the Bakunawa in your dream. How did you fuse those into your music?

Micaela Tobin: I’ve been really lucky to work with collaborators [and] other composers, some really talented folks … so the record came first before the opera. I’d been working on a sonic retelling of the Bakunawa story probably since about 2018. I think I toured the first kind of iteration of that set on a small US tour I did in 2018. And that was a solo noise set, this story of … there’s the moon aria in it, then it goes into the clanging of the pots and the metallic noise and the Bakunawa emerging from the ocean. And then Bakunawa spitting up the moon and all these kinds of vocal beating[s] with these drones, these sine tones come in, and then I used this amplified walis tambo which is a Filipino broom with the harsh-noise wall at the end. That was the side-a of the record. So that I wrote by myself.

For the side-b, I wanted to dive into more song-based-territory, so I collaborated with my dear friend Rhea Fowler who’s a multi-instrumentalist, classically trained violinist, [and] also plays bass and guitar. Together we wrote side-b of the record. She did some really cool, plucky noise on the violin for the opening of side-b. We go into “Mirrors” and then we go into “Bituing” which is guitar and voice, and then “Apolaki” which is drone noise, guitar, and voice.

We put out that record in 2020 during the pandemic. And then I got, shortly after, an opportunity to make an opera film out of it. So we worked together to expand the sonic palette of the album, to fit into these seven scenes of the film. She wrote, for instance, the devouring scene where I’m eating up all of the moons. She wrote this amazing arrangement of all these strings, doing extended techniques, and then I added harsh noise over it. It was really fun to work with her on that and that’s how the music emerged for the opera film. So the album and film are slightly different.

Take me through how the BAKUNAWA: Opera of the Seven Moons film itself came about in 2021?

Micaela Tobin: When I first came across the story of Bakunawa in 2017 [or] 2018, I knew, “I wanna make an opera out of this eventually. This is an opera. This has to be an opera.” And then the pandemic hit. REDCAT approached me — I’m on faculty at CalArts — and they asked if I wanted to do something for their online programming in spring of 2021. And I thought, “You know what? Well if we can’t do a live performance, let’s make a film! Let’s make an opera film.” I’d been working with Katie Stenberg … She’s a professional art coordinator, but she is also an amazing cinematographer. She worked with me to make my two music videos and took the photos for the BAKUNAWA album cover. She literally made that scene, that kind of jungle with the sand, in her driveway [laughs] to take those photos. Again, I’m very lucky to have these amazing collaborators that believe in the work and want to take part in it and dive 110-percent with me.

So then I approached Katie and was like, “Do you want to make a film?” I [also] had an amazing producer, Madeline Falcone … to make anything during the pandemic was a headache and a half, so really kudos to everyone on the creative team for just being so with it and making it happen under very harsh circumstances.

I remember you mentioned that you had to run back to the coast for a shot during the full moon?

Micaela Tobin: Yes! Part of the film we did at REDCAT, because I wanted the journey of Bakunawa to start in the theater then break through the walls of the institution and be on the shore in direct relationship … I wanted to sing from one shore, singing toward the Philippines on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. So we filmed one night [and] we just didn’t get it. I think it might’ve been March of 2021, we went and had a permit and everything. We didn’t get all the shots, the sun came up. We were out there all night, it was 50-something degrees and my team really was amazing [laughs]. We were in the halfway point between DIY and professional, you know having a professional big budget, so everyone had a ton of different hats on. Rhea, my co-composer, was out there holding up a towel over Katie on the rocks so the water wouldn’t get on the camera. Everyone really believed in the project so much that we just did what we needed to do to make it happen.

But we didn’t get all the shots that night, so we were like, “Crap, the full moon is next month, which is a week before the film premieres…” But it’s important for me in these processes that ritual stays a part of it, even though film is very tedious. The interesting thing about film to me, having what I’ve learned from the process, is the magic actually happens in the editing when you see it all come together. There’s so much that goes into [it]. It’s not just like, “We’re performing and we’re done,” you know? It’s so tedious. You’re stopping every couple seconds sometimes. You’re adjusting the lighting [and] when you throw that 50-degree weather in the middle of the night at the ocean, it’s like a million other things come into play.

So we went back the next month and just four of us this time. We did it guerilla style; I got a campsite across the street and we snuck across PCH in the middle of the night with our gear and I climbed up on the rocks and we got the shots. Those were the ending shots of the film, the last scene. Some of it is our lighting, [like] the shots really up close to me, but the ones where I’m far away on the rocks staring at the moon, those are the money shots that we waited for. We waited until about two or three AM when the clouds cleared and the moon was there and we had like 10 minutes where it was just perfect. I was singing my grandparents’ song out in the ocean and everyone was there and it was absolutely beautiful. It was a really profound experience.

Image via Rachel Kupfer

Shooting during the full moon sounds like another spiritual serpent dream.

Micaela Tobin: It really felt that way. I was crying, Katie was crying, everyone was emotional … and then Katie and I stayed up the next four days editing. I don’t think she slept. I think the morning it was due, I’m getting emails from Edgar and REDCAT [asking], “Hey, where’s the film…[laughs]?” Not to say I want every project I do to be down to the wire, but I am grateful…

You spoke about the film at the PRS pretty extensively. How was it lecturing here and bringing your work to this esoteric space?

Micaela Tobin: It was amazing. I think this space is so historical and charged, so I was really excited. I think I did have a little [bit] of imposter syndrome. Even though I lecture at CalArts and I’m very comfortable speaking about my work, but to put it all together in this way and to dissect the symbolism… You know, a lot of those things I’d never told anyone because it’s really [personal]. Even the love letters song, I think the majority of the audience doesn’t know what that is or what that story is to my grandparents and to my family. It’s very abstract in the film and I’m happy to let it live that way and for people to dive in and make those discoveries. I don’t think everything, especially in experimental form, has to be so on the nose or be overexplained. Because I like that it can mean something to me and then when I put it out in the world, it can hit someone else in a totally different way and be powerful for them in a way I never even imagined.

But, it was amazing to be able to talk about this breadth of work I’ve been creating, and I think this goes into a tendency to not take up space or feel small or feel not worthy. At the end of that, I have to say, I felt like, “Wow, I’m really proud of this work that’s coming through me and out of me…” And I’m excited and proud for the work this will inspire and other people will make in the future. It’s just as much for them, future ancestors, as it is for my past ancestors. And that’s kind of where I function.

In regards to CalArts, are you working within the traditional confines of an institution? Or are you able to bring your experimental ethos into your teaching?

Micaela Tobin: 100-percent bringing my experimental ethos into it. I teach individual lessons and then I teach a group voice class called “Learning to Scream” which I start with pedagogical, foundational vocal technique, and then really dive into extreme vocal styles. So I have a lot of kids that come to that class that are in metal or punk bands. This upcoming semester, I teach “Creative Electronic Ensemble…” Whoever takes the class, we’re going to work with electronics and voice. I give them creative prompts every week and they make recordings at home, we jam in class, we improvise. We look at graphic scores, they make their own graphic scores, and we just have at it… I am grateful that I’ve been able to develop my — for lack of a better term — praxis at CalArts because it is a very “yes” institution. They encourage students to push boundaries, to make their own work, to experiment.

Actually, I also teach privately with a dear colleague of mine — Carmina Escobar — we have a studio called HOWL Space. It’s our own experimental voice hub. We do community-based workshops, we do private lessons, we do panels where we have voice salons. During the pandemic, we would do Zoom panels where we just invited other weirdo singers that we know to just talk about the voice and the many facets of what a vocal practice can look like. We both teach from a very holistic, embodied place and that has been a true joy to grow with her. We have a lot on the docket for this upcoming year to really push our workshops. For instance, during the pandemic we did a workshop on the protest voice because there were so many people going to the protests that were losing their voice from the screaming. So we did a workshop on how to embody your voice and protect your voice in highly emotional situations. When you need to scream, how do you scream with the most power you have while not hurting yourself? We also work with a lot of transitioning voices. Nonbinary, genderfluid clients come and so we’re breaking down the binary of the voice. Really trying to think [and] examine, and again, excavate what the voice is and what it can be.

It’s interesting that you train the voice beyond the confines of music. Like you said, the protest voice, the transitioning voice…

Micaela Tobin: We work with people who are looking to find more empowerment. I really believe that the voice is an instrument of empathy. When you empower your voice on the inside, you empower your whole self into the world. Everyone has a voice, and to use that as a conduit of self-empowerment, self-realization, taking up sonic space, is incredibly important and it helps people to find their agency and navigate themselves in the world. It is a very deep passion of mine, to help others discover that in themselves. You know, I’ve worked with professional broadway singers to people that have never opened their mouth to make a sound. I’ve taught preschool up through college and there are these lines of connection across the board, across experience level and age that are really beautiful. It’s fascinating and it is part of the work. It’s our praxis [laughs].

You recently performed at the First Congregational Church with The Resonance Collective which was important for two reasons. First, the debut material from Apolaki: Opera of the Scorched Earth, and second, the inclusion of family. Can you talk about that experience?

Micaela Tobin: The concert was amazing. It was such a joy to, first of all, work with Adam Starkopf who’s an amazing percussionist [and] drummer. I actually first met him at LACHSA, we went to high school together, so he’s another arts-high kid. We reconnected because I wanted to have live percussion on this tour that I did with Rhea and Adam in Europe last fall. And then I wanted to bring him onto the opera because it felt so good to incorporate such a physical instrument. Drum and voice are the first instruments so it makes sense to me. He’s such an amazing improviser and he works with sensory percussion as well. He’s able to take my field recordings, take his own field recordings, and then turn them into these percussive elements that we can really play with in this new way that I haven’t been able to as a soloist.

The material was interesting for this show and it is going to continue to develop, but the basis of it was I took field recordings of myself walking a labyrinth in Tucson. Just the sound of feet on dirt and the relationship of stepping across land is an essential element for Apolaki. Then I took these tone clusters that were based off of a labyrinth pattern that I was studying which will eventually… Now that I’m bringing in a larger creative team, Carlo Maghirang is gonna be our installation artist and creating a new labyrinth; a new form, a new pattern that’s based around our shared Filipino heritage. So then I’m imagining the score will become related to that. But that’s what Adam and I were playing with for this first iteration, this preview, and it was really fun. We got to use the organ [laughs]!

The organ sounded insane!

Micaela Tobin: It was so fun to play. And then a really important element was bringing family into it. I had my mother come, because my mother opens the record and opened the film. It’s her voice speaking this poem that I wrote about the Bakunawa, she’s speaking it in Tagalog because I don’t speak Tagalog. So I thought it was important to have her voice open the show. I asked her if she would speak those words live from the pulpit and she was nervous, but she did it. And then I was singing behind her and it was such an amazing, shared experience because she’s never been on stage with me before. She’s been watching me from the audience since I was seven-years-old, so it was really fun to have her up there. And then I brought my two aunts.

My grandmother’s sister, my Auntie Rhea — technically my great aunt — in Tagalog, it’s tita. She was one of the first people to teach me how to sing because she grew up singing in the church, singing alto. She doesn’t really read music, she’s learned all of her singing by ear, and she can just create an alto part to any line. When I was little, we’d sing Christmas carols in the car and she’d say, “Okay, stay on the melody and I’m gonna sing an alto part, and you have to stay on your soprano line.” That was my first introduction to harmony. And my Auntie Naila has been a church organist and choir member in the church for over 40 years as well in LA, in the Methodist church. I grew up singing in the Methodist church in the FIlipino congregation close by here on Vermont and Rosewood; Rosewood Methodist is where my family used to go. And so when I got this opportunity to sing in a church, I just thought they deserve to be in this space more than anyone else, more than me, because that is their practice. Their practice is devoted to the church. So I asked them to come and sing a Filipino song with me, a kundiman — “Bituing Marikit ‘ — which was my grandmother’s favorite kundiman. And then I asked my Auntie Naila to do a prelude to the concert, and I said, “You have half an hour on the world’s largest church organ, play whatever you want. Play all of your favorite hymns, all of your favorite Christmas carols…just be in joy.” And she was. It was so amazing to be able to share that platform with them.

Image via Rachel Kupfer

Knowing your reverence for the ancestral and familial, it’s amazing that you were able to perform with them in this space.

Micaela Tobin: Yeah, and I think there is room, because, you know, the relationship to the church is very complicated obviously. The Spanish brought Catholicism to replace our precolonial belief systems, but at the same time, certain things have come through and there has been a lot of cultural survival. Resilience and faith has occurred through the church, so it’s this kind of two-sided relationship. So I wanted to be careful how I honored that. I thought starting with my favorite hymn [which] was my grandmother’s favorite hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” starting with that and having the audience stand up and sing with us… I knew that would be kind of triggering for some people because of everyone’s complicated relationship to the church, but I also felt that it was important to start the concert in group voice. Because in my practice, group singing is important. Community singing is important. Ending the concert with “Apolaki,” which was a song off of the last record, [it] is an anticolonial anthem and does critique the church as being this center of erasure. Both can exist in the same space.

That’s an interesting perspective. I was curious about the bridge between the colonial aspect of Christianity with precolonial concepts like the Bakunawa and Apolaki.

Micaela Tobin: Right now, where I’m at with it is that there’s room for both, because I want to honor my elders and honor their faith and what has kept them going for centuries now. I don’t think it’s my place to discredit that or even to dismiss that. I think that would also be colonial. I think what I can do is scratch at it and through art and through abstraction, pull away these mirrors or these curtains and let it all sit in the space together and let people come to their own conclusions.

You have your post at CalArts; you have HOWL Space; you have the gestation of Apolaki. How do you envision your 2023?

Micaela Tobin: Apolaki is set to premiere this summer. I just got back from a retreat with Jay Carlon and Carlo Maghirang. Jay is going to be embodying the god of Apolaki and Carlo is going to be the installation artist, creating this reimagined labyrinth for Apolaki and our audiences to activate. It is going to be a site-specific piece. There will be multiple sites [and] multiple performances that will culminate in Los Angeles. I also have an amazing producer on the team, Brian Sea, who’s been a rock for me and helping me figure out how this is all going to unfold. I’m excited that we don’t have these COVID restrictions anymore and that we’re in a healthier place as a society in terms of the pandemic. There’s a lot less limitation and I’m really excited to perform with people and for people.

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