Redemptorist priest Oliver Castor sings at a gathering on Dec. 3 to mark the death anniversary of a priest killed by unidentified gunmen in the northern Philippines last year. (Photo by Mark Saludes)
A group of missionaries calling themselves the "Reds Pangkat Sining" are stirring up crowds during protest rallies, marches and concerts-for-a-cause in Manila.
The band's vocalist, Redemptorist priest Oliver Castor, or "Oli" to his friends, appears shy but when on stage transforms into a complete performer who seems to enchant his audience.
"It was not because of me," he said. "It's because of the songs and their message."
He says he feels like a "rock star" because of the songs and the stories behind them.
One of the songs titled On Potok or The Land is a product of the priest's immersion with a tribal community when he was a student in 1984.
He said his stay with the Dumagat community "opened my eyes to the real situation" of the people.
During one gathering, the tribal people taught the seminarians, including the future Father Oli, the traditional song.
The priest said he was surprised because the lyrics were about how the tribe worships the "God of creation."
"The land was created by God for the Dumagat," goes the song that inspired Father Oli to write his own version that speaks of their for their ancestral land.
It took him five years to finish the song.
In 1989, he went back to the community to perform and teach them the song, which reflects the life and struggle of tribal people.
On Potok became popular among tribal groups and advocates. A reggae version later became popular, especially with the younger generation.
A music video about the tribe and their struggle for land even won an award from the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 2003.
Tribal leader Wilma Qiuerez said Father Oli's On Potok has become the "battle cry" of the Dumagat people against the incursion of so-called development projects in their communities.
"I grew up listening to the people singing the song as a protest against projects that threaten our communities and ancestral lands," she said.
Qiuerez's community is among those threatened with displacement by a planned dam project.
Piya Macliing Malayao of th tribal alliance Katribu said On Potok represents the "solidarity of church people with the tribes."
"We are grateful that we are not alone in our fight to save the environment and our existence," she said.
"We are glad that there are church workers like Father Oli who are on our side."
Aside from On Potok, the priest had written dozens of other songs about the role of the church in advancing social justice.
"The songwriting will continue as long as injustices exist," said the priest, adding that every work of art "should serve the interest of the oppressed and amplify the voice of the masses."
He said music is an effective medium "to communicate and explain" the condition of the poor to a wider audience.