a man in a yellow T-shirt and scowling wooden-looking mask DJs on two turntables on front of a large blue monster mouth into which the Balikbayan Worldwide logo has been matted
Michael Balangue DJs as Anito Soul at the Balikbayan Worldwide launch party on October 21, 2023. Credit: Diana Bowden

On Saturday, October 21, more than a hundred people packed a white-walled warehouse in Hermosa to get sweaty to Filipino dance music. It was the launch party for the newest imprint of Feeltrip Records, Balikbayan Worldwide, which focuses on sounds from the southeast Asian diaspora. To many of the partiers, the event was just an excuse to get down. But as the night went on, event organizers noticed the crowd was mostly Asians and Asian Americans who’d come not only from around the city but also from across the country and even the world. It felt surreal to see who’d been drawn to that room by the power of music. 

Feeltrip cofounder David Beltran, 39, leads Balikbayan Worldwide, and he opened the night spinning records as David Can’t DJ. But neither the label nor the party could’ve happened without the collaboration and support of his Filipino dance-music community. It includes sisters Francine and Flo Almeda, who are 26 and 23 (Flo DJs as Floreyna), and Michael Balangue, who’s 26 (aka Anito Soul). Flo and Balangue live in New York, and Francine lives here. All four of them performed that Saturday, along with headliner Alyana Cabral (T33G33), a Manila-based artist who was on her first American tour after a Boiler Room appearance in the Philippines a few months ago. 

Beltran hatched the idea to start a southeast Asian–focused label while visiting the Philippines in May 2023. In 2017, a friend had connected him via Instagram to Manila-based DJ and producer Jorge Wieneke, then making work as similarobjects, and that year Beltran reissued Wieneke’s 2016 beat tape Raw Philippine Love Songs. When Beltran went to the islands himself, he connected with Wieneke, who exposed him firsthand to a dizzying variety of music and culture. Beltran couldn’t stop texting Francine and his business and romantic partner, Diana Bowden. 

Though Beltran is a longtime lover of electronic music and a Chicago nightlife staple, he’d had no concept of the Filipino club scene. He was elated to learn about it from someone deeply embedded in it. 

Jorge Wieneke, then known as similarobjects, made this beat tape without the use of a laptop.

Beltran and Wieneke had agreed in 2017 that they needed to work together again. Raw Philippine Love Songs—a nine-track collection of winsome, nostalgic-sounding Filipino romance ballads, clouded with reverb and layered over 90s hip-hop beats—had quickly sold out an edition of 100 cassettes. Six years later, Beltran would release a second Wieneke tape to launch Balikbayan Worldwide.

By 2023, Wieneke had retired the similarobjects name and was honing a budots sound as obese.dogma777. Budots (slang for “slacker”) is a style of hip-hop-adjacent electronic dance music that originated in the Philippines. It fuses house, jungle, and drum ’n’ bass with Filipino-specific elements—including rhythms from a traditional form of percussion music called tagonggo. Played mostly on tuned gongs and drums, tagonggo evolved to suit outdoor settings, usually festivals. It complements the budots sound because many of the Filipino raves where budots is played are held on outdoor basketball courts.

Budots also incorporates samples from Filipino popular culture, such as movies and commercials, and field recordings from Filipino streets—chickens clucking, say, or cars honking. The beats are often very basic, but Indigenous rhythm patterns and sound bites specific to day-to-day life keep the genre fresh and specific to the region.

Budots is little known outside the country, but it’s the most popular style of music on Filipino TikTok. The accompanying dance moves, with stiff torsos and wiggly limbs, borrow from cultural imports such as twerking, Bollywood, and rugby. Everyone in the Philippines knows the style, but budots is considered lowbrow. When Wieneke played budots during a Manila Community Radio appearance on Boiler Room in April, he got some blowback: some people didn’t want the music shared outside the Filipino underground, while others felt it wasn’t respectable or sophisticated enough to be a worthy cultural export. 

Naturally, Beltran became obsessed. As a Filipino whose career embodies the risk-taking spirit of street culture (and who’s long amplified hyperspecific parts of his local underground), he appreciated Wieneke’s devotion to understanding, crafting, and sharing budots. Beltran was eager to put out the next obese.dogma777 mixtape—and on October 23, it became Balikbayan Worldwide’s debut release, Mall Edits

The first Balikbayan Worldwide release is the obese.dogma777 budots mixtape Mall Edits.

Beltran was part of the collective that founded Feeltrip in 2011, but since 2014 or so, he and Bowden have run it as a duo. The two of them have historically collaborated on business decisions, but in recent years they’d started to consider the possibility of solo projects under the Feeltrip banner. Wieneke’s latest music gave Beltran a chance to marry his cultural heritage with the club culture that had made him, and Balikbayan Worldwide was born.

five people pose amid boxes of Balikbayan Worldwide merchandise
The DJs from the Balikbayan Worldwide launch party: Flo Almeda (aka Floreyna), Francine Almeda, Michael Balangue (aka Anito Soul), T33G33, and David Beltran Credit: Diana Bowden

Balikbayan boxes are well-known to Filipinos. They’re used by Filipino immigrants to send gifts, food, and other household goods back home, often through services that began popping up in the 70s. Since 1987, shipments below a certain value have been untaxed, provided a person sends no more than three per year. Delivering goods this way is slow but cheap—boxes are usually transported by container ship and come in standardized sizes. 

The term “balikbayan” refers to a Filipino immigrant returning to the islands after a long time away, and balikbayan boxes were originally brought to the islands by travelers coming back home. Beltran loves the idea of music arriving at Feeltrip like reverse balikbayan boxes from the Philippines (or elsewhere in southeast Asia), then being redistributed across the planet. Political and economic incentives make it easy to export American culture to the Philippines—or almost anywhere else—but it’s much harder to spread Filipino culture abroad. Feeltrip can help address the imperialist tilt of that playing field.

Beltran grew up in Chicago, raised by parents who’d immigrated to the city after Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and began ruling the country as a dictator. Thousands and thousands of Filipinos came to the United States in the 70s and 80s during the resulting period of political repression, violence, and economic instability. Many of them—including Beltran’s parents and extended family here—worked in the medical field. Because modern Filipino medical education began while the islands were an American territory, such instruction has usually included an English-language component, and Cold War policies put in place as early as 1948 made getting a U.S. visa easier for medical personnel than for other workers. 

David Beltran at the Balikbayan Worldwide launch party Credit: Diana Bowden

When Beltran was a kid, he recalls, his mother encouraged him to spend time with other Filipinos. But as he got older, expanded his networks, and explored American subcultures such as punk and indie, his contact with Filipinos dwindled.

“I guess that’s how assimilation works,” Beltran says. “Slowly, you get exposed to other cultures. Then it becomes, like, once a month that you see other Filipinos, and then it’s just holidays.” Nine years ago, he had an existential crisis that landed him before a therapist, asking, “Who am I, and what’s my heritage?”

“I am a minority in almost every space that I’m in,” Beltran says, “not only in the sense of how many Asians there are in a single room. It’s like, even within that group—I’m a Filipino, so 99 percent of the time I’m a minority within a minority.”

Gradually, he started learning more about his family and cultural history and finding ways to work that into his creative practice, which has always revolved around grassroots music and parties. In 2017 and 2019, he and Bowden visited the Philippines, each time returning with heaps of vinyl, books, and zines.

When Beltran and Bowden opened the record store No Requests (now defunct), they sold treasures from their visits to the Philippines—among them Filipino disco records, which helped flesh out a history of the islands’ party culture, and the gay lifestyle magazine Team, which speaks to a thriving culture of resistance. (Gender and sexual fluidity is a common aspect of many southeast Asian Indigenous cultures subjugated by colonizers.) They also sold art periodicals by and for Asian American creatives, such as Hella Pinay and Banana. As Beltran became well-known for his curated collection of southeast Asian music and art, he noticed that more Asians—and especially Filipinos—gravitated toward him. Two summers ago, Beltran met the Almeda sisters while he and Bowden were selling at the itinerant outdoor dance party and vendor pop-up Vibes on Logan.

“We saw him and were like, ‘That guy looks Filipino,’” Flo says, laughing. “He was selling some Filipino merch, and we’re like, ‘We have to talk to him.’”

Flo Almeda and Francine Almeda Credit: Courtesy the artists

Francine and Flo Almeda describe each other as twin flames—sisters in soul as much as blood. They grew up in the West Loop near the UIC medical district, and both eventually moved to Boston for college (Boston University and Tufts, respectively). They found themselves drawn to dance music—and subsequently DJing—because they saw something spiritual and healing in it. 

Both sisters work in the arts. Francine is a curator who runs the Pilsen arts space Jude Gallery and is working on launching a new space in West Town. Flo, who moved to New York in September 2022, works in music therapy and is helping conduct research into using music to improve health outcomes for pregnant Black people. They see their heritage as central to their creative output and welcome opportunities to collaborate with other Asians, especially Filipinos. Meeting Beltran put them over the moon, and Beltran and Francine quickly became close.

Francine loves vinyl. Finding records can’t be predicted by an algorithm—every sleeve tells a story, and every record is a portal opened with a needle drop. In 2022, Francine was part of the spring cohort of a Chicago-based research program called Tanda, which brings together people from various disciplines to use the Chuquimarca art library for an art-history project. With Beltran helping her source records, she developed the presentation Southeast Asian Disco: The Aesthetics of Optimism Under Oppression

For her project, Francine examined musical and visual styles that emerged during political upheavals across southeast Asia in the Vietnam war era, noting a common emphasis on drama, sentimentality, and beauty that suggested hopefulness, escapism, and resilience. In May 2023, while Beltran was in the Philippines, Francine teamed up with DJ, curator, and sound artist Sadie Woods to present a talk at the Arts Club called Disco Optimism that linked southeast Asian disco with the genre’s broader history of embodying a revolutionary party spirit. Riding the high of that talk, Francine couldn’t have been more ready to hear that Beltran wanted to launch a label distributing contemporary Filipino music that shared roots with the historic records that had shaped her research and her DJ sets.

Francine Almeda collaborated with Sadie Woods on the talk Disco Optimism and its playlist.

After Beltran returned stateside and put the wheels in motion to release Mall Edits, Francine volunteered to write the October press release that would announce Balikbayan Worldwide and explain why it was debuting with a budots mixtape. She enlisted Flo to help. Flo shares her sister’s passion for Filipino and southeast Asian disco (she also uses them in her sets), and she was just beginning to learn about budots. The same month Beltran visited the Philippines and Francine gave her talk, Flo befriended a Filipino American DJ with an ear for budots and other Filipino music. They were both playing a Filipino American DJ night at the New York club Mood Ring.

“I was just blown away,” she says, beaming as she recalls Michael Balangue’s set. “This guy is doing everything that I’d want to do.”

Balangue caught Flo’s attention with his ear for blending current dance beats with Filipino music more familiar to an older generation of immigrants and their children. When it came time for Flo to pitch in on the press release Francine was writing, she tapped him for his expertise. 

Balangue was stunned to learn from Flo that a new American label was hyped about budots, and he especially liked that it was based in the city that had birthed so much of the dance music he loved (footwork, house, and so on). He was even more surprised to hear that this label was planning to release a tape by obese.dogma777. 

Balangue already listened to Wieneke’s mixes, and they’d been corresponding for months via Instagram about budots and other Filipino party music. Balangue had a trip to the Philippines planned for August, when he would meet up and DJ with Wieneke. Flo decided to cash in flight credits and schedule an overlapping trip, so that she and Balangue could interview Wieneke and learn more about budots together.

“There were all these things that were, like, already independently happening that aligned really well,” Balangue says. “When we came back, we had all this additional info for the press release, but then David was like, ‘Hey, this artist T33G33 from Manila is coming to the U.S. and asking if we know any places for her to play.’ So I booked her for a show in New York. And then we both, along with Flo, went to Chicago to play at the Balikbayan Worldwide event.”

Balangue started DJing two years ago. Raves helped him find the spirituality and community he’d been craving since moving to New York in 2019, and DJing felt like a way to give back to the queer nightlife scene that had become his home. 

Just before the pandemic, he started researching his family’s origins to learn who they’d been before coming to the U.S. in the 1980s. During lockdown he began threading his daily life with parts of his heritage that felt meaningful to him, even basing his Animal Crossing island on Filipino mythology he was learning. Its stories and ideas felt more collectively oriented and less individualist than those of his Seventh-day Adventist upbringing. 

Three years later, when Balangue shared an underground Chicago stage with T33G33—one of the biggest names in Filipino nightlife—he felt his past and present colliding in ways that felt grounding and nourishing.

a large crowd of parties on front of a big blue monster mouth on the wall, which is also pictured in the photo of Anito Soul DJing that leads this story
Some of the crowd at the Balikbayan Worldwide launch party Credit: Diana Bowden

“The sound that I reference primarily is almost, like, 90 percent jungle, some 90s drum ’n’ bass stuff,” Balangue explains. “I’m also really into Chicago footwork and breakbeat—that type of stuff. What I’ve started to realize is that the music that I tend to like or reference is stuff that is really DIY or grassroots and representative of a certain culture.”

Francine believes that Chicago’s thriving Filipino community could use a hand connecting with music from home. “I think music is a very important artifact to continue bringing over here. A lot of the music is hard to find here,” she says. “It’s really cool here, but it’s more difficult to get home from here than the coasts. So it feels all the more important that there is that connecting network and that there is some sort of idea or physical place where people can find each other and find objects that are from somewhere far away.”

Just as Filipinos crave news and packages from their far-flung immigrant relatives, so do American-born diaspora babies crave a place in the culture they share with their families back home—not just knowledge of its history but also participation in collaborative visions for its future. 

When I interviewed people for this story—Beltran, the Almeda sisters, and Balangue—everyone got emotional recalling the Balikbayan Worldwide launch party. They peppered their descriptions with words like “magical” and “fate.” There’s more music coming, though Beltran is keeping the details close. He expects the label’s parties to happen annually, and he hopes to expand to New York and even Manila someday. The balikbayan goes to the Philippines and brings music home. He ships it back. The cultural back-and-forth gives rise to sounds, dances, and attitudes that energize dance floors the world over.