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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, March 25, 2023

entry arrow3:00 PM | The Nick Joaquin Literary Awards is Back!

I'm really glad that the Nick Joaquin Literary Awards is back! [Read here.] I'm grateful to be in the company of all these fantastic writers who are listed for the prize, and also happy that Graphics decided to spin off the Reader as the complimentary publication devoted to our literary works. The NJLA returns on May 4th, and also promises the publication of The Philippines Graphic Reader Book I, which will feature the 48 short stories and 48 poems that the literary magazine has published from February 2022 to January 2023. Thank you to literary editor Marra Lanot for including my story, and for her devoted attention to publishing all our works!

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

entry arrow7:00 AM | “F*ckboy Consumers”

Scene: Caña at The Bricks Hotel along Rizal Avenue, Dumaguete, Thursday, 3 PM. A table overladen with laptops and work stuff, and cups of coffee. A conversation.

“I heard there’s a new coffeeshop opening in front of your apartment.”

“It’s not really a coffeeshop, we found out last night. It’s actually more of a milk tea place—but they do serve coffee. I mean they have to. The word ‘bean’ is part of their name. People would expect it to be a coffee place, not a milk tea place.”

“There are too many milk tea places in Dumaguete, to be frank about it.”

“I’ve only liked one or two of them, to be honest. But Renz is a big milk tea fan, although he denies it.”

“Wasn’t that spot where the, umm, new milk tea is now… wasn’t that a fruit stand?”

“It was! I loved its name. Rizalicious Fruit Stand. It tickled me to death. Can you imagine taking Rizal’s name and making it delicious? It’s absolutely sacrilegious and bonkers, I love it. But it’s gone now. I was frustrated about that for a while, because it became my landmark for Grab Food drivers.”

“I wonder why they moved out.”

“I’m not really sure—but I was riding a tricycle the other day and the passengers in it had some chika. Apparently the lot owners increased the rent? I’m not sure about that. But that’s what I heard.”

“These days, you have to be careful keeping a business. Everything’s so expensive now. Rent is expensive. Onions are expensive.”

“Can you imagine for a while we were talking about how expensive onions were in the Philippines? That people were actually trying to smuggle them in international flights? What crazy times we live in.”

“I’m worried about _____, though. Its original branch in ______ is no longer around. But it’s new branch along _____ is still thriving.”

“We ate there last night.”

“I think he’s just consolidating his businesses right now. Let go of branches that are no longer working.”

“But it was such a pandemic hit!”

“It was!”

“I remember trying to get their food in the early months it opened in 2021—and we couldn’t! The lines were so long, and by the time we got to the stall, all their food items were gone.”

“That was fun.”

“It was, kinda. We had to go back there at least four times before we could finally get our orders in. But it was worth it. That ______ is to die for. It was delicious.”

“I have no recollection anymore how much I ate there.”

“Oh, it was a lot for me. And then I stayed away for a bit because it was already a bit too much. But later, when we got a craving for ______, we’d be there in a minute.”

“And now that original spot is gone.”


“I went past it the other night—the spot is so dark now, and it was all so festive before. I loved how they played music like mad.”

“Now it’s gone. Except for their second branch along _______. Thank God it’s still there. Because I still get my ______ cravings. I don’t understand though. It was so popular during the pandemic!”

“But that’s how Dumaguete runs. It runs on f*ckboy consumerism.”

“F*ckboy what? What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you noticed? Whenever new places open in Dumaguete, locals throng to it like mad, for months even. But once the novelty is over, we avoid them like the plague. That’s what f*ckboys do. They’re always, like, into you—and then when they get their fill, sayonara.”

“Oh yeah. I remember Chapters Café.”

“Yup, that café is popular in Dipolog, and franchisers thought they could make it work in Dumaguete. And it did, for a while. It was so Instagrammable with its quaint design using popular literary characters—and people went there to Instagram being there. And then suddenly nobody came.”

“The food was horrible! And I hated how they used books as receipt and cash holders. It was so disrespectful.”

“I’ve noticed we generally hate franchises. We do like things that are local.”

“Must be why Harbor City didn’t work.”

“The dimsum wasn’t worth the Dumaguete taste. I also remember how people swarmed to Max’s.”

“I still love Max’s! But yeah, it’s quiet most days. I love the chicken though. And their other stuff. How come we still patronize Mooon Café and Café Racer? Aren’t they Cebu franchises?”

“Because Rey remade them to cater to Dumaguete sensibilities. Mooon Café in Cebu is not exactly the same as Mooon Café in Dumaguete, not really. Same with Café Racer. Totally different vibes. You have to get into the elusive Dumaguete vibe to cater to Dumaguete taste.”

“I have a former student once—he now works at a major Manila corporation—he posted in Facebook some years ago that the only way to know you’re really a success is to succeed in Dumaguete. Because we are notoriously picky, so when we pick you, you are an absolute winner.”

“Dumaguete as the litmus test for the rest of the Philippines?”

“I get that. I get f*ckboy consumerism, I guess. We do tend to swarm in the very beginning—and we do tend to easily let go.”

“Unless we really, really love the food or service.”

“Unless they really catch our vibe.”

“Unless they really get us.”

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Friday, March 24, 2023

entry arrow11:31 PM | The Experience Economy and Other Things We Learned From the Culinary Heritage Workshop with Ige Ramos

When it comes to food, how much is our money’s worth? We had dinner at this new restaurant a few nights ago. [Writing this comes with the best effort at concealment. Our mantra has always been this: if we don’t like a Dumaguete restaurant’s fare, we’ll try our very best to resist the temptation to write a review—even though bad reviews are so tempting to do. Because we’d rather champion what we love, to be honest.] In any case, this restaurant was something we had not tried before. Ian always felt a strange kind of resistance whenever we passed by it, but he soon changed his mind, and we got ourselves a table—and we ordered a chicken dish for Ian, and a pork dish for Renz. Neither dish was filling or tasty.

And the service left a lot to be desired—even if the staff tried their hardest to be polite.

And we were eaten by mosquitoes.

And when we got the bill, we were floored to see the sum of a thousand pesos for bad dinner.

Where did it all go wrong?

Mostly, the food. We run by a simple philosophy in our culinary adventures: the food should be good, and better if it comes with an experience we can cherish later. Because that’s the thing that makes us come back, right? Sure, we can excuse the worst of atmosphere, and the rudest of staff, and the deadliest of mosquitoes, and even the steepiest of prices—but the food must be good, and also commensurate to the price tag it comes with. What’s worse than a meal bereft of flavor and soul is a meal that doesn’t justify its exorbitant bill, that falls short of the value attached to it.

The end of pandemic lockdown is upon us, whether we like it or not, and it’s mostly back to business as usual, but now we have a race for patronage with pre-pandemic restaurants and pandemic-era ones [and there’s a lot of them!]. Given the inflation, some of these are bound to bite the dust—but we think the ones that will survive are those that are unstinting in their quality, mindful of their pricing, aware of the value of experience, and also solicitous of the local palate. That last element is the hardest one to pin down because it involves a knowledge of the local food heritage, and a respect for it. We have a friend who recently bristled at a foreigner’s suggestion that our tablea was “unrefined chocolate,” with too much of a “burnt” taste: “I don’t get why he would denigrate our local tablea as ‘unrefined’—that’s exactly how we want our tablea to taste like. And why dismiss ‘burnt’ as a taste marker? Filipinos love a ‘burnt’ taste. That’s how we enjoy our grilled pork fat and everything else!”

Last March 18, a Saturday, we had the opportunity to place all these in context with culture and entrepreneurship, in a day-long workshop and lecture by one of the country’s leading voices in culinary heritage and cultural entrepreneurship, Ige Ramos, at 58 EJ Blanco.

Ige came with an invite from Slow Food Dumaguete/Negros Oriental organizers [in particular, Bea Misa-Crisostomo of Ritual] and the workshop was a jampacked event—perhaps with its participants enticed by Ige’s resume. A book designer, food writer, and visual artist, he runs IRDS/Republic of Taste Food Network, a platform for his publishing, book design, and independent research projects in edible design, comparative gastronomy, food history, anthropology, and public policy. He has designed some of the most important and influential food-themed books and cookbooks in the country, including Simply Delicious, Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit, and Bakery Traditions, The Governor-General’s Kitchen: Philippine Culinary Vignettes and Period Recipes, 1521-1935, Philippine Cookery: From Heart to Platter, Kulinarya: A Guidebook to Philippine Cuisine, Salu-salo: A Celebration of Philippine Culinary Treasures,¬¬ The Aristocrat Stories: Since 1936, Linamnam: Eating One’s Way Around the Philippines, and The Ultimate Filipino Adobo: Stories Through the Ages. On his own, he has written and published Lasa ng Republika: Dila at Bandila—Ang Paghahanap sa Pambansang Panlasa ng Filipinas, Republic of Taste: The Untold Stories of Cavite Cuisine, and Appetite for Freedom: The Recipes of Maria Y. Orosa with Essays on Her Life and Work. He also calls himself a cultural entrepreneur, which he defines as someone who is “a cultural change agent and resourceful visionary who organizes cultural, financial, social, and human capital, to generate revenue from a cultural activity that benefits a community.” It is in that capacity that he undertook the Dumaguete workshop—which he also did in Bayawan and Bacolod soon after. He considers being a cultural entrepreneur as a kind of “activism,” because it “valorizes the local as the new premium in the experience economy.”

This is where we first marveled at the workshop—because most of us in attendance were doing exactly what the concept entailed, but now we had a word for it. In terms of culinary culture, experience economy means “giving or ascribing value or validity to something [e.g., by raising or fixing the price or value of a commodity],” particularly that which “belongs or relates to a particular place,” and declaring them as “premium” or of superior quality, and therefore should command a higher price. Ige explains: “In the twenty-first century, designing and selling experiences [have] eclipsed the manufacture of physical things. An experience stirs emotions and generates memories. It embraces dramatic action, sensory engagement, and temporal interaction with users. During an experience, users create meanings and associations that become more important than the event itself. The experience economy has changed the way commercial companies design and deliver products. The experience economy has also changed how schools, hospitals, museums, and other organizations provide services to communities.”

You can give a literary tour of Dumaguete places, for example, highlighting spots that appear in Philippine literature—and end it with a sale of local books. [You give consumers an experience of literature come alive.] You can take people to the coffee shop in Baslay, Dauin—and sell coffee made from beans cultivated by local Baslay farmers. [You give consumers the experience of locally produced coffee unavailable elsewhere.] Experience is the key. This is how musicians make money now in the age of Spotify: they go on concert tours, maximizing that experience of live music by selling merchandise [including albums] on the side.

Ige cites Don Norman’s Three Layers of User Experience, where we start with the visceral [“The colors of that homemade ice cream look beautiful”] and the behavioral [“That homemade ice cream actually tastes good!”], and proceeding to a future reflective stage [“I enjoyed eating that homemade ice cream, and I’d like to try it again”]. The rise of the experience economy also entails going from mere commodity to hyper-local/full-bodied experience, employing more design features that makes it more expensive—because the experiential entails providing a memorable event.

Take coffee, for instance: you start with the basic commodity—the beans—which comes cheap for the most part. You take it higher, and it becomes a basic product, like Kopiko—packaged instant coffee for daily use. You take it even higher, and you get service coffee, like the one from 7-11—no frills coffee from a convenience store. You take it even higher, and you get Starbucks—which gives you ambience, and wifi, and air-conditioning. The highest level of the experiential is to turn coffee into a hyper-local experience—serving it in a way that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and promising some singularity, like a unique culture or location. The challenge of course is for cultural entrepreneurs to put a premium to their efforts—but at the same time still make it accessible to the locals, and also not short-change the producers of the basic commodity [like the farmers of coffee beans].

Ige gave specific examples of experience economies he found successful—which include tourism in Faeroe Island, Denmark [where you pay to just unwind with locals as they go about their daily tasks], tourism in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia [were you pay to stay in a farmer’s hut in the middle of a rice field, and participate in local customs and rituals], and a homestay he undertook in Basey, Samar [where you pay to stay with local families and eat the food they prepare for their daily meals]. 

From his own efforts, he cited doing a DIY tour in 2016 called “Sampalan ng Side View Mirror sa CaviteX,” a project he did on Facebook where he posted pictures of local food vendors that could be found along CaviteX [a series of highways in Cavite], giving specific descriptions of what they could offer, and pinning their locations for people to find. It was a huge success, with many people liking the posts and taking on the tour on their own, and sampling the food stuff that the vendors offered. It was so successful that he soon got contacted by Cavitex officials themselves—who commissioned him to do an official food tour for them. What came about was “Viaje Feliz x Lasa ng Republika,” which attempted to connect local gastronomic and cultural communities of Cavite via CaviteX, something he accomplished by taking on a two-week study of the project, identifying the problem [how to promote the local culture, gastronomy, history and traditions of the smaller coastal towns of Cavite], the threats, the weaknesses, the strengths, and the opportunities it entailed. Having identified the factors, he managed to design a culinary event that was also a huge success—and was followed by two more culinary showcases for Cavite.

On the challenges of Philippine gastronomy, he began by doing away with the question of “What is Filipino food?” and opted instead with a better question: “How does food become Filipino”—taking note of how much of our culinary culture is really a mixture of many influences, making it difficult to ascertain what is “pure” Filipino. “There is no such thing as ‘pure’ anyway,” he said.

Still, Ige insisted that we continually look at food through the lens of cultural glasses—following the philosophy of Franz Boas—but in his research, he could not find a proper framework to distill his findings, so he made his own theoretical framework instead, which mixes the lens of ingredient, geography, ethnicity, and technology, leading to combined lenses of terroir, community, trade, and culinary, and leading further to various lenses involving space. [It’s all too complicated to include here, but it was an interesting development of succeeding Venn diagrams.] Part of this is looking at the usual markers for taste—sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and umami, as well as spiciness, astringency, and oleogustus [pertaining to fat as a medium that carries flavor]—but also knowing that Filipinos have taste markers that cannot be defined by these things, including the specificities of raw fish, of coconut water, of green fruit, of patis with calamansi and sili, of alagaw, of palapa, of pork fat, of pig’s blood, of balut water, of rendered oil from chicken skin, of bagoong, of batwan, of mabolo, of katmon, of bile, of annatto.

Ige also talked about how hard it is to put a “standard” to Filipino food. Like the adobo. Most people think that the adobo comes with bay leaf, with black pepper corns, and with soy sauce, and that all these should be part of the “standard adobo,” but in his studies, he found out that the oldest recipes for adobo do not even call for these things. They are recent additions to the dish!

He ended with the insight that a good sense of local gastronomy involves the following things: valuing the palengke or tianggue as public space and cultural hub; valuing the carinderia as a gastronomic ecosystem of taste, trust, and tradition; valuing nature as being definitive of our food culture, and the source of our traditional and heirloom ingredients; valuing our living food heritage tools, technology, and infrastructure [which may be disappearing fast because of “progress” and politics—citing for example the Philippine salt law, which has wrecked havoc on traditional salt-making in the country]; valuing living food heritage methods; valuing farm-to-plate eating as a culture of sustainability; and valuing cooks as repository of heirloom ingredients and knowledge.

How do we preserve all these?

By documenting our heritage food in cookbooks, even in rudimentary ways.

By saving our food heritage and culinary traditions as much as we can.

And by telling our food heritage stories.

What was most enriching about the workshop was the chance to convene with like-minded individuals, friends and strangers alike, with whom we shared a similar vision of culinary heritage. We were cooks, and divers, and writers, and entrepreneurs, and teachers, and chefs, and socialites—all supportive of a future that enriches the way we relate to each other and the way we relate to food. We learned that not every meal should revolutionize our taste buds, and food shouldn’t be a luxury unattainable to a majority. At the very least, a meal should be filling and nutritious at any price point. What’s terrible about the hellscape we call the present world is that a statement like that feels rebellious when it should be the standard we aspire to.

The workshop with Ige was punctuated with a simple smattering of merienda food sprawled all over a tiny kitchen island table. We had bilao lined with banana leaves serving biko with ginger and calamansi, budbod with muscovado, and linuyang rolled in pinipig and dessicated coconut. We paired these delectable offers with water, coffee, and sweet tuba. All the food were sourced from within Negros Oriental and made by local cooks and chefs. Everything was delicious.

A final thought with regards sustainability: a great meal can come from any origin, any upbringing. If paying for it means our farmers, fisherfolk, grocers, butchers, bakers, and cooks get to eat their next meal, wouldn’t that make what we eat a little bit better?

[Written with Renz Torres]

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

entry arrow7:00 AM | In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 11: The Dumaguete Sound

Diomar Abrio is feeling ambitious. The longtime director of the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council [CAC] and a faculty member at the College of Performing and Visual Arts [COPVA] is brewing a plan, something he has dreamed of doing in recent years but feels compelled to finally accomplish it in 2023. In many ways, all that he has done in the name of cultural work for Silliman University, and Dumaguete in general, has led to this. Some years ago, he established an annual showcase of traditional Visayan music and dance, named Himig at Sayaw, which was later adopted by the National Committee on Music of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts [which he served for many years] into a project called Musikapuluhan. He has been trying to popularize Visayan folk music for a while now, and recently published a new edition of Priscilla Magdamo’s seminal work on Visayan folk songs, mining it for a variety of online performances during the pandemic.

This time, he is after something else. He wants to establish a choral festival in Dumaguete, and he wants the world to participate in it.

Call it inspired by pandemic restrictions, but that need to invite the world to Dumaguete is in many ways a cultural move that’s also partly therapy. When Typhoon Odette came with relentless fury in December 2021 in the middle of a raging pandemic, Mr. Abrio lost almost everything in the house he shared with his family in Barangay Suba in Manjuyod, a town north of Dumaguete. He is still traumatized by the memory of that awful night—the sound of the terrible wind, the cries of neighbors drowning in the flood, the sight of his car submerged in deep mud once morning came. He managed to hitch a ride on a motorcycle bound for Dumaguete to buy medicines for his family, and only when he entered the premises of a pharmacy did the reality of the tragedy sink in: right then and there, by the pharmacy’s door, he broke down and cried. But he has never been one to dwell too much on pain and loss and discomfort. Among CAC people, he is known as one who best rolls with the punches, and who makes things happen despite all the setbacks and red tape that is laid out for him whenever there are cultural events to be planned and executed. He is unassuming about it—but he does know what he wants. And now, he wants this: an international choral festival in Dumaguete, the pandemic be damned.

He has a name for it already. The Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez International Choral Festival, named after a beloved music mentor to many in Dumaguete, and a legend in choral music circles—but someone whose due has been overlooked for many years with regards her contribution to Philippine music.

Which is what usually happens when it comes to culture in Dumaguete—a veritable regional powerhouse that has produced many of the greats in Philippine arts [as well as pioneering many cultural efforts with national impact], but remains sadly unacknowledged by the gatekeepers in Manila. A quick search through the recent edition of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, for example, attests to this. In the music volume, there is nothing on Priscilla Magdamo [but there is an entry to “Ili-ili Tulog Anay” mentioning her as the primary collector of the song from field work], nothing on Albert Faurot, nothing on Constantino Bernardez, nothing on the Vistas, nothing on William Pfeiffer [but there is mention of him in the article on “research in music”], on our pioneering efforts in ethnomusicology and on our pioneering programs in choral music in the country, among others.

Not that she wants to measure her cultural legacy with an encyclopedia entry, but Ms. Visa-Suarez and her ilk clearly deserve recognition. Since she came back from the United States in 1989 after earning her masters in choral conducting from the Combs College of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Ms. Vista-Suarez has been steady in remaking the platform for cultural work at Silliman University [she was head of the CAC for many years, and steered efforts to put in print the university’s then non-existent cultural policies]. She has also gone about solidifying the musical heritage of Dumaguete—from her leadership of the famed Campus Choristers as well as Ating Pamana, to her work as musical director of many musicals at the Luce; from her ministry as conductor of church choirs, to her occasional forays into piano-playing. In her choral work, she has become a local legend—credited by her disciples of coming up with a distinctive sound she simply calls “timpla,” something that she has arrived at with her music after witnessing performances by many “top” choirs and reeling from their insistence that loud is good. She refuses to believe a choir’s prowess is measured by voices belting out, which may seem to unknowing audiences like a Sensurround barrage, but to her utterly lacks grace and restraint and musicality and … timpla.

It is this “timpla” that Dumaguete music is largely about. What it is, to be definitive about it, is a search for the best possible sound that comes from the confluence, and blending, of voices. Broadly, we can also take it to mean a confluence of genres and of efforts. Of the latter, the Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez International Choral Festival becomes the litmus test: a pandemic baby, it will the first international musical event in Dumaguete to be held in what increasingly seems to be the post-pandemic period. A lot hinges on its success, but Mr. Abrio is nothing but determined.

The people behind the CAC—and by and large the musical denizens of Silliman’s COPVA—has been largely responsible for the continued relevance of classical music in Dumaguete performance spaces, although it occasionally dips into the contemporary with concerts of pop favorites by its resident companies [including the Silliman University Marching Band, the Orkestra Sin Arco, the Campus Choristers, the Men’s Glee Club, the Women’s Ensemble, and others], and with its annual holding of the Valentine Songwriting Competition, the oldest musical competition of its kind in the Philippines. [In 2023, the VSC turns 35 years old.]

But the contemporary music scene, for the most part, is the province of the bands and performers behind the Belltower Project—although many of them are products of COPVA as well. Since 2013, when it was founded by Hope Tinambacan and his brother Juni Jay, Jan Barga, Franber Candia, and the Trasmonte twins Dave and Clark to be a community of local musicians helping each other drive forward the Dumaguete music scene, the Belltower Project has been a communal effort at determining the Dumaguete sound, at least in terms of popular music. It has done this by undertaking an ambitious [and supposedly] yearly project, which is putting out anthology albums featuring original compositions by a well-curated playlist of Oriental Negrense singers and bands, all of them of varied musical inclinations, from reggae to ska, from shoegaze to electronica, from hard metal to café ballads. [Their efforts have also led to the creation of a 2015 stage musical, Scharon Mani, which featured songs from the Belltower Project albums.] These albums that came out over the years were known primarily by their ordinal titles, from Uno to Cinco, and their launches were carefully coordinated concerts that regularly drew in massive crowds of steadfast fans. But efforts largely came to a halt because some of its masterminds [and some bands as well] had to leave Dumaguete to pursue professional lives elsewhere. This included Hope Tinambacan who had to temporarily leave for Singapore for theatre studies in 2016, and Natalie Curran, who had to go back home to Luxembourg after finishing her psychology studies at Silliman. But many of the bands remained—from Enchi to Hopia, from Finpot to 5Volts, from The Chocodog Invasion to Trigger Gypsies, from Odd to HNO2, from Crickets Playground to Modern Cassette, from Arnold Cristopher to N.A.N.A., and many others. Some, like Wilfreedo, have gone on to national fame. All of them were enjoying regular gigs before the pandemic, and many other local singers and groups [such as Kyle Juliano and Midnasty and the twins Zack x Zeph, and hiphop artists Kalamay Papi and Massiah] were being snapped up by major recording companies in Manila, or gaining national attention for their performances and videos.

The pandemic virtually put a stop to most of these things. Gone were the concerts. Gone were the albums. Gone were the gigs at the usual places such as Hayahay or El Amigo or Daddy Don’s. The Belltower Project remained in hiatus—its members scrambling to make a living, or to do something else in the long pause of three years. [One opened a bread-and-barbecue joint that became an instant pandemic success.] By the second year of the pandemic, in 2021, some places returned to restricted operations, and were inviting once more performers to provide musical entertainment for patrons—like Caña at The Bricks Hotel, or for a while at the defunct Sinati at The Flying Fish Hostel. But these all paled in comparison to the pre-pandemic musical scene. The only light that remained were the musical shows the CAC was offering, usually via the internet—and only because Silliman University was still operational despite being largely online, and part of its educational mandate was to provide a cultural component to the Silliman academic experience.

In many ways, the characteristics of musical performances—“have instrument, have space, will play”—enabled CAC to program shows that felt ready-made for a streaming audience, the only way it could be done during the pandemic. The compromise was obvious: it could not devote equal programming to other art forms like the literary arts or visual arts or cinema like it used to—but music and dance and a bit of theatre it could. [Architecture is always hard to program.] The CAC started what it called its “virtual cultural season” in August 2020—which by then had people losing the pre-pandemic wishful thinking that “all of these would be over by June”—by staging an annual cultural staple that brings together Silliman performers in themed concerts, Silliman Performs. For this year, the show was subtitled Hope for All Mankind. Scheduled to begin streaming on CAC’s Facebook page on August 22nd, it featured a smorgasbord of artists and groups of all stripes, including the SU String Ensemble, SUACONA Chorale, Kwerdas, Orkestra Sin Arco, Men’s Glee Club, Women’s Ensemble, Silliman University Band, SU Campus Choristers, SU Dance Troupe, and the SU Gratitude and Goodwill Ambassadors. It also had appearances by writers Alfred Yuson and Rowena Tiempo Torrevillas, as well as Alexandra Tuale, the Pacalioga Family, Beth Castillo-Winsor, Lora Espancho, Maria Elcon Kleine Koerkamp, Katrina Marie Saga, and representatives of Silliman alumni chapters in UAE, Hawaii, Thailand, and others. The mélange of the enterprise was perhaps a necessary answer to the pandemic ravages, which was still at its voracious peak—and it was basically a call for solidarity and community, a balm for frayed nerves, and a nostalgia trip for those seeking that kind of comfort.

Later on, in October 2020, CAC began putting on streaming versions of older shows, like Ampalaya the Musical, the Michael Dadap play based on the children’s book by Augie Rivera Jr., and The Story of Dumpawa’s Lullaby in October 2020, a musical revue I wrote based on Folk Songs of the Visayas by Priscilla Magdamo with a Manobo tale of a rat in search of a lullaby to bookend it. In November, it streamed Timeless Arias, showcasing operatic performances by COPVA musical artists. In December, it streamed Gleeful Christmas, featuring the Campus Choristers, the Men’s Glee Club, the Women’s Ensemble, the Concert Band, and the String Ensemble.

Around this time, it was gearing up for the launch of the first-ever virtual edition of the Valentine Songwriting Competition, scheduled for streaming on February 2021—this time, tweaking the regular format of the contest by focusing on the award for an overall Best Song [and scuttling the original Best Composer, Best Interpreter, and Best Arranger awards in the process], but also adding a Best Music Video award. It was all reflective of the pandemic lockdown necessities. Even in the challenges of the pandemic, the usual slate of ten finalists was filled. A People’s Choice category was also tacked on. On competition date, the song “When Quarantine Ends” by Shanice Nicole Caballes won the People’s Choice award, with Melchizedek Lozarita II’s “Huling Yakap” winning both Best Song and Best Music Video—a windfall of P30,000 cash prize [a third of that for the latter award].

Also in February 2021, true to the Zoom-centered cultural productions common of the time, Mr. Abrio would also organize for the CAC a webinar on “Accessing Visayan Folksongs as Pedagogical Resources for Music and Mother Tongue-Based Instruction,” together with Ms. Vista-Suarez and Matilda Limbaga-Erojo as facilitators. Around this time, the CAC finally put the finishing touches on its own website—which was many years in conception, but took a pandemic to finally put to reality: here, patrons could be invited to buy virtual tickets, and also to watch the streaming shows. Its first show using the website was a concert of Filipino art songs titled Kundiman at Iba Pa in March, again featuring singers from COPVA and other units in Silliman. In April, it streamed Piknik, a piano concert celebrating the 80th anniversary of Silliman’s Piano Program—“covering a wide range of genres from the masterful classical solos, arrangement of kundiman and folk songs, up to the sweeping OPM ballads,” and featuring many of the talented alumni of that program, including Gina Raakin, Enrico Riconalla, Christian Gonzales, Charles Abing, Casmelyn Quicoy, Allen Diadem Chesed Jovita, Alexis Faye Pal, Agape Manigsaca-Labuntog, Ricardo Abapo Jr., Winfred Quir, Romer Pielago, Michelle Dana Sabellina, Joji Jumawan Tonko, Lemoine Rey Poligrates, Kent Luigi Orbeta, Johann Rey Beira, Guide Dadang, Erik Johann Riconalla, and of course, the mother-daughter tandem of Isabel Dimaya Vista and Elizabeth Susan Vista Suarez. In May, to celebrate 80 years of COPVA’s Voice Department, CAC streamed Tinubdanan: Usa Ka Pasundayag nga Birtwal sa Atong Mga Huning Kabilin, a show “crafted to revive and relive the beauty and existence of Visayan folk songs as these songs born from the womb of our Visayan culture slowly become forgotten.”

In August, the CAC opened its 59th cultural season with another virtual programming, starting with Silliman Performs: Cradle of Faith, Justice, and Culture—and by “cradle” it meant the Silliman Amphitheatre, the space in campus in front of the Silliman Church which originated many of the university’s cultural programs from its beginning decades, and which in 2021 was turning a hundred years old. It was a momentous occasion to showcase Silliman performing arts, even if it was still a streamed event—but it also boasted of online appearances by Lea Salonga, Gary Valenciano, and National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, who has maintained a close connection with the music people at Silliman over many decades.

In October, CAC streamed Bisayaw: A Visayan Folk Dance Festival, featuring the dance repertoire of the SU Dance Troupe and the musical gifts of the SU Rondalla. In November, it streamed Reverie: A Tapestry of Celebrated Art Songs, performed and recorded live at the Romeo P. Ariniego Art Gallery, billed as the “first full production concert in the venue,” and featuring the Cantare Vocé quintet led by soprano Katrina Marie Saga, together with the SU String Ensemble and SU Campus Choristers under Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez, and featuring the Philippine Madrigal Singers’ Mark Anthony Carpio. In December, it streamed Jazz Christmas, featuring the Silliman University Jazz Band under Joseph Albert Basa.

By February 2022, almost a full two years since the lockdowns began and with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing, the Valentine Songwriting Competition, which had been faithfully staged at the Luce for many years, did not show up on the cultural calendar—save for a February 18 showcase, titled Of Love, Music, and Lyrics: Original Music Compositions, which aimed to celebrate the 30-year stretch of the long-running competition. But, seemingly guilted into reconsidering a Valentine season without the annual competition, a real contest was finally slated for March 13—and tagged the understandable lateness in scheduling as “never too late for love songs!” The same two categories from the previous year’s competition were retained, with Cris Aguilar winning Best Song for “Closer,” and Adrien Rey Urciada winning Best Music Video for “Mahay.”

In April, CAC streamed Sonic Quest, a showcase of original compositions and arrangements by Silliman composers, including Jovy Leo O. Mulaan, Kaye Bernadette Banguis, Miguel Dizo, Janus Arthur [Onin], Myo Aung, Jhon James Dayak, Levi Alaban, Lee Albertino “Chino” Añiga, Odoni Pestelos, Jem Talaroc, and Algernon Van Peel. In May, it streamed Ating Pamana/Our Heritage, a celebration of Filipino music and dance heritage, including creative interpretations of beloved Original Pilipino Music. In July, it streamed a replay of Reverie: A Tapestry of Celebrated Art Songs. In August, CAC hosted a lecture demonstration and concert of the McClosky Institute of Voice, featuring Priscilla Magdamo.

Also that August, a pandemic milestone. After more than two years of performing virtually, CAC’s cultural calendar was now doing a shift: it was returning to the Luce Auditorium. The herald of that return was Silliman Performs: Cantate Domino, playing on August 25th and 26th, and featuring many of the performers that have endeavored to continue a viable cultural program online. In October, CAC co-sponsored with the CCP a program titled The Balitaw of Negros Oriental, a look at the extemporaneous expression of traditional Visayan courtship, featuring balitaw performers from Maloh, Siaton; Jimalalud High School; Sook, Ayungon; and Dumaguete City High School. In November, it hosted a music theory workshop with Maestro Ryan Cayabyab, who was returning to Dumaguete for the first time in person since December 2018. In December, the organizers behind the Valentine Songwriting Competition launched a return to normal programming by presenting Pagdasig sa Gugma: Love Through the Ages, an open-mic event at the Ariniego Art Gallery foyer. Later that month, CAC would restage Jazz Christmas with the Silliman University Big Band, this time with a full production at the Luce Auditorium.

The return of the Valentine Songwriting Competition to the Luce stage in February 2023 also meant a return to the old categories—with prizes for Best Composition, Best Arrangement, and Best Interpretation, and the subsequent retirement of the Best Music Video category. Julia Faith Joaquin won for the song “Pangandoy,” arranged by Jules Steven Josol. Gabrielle Moreno won Best Interpretation for her performance of her song “Mangga,” perhaps the first horny song ever sung on the VSC stage, arranged by John Rafael Doroteo. And Natalya Songcal won Best Arrangement for the song “Moonlit Dew,” composed by Jeyah Mae Culanag. Later that month, Musikapuluhan would also return in full force at the Luce, this time with a series of concerts titled Keep the Music Playing: Young Artists Series, with shows featuring Sara Maria Gonzales on the violin, John Paolo Anorico on the cello, and Ricardo Abapo Jr. on the piano on the 24th; Gabriel Allan and Ferros Paguirigan in The Chopin I Love: A Piano Concert on the 25th; and Michael Angelo Valenciano on the 26th. The program culminated on the 28th with Handulantaw: A Festival of Contemporary and Traditional Music and Dance Today.

But it would be disingenuous to compare CAC’s efforts with other similar bodies in Dumaguete, given Silliman’s resources and network. The city’s other educational and cultural institutions did rise to the challenge, facing the pandemic with cultural productions that defied the odds, some with more extensive efforts than others—and most of them virtual. One such commendable project was Hinalad Music Ministry’s offering of a Holy Week-timed music video, “Sa Krus,” in 2022, which transcended university borders and mixed in musical efforts by a variety of Dumaguete music people—including Jean Cuanan-Nalam [the composer], Gina Raakin [the arranger], Juni Jay Timbacan [the orchestrator, sound designer and mixer], Nikki Cimafranca [the director], Benjie Kitay and Kirk Antony Tebio [the videographers], and Dave Jan Fabe [the producer, with Cuanan-Nalam], featuring performances by Alexi Miraflor, Mary Anne Esquierdo, Majal Tagumpay Uriarte, Manuel Jarabe Jr., and Hope Tinambacan.

In Foundation University, its Office for Culture and the Arts spearheaded an online concert titled True Colors, featuring Abuhuni Choir, timed for the opening of its academic year in 2020, and ended the year with the A Very Special Christmas Celebration online concert, focusing on “The Christmas Pageant” by Rev. Jeanne Mcintosh, and also featuring the Abuhuni Choir, the Abuhuni Marching Band, and the Buglasayaw Dance Troupe. In 2021, there would be musical participations in the university’s regular cultural roster, including Saulog Artes in February, Padayon in April, and Kasadyaan in December, and the same slate in 2022—all virtual.

The truth of the matter is, even given the hardships of the pandemic, the astounding cultural grind at Silliman could continue on, blessed with a cultural leadership who undertook savvy creative choices that accepted the limitations of the pandemic and made something viable of the challenges, and bolstered by a shift to an online platform that readily showcased performances that had no need of the physicality of audiences. Still, it should be apt to take note that many of these performers unstintingly rose to the occasion upon invitation, and always “for the love of Silliman.” And yet, despite this abundance of cultural showcases, the reception in the greater community of Dumaguete remained largely muted. Unless you were an alumnus and followed the CAC Facebook posts with religion, you would not know what exactly was going on in campus, even virtually. That’s actually a longstanding pre-pandemic problem—engaging the greater Dumaguete community with Silliman’s cultural calendar—but the pandemic itself did not cure it. “It’s not without reason to think of Silliman sometimes as an island into itself. It’s terribly insular,” says D., a medical doctor.

COPVA aside, other music schools in town definitely felt the pandemic pinch. FunShop Dumaguete, a 20-year-old music tutoring center founded by Gina Raakin and associates and headquartered at the Bandera Building along Jose Pro Teves Street, knew the lockdown meant shifting lessons somehow online [not always a viable alternative for music learning], and soon, if the lockdown continued, less enrollment to their classes. But FunShop persevered, finding ways to make the limitations work, staging recitals like music videos and other endeavors, and even staging concerts with players on separate cameras playing music together. It was the same with the Jay Cyrus Creative Studios, which now occupies reduced space at the compound of the old Emilio Macias Building [formerly a hospital] along Manuel L. Teves Street, which has been taken over with some totality by a BPO. The enrollment dwindled—but a steadfast spirit that believed that things would get better was key. One needed faith to survive the pandemic. It was faith that opened the doors to other opportunities for Jay Cyrus Villanueva and his wife Wowee.

. . .

At the beginning of the third running year of the pandemic, Louise Remata-Villanueva [Wowee to friends] and Jay Cyrus Villanueva of the eponymous music school in Dumaguete stumbled on a chance of a lifetime. It was an opportunity to open an extensive performance space—and house the music school—at the old Bejar house along Hibbard Avenue in the heart of Piapi, right beside the public elementary school, a picturesque heritage structure cocooned in a vast compound. They imagined a stage gracing the extensive front lawn. They imagined a restaurant at the old garage. They imagined a lounge café in the first floor, complete with an intimate performance space. They imagined a studio and the school in the second floor. Their imagination ran towards the miraculously wonderful, so much so that only one name seemed perfect for the endeavor: Chadaa: Music and Dreams. In Binisaya, “tsada-a” means something delightful, brilliant, magnificent, astonishing, ideal.

In many ways, Chadaa as a performance and events venue was a wonderful pandemic fluke—and a leap of faith. But it is also something that seemed to be long time in coming, especially for Ms. Remata-Villanueva. Born in Cebu City but with Oriental Negrense roots, she had always considered Dumaguete to be home. She was four years old when her family moved to Dumaguete from Cebu, a very specific choice since her father actually landed an opportunity to work as general manager for Pepsi in Bacolod. But their grandparents were here, and they didn’t want to move elsewhere—and thus the choice of Dumaguete stood.

Ms. Remata-Villanueva earned her basic education from St. Paul’s, and went on to college at Silliman University, where she majored in Speech and Theatre. Music was already something deeply embedded in her passions, and this was the only choice for her: “Ever since grade school, I have been singing—which elevated to my love for music in general, most especially musical theatre and jazz,” she says. “After graduation, I took a few musical theatre workshops with Trumpets Manila, but mostly my exposure to theatre had been with Silliman, under the mighty directorship of the late Evelyn Aldecoa, my mentor and most favorite teacher.”

She would meet—and marry—Jay Cyrus Villanueva, Dumaguete’s top saxophonist who is a COPVA graduate, and who earned everyone’s delight by opening his own music tutorial center in Dumaguete, Jay Cyrus Creative Studios [JCCS], which grew quickly and became a success. [This year, it celebrates its tenth anniversary.] For Wowee, marriage to a budding music mogul meant being absorbed into the operations of the school, something she was already wont to do because of her extensive musical background. She became a coach for voice lessons, and eventually became the manager of the school. She also sang for events under Jay Cyrus Entertainment [now the Jay Cyrus Squad], a pop/jazz/funk band in Negros Oriental—and together with her husband, were the faces and voices of the pandemic Christmas music video the Dumaguete City Tourism Office released in 2020.

Dumaguete remained a center for their musical aspirations. “Jay and I love Dumaguete because of how rich our culture is here,” she says. “We want to be part of it and grow with it, especially that there are all these amazing artists here that truly inspire. They have personalities that humble you, and even ignite you to become even more creative and passionate. Dumaguete represents endless artistic and cultural possibilities.”

With that always in their minds, both had always dreamed of putting up a recital place of their own for their JCCS students. They envisioned a place where guests would be treated to eclectic experiences, from theatrical performances to stand-up comedy, from open-mics to music concerts with jazz bands, opera singers, classical pianists, and string quartets. “I can imagine having a solo cellist on a beautiful morning or a lazy afternoon in Chadaa,” she says. “What we want is to be able to provide and create an elevated atmosphere to showcase amazing talents in Negros and beyond.”

Finding the spot was a fluke that might be considered prophetic. “This location in Piapi was so random. I was in a car with my sister Therese Christine, and we were driving past this house, and she said: ‘Kanindot ani na lugar butangan ug something!’ Little did we know that fast forward to a few months, we got the exact same place, and now it is Chadaa.” And all it took, really, was an invitation of some sort from her father, Nestor T. Remata, and his best friends John Rojo and Nelson Cuñado, who all expressed an interest in investing in “something fun.” She immediately took the bait, showed them the property of her dreams, and broached the idea of a performance space—a step up from her and Jay’s dreams that for her seemed both like a “revelation and evolution.”

When the financing came through, she knew she wanted to preserve the old Bejar house as is, because its structure was already beautiful. It just needed a specific color scheme to pop out—and they settled on a particular marine blue that was at once arresting and cool, a vibe they were inspired by their love for the film La La Land, and for a certain old New Orleans jazz bar, and for The Blue Note in New York City.

The pandemic also defined their drive to succeed. “I believe that the pandemic has made an effect on us, because it has given us a thirst for bringing back the vibrant music scene in Dumaguete,” Ms. Remata-Villanueva says. “We want to widen the horizons of musicians here, provide a good place for music majors and all other artists—and not just waste their degrees and end up working at a call center—not that there is anything wrong with that! We want to provide a place where artists can really practice and hone what they have studied over the years and work on their passion.”

Today, Chadaa’s slate is still very much a work in progress—after declaring Wednesdays as Broadway Nights, they have just declared Saturday nights to be their Theatre Night [also for comedy specials and improv performances]—and their recently launched Jazz Nights on Fridays drew in a record number of attendees. In the meantime, since their launch in July 2022, they have hosted a variety of concerts, starting with saxophonist Joefre C. from Cebu and jazz musicians Mike Tambasen Project from Bacolod. Willfreedo would do its tenth anniversary concert in Chadaa, and the venue became a favorite performance space for a rotating number of singers and bands, including Enchi, Lagkaw Project, Ysabelle Lucero and Jordan Lim, Zia Mandi and Seth Gadiana [of Zamboanga], Carlos Zialcita and Blues Oriental, the Silliman University Jazz Band with Joseph Albert Basa, Julsduo [of Bohol], J-Squad, Julia, Crossroad Band, Pureplay, Jayson and Jamie, Nyords, All for Jordan, Chelsea Dawn, The Blues Bringer, The Quizo Family Singers, 3 of a Kind, Standout, and the in-house musical group Jay Cyrus Squad [formerly Jay Cyrus Entertainment].

The Belltower Project hosted their return from the pandemic doldrums in a January 28 concert celebrating their tenth anniversary in Chadaa. One of their pioneering members, Ms. Curran, had returned for a visit to Dumaguete—and the gang hastily took it as a chance to get back together, and to push plans to revive the Belltower Project brand and get back to the business of defining [and redefining] the Dumaguete sound. Their return concert was titled Decimo—perfect for a tenth anniversary gig, eschewing their usual homebase of Hayahay to this new concert place in Piapi. [They did return to Hayahay for their official tenth anniversary concert on 3 March 2023, with performances from Dalan, Crickets Playground, The Intermissioner, Modern Cassette, Ground Zero, and As the Skies Divide.] Performing together for the first time in years were some of BTP’s member bands, including Willfreedo, Finpot, Chelsea Dawn, Hopia, YONA, Trigger Gypsies, 3rd String, Own the Spot, and Chocodog Invasion, preceded by a songwriters jam early that afternoon. For many, the reunion show was virtually the fantastical end of the pandemic, a musical get-together to recollect and recharge.

It was an epic night of Dumaguete music. Tara De Leon, writer and music aficionado, recalls “the makeshift wall of tarpaulin obscure[ing] the venue, but the numerous cars and motorcycles that lined the street ‘revealed’ what was waiting inside” Chadaa. She says: “It wasn’t surprising, while Dumaguete seems to be teeming with live music performances, there was a certain hunger for that local flavor that the Belltower Project could only deliver and Decimo satiated that seemingly decade-long itch. Old fans of BTP nodded and acknowledged each other as if no time had passed, the familiar electric atmosphere welcoming us all home. The best part was the new young faces that dotted the concert grounds, full of energy and eager for local music—the bright future that will carry on the love and support for the local music community.”

Decimo triggered memories and hopes in equal measure, and perhaps also reminded everyone of the greater cause of Belltower Project. It was also a trigger of sentiments—and love. At the peak of the night, YONA’s Lorie Jayne Soriano received a proposal from her longtime partner [and co-band member], and tearfully accepted. Later, she would write of the whole thing:

“We [could] count the [number of] people who knew what we were going through lately. They didn’t know [Enrique Morelos Jr. and I] broke up a few weeks ago, cutting our six-and-a-half-year relationship. It got us so confused and messed up at some point, and the reason we still continued seeing each other was because we were part of the same band. So we had to be professional and show up at every rehearsal, performing our maoy songs na both of us could already relate… And then finally Decimo [came]. The event was a reunion of our Belltower Project community, the same community of musicians na nahimong reason why we met in the first place back in 2016. So many flashbacks! I was just enjoying every moment of the event because I was already thinking about what [Enrique] said that [he] might leave Dumaguete real soon. So while I was already tipsy, I had the courage to tell [him] something, and I whispered in [his] ear: ‘Kabalo ka, no? Dili ko ka imagine ug other person na kauban diri, ikaw ra.’ I really wanted to cry. After looking in [his] eyes, my heart was aching so badly I decided to go [to] where my friends [were]. [When] Willfreedo [performed], [he] knew how I loved seeing them perform up close… and there was [him] looking [at] me [at the corner]. Willfreedo played ‘I Will Make You Katawa’:

Bisan always ta mag away.
Bisan mag-argue ta kanunay...
Higugmaon tika hantod magulang ta.

“… Wala na ko kapugong, nakalingi ko [niya]… And then they played ‘Dumzville.’ [He was] already pushing me to go to the front kay gi-acknowledge ko ni Kuya Norris as their [music video] director before. Ug sa dihang niluhod naman intawon [si Enrique] sa kilid. Mura ko’g malipong ngano [syang] niluhod, nag sagol-sagol na ang naa sa akong utok, ngano man ni siya nga gabulag naman mi! And then I heard [him] talk... Samot ko na-confused! Wala na ko kadungog unsa to [iya] gisulti specifically, pero galantaw ko’s [iyang] mga mata, [and] I saw [his] sincerity. Tinuod gyud diay ang feeling na murag mawala sa [imong] panlantaw ang ubang tawo. And then [he] finally asked the question... [It was] a very memorable night, indeed. Nisulod and ni-perform [mi] nga single sa Chadaa, nigawas [mi] na engaged.”

That was a memorable January night of music and dreams—a fulfillment of Ms. Soriano’s love, and Mr. Tinambacan’s hopes, and Ms. Remata-Villanueva’s wishes. In September, the world finally comes to Dumaguete in celebration of choral music—and fulfilling, finally, Mr. Abrio’s aspirations. Distill all of that into a perfect “timpla,” and you get the Dumaguete sound.

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Thursday, March 23, 2023

entry arrow9:24 PM | Accidental Art History

My essays on the arts in Dumaguete during the pandemic are becoming longer, and longer, and longer. But I don’t really care. This wasn’t my purpose when I stumbled into this series last year, but it has somehow become not just a work of cultural criticism, it has moved on to become a very specific art history: chronicling how artists in a small Philippine city dealt with three years of the pandemic. I know there are some who think, “Too long!” but you know what? Kebs, these essays are not for you. Anyway, I’m done with visual arts [8 essays in all!], done with theatre, done with dance, done with music. Next up: cinema and literary arts, and then an epilogue.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 127.

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Friday, March 17, 2023

entry arrow9:35 PM | Nibisita Ko sa “Usa Ka Isla”

I caught the premiere of the play Usa Ka Isla at the Luce Auditorium tonight. It's a Kasing Sining production, which is under the guidance of the great Lutgardo Luza Labad and the artistic direction of Jerrey David Aguilar, and tackles the travails and the aftermath of Typhoon Odette in Bohol, when it came and ravaged Central Visayas in December 2021. The story, in glorious Binisaya, is a chorus of voices from ordinary people as they prepare to face the incoming typhoon, not knowing the devastation that would eventually happen, and then showing the hardship and resilience of these people in the wake of the tragedy — questioning God, questioning authority, questioning fate, questioning the very idea of “resilience.” They have two more shows slated for Saturday. Here I am with Gardy, and with the cast and crew! For tickets, go to the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council website.

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entry arrow7:00 AM | What Is It With All These Milk Tea Shops? and Other Notes on Saturation

If you’ve been in Dumaguete long enough to see trends take place and evolve, you will note that Dumaguetnons love to copy—perhaps in a very similar way it occurs in all other places, but in a small city like Dumaguete, copycatting can be quite conspicuous. That “smallness of place” may also be the trigger for this tendency: someone sees something as an aspirational goal or as a successful enterprise, copying feels like a sure bet. It’s hard to please the Dumaguetnon, so if something appeals to them, one better jump on the bandwagon.

Someone buys an Econo, for example, and then suddenly the city streets are awash with that uniquely 1990s motorcycle with white hoods [and comes in blue or red]—to the point that Dumaguete was once dubbed by national media as the “motorcycle capital of the Philippines.” Today, that Econo is now the Wigo.

Someone opens an internet café—and then suddenly, every corner has an internet café. Someone opens a yoga studio—and then suddenly we have a proliferation of yogis. Someone makes great ube pan de sal—and then suddenly ube pan de sal is everywhere.

Then there’s milk tea.

We’ve noticed that, for the longest time, there has been a lot of milk tea places popping up around the city. As far back as memory goes, Chowking was the first to jumpstart the milk tea craze in Dumaguete. The franchise introduced the concoction of black tea, evaporated milk, and chewy pearls to the Dumaguetnon public as early as the late 2000s, followed by Zagu which occupied a stall at Lee Super Plaza and at Robinsonsplace Dumaguete—and also wherever a Zagu could occupy, it did. These were our introduction to “pearls,” at an accessible price point that vibed well with the naturally kuripot Dumaguentnon.

What we eventually loved was Gong Cha, which set up a stall at the groundfloor of Robinsons, and which sold nothing else but milk tea in different kinds of flavor. Renz remembers asking himself: “Can a milk tea place earn enough to support paying rent for a mall stall?” The answer apparently is yes. Then there was Infinitea, which occupied a coveted spot at Paseo Perdices. It was a huge hit, and was always full—but it did not survive the pandemic crunch. [Now another milk tea is occupying its old location.]

Afterwards, the deluge of milk tea shops in town could be compared to mushrooms sprouting: from famous international franchises like ChaChaGo, to local franchises like Sebucha, to original enterprises donning exaggerated puns to name their business venture. Our favorite pun is QRSTea; and our least favorite is the rather tongue-in-cheek Zu Boh Ti Tea.

Someone in Twitter also made this observation: why is there a proliferation of coffee shops in Dumaguete all of a sudden? Ian remembers a time when the very idea of a coffee shop was so alien to the Dumaguetnon public. When Silliman Avenue Café [lovingly called SACs by its patrons] opened its gleaming venture along that street in the early 2000s, it was veritably the first of its kind in Dumaguete aside from Lee Cimbali at the Lee Super Plaza supermarket. Asked if the venture was sustainable in Dumaguete, one local businessman scoffed: “Ngano man ko mo-adto og coffee shop nga mahal kayo ang kape, nga puede ra man ko mag-Nescafe sa balay?”Obviously, years later, this remark is myopic.

There have been many coffee shops in Dumaguete since SACs—but over and after the pandemic, you can really sense a proliferation that is almost abnormal. The success of Coffee Collective probably paved the way, and now we have others like Oh Café along Larena Drive, Brewedways Coffee at Northpoint, 85 Degrees Artisan Café along Ipil Street, Socials Café in Claytown, Black and Copper along EJ Blanco Drive, Aromar Coffee and Kape Negrense Brew along West Rovira Road in Pulantubig, It’s the Coffee Weekend at Florentina Homes also along Rovira, and so many others. Along Aldecoa Drive, we have Alsani Café and The Cabin Blend—and the other day, Ian woke up to find the empty lot in front of his apartment along Aldecoa bearing a sign announcing a coffee shop soon to be built on the property. Coffee shops don’t always come in considerable brick and mortar space—Kapeng Lokal along East Rovira Road is just a small stall that’s easy to miss, but they have a loyal clientele who order mostly through food-delivery apps; Kohi along Hibbard Avenue is also a small stall but puts on a charming front with a Japanese-inspired ambience; and Don Macchiato’s is a pop-up along Locsin Street.

Renz recalls a friend who enrolled in a senior marketing class for his business degree, and who found himself assigned an entrepreneurial project for the entire semester. His chosen venture was selling coffee, and he said that selling coffee was a money-maker because the overhead cost was low but the selling price can be stretched considerably. Another one of his friends is a declared coffee enthusiast. She’s been interested in it since 2013, and bought filters and beans as a hobby. Then the pandemic hit, and the prices of these filters shot up significantly, and suddenly she found many people interested in how to make a great cup of coffee. A lot of these probably thought selling coffee would make great business.

Renz loves tea, but Ian swears by coffee—it helps soothe his ADHD, and regularly boosts his day. We are generally happy about the proliferation of coffee shops—and how we have famous franchises in place [Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, Starbucks, and Tom n Toms] as well a roadside pickup points and online baristas selling through food apps and the Internet.

Market saturation doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It is an indication of a customer base that has disposable income. It means that everyone can enjoy a product, no matter what price points there are. It also means that competition is stiff. The food industry may be accessible and stalwart but savvy food businesses need to occupy food niches and cater to their audience right from the get-go. Dumaguete is an interesting market because of the wide gap between the working class and the rich so there are a lot of areas that you can target—but that market has to be enraptured by your marketing and your product, or else you’ll find yourself trying to capture only the specter of a customer. Competition in the market means that you and your competitors have to innovate with what you’re selling, or at the very least come up with a novel idea that sticks to your audience.

For example, fried chicken has been a Filipino food staple since the Americans brought that idea to us. Ever since then, fried chicken has remained a favorite in many restaurant fares and family recipes. We have learned to love chicken joy from Jollibee for decades now—but we’d like to applaud the entry of Crispy King into our midst. The franchise, which originated in Ormoc City and is easily recognizable with its red paint and zany word logo, is suddenly everywhere in Dumaguete. Every corner now has a Crispy King in it. But we’re not complaining. Its fried chicken, prepared in halal fashion, is very affordable [with P50, you can get a sizable piece of chicken meat, with gravy and a cup of rice as part of that affordable package]. Ian says it tastes even better than Jollibee’s chicken joy. He swears by it.

Does the proliferation of Crispy King have anything to do with the pandemic? We suppose so. It was already there before the lockdowns happened in 2020—but its spread is a pandemic-era recession miracle.

Maybe all these is just recession proliferation, but for now, let’s just enjoy our assorted milk tea, our coffee, and our fried chicken.

Written with Renz Torres

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Thursday, March 16, 2023

entry arrow7:00 AM | The Darkness We Don’t Talk About

In 2008, a sort of funny thing happened. It was the second year of the Man Asian Literary Prize, the now defunct literature award given to the best novel in the English language [or in translation] by an author in Asia—and four Filipino authors were longlisted for the award: yours truly, Lakambini Sitoy, Alfred Yuson, and Miguel Syjuco, with the latter ending up winning the prize [and the Palanca Award for the novel at that time].

It was an amazing harvest of Philippine literature, and being thrust personally in the middle of that was surreal. [It tickled me to see my name in print on the New York Times book section, for example.] Part of it was the allure of the prize being given by the same body that was sponsoring the Booker Prize, and thus the Man Asian Literary Prize was being seen in many quarters as the “Asian Booker.” Another part of the allure was also the fact that we were the sophomore follow-up to a stellar first crop: in 2007, the Chinese writer Jiang Rong won the inaugural prize with his novel Wolf Totel, with the short list consisting of Soledad's Sister by Jose Dalisay Jr. [another Filipino writer], Families at Home by India’s Reeti Gadekar, Smile As They Bow by Myanmar’s Nu Nu Yi, and Habit of a Foreign Sky by Hong Kong’s Xu Xi. [The longlist was even more formidable, and included Mo Yan, the future Nobel Prize winner for literature.]

But what struck me the most about the 2008 longlist was the fact that two Dumaguete writers made it in: there’s of course me, with the other one being Lakambini Sitoy. And ours were two novels whose premises are anchored on the dark soul of Dumaguete [and Negros Oriental as a whole].

My [still unpublished] novel is titled Sugar Land, and its drama springs from the infamous serial killings of young women by a landed Spanish mestizo that had rattled Dumaguete in the 1970s to the 1980s, ending in a tragic shoot-out near St. Paul’s in the early 1990s. Bing’s novel is Sweet Haven, where she renames Dumaguete as “Donostia” [and Silliman as “Sweet Haven University”], and follows the fall-out of a sex scandal, tailored after the infamous “Dumaguete sex scandal” in the mid-2000s, where several coeds were secretly filmed while engaging in sex, with the footage eventually leaked to pirates and jumpstarted the trend of amateur porn videos being titled after specific places [“Bacolod Sex Scandal,” etc.].

I joked then to Bing: “It’s funny how we are putting Dumaguete in a very negative light in our novels, with real life sex scandals and serial killers.”

But I know it was not easy for both of us to proceed with these projects, and we took pains fictionalizing the general information, although our details were culled from what reportage we could research from. She renamed the city to something else, and when we launched the novel at Silliman sometime in 2013, she understandably took pains to obfuscate the similarities. But anyone who knows Dumaguete/Silliman can read between the lines in her descriptions of Sweet Haven University, and her rightful condemnation of the misplaced moral lynching that can sometimes erupt in its hallowed halls. [In her novel, a young coed’s reputation has been tarnished because of the video, with her name gleefully dragged through the mud by the moralistic people of the town—but she has a secret she’s keeping: the man who raped and filmed her is the privileged son of a high-ranking university administrator.] In my novel, I did not hesitate from using the name “Dumaguete,” but I had to create another name for the alleged serial killer—simply because I knew his family [and I liked them!], and I did not feel it was right of me to have their name besmirched once more, even after so many years after their predecessor’s horrifying demise.

In a way, Bing and I were trading our tales using the subterfuges of secrets that Dumaguete traffics in. The truth is, you will never find concrete accounts of the serial killing or the video sex scandal on the Internet anymore, and the newspaper accounts are sketchy [if you can actually gain access to them]. But trust me, these accounts are alive in the private recollections and conversations among Dumaguetnons, gossiping as we do while in a party, while doing household chores, while drinking among friends. Nobody writes of these dark stuff in community newspapers. Nobody posts about these things on social media. But among ourselves, we talk.

People gossip. People have theories. People have emotional investments in the oral unraveling of these local misfortunes. But these discourses will never see print—except perhaps in the private chatgroups of Dumaguete Facebook. And if you notice, I have never referred to a specific name at all in this article so far. This is the Dumaguete way.

Which explains why nobody in Dumaguete [and Negros Oriental] really puts out comments about the recent Pamplona massacre out there, especially on social media. Someone, obviously a langyaw [a stranger or newbie], had wondered about the silence. No one talks and no one names names! Which is strange because everyone certainly knows the name of the alleged perpetrators. It’s just probably very anti-Dumaguete to name names, and perhaps we are right to do so, mostly for fear of our lives. I wish I could list down past instances of this happening—but all of Dumaguete knows why I can’t.

Everyone here knows never to utter names, and if we really had to, we borrow a device from the Harry Potter books, and call the specter as He/They Who Must Not Be Named. Which is why it astonishes me no end to hear non-Oriental Negrenses uttering the name so clearly and blatantly in their social media posts and in their interviews. You really have to be from somewhere else to truly be able to do that. A few days ago, I was asked to facilitate the sourcing of potential interviewees for a podcast about the recent violence in Negros Oriental by a major media outlet. The producers seemed to be aware of the communal bind we were in regarding talking openly about these matters, and they hastily assured me: “We won’t be specific, we will speak only generally about the violence in the community.” And then also this: “If we can’t find locals to interview, perhaps you know of people who are willing to talk who are in the U.S.?” That buffer of generality and geographic distance is perfectly indicative of the paralyzing conundrum locals have about the occasional violence that erupt in our midst.

What does this say about the Dumaguetnon? Is this cowardice, or is this just a mechanism for survival? My friend, the theater artist Lu Decenteceo, tries to give an explanation: “We are as human as you get them. Our persons run the whole range even if we have been raised to admire the good and gentle. So we try to live the life we would like ourselves to be. The dark side, we recognize, but we would rather keep them in the shadows as they are not how we would like ourselves to be. [We in Dumaguete] are a genteel breed. Politeness and courtesy reigns — on the surface [at least]. And it is impolite and uncivil(ized) to be otherwise. As a society that is [was?] not so mobile, [we have] generations [who had to learn] to live with each other [because] we are [were] a small [closed] community. Or at least, even if we have our langyaw, we still have a core members of the community who see and have to deal with each other. We have to have a modus vivendi.”

It begs another question: are we really a city of gentle people, given this recent descent into hell?

I found a photo on Twitter many days ago. It shows an ordinary shot of Hibbard Avenue traversing Silliman campus, but what struck me was a painted sign attached to the base of a streetlamp that says: “None of you are gentle.” I don’t know who took it, or who made this sign, but it made me pause. I’ve written about this before: the title we have given Dumaguete, that it is a “city of gentle people,” is something we inherited from the creative ploys of a popular local radio personality in the 1960s/1970s [Philidore Quingco of DYSR/DYRM] who brandished it so frequently we just adopted it through osmosis, until it finally became a kind of a brand. Some people then actually thought it was corny, but it stuck. I think of it more as bullshit marketing tag, the way most cities in the Philippines have something going on: Cebu as the “Queen City of the South,” Bacolod as the “City of Smiles,” Cagayan de Oro as the “City of Golden Friendship,” etc. They mean nothing, to be honest, just a tag to pat ourselves by.

So, are we no longer the city of “gentle” people, given recent circumstances?

But then again … were we ever “gentle”? 

Nostalgia is nice [“Ahhh, mas tsada katong sa unang panahon...”] but it is unreliable and warps memories, and if you can only go back in time to the very past you think is great, you’ll encounter people who will bemoan the same kind of problems we hate today. What comes to mind easily is the 1951 murder of Magallon town politician Moises Padilla, who dared run for town mayor against the wishes of then Negros Occidental Governor Rafael Lacson—and for that disobedience, the governor had cohorts of his private army kidnap and torture Padilla, and then had his body dragged around through several towns as an explicit warning to the locals about the dangers of earning the ire of an all-powerful politician. President Ramon Magsaysay, angered by the murder, personally saw to it that justice would be served—and Lacson ended up incarcerated. [But because he was rich and influential, Lacson was quietly released under the presidency of Diosdado Macapagal some years later, and returned to live out the rest of his days in his hometown in peace.] The lesson to be gained is this: the past has never been innocent. [And the powerful will try to bend justice their way, whenever they can.]

This is not a Negros problem. The same kind of injustice and crime and killings that have been happening here in our island also occur everywhere else. [Think of Calauan, Laguna Mayor Antonio Sanchez and his rape/killings of two UP Los Baños students in 1993. Think of the Ampatuan massacre in Maguindanao in 2009. But what is it with murderous politicians, no?] We just feel ours more strongly now because they are within intimate reach.

I’d still like to believe Dumaguetnons and Oriental Negrenses are good people on the whole, gentle even. I know many of these folks. But evil does exist. Even among us.

And until we allow ourselves to articulate that evil, we will forever be victims of it, because it is a cancer that will not stop spreading until we name it. Any takers?

Maybe I’ll write a novel about it. [But most likely not, hahaha.]


Since I just wrote about it, if you’re wondering where you can get a copy of Lakambini Sitoy’s Sweet Haven in Dumaguete, Tara De Leon just sent me this photo. It’s available at Caballes Bookstore! [And apparently also, Ichi Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles.] Get them!

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

entry arrow7:00 AM | Poetry Wednesday, No. 126.

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[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich

Monday, March 13, 2023

entry arrow7:00 AM | In Dumaguete, The Arts Flourish Part 10: Diving Into Dance

Picture a space—a narrow corridor, a hideaway, a cloister—and then picture a flood of darkness filling up the frame. With the striking strum of a melancholy guitar, a figure wakes up in it, drenched in a cascade of water. We get snippets of her body in the dim light, awash in rivulets of liquid, and then the dance begins. She senses the claustrophobic space she is in, and there is a pained acceptance of that on her face—and then she moves in and out of the shadows, her hands and her body in a flurry recalling Martha Graham or Alice Reyes, in an acknowledgement of the confinement and in rhythm to the plaintive guitar score.

The dance is sad, moving, and transfixing. The music is by Dumaguete composer Hendrix Paul Tubil, and the dancer/choreographer is Cheenee Vasquez Limuaco. The short piece is titled “Salom”—Ms. Limuaco’s winning entry to the 2020 edition of the WiFi Body choreography series for the solo/duet form by the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which for the first time since its inception held its competition online—an acknowledgment of the pandemic still raging like wildfire in the middle of 2020. WifiBody director Myra Beltran rethought the competition for that year, and decided that 2020’s virtual edition should focus on the domestic space or the lockdown site of their participants—thus “stretching the possibilities and visions of budding choreographers,” as well as “questioned the modes of production brought about by the pandemic.”

Ms. Limuaco’s piece, a thesis on swimming [literally and figuratively] against the odds, was a perfect capsule of lockdown anxiety, but in its magnificent execution provided a light into how dance could be done with all the restrictions—physical, psychological, and spiritual—that the pandemic demanded. In response to her piece, Nes Jardin, acclaimed dance artist, educator, and arts manager, observed: “The piece won for its solid composition, and powerful cinematic imagery based on a concept marked by simplicity and raw emotion. It is also outstanding for its effective and dramatic use of limited space and its innovative interplay of movements, light, and lilting guitar music.”

Innovation was truly the gamechanger for dance artists in Dumaguete during the lockdown. For many of them, the usual performances they had always relied on were suddenly taken away from them. Most of them also relied on teaching for their livelihood—and just like that, their schools were closed down, and the question that loomed for their survival became, “Can I teach dance through Zoom?”

The Kahayag Dance Company, for example, had always thrived as a folk dance group with constant invitations to participate in many festivals nationally and internationally. In Dumaguete, they spearheaded a community program for the City Tourism Office titled “Bansayaw,” which regularly showcased their repertoire through mini-concerts in public spaces around Dumaguete—particularly the Pantawan fronting Silliman Hall. For Arts Month in 2020, they performed for a series of “Bansayaw” presentations, culminating on February 23. And then the long wait for the lockdown to be over began—but if all one needed to dance was space, then virtual space was enough.

By April 29, on International Dance Day, they embraced the restrictions and put on a dance concert, with participants dancing Philippine folk dances in their bedrooms, in their salas, out in their gardens. They would do an encore by the next month, this time together with dancers from the MEV Dance Studio, Dance in Motion, Dauntless Brothers, Skip Dance Family, and others—dancing up a storm in a concert video in their lockdown spaces. Aiken Quipot, Kahayag’s creative director, would say: “This pandemic has greatly affected the dance industry and the artists who solely rely on dance as their means of living. It’s a big challenge to keep our passion burning as we find alternative ways to earn and get through each day at a time. Despite all of this, we continue to dance. We refuse to let this pandemic put out the flame, and we will not allow it to take away the only thing that keeps us happy, alive, and sane. Dance in your room, the backyard, the streets, wherever you want—because when this is all over, we will celebrate and dance together!”

They participated in KapitTinig in June, virtually, and celebrated their 16th anniversary in August with the no end to the pandemic in sight. A break from the virtual realm came in September, when the Dumaguete City Tourism Office decided to showcase Dumaguete culture and the arts in Paghimamat—joining other cultural groups at an empty Luce Auditorium in a videotaped performance to bolster the sagging spirits of Dumaguetnons. They launched videotaped concerts with better production values—such as the Pagliwaliw sa Lupang Hinirang in March 2021, out of the DIY confines of lockdown spaces into venues more attuned to artistic flourish.

But 2021 was also cocooning time, with many elements starting to fall into place behind the scenes—a permanent rehearsal and performance space is finally secured [which also served as venue for classes once lockdown restrictions relaxed] and a continuing alliance with other dance groups and artist collaborators is strengthened, paving the way for a fruitful return to form in 2022.

The Sidlakan Dance Company, meanwhile, had just returned to Dumaguete after a successful participation at the 2019 Horticultural Exposition at Beijing, China [dubbed as the Flower Festival of the World], which closed on October—basking in the flush of that international invitation. The group, led by artistic director Vic June Rich Nocete, would carry that excitement into their participation at Kisaw 2020, the National Arts Month celebration of Dumaguete—and then when the lockdown happened, there was nothing. There was some stirring by November, when the group was included in the Visayan line-up for Dance Xchange on Air 2020, a program by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts—appearing on Episode 11 of the video series. [They would appear again in the 2022 edition.] But by 2021, there was a restlessness to regroup, to take part in shows—which resulted in a video series they produced titled Suroy a tenth anniversary production that aimed to “travel” the various regions of the Philippines via the medium of folk dance. That undampened spirit paid off, and in January 2023, they were chosen to be the official Philippine delegate to the 19th Nova Prata International Folk Festival.

Its institutional foundation has always made the Silliman University Dance Troupe luckier than most dance groups—because for as long as Silliman University exists as an educational institution, SUDT will always be along for the ride as a vital part of the university’s cultural mandate. Led by choreographer Angelo Sayson, SUDT remained a reliable mainstay in many cultural programs put out by the Silliman University Culture and Arts Council, and just right before the pandemic lockdown, it participated in the 2020 edition of Musikapuluhan: Himig at Sayaw the annual cultural showcase of traditional music and dance at Silliman. A lull immediately followed the pronouncement of the pandemic—with SUDT finally surfacing when it took part in the virtual staging of the musical revue The Story of Dumpawa's Lullaby in September 2020, and then at Silliman Performs also performed online. They would participate in NCCA’s Dance Xchange 2021, and launched a virtual dance concert titled Salingtuod in February 2021. They also participated that month in Bailar Sin Arco, a concert featuring the Silliman University Orkestra Sin Arco and Kwerdas. By March, they also participated in CCP’s Tuloy Po Kayo—an online festival meant to encourage Filipino artists to continue to create during the pandemic. Throughout most of 2021, SUDT would also present assorted videos of their repertoire on their Facebook page, with student dancers in full Filipiniana regalia performing dances in various spaces on campus—culminating in a concert of Visayan folk dance and music, Bisayaw, in October, together with the Silliman University Rondalla, and representing the Philippines at the Sarawak International Festival of Music and Arts in November, together with the SU Orkestra Sin Arco. On February 2022, SUDT would up the ante by presenting a rigorously produced online dance concert titled Musika Mo, Sayaw Ko, with a repertoire inspired by Original Pilipino Music [OPM], and then, on the same month, took part in CCP’s Pasinaya, a showcase of various folk dances from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao featuring selected video productions from the 2021 Kalinga ng Sining [KNS] Subsistence Grants Program. This led to their participation in AirAsia Super App’s Fiesta Series in April. They would also perform in Cantate Domino, the 2022 edition of Silliman Performs in August. By November, they would return to a live performance at the Luce Auditorium with Babaylan, billed as their 60th dance show.

Negros Oriental State University’s Kabilin Dance Company, meanwhile, started 2020 in high spirits, with new members to invigorate the group and brandishing new official rehearsal shirts to bolster the vision of artistic director Stephen Labrador Intong. What differentiates KDC from their counterparts in Dumaguete is a repertoire consisting mostly of street/hiphop and contemporary dances, and when the lockdown hit, many KDC members hit TikTok to showcase their dance moves in that vein, often giving messages of hope and resilience through dance. They even opened a dance competition on online video platforms with a nod towards frontliners, and with the organizers recognizing that “dance [can be] used as [a medium of] communication between body and soul.” But TikTok could only do so much, and KDC would soon join other Dumaguete dance groups in participating in various online dance festivals, including NCCA’s Dance Xchange on Air in 2020, and Sayaw Pinoy Goes Virtual in 2021, usually performing “Inagta,” which had become the company’s signature folk dance—and all in the name of perseverance. As Intong explained then: “For the last two years, life has been tough and times are changing. But instead of looking at life hopelessly, let’s continue to give life and colors to our culture and the arts.” In May 2021, they presented a special dance performance titled “Bagani,” in tribute to frontliners during the pandemic. By June, they would host a series of video dance performances in tribute to Jose Rizal, choreographed by various members of the troupe., and in July they would organize a competition, Kabilin Dance Company Got Talent—Goes Virtual, over Google Meets. The group would also open auditions for people with disabilities [PWD], and one of their members would go on to found the Dauin Dance Artists group.

Prime Machine perhaps Dumaguete’s most well-known modern dance group [primarily due to an appearance in ABS-CBN’s Showtime in 2011], had always been a main draw in many local events—such as cultural shows in fiesta, beauty pageants, school presentations, and the like—and 2019 had ended with their slate full of the usual invitations, including a stint for Pasko sa Kapitolyo for the Negros Oriental Provincial Government. There would be more of the same at the beginning of 2020—but by the time lockdown hit, most of the members would spend the long beginning stretch of the pandemic invading TikTok, foremost among them Ralph Allen Piñero, Teamoy Caluscusan, Rock Vincent Viente, and Jay Lou Rapana Merced. [Prime Machine would only officially launch itself on Tiktok in March 2021.] Some dance gigs would trickle in, like school events such as the Silliman University Senior High School Online Acquaintance Concert in September 2020, with Prime Machine sharing the virtual stage with other modern dance groups such as Corps D’Elite and The Lifestyle. By 2021, they went for something a little more polished: dancing in well-polished music videos, such as “The PUNKdemic,” which they launched in Hayahay in February 2021.

The dance video, with the group dancing to Suzi Wu’s “Eat Them Apple” in a routine choreographed by Don Mar Teves, is a full-scale production perhaps never before seen among Dumaguete dance crews, made with assist from the Dumaguete City Tourism Office. The ambition paid off in a handsome production that begins ominously with a stranger walking the lockdown-ravaged Dumaguete downtown at midnight, and then witnessing a facemask-wearing gang converging to do their dance moves. The result was electrifying; it was also a much-needed jolt in the doldrums of the pandemic. When they posted the video on social media, it went viral. That video led to commissions with the group doing video dances for private parties and other bookings, or doing backup dancing for local musicians such as Chuckoy Vicuña, who would release his “Hilas” music video on July 2021. There were competitions to join, too—not always successfully: that October, they signed up to join the Buglasan Festival Modern Dance Competition [Open Category], but had to back out when one member contracted COVID-19. They would be a mainstay in city-sponsored cultural events such as the Tayada sa Pantawan, and they kept busy with bookings for various gigs, including dancing for an election-related music video for politicians running for various offices in Bacong town and others, or dancing for openings of business establishments like Miniso. On 26 June 2022, Prime Machine would celebrate their 25th anniversary.

Prime Machine, of course, is not the only dance crew in Dumaguete. There are a host of others, many of them priming themselves during the pandemic. For many years they regularly converged to compete in the annual Negros Best Dance Crew competition, which bills itself as “the biggest dance competition of its kind around Negros Island.” But the sixth edition of the competition, slated on October 2020, had to be cancelled “due to a rise of COVID-19 cases in Negros Oriental,” per the statement released by organizers, maintaining that “it is our best interest to prioritize the safety of the community.” Two years later, in 2022, they announced their return, scheduling auditions for both Negros provinces in November—and eventually announcing the following participating dance crews: AOG6100, Super Villains Crew, Skip Dance Family, Chicana, Galaxy Dance Tribe, Prime Machine, The Majesty, BNT Just Vibe, Coco Brandy, Quicksound, The Lifestyle, Menace Dance Crew, Nice One Family, Dauntless Brotherz, SD6 Explosion, Royalty, D-Acceptance, Assassin Dance Family, and Classical Dance Crew—with the first thirteen qualifying for the finals, slated on 28 January 2023 at the Macias Sports Complex. Skip Dance Family, a dance crew founded in 2007 in Dumaguete by Jeffrey Regalado, emerged as the champion.

Skip Dance Family has built a steady fandom before the pandemic by winning many dance crew competitions, and posting dance videos regularly on their Facebook and Instagram pages and YouTube channel, often to songs by local groups like Daro Boyz. They’re savvy online, and produce even their own merchandise [such as print shirts]—and their 2020 began with them expanding to include more members, and had spent January in team-building efforts. When the pandemic hit, they would ramp up the video productions more, like many other local crews—but with a regularity that’s daunting, sometimes 3 to 4 videos a month, in the middle of a lockdown. Most of these would be simple, no-frills dance videos, with the crew dancing on the street and other public places, but they racked up considerable likes and shares, an increasing number of admirers with each new video posted. They would do this for the rest of 2020, culminating in their joining of Domination PH Reload, a nationwide dance competition held online, where they ranked #7 out of 37 dance crews participating. They would do more of the same in 2021, joining online dance competitions when they could, but also making time for community outreach programs. When they would prepare for upcoming competitions—such as the HappyFive DigiTv Hataw Dance Competition and World Supremacy Battle—they would post videos of their progress online, gaining more fans. They would place second runner-up at the HappyFive contest in June 2021, their first pandemic-era award. They would also place the same at the cell division for World Supremacy Battle in August 2021. There will be other competitions, and more placements, including championships—and growth: they would form NEOS, an all-boys hiphop group, and Chicana, an all-girls hiphop group, during the pandemic. In 2022, they would dominate several categories of the World Supremacy Battle Visayas-Mindanao qualifier in Cebu, and started joining competitions in other cities in the country, winning second place in the MassKara Hiphop Challenge in Bacolod in October. When they won the sixth edition of Negros Best Dance Crew, it was like a coming home—they were also the champion in 2018, in the competition’s fourth edition. With the successful return of the Negros Best Dance Crew competition in 2022 also comes the hope that street/crew dancing has weathered the worst of the pandemic, and is back.

It is with such events that we gauge a return to normalcy. In 27 November 2022, the Limuaco-Gaston Dance in Motion Company, the Dumaguete City DanceSport Team, Kahayag Dance Company, MEV Dance Company, Kabilin Dance Company, Sidlakan Dance Company, and the Silliman University Dance Troupe came together at the Pantawan for a showcase of Dumaguete dance titled Hiusang Sayaw, an unprecedented—and live—performance spearheaded by the Dumaguete City Tourism Office. The pandemic was still raging in the world, but the dancing had returned.

* * *

One specific dance showcase borne out of the pandemic is Lapyahan, an occasional performance exhibition spearheaded by the Dance in Motion Company of the Limuaco-Gaston Dance Studio, sometimes in collaboration with Kahayag Dance Troupe. First staged on 27 February 2022, it astounds with the fullness of its conception: a small-scale show by a handful of dancers, often in limited space with limited capacity for audience members who are invited to be in intimate reach with the performers, and allowed to range around the venue, sometimes following the lead of the dancers as they take the audiences to witness specific numbers from one spot in the venue to another. What’s more, each show is virtually performed on the fly, with the dancers armed only with broad strokes of dance moves, some choreographed movements, and the general knowledge of what music will be playing. In one series in 2022, specifically titled State of Limbo, three performances choreographed by Ian Nick Gelladuga Tiba, Jonee Rodriguez Jibes, and Dylzaree Recentes [under the artistic direction of Cheenee Limuaco] were announced—August 27, September 3, and September 10 at their permanent studio at the Catarata Compound along Calle San Jose; but avid audience members would soon notice that it was best to see all shows, because each one was vastly different from the one that came before. That uniqueness was by design—a concept Ms. Limuaco insisted on, bearing in mind the unexpected flows she had to bear to make her dance studio stay afloat in the worst of the pandemic months.

Cheenee Limuaco hails from Bacolod, Negros Occidental—but her parents were loyal Silliman University alumni, which meant going to school in Dumaguete. She had spent her formative years studying at St. Scholastica Academy in Bacolod until high school, and she found herself in Dumaguete pursuing a nursing degree. It was what was considered practical—something her parents insisted on—although Ms. Limuaco knew her heart was not in it. She loved dance. She had studied ballet at the Lydia M. Gaston School of Dance from the age of six, falling in love with it because of how “princessy” ballet was. “I loved the costumes, I loved how I was taught to hold my head up high. I loved the whole package, the ballet experience,” she tells me. The tuition was expensive, but her lola paid for it, and when she finally couldn’t, the school director herself, Lydia Gaston, stepped in. “She saw potential in me,” Ms. Limuaco said, “and she offered me a scholarship.” The intense training did not start until she was in first year high school. She loved the challenge. Remarkably, Ms. Gaston also began training her to teach dance—how to teach it, and what to look for in a ballet student.

She gravitated towards dancing at Silliman, joining the Kahayag Dance Company [which was the new name for the Silliman University Dance Troupe, before Kahayag members left the corps and formed an independent dance company bearing that name in 2013]. Kahayag’s then artistic director, Ronnie Mirabuena, approached her and asked her if she could teach ballet since he knew she had been teaching it in Bacolod. This was in 2006. She agreed. She had fifteen dancers to teach, and persevered with her nursing studies—two extremes that were clashing in her life. After three years, she was sent back to Bacolod, and was given an ultimatum by her parents: if she wanted to dance, she had to come back to Bacolod, where you could continue her ballet training, and study nursing at the same time. She needed to finish her degree and pass the nursing board—and only then could she do whatever she wanted. So agreed, simply because she wanted to continue dancing.

But there was a snag: her heart was in Dumaguete.

“I love Dumaguete,” Ms. Limuaco says. “When I came here for college, I fell in love right away, and I did not want to go home to Bacolod, even during summer vacations. It was just so chill, so me—wearing just shorts and a shirt and a pair of tsinelas. The people here are really more gentle and loving, especially with children. This has been my experience. It’s the vibe that made me want to stay here in Dumaguete.”

As soon as she finished her studies in Bacolod, she ran right back to Dumaguete, and get right into dancing. She found herself teaching ballet for the College of Performing and Visual Arts at Silliman, the ballet studio at the Luce Auditorium her base. But she maintained a dream of founding her own school: “I kept telling myself that with my own company, I would work it in a way that would make Dumaguete truly a center of dance. Manila is already crowded, and many of its dance artists are looking for other places to do their art in. Dumaguete can be that place. And we have many resources here. And it is possible that the dance scene here will really bloom.”

In 2019, she made a choice to quit Silliman University, inching her way to a dream of having her own company. She remembers the instance of conception: “I had a friend who’s from Likha PH, he’s from Iloilo. One time we were talking where I shared that I wanted to set up my own studio because I had so many ideas. They were overflowing. And I wanted to be able to do them na, because I felt I was ready. He asked me: what is it that I wanted to do? What is it that I wanted my studio to accomplish besides just teaching dance steps? And I said that I wanted my prospective students to discover and understand that in every movement that we do we can convert that to dance. Hence, Dance in Motion.”

That conversation propelled her to take concrete steps towards her dream, trepidation aside. She named her studio Limuaco-Gaston Dance Studio, “Gaston” being the family name of her business partner, the son of her mentor Lydia Gaston.

“I was still with Silliman at that time, but I was already looking for a studio,” she says. “I felt like I had to have my own place because I had all these ideas, and I needed to let them out. Or else I was going to explode. And then I saw a sign for a space rental near UCPB [along Real Street, fronting City Burger] and just for a lark, I called the number. And someone answered, and told me he was ready to meet me in five minutes. And just like that, I got a tour of the place—and things just flowed: the tour of the place, the rental agreement, the contract signing.”

The way things happened fast scared her, but she was determined to follow through. “I also asked for things I needed for a workable dance studio, and the owner agreed to everything I wanted,” she says. “And I thought: is this a sign? I couldn’t say ‘no’ anymore. Financially, I saved up a little for this eventuality. But it still remained a challenge—but my partner was very supportive.”

Dwight Rodrigaso, another mentor, also gave her some useful advise because he saw she was overflowing with too many ideas. “You can’t hold it in,” Ms. Limuaco remembers. “You have to share it. If you don’t share it, it will just die. And he really pushed me to open a studio.”

When the studio opened, she was overwhelmed. She was soon overseeing sixty students, so her recourse was just to train, and then to go into competition.

“This was my initial goal when I opened the studio. But then the pandemic happened,” she says.

The pandemic realigned things for her—and Ms. Limuaco realized life was far too short to just keep training people for competitions. “I lost the sense of fun,” she says. And so the pandemic halting everything around her became a kind of a blessing. “I realized how much I was missing when I was so much into just training. I realized the kids would learn more if they had fun. So I had to reset the program. I made another syllabus that would encourage kids to dance and to move, but also to have fun. I knew they would learn better that way. And so we began doing unconventional classes. Sometimes, we use tambourines in class, for example. Classes became memorable. We’re still working on this, but it has been really nice to see the bright faces of my kids.”

But the realities of the pandemic immediately bared its fangs. She had signed a 5-year lease with her first studio, but operations in that venue did not even reach a year because of the lockdown. “All the investments I made were suddenly gone,” Ms. Limuaco says. “I went into depression at that time. Why was this happening to me? Why did I invest in this? But I couldn’t see the full impact of the pandemic yet. We were still renting, but we couldn’t use the space because of the pandemic restrictions—so we had no choice but to close up. It was heartbreaking.”

She ended her contract in December 2020, and then went into depression mode for a few months.

But by March 2021, an unlikely savior came in the form of sound and light designer Jerry Angelo Z. Catarata. “He came to me,” Ms. Limuaco says, “and he was offering me a space—a garage in their family compound in Taclobo which he was trying to convert into a studio. He asked if I could rent the space out—and I cried. I knew it was God-sent.”

Slowly, they made plans for the space—and thought that aside from it becoming a venue for training and rehearsals, they could also use it as a space for public performances. The venue was the spark that started the new Dance in Motion Company. “The pandemic took out a lot,”she says in hindsight, “but it also paved the way for a lot.”

With the Lapyahan series, she has found a new way to connect with people through dance. “It was incredible. Not only were the audience members crying, so were the performers. When I look back to that, I still get teary-eyed. It was our first performance during the pandemic. While we continued havng classes during the pandemic, it came to a point where I began asking myself: What am I doing? What is this for? But because of the discipline that we learned, we just told ourselves: just keep on training, chill lang. But then, when we started preparing for Lapyahan, it felt like we had a purpose again. The studio felt alive again. It was like we were asleep during the pandemic, more or less, but it was really hard to find purpose. But with Lapyahan, we felt like our heart was jumpstarted: this is performance. This is live work. It really was memorable for us, the performers. And it felt good to get people’s feedback.”

The Dance in Motion Company is still in its infancy, of course—but Ms. Limuaco envisions it as a group of artists they can train for the international stage, whether a competition or performance or workshops. “We would like to show the people of Dumaguete that there is a future in dance, because we want to counter the long-held notion that there is no future in it, no career in it. But there is,” she insists. “We want to train dancers so that when they’re ready, they can move on to audition for international companies, for Broadway, for cruise ships, and others. At the same time, we want Dumaguete to be known as a hub for budding dance artists. Who knows, we can soon get young artists from Mindanao, from the rest of the Visayas, even from Luzon to come here and train. Who knows?”

Her dreams for the studio and for the company excite her. “I knew what I had to do: the dance school first, for the training, and then the dance company next,” she says. “Then we can create shows with a regular season, and I want to reach a point that when visitors come to Dumaguete, they can expect shows like this, which they can watch as part of their travel itinerary. And for the locals as well.”

What a journey it has been for Cheenee Limuaco in the pandemic years.

In a way, her WifiBody piece, “Salom,” is actually her story of what she had gone through because of the pandemic: “I felt like I lost everything. I lost my studio lease. But a friend came around, offering another space. And I had a choice: to stay floating in that space where I was, or to dive once more into a new chapter, a new adventure, a new place. I chose to dive. To ‘salom.’ It was my dance testimony. It bore witness to what the studio was going through because of the pandemic. It was a good decision nga ni salom ko. The studio is doing well now. We finally have face-to-face classes. We have programs once again. We have auditions for the dance company.”

And then she says: “It was a good thing I dove.”

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