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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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Monday, February 25, 2019

entry arrow10:40 PM | Mapping Out Culture and Heritage

Part 7 of the Dumaguete Heritage Series

What makes Dumaguete unique? When you are asked by a visitor this question, your answer—usually haphazardly arrive at—will be a compendium of things you believe are the features that make this city inimitably itself.

“Dumaguete is the Rizal Boulevard,” you would say. Or: “The campanario.” Or: “Jo’s Chicken Inato.” Or: “Silliman University.” Or: “One big tuyok.” Or: “The Tiempos.”

It can also be about identity. “What makes it a university town?” you will be asked. Or: “Why is it the ‘city of gentle people’?” Or: “What makes it the cultural center of the south?” We do love to fling about us these tags, often using them to market ourselves and this place—but these tags actually come with history and tradition, and they were coined because they meant something. But would we know, in fact, those hidden histories and the complexities of their suggestions?

When we come to confront ourselves with these things, we are essentially doing a kind of “cultural mapping.”

There’s a reason why it’s called a map. A map is an emblem, a representation of selected characteristics of a place; the geographic kind is usually drawn on a flat surface, a cartography, presenting information about a particular place in a simple, usually visual, way—and in the process teaching us about the world it represents.

A map educates us very quickly, and in convenient shorthand, about a specific place in assorted schemes of things, and it also provides, very quickly, a sense of direction, a sense of “where to go.”

When we talk of “cultural mapping,” we are invoking exactly the same things. First, it is a process where we come to identify various heritage resources of a specific locality, usually for purposes of conservation and development. And second, it is a process where we enable ourselves to understand and share that culture, which can lead to a re-thinking of local history, and which can finally be used to promote creativity and development. And both are possible only because the “cultural map” that has been assembled eventually provides the data, the information, and the numbers—identifying resources that can be used as indicators for social development.

The objectives of a cultural map is to identify the distinct heritage resources of a community, especially in comparison to another community, to thoroughly understand and properly record heritage resources for future reference, and to generate interest on heritage resources among users [and even non-users] of heritage. Thus a cultural map aims to name and list, which leads to a helpful inventory, and which can eventually be utilized to engender appreciation, and hopefully preservation.

In other words, you simply cannot appreciate something you have not identified.

The Dumaguete Presidencia is the best example of this. For years, the city had lost track of its architectural history, and the building itself—simply because it was seen as a mere government building—withstood slapdash “renovations” that altered most of its original beauty, and through the years, it shrank into the shadows of irrelevance, even considered by so many Dumaguetnons as an ugly building surrounded by an ugly parking lot with no redeeming features.

Then somebody identified it as a building designed in 1936 by no less than Juan M. Arellano, arguably the greatest of all Filipino architects. This made it distinct from all other presidencia from around the region, and even the country. It suddenly had historical, and aesthetic, importance.

That importance has since been properly recorded and mapped, and on March 6, it will be publicly declared by no less than the National Museum of the Philippines as an “important cultural property.”

And so now we see the Presidencia with a new eye, with keener interest, seeing it finally as veritably an icon of Dumaguete City.

What a fantastic change of perception it has undergone! And such an arc we see of its changing fortunes—essentially a story of riches to rags, and back to riches again. If the Presidencia were a teleserye, we would be rooting for it as the underdog that has won.

Cultural heritage is a fascinating thing to map. What is it exactly? A short way of explaining it could be this: it is anything of value from the past that provides identity to the present and inspires the future generation—which makes its importance “timeless.” The cultural heritage of a place is significant to it in terms of not only the historical, but also the architectural, the aesthetic, and the spiritual—it defines a social value encompassing all of these things. Traditionally, cultural heritage is classified into five distinct categories: intangible heritage, built heritage, natural heritage, movable heritage, and creative industries and occupations.

Intangible heritage can include a locality’s festivals, songs and music, dances, locally developed technologies, local sports and games, rituals, literature, culinary arts, language, healing arts, folk beliefs, even jokes of local vintage. Part of this is also what we call “secret knowledge,” a set of information springing from a locality’s specificity, which has helped its people deal with the way they function in their lives. We call this “mga tinuohan.”

Built heritage can include churches and mosques and other traditional places of worship, school buildings, government buildings, the local marketplaces, plazas and parks, bridges, heritage houses, even streets and roads.

Natural heritage can include plants and animals endemic to the locality, mountains and volcanoes, valleys and hills, forests and woods, rocks and minerals, caves, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, beaches, and the underwater world, even rice fields.

Movable heritage can include the paintings and other artworks of local artists, the documents and books of its notable citizens, photos and other forms of memorabilia, local costumes, local weaponry, local furniture, local equipment and machinery, local crafts, musical instruments, and work implements that are unique to the place, or at least unique in a vital way. This type of heritage also includes personalities, the notable people who call a locality home, or at least the place of their roots. This also includes religious groups that are peculiar of the locality—and in Dumaguete’s case, that could be Father Eleuterio Tropa’s sect called the Lamplighters, also infamously called Spaceship 2000, which reached a peak of popularity in the 1990s, before Tropa died in 1993.

Creative industries and occupations as heritage can be considered the practical side to cultural production, and it includes local firms and companies involved in publishing, advertising, architecture, crafts making, furniture design, fashion design, software design, film and video production, live and recorded music production, TV and radio and Internet broadcasting, performing arts and related entertainment, and avenues that sell and display visual arts and antiques, such as galleries and museums and antique shops.

Just a mere consideration of all these types of heritage will make you see that these are the things that actually make a place’s singular identity, connecting culture very significantly to the local economy.

But a cultural map also identifies the condition of each specific heritage—whether it is existing, whether it is in good condition or deteriorating, or whether it is in fact dead. Cultural mapping then is a valuable tool for identifying a community’s cultural strengths. Identifying a heritage that is “deteriorating,” for example, can only happen if people come together to do a cultural map—and properly diagnose its condition, hopefully initiating a recovery. A cultural map, in the words of journalist Glynda Descuatan, is “our own investment on our identity.” We do this, and we set a foundation for future generations to reference.

To quote Dessa Quesada-Palm, “This process poses challenges that can further the discussion about our local heritage, which can create more research about it, and which can mobilize more people to share information, as well as more people to eventually promote it.” But it is a challenge, indeed—and there’s so much work to be done, and we can only hope that local stakeholders will not get tired whenever they are presented with an opportunity to deepen the work of local heritage.

I remember Ms. Descuatan telling us once that in creating a map of local culture and heritage, we bring in “our experiences, our resources, our knowledge, and our journey as residents of Dumaguete, and how this city has influenced us in how we do things.” She said that any effort at cultural mapping is “a huge first step to integrate [heritage] into a development plan for Dumaguete,” and it can only succeed through collaboration. “The task is daunting,” she continued, “but it is an exciting task, and it can fuel our enthusiasm—but we need to realize that it requires the absolute seriousness of research, an incredible task to do so as to come up with the most credible plans.”

Today, in Dumaguete, there is a significant number of cultural workers willing to be champions of local heritage. It took a long time—“Perhaps collectively we thought, like many others, that heritage was useless amidst rapid development and a consumerist lifestyle,” City Councilor Manny Arbon has reasoned—but there is now a significant push. These cultural workers are passionate, even if they are not paid for it. [Hopefully though that can change.] But like what Ms. Descuatan has said, there is indeed a fount of enthusiasm now. People have answered the call, because they feel this has to be done today.

Mr. Arbon, in forging the resolution to create a Heritage Council in 2017, says, “Heritage is what defines the people—past and present. A growing city like ours cannot afford to forget its heritage. Hence, the need for a Heritage Council to serve as the conscience of the community. Ambitious perhaps, but necessary in these times.”

He continues: “Knowing who or what your community will make it even more cohesive in pursuing development programs. We become more collectively aware, hence we become more deliberate in our ways yet also tolerant of differences. I also believe preserving heritage makes a community proud of its beginnings and its potentials, and at the same time makes their kind of living meaningful and worth passing on.”

To be continued…

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Friday, February 22, 2019

entry arrow10:57 PM | Short Takes on the Oscar-Nominated Live Action Short Films

Let's do the Live Action Shorts nominees for the Oscars, shall we? It is mostly a bunch of child-in-danger stories of varying effectivity, but the similarities in the themes will have you thinking, "What is up with Oscars and this deadly regard for children this year?"

I loved Gustav Möller's The Guilty from last year, a fine presentation of how you can create fantastic, tense-filled drama within the confines of a single room, with the gravest action taking place off-camera, registering to us only through the voices of people over the phone. Rodrigo Sorogoyen's Oscar-nominated live action short film Madre (2017) carries the same premise. This time we follow a divorced mother arguing with her own mother about the vagaries of life, only to be interrupted by a fraught call from overseas. The caller is her young boy, ostensibly on vacation with her ex-husband somewhere in France. And then the panic comes: the boy is lost somewhere on an unknown beach, abandoned by the father. Where can he go? Can he trust anyone? It's a child-in-peril conceit that never really registers, because the set-up feels rushed, and the dangers feels abstract, for some reason. It's a question of execution, and this film fails in that regard.

The most tense of all the live action shorts up for the Oscars this year has got to be Jeremy Comte's Fauve (2018), a harrowing story of two Quebec boys in one of the most toxic of all masculine shenanigans -- a pissing contest, which soon goes awry as they go about a small country town finding ways to dare each other in the worst ways possible. They soon meet their reckoning in a surface mine, and the less said about what happens there, the better. It is effective, sad, anxiety-ridden.

Guy Nattiv's Oscar-nominated live action short Skin (2018) is both repellent and riveting at once: its twists and turns are totally unexpected and makes for an exciting story, but in its choice of focus on a racist family -- which humanisizes them to some extent -- it can be both a bit too much to swallow. A skinhead father dotes on his young son, but an encounter with a black man in a grocery store turns deadly, with the boy as witness to the brutality. What happens next is a turn so unexpected that it borders on the sweetest revenge fantasy. What happens in the end is even more shocking -- but thoroughly earned. I liked its storytelling, but it does leave me very disturbed.

Vincent Lambe's Oscar-nominated live action short Detainment (2018) is a dramatisation of the horrific murder of three-year-old James Bulger in Ireland, based on taped interrogations of the two young killers behind it. By its subject alone it is controversial, and while I admired the filmmaker's insistence on exploring this tragedy as a learning lesson for all -- helped for the most part by wrenching portrayals by the young actors -- it is the humanisation of evil that keeps me at bay. It is a film meant to be seen once, but I doubt it is immediately forgettable.

Marianne Farley's Marguerite (2017) stands out because it is the only one in this batch of Oscar-nominated live action shorts that strays far away from depicting children in peril. Instead, it sets its intimate focus on an elderly woman in Quebec who feels a bond with the young female therapist who takes care of her. When she finds out her caregiver has a girlfriend, it triggers a memory of an old forbidden love with all its requisite longing and regret. To be touched by the love of a woman is the only thing in what remains of her life that she has yet to fully realise. In that quiet longing, the film shines -- the only ray of light in this bunch of dark, dark themes.

VERDICT: In order of preference, Fauve > Marguerite > Skin > Madre > Detainment

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Monday, February 18, 2019

entry arrow7:07 PM | Midnight Animals in Somnambulist Ennui

If there is a local visual artist that deserves fuller and more widespread recognition for the consistency he has exhibited in the name of the imaginative in the past decade, it should be Raz Salvarita—although sometimes it can be hard to pin down the singular artist, simply because he has done so much. He deserves bigger acclaim.

The Dumaguete-based painter who has familial roots in Bacolod has continued to beguile us with an assortment of passions, never an art dabbler, always laser-like in the reasons for his current pursuits—but Raz is all pluralities. He does experimental filmmaking, and has in fact been nominated for an Urian for his short film Patience, which infamously “chronicled” the languorous journey of a snail through a patch in a garden. [Recently, he is obsessed with the idea of filming Dumaguete geriatrics as they offer their memories of their youth.] He has done performance art, and in fact helped paved the way for the preservation of the forests around Lake Balinsasayao from possible encroachments by an energy company, by going around Dumaguete semi-naked, painted white from head to toe, bearing a sign that called dire attention to the environmental issue. Or photography, where he has always captured an uncanny but intimate feel of the environment—always being the gimlet-eyed naturalist. Or paintings, where his abstractions sometimes are a paean to his upcycling tendencies, but are often studies of the psyche in domestic mode, his paintings a portal to fantasies and nightmares.

It is of that latter preoccupation that delights us in his pop up exhibition, Midnight Talkers + Internal Monologues, now gracing the walls of Café Alima along Ipil Street [parallel to the Silliman Ballfield]—which, because it is a pop up—should be taken more as a promise for a larger collection deserving of full exhibition. Consisting of seven paintings, the exhibit is a kind of return to a previous style of painting he did more than a decade ago, away from the mandalas and circles and fiery vulvas of his Bali phase, and away from the found wood and textiles of his upcycling phase.

Midnight Talkers + Internal Monologues invites us to consider the playful and the playfully snide, its title immediately reminiscent of nocturnal talks with good friends which eventually embrace a healthy dose of the id expressing itself, knowing full well it is in good and forgiving company; or introspective musings done alone when the clock strikes the witching hour and we become proverbial “cats” inert in repose but always alert the subtle earthquakes of our ponderings and reveries.

I like how cats—or what look like cats—dominate many of the paintings of this series; as a cat person myself and a Leo to boot, I am fully aware of the significations of the feline: the mode, the mood, and the animal tendencies. Cats can also be monstrous, and the monstrous—existentially speaking—is what is at heart in Midnight Talkers + Internal Monologues.

In “Wake Up Call with Three Black Cats at 4 AM,” the titular cats make dreamlike havoc of the situation—but it goes beyond the surreal depiction of interrupted sleep to bring it closer to a kind of social commentary, as we see that the cats are somehow embodiments of what can keep us awake in the full horrors of the issues at stake. I will let the viewer tease out what those are, since they are so obvious they do not warrant mentioning.

But cats are not the only animalia represented in this series. Midnight Talkers + Internal Monologues is in fact a virtual menagerie of dreamlike, animal-adjacent creatures, most of them multiple-eyed, as if inviting us to think of these figures as “all-knowing” and “all-seeing,” our troubled psyches and dreamlike stances becoming zoos of all kinds of unfiltered feelings and raw emotions. But the exhibit also gives us an autobiographical invitation—via the captions here and there on the paintings giving us slivers of understanding the artist compelled to put on canvas these startling images.

There’s the pink monkey [or bear?] of “The Calm and the Elusive Dreamers Under the Bored Pink Sky,” doing a madonna-and-child repose whose eyes hint of a world-weariness, but as underscored by captions that read, “I dreamt like it’s 1983,” and also “I sleep talk like my five year old self,” we reconsider the significance of that smaller figure in the arms of the bigger figure—depictions of longed for innocence in childhood in the arms of ennui-filled adulthood.

There’s the multi-armed and double-eyed pig [or dog?] of “Dream is Over—Some Beginning’s End,” which carries over the previous painting’s sense of ennui. That boredom with the world, and with life, turns a more positive note in “Midnight Mystic Musing,” however; here, an owl embraces two frogs [or salamanders?] in the bluesiness of sleep, and tells us to “dream a little dream of me, and you,” like the song, which proves this series can be quite weirdly whimsical, too, despite its surreal and often devastating searches for meaning. It’s a whimsy though that is drenched in strong Dumaguete Tanduay-tagay, allowing the images to cross the gamut of excitation and exasperation.

This singular whimsy is embodied more fully in two paintings, again showcasing some kind of animals—a porcupine? a chicken? an octopus? a whale? a carabao? does it matter?—and again drenching them in surreal landscape, enlivened by captions that are snippets of every day expressions of vexations, such as in “Brain Critters on Graveyard Shift,” where one line of scrawled text cries, “Unsa na pud?” immediately followed by “Pastilan!” and “Samoka gud” and “… Utang na sad” and “Mantiaw” and “Nia na sad” and “Mao ba?” But in “Her Song Lingers, Usahay,” they become overtures of romantic expressions—in this case, snippets of lyrics from the famous Bisaya ballad.

I’m sure there is a bigger zoo in store containing more animals from Raz Salvarita’s surreal landscape, but as a glimpse of what’s to come, Midnight Talkers + Internal Monologues are appetizers. Paintings that are foregrounded as playful, but also somehow deeply thoughtful and subversive in their existential melancholy.

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Saturday, February 16, 2019

entry arrow2:15 AM | Forwards for the VSC

At noontime on Valentines Day, at the tail-end of the prejudging phase we were doing for the set of entries to the 2019 Valentine Songwriting Competition, I found myself suddenly reversing the expectations I had been harboring since I was requested by the organizers of the annual music tilt if I could serve on the board of judges one more time. My initial expectations were low—was I fit to be arbiter for something I was not looking forward to?

I didn’t want to judge, to be honest: I’ve judged the competition so many times before, and while I’ve enjoyed the songs as well as the company of fellow judges, I felt that I was hearing the same melodic lines year in and year out, and my heart remained unpierced: where was the commanding song that really embodied the quintessence of a Valentine song? This proved elusive so far. There were those years when most of the entries had reggae in their DNA, and there were those years when acoustic forlornness defined overwhelmingly the sound of all the entries. They were, of course, compositions culled from the musical trends of their years; what could you expect of these young composers, except to churn out exactly the music they were currently listening to? And they were very good—but there I was, looking for something else I could not exactly define.

My hesitation proved porous, and I found myself soon in the company of composer Odoni Pestelos, composer and music therapist Danielle Elise Zamar, performance artist Lorenzo Mendoza, and journalist Glynda Descuatan—our chairperson—that Valentine lunchtime, fed by cafeteria food while we listened and deliberated on each of the ten entries, first via their raw and original vocals, and then a rendition of their songs in their new arrangements.

By the fifth entry, I found myself gagging with excitement.

“This is it!” I said. “This is the VSC song I have been looking for, for years!”

The other judges quickly agreed with me.

The song was “Led Us Here,” composed by Francis Enrico Cuenca and Gianna Aguilar—and their raw vocals, in a rare duet, promised all the subterfuges of loving and being loved, with a melody that felt like a sweet, sweet throwback to the best of 1990s romantic ballads.

“This is something I can imagine James Ingram sing,” said Lorenzo.

“Yes!” I replied. “And even better: in my head, this is Regine Velasquez and Janno Gibbs singing!”

That fifth song was the clincher that opened the competition to an avalanche of other great songs—and to be honest, the 2019 edition of the Valentine Songwriting Competition has the best lineup I have ever heard in years, and VSC is now in its 29th year. When we came to the end of that phase in the judging, I made my reversal: “I expect to enjoy tonight’s show, and I think we have a gold mine of songs,” I told the others.

It’s not an easy task to judge a composition contest, and as the VSC handles it, judging allows many levels of consideration.

First, there are the lyrics and the melodic line, gleaned for the most part from the original vocals—often haphazard affairs featuring broken voices, broken instrumentation, inferior recording environment, and once in a while, the interruptions of cocks crowing in the background. [That happened in two entries.] As a writer, at this stage of judging I look for the “story” in the lyrics and, when I can, I look for acceptable intelligibility of its metaphors. I’m all for creative imagery, but what does a lyricist exactly mean when he writes, “The dust and blues in your velvet eyes is a million dollar” [sic]?

Second, there is the arrangement, which has the potential to either elevate or devastate a song. This is gleaned from the second recording of the entry, this time sung with the final instrumentation in place. This is the pinnacle of collaboration between composer and arranger, and demands that the latter must somehow get the song, must somehow render it in the style most appropriate for it. Sometimes a song that is quite forgettable in its original iteration suddenly finds wings in its new version. But sometimes a song we loved in its original form would get butchered by arrangement so inappropriate. I remember the year Andrew Alvarez won. His original take of a song plucked out of a ukulele was so charming—only to have the arrangement drown out what was so charming about it. The judges actually thought of asking the organizers to jettison the arrangement and let Andrew sing the song in the way he had conceptualized it. We restrained ourselves, of course—but thank heavens Andrew still won. He won because the charm of the song was sufficiently carried over by the third and last consideration: the performance, the interpretation.

During Finals Night, the interpreters take the last hurdle—and their voices as well as their command of the stage largely shape the reception of the songs. Most of the time, the composers themselves decide to perform their own songs—often an unfortunate thing, because composition and singing are two very different talents. A magnificently written song can simply fade from serious consideration by the strained vocal efforts of its composer/interpreter, who should have known better. But the opposite can also happen: a lackluster composition with middle-of-the-road sensibilities suddenly finds a new urgency with a performer who knows how to command the stage with both presence and voice. They become the song, and their singing demand that we pay close attention.

All three things intertwine in the long arc of judging considerations.

This year, we found ourselves having to weight all considerations and choose from at least six—SIX—great songs out of the ten entries, all of which could have easily won in a less competitive year.

“Beyond the White Light,” composed by Lara Jemima Afdo and arranged by Henrix Paul Tubil, offered the most beguiling story of the lot—that of loving someone who has passed on, and knowing that it is in remembrance that this love could prove to be immortal. Afdo’s performance of her own song was moving as well, which made this song a favorite. There is also a story in Rine Christelle Anfone’s “XXY,” the sole Bisaya song in the competition, but it limns a little too much on the darker side of loving, a consideration of infidelity done with a small measure of bisdak wit—but not enough to elevate its theme.

“Sa Ilalim ng Buwan,” composed by Bridgette Apple Shanne Villasis, is the only Tagalog song of the lot and as sung by Villasis, becomes easy comparison to OPM favorites. She begins her interpretation in magnificent, and well-applauded, a capella, which soon climbs up the emotional scales—but gets undone by quirks in the arrangement that felt like strange choices for the narrative. Because if you want a song to make us think of love under the moonlight, such serenity of imagined space have no place for the drums and cymbals threatening to overwhelm it. Let us have violins! That arrangement quirk also proved to be what marred the sheer beauty of Cuenca and Aguilar’s “Led Us Here,” admittedly the emotional favorite of all the judges—but it didn’t find a place at all even in the top three. Here was a ballad of sheer and gorgeous emotionality—but what’s that very long guitar solo amping for a rock and roll feel doing in the middle of it? This was the sayang of all sayang. It’s exact opposite is the song “Exquisite,” an overwritten piece saved by the gorgeous and well-produced arrangement by Johann Beira, who rightfully won the Best Arranger award. Beira did so much for that song, elevating it to impressive heights.

“Feels Like Home,” composed by Jesza Belle Hope Lirazan and arranged by Diego Joshua Lipura, actually garnered second place, buoyed by the sheer magnetism of its interpretation also done by Lirazan. This was a song with an embracing folksy vibe reminiscent of Florence and the Machine that had the judges taking to calling it “that road trip song,” because it seemed to invite the listener to an instant adventure aboard a top-down convertible. In third place was Zephaniah Aethelbard Buenavista’s “For Emma,” arranged by Lee Albertino Añiga, which was to be honest not really memorable in the prejudging—but surprised us by soaring to great heights because of the singular performance of its composer and interpreter, whose voice and whose presence, bathed by the spotlight, demanded attention to the forlornness in his voice. Seeing him sing felt like watching heartbreak manifest itself in all its totality.

But the night belonged to Samuel Akinbode. Even from the prejudging, there was no denying the song “Backwards” the ultimate prize. This is a clear winner through sheer confluence of time, talent, and circumstance. It was just Akinbode’s time, after two previous efforts at joining the VSC that led only to almost-ran placements. (Last year, he actually tied for the championship—but the judges opted to give “Pagya” the prize.)

He almost didn’t win because he almost didn’t join. From his Facebook post, he admitted: “I withdrew my entry minutes after I passed it. I was scared to lose for the third time. I almost let my pride get in the way, and I forgot why I first joined, which [was] simply [because] I just love to write [songs] and sing. I guess the fact that it’s a competition kinda gets to you, [because] personally I felt like I wasn’t good at anything else, and if I couldn’t excel in what I think I’m good at then, [then] I am of no use.

“[But] I decided to swallow my pride and rejoin the contest. And all I wanted to do was to put on a decent show for the audience one last time and I’d be happy regardless of the outcome. I didn’t really let people know about it, [and] I only told my [mother two] days [before the] show time [because] I didn’t feel like [my family] should be there. I was just going there to sing, and not for the contest [because] frankly the competition [was] over for me.”

But he won. He created an earworm of a song—I’m still singing its refrain “How to love you backwards...”—that felt like it was culled from a full experience of knowing what made something memorable and hummable. Rojan Max’s arrangement, too, felt like it understood the undercurrents of the song, understood that it needed its moments of silence, and understood that its biggest drama could actually be highlighted by restraint.

And there was that magnificent performance, also by Akinbode. Where was that shy Nigerian boy we all first saw three years ago, whose tallness seemed to belie the demeanor of a wallflower? On the Luce stage that Valentines night, Akinbode unleashed all that he has learned being on the stage—this boy has been performing in local spoken word competitions and in musicals, too, the past few years—and distilled everything to a singular presence: he began his song tinkling the grand piano, then taking to the spotlight to unleash the sheer emotional rawness of its middle, and then finally going back to the piano for the last stretch, which folds into the precarious stillness of the song’s end. That was sheer performance.

This was the first time I’ve gotten out of the Luce Auditorium where I wanted a CD of all the entries. The winning song might be titled “Backwards,” but on the 29th year of the Valentine Songwriting Competition, the longest-running contest of its kind in the country, everything suddenly feels like a momentum pushing forwards.

Congratulations to everyone who made this VSC truly memorable.

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Thursday, February 14, 2019

entry arrow1:42 AM | Short Takes on the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Short Subject Films

Let's do the Documentary Short Subject nominees for the Oscars, shall we?

Marshall Curry's Oscar-nominated documentary short A Night at the Garden (2018) is a Trump rally held in 1939, when the Madison Square Garden in New York played host to 20,000 Americans who were demonstrating their Nazi ideals. This was only a year before the U.S. entered World War II. Observe the similarities. It's chilling. It's archival documentary that speaks so much of the present that its very simplicity is its power.

I don't like watching end-of-life-at-the-hospital drama, but Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Oscar-nominated documentary short End Game (2018) manages to not just shed light on the plight and pluck of people suffering from terminal illness in a hospice... But it does this with keen, gentle, observant eyes, totally interested in all high and lows of palliative care. But I have always adored the work of Epstein and Friedman, who have mostly charted the queerness of popular culture. Here, Epstein and Friedman explore a topic almost tangential to their ouevre, but they do it so well, and so full-heartedly, you can't look away.

Ed Perkins' Oscar-nominated documentary short Black Sheep (2018) is compelling enough in its story about a black kid in 90s London trying to escape racism by whitening his skin and donning blue contact lenses in order to become "friends" with his racist neighbors.

Skye Fitzgerald's Oscar-nominated documentary short Lifeboat (2018) should be memorable, but it's not. It is a chronicle of efforts by activists to save refugees from the treacherous waters and the rickety boats they have set their hopes for better lives on... The subject matter should be compelling enough to follow -- but nothing sticks in this cinematic effort to give face to this very current humanitarian struggle. I couldn't remember a single frame a day after I watched this short film.

It took a long time for Netflix to release on its platform the Oscar-nominated documentary short Period. End of Sentence (2018), Rayka Zehtabchi's attempt to follow a charitable effort to provide cheap sanitary napkins to poor girls in India who needed them most. It has particular importance in a society where the mention of "menstruation" is still a perplexing taboo. It's really a feminist call to arms, using an unlikely object as lens. But the wait proved disappointing, because the film does not live up to expectations as pathbreaking social documentary. Its message feels forced. This film, noteworthy its subject matter may be, has no nuance, has no discernible difference from mere NGO pitch presentation. Also, there's a whiff of Orientalism here I can't quite shake.

VERDICT: In order of preference, End Game > A Night in the Garden > Black Sheep > Period. End of SentenceLifeboat.

Can the Oscars scrap one of the last three and replace it with Charlie Tyrell's brilliant My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes (2018)? Why is the Academy so standoffish when it comes to finely etched domestic explorations like this and Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (2012)?

Previously: Short Takes on the Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

entry arrow3:31 PM | A Hopeful Start for Heritage

Part 6 of the Dumaguete Heritage Series

The truth of the matter is—and this has been the very heart of my argument since this series of articles on local heritage started last month—Dumaguete is a city rich of history, of heritage, and of culture. It is in fact a city that has largely been shaped in that regard.

Imagine the Dumaguete that you love right now—and I can bet that none of you will think of it without any regard of any of the following: the beautiful Rizal Boulevard, the historic campanario, the stately Silliman Hall, the bountiful nature of the adjacent Bohol Sea as well as the neighboring towns, the vibrant art and culture that has produced two national artists: Edith Tiempo as National Artist for literature and Eddie Romero as National Artist for cinema. And if we are to go even further, two National Scientists as well: Clara Y. Lim-Sylianco for biochemistry and Angel C. Alcala for marine biology. How magnificent for one small city to produce such giants!

These are all instances of local history, heritage, and culture. Without all or any of these, Dumaguete would not have been a draw, would have just been a regular Philippine town devoid of magic and heart.

And yet in any consideration of development for the city, these are the things that are easily scrapped and forgotten.

Consider the many historical and ancestral houses we have in the city that are slowly being torn down and redeveloped, to become nondescript office buildings without character. Consider that we have not done a full cultural mapping of the place, which is always the first step to any attempt at heritage conservation. Consider that most of these things are not appreciated by so many locals, simply because there is no reminder nor incentive to do just that.

But there is a hopeful start. It is as of this moment quite inchoate, but nonetheless it is a start. One of the first things that Mayor Ipe Remollo did in his recent term as head of the LGU was to constitute, after a resolution passed by City Councilor Manuel Arbon, a City Heritage Council—the first of its kind in the city in an official capacity in all of its history, the lack of which had been such a puzzle to consider, given our vaunted love for Dumaguete as a city of culture.

Executive Order No. 2 of 2018, signed by Mayor Remollo that year, acknowledges that “there are a number of valuable and existing sites, properties, buildings, institutions, books, and cultural practices and traditions in the City of Dumaguete that are worth preserving, rehabilitating, or protecting for posterity’s sake,” and that “there is a need to preserve such heritage in order to secure the identity of Dumaguete City for generations yet unborn, especially in the present age of rapid socio-economic development and cultural diversity as these define the unique image of the city.”

This is consistent with Republic Act 7160, in relation to the State policy to foster the preservation and enrichment of a Filipino national culture, under Article XIV of the 1987 Constitution, and with this Dumaguete has proclaimed a very real need for the City Government to have a “Cultural Heritage Council.”

The founding members of that council include Dr. Earl Jude Cleope as Director and yours truly as Deputy, together with Dr. Angel C. Alcala, Dr. T. Valentino Sitoy Jr., the late Justice Venancio D. Aldecoa Jr., Rev. Fr. Roman Sagun Jr., Ms. Jacqueline V. Antonio, Hon. Manuel R. Arbon, Mr. Justin A. Bulado, Engr. Leonides P. Caro, Mr. Nick Ian Cornelia, Architect Zorich D. Guia, Prof. Regan P. Jomao-as, Mr. Peter Macabinguil, Prof. Carlos M. Magtolis Jr., Mr. Leo Mamicpic, Ms. Dessa Quesada Palm, Mr. Camilo E. Pangan, and Engr. Edwin C. Quirit.

We have so much work to do [and in the next articles in this series, we will try to delineate how much work is cut out for us]. I’ve also quickly learned however that in government most things do take their own sweet time to come to fruition, often because there’s bureaucracy and accountability to face. Patience is a virtue in, but when you work hard at it long enough, the rewards can be gratifying.

One of the first projects that Jacqueline Antonio took on when she put on the mantle of City Tourism Officer in 2016 was to make sure that all Dumaguete streets were properly labeled with street signs. “Because how can you expect guests and tourists to go around when they can’t even tell where they are, even with a map?” she told me once. She and her office proceeded to map out all street corners—even including the ones deeper into the western side of the city—and inventoried what remained of the old street signs, taking note what needed a new structure and what needed only a few repairs. It took time, but finally, at the tail-end of 2018, the new street signs are out in its first phase of installations, in a project worth P600,000. The second phase will consider the inner streets of Dumaguete.

A project of the Heritage Council, under the auspices of the Tourism Office, is the Hugkat Journal, its official publication, which seeks to document all manner of articles and research on local history, heritage, culture, and the arts. [“Hugkat” is the Binisaya word for “to unearth” or “to trace,” and is related to kabilin or “heritage”.] Its current editor is Dr. Cleope, with yours truly as associate editor. This, too, is taking some time to take shape—but the first volume is already out, containing particular histories of Dumaguete City by Fr. Sagun [on Padre Mariano Bernad’s history of Dumaguete in 1895], Prof. Magtolis [on the early Protestant endeavors in Negros Oriental, focusing on the Malahay Brothers and Angel Sotto], Prof. Caridad Aldecoa-Rodriguez [on Dumaguete during World War II], Dr. Cleope [with a list of presidentes, municipal and city mayors of Dumaguete from 1901 to 2001], and Prof. Victor Emmanuel H. Enario [on the political career of Mayor Jose Pro Teves, 1948-1978]. At least two more volumes are forthcoming in 2019.

Dr. Cleope, meanwhile, is also soon spearheading a city-wide cultural mapping project, which he has already began in a smaller scale with his senior high students at Silliman University, where he is a history professor as well as the Vice President for Academic Affairs. A cultural map is a vital necessity, a tool that helps identify what constitutes a place’s heritage in terms of five markers: movable heritage, natural heritage, built heritage, intangible heritage, as well as local creative industries and occupations. Once verified and properly documented, it serves as a blueprint for specific pursuits for conservation.

A precursor to this effort has also already happened—although in lightning mode. Heritage Council member Dessa Quesada Palm and YATTA have undertaken a project for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts [NCCA] titled Mugna. In 2017, they invited several prominent cultural stakeholders in the city to do a one-day cultural mapping project.

“A couple of years ago, the NCCA set a very brave question,” she told the participants then. “How can you really say that art and culture has helped economic goals, has helped in poverty alleviation, has helped in disaster risk management, and others? What has the arts and culture done so far for social development?” The bottom-line, she said, is that whatever relevance had been identified, it needed indicators.

Mugna as a project sprang from that need—this one specific to what was then the Negros Island Region [now defunct], with the Oriental side focusing on the cultural heritage of Dumaguete, Bais, Amlan, and Bayawan. (The Occidental side focused on Calatrava, Kabankalan, Murcia, Bago, and Talisay.) The focus for Mugna in 2017 was to identify and assess what is in local communities that we needed to celebrate, culturally-speaking, and how they could be used as indicators for social development.

That meant, for Dumaguete at least, identifying the “rhythm” of the city, identifying what exactly is the inspiration of being [or becoming] a Dumaguete artist, and identifying what has been created locally that is authentically inspired by Dumaguete.

That last point, for example, is a vital consideration. An example: go to a local souvenir shop, and chances are that part of its inventory would include products extolling Boracay or Bohol—and often very rarely Dumaguete. “How can we create what is really from Dumaguete?” Ms. Quesada-Palm asked.

Observation was also made that in preparing for local festivals, many organizers and performers would hire trainers from other places like Cebu, infusing into the local festivities rhythms that are distinctly of another place—which ultimately affects local culture. How many local festivals have absorbed the familiar sounds and beats of Cebu’s Sinulog, for example, and have inculcated that into the making of their “own” [but ultimately inauthentic] sounds and beats of their respective town’s cultural revelries?

The antidote was this, at least for the Dumaguete participants of Mugna: first, to find what exactly is the rhythm of Dumaguete, and second, once that rhythm has been identified, to find out how best to infuse it to make an authentic sound for the Sandurot. The brainstorming that occurred during that Mugna session, which later on spilled into ensuing workshops with local trainers and performers—moderated by experts sent in by the NCCA—resulted to moving the Sandurot from its former November perch to September, and with the festival taking on a specific motif, both in terms of the visual and the aural, which considered more fully Dumaguete’s history, and finally centering on the local natural heritage of pulang lapuk.

Ultimately, the goal is to find a vital link between heritage preservation and risk reduction management, and environmental concerns, and socio-economic responsibilities and concerns. What is the role of local artists in terms of any of these so-called “more pressing” concerns? That is the question we have only begun to answer. And we have only started just now—but better now than never.

To be continued

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Monday, February 11, 2019

entry arrow9:12 PM | #ArtVsArtist2019

Getting into this, because writers are artists too, yah?

#ArtVsArtist #ArtVsArtist2019

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Tuesday, February 05, 2019

entry arrow12:28 AM | The Green Light

There was a green light, I swear, on a buoy bobbing up and down off the seaside Rizal Boulevard when I rushed past it near midnight on the way home. It was very distinct in the total darkness of the sea that betrayed no horizon, and for a moment there, I felt Gatsby’s ghost whispering in my ear, willing me to believe in the green light, whatever it promised, whatever future it held that continued to recede and elude me. That was all there ever was, at least now, and I still dream so feverishly of the day when I can breathe calmly, the dream fulfilled. The green light is a lie, and when my tricycle sped past the slight curve that turned Rizal into Flores Avenue and I could no longer see the sea, I felt relief disguised as a modicum of happiness.


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Monday, February 04, 2019

entry arrow10:54 PM | The Ways Into Heritage

Part 5 of the Dumaguete Heritage Series

In 2004, when that fateful December tsunami bore down on Indonesia and many other countries around the Indian Ocean and proceeded to exact a death toll so high that the tragedy has come to be listed as the tenth largest natural disaster in history, something of heritage proved to be an uncanny savior for many people in Simeulue, an island in Indonesia near West Aceh.

Stanley Widianto, writing for Foreign Policy, writes of it: “The cries of ‘Smong! Smong!,’ the local word for a tidal wave, rang from the coastline to the hills as soon as the shaking that preceded the disaster had finished. As they heard it, the islanders, mostly from the Nias people, began heading to the mountains, crying out ‘Smong!’ in turn as news spread.” The result: “The disaster cost more than 150,000 lives in Indonesia,” Widianto continues, “[but] only seven were lost on Simeulue—about a seventh, proportional to population, of the losses in other Indonesian areas.”

What saved them?

Widianto quotes a Simeulue local who explained the significance: “The islanders had heard a song about smong ever since they were small, passed down by parents and grandparents after the island was hit by a tsunami in 1907. The song’s message was, ‘When there’s a strong earthquake, followed by a low tide, don’t go near the coast to collect the fish on the shore, because there will be a [tsunami]. When that happens, run to the mountains to save yourselves. Take your kids, parents, and women to run away from the beach. Yell out, smong, smong.”

In other words, what saved the people of Simeulue was localized knowledge that sprung from their heritage and culture—a song they have been singing for close to a hundred years which gave them the instinctive edge, and which eventually led to their survival.

Localized knowledge like this is part of an intangible heritage we call “secret knowledge,” essentially these parcels of wisdom we’ve come to inherit from the generations that came before us. Some of them we have derisively called “old wives’ tales,” because they seem to always fly against knowledge we’ve learned from the present, and usually of Western import, and always coming to us packaged as “modern thinking.”

That old tale from your grandmother, for example, about eating chicken soup to help fight colds? This was something laughed at by the medical establishment as nothing more than fanciful thinking—until medical journals began suggesting that chicken soup might actually have anti-inflammatory effects that can actually help alleviate symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections.

What am I saying? That heritage is part of the story we’ve threaded as a culture and as a people, and this tapestry has sustained us for ages—and we should not be surprised that, out of the blue, it is the one thing that can save us from some impending disaster, like the people of Simeulue and their traditional tsunami song. And yet much of heritage—seen as “old” and often misunderstood because it is “intangible”—remains at risk for many communities all over the world, and Dumaguete is not immune from this lack of foresight. Sometimes the effort at conservation confounds most people. I understand this. Because how does one exactly begin, and what are the benefits?

We don’t have to look far to see some successful stories.

There is the example of Silay City, which at the height of Negros Island’s sugar bounty, had reasons to call itself “the Paris of Negros.” Before the Second World War, many of Negros Occidental’s richest landholding families—the Ledesmas, the Hofilenas, the Locsins, among many others—built lofty mansions along the narrow streets of this enclave near Bacolod. Many of these houses were built in the 1920s and 1930s, some at the turn of the last century, and all of them saw the local high society of that time enjoying the heights of their gilded age. After the war and in the aftermath of its horrors, there was considerable decline from the glittering glory that Silay once enjoyed, and many of these old houses were soon abandoned by the descendants of these families who perhaps saw better opportunities living in Manila, or better yet, abroad.

But some locals saw relevance in pursuing heritage preservation for the old homes, which were fast becoming victims to the ravages of nature, termites, and time. One of the first to recognize this was Ramon ‘Monching’ Hofileña, dubbed the “father of heritage conservation” in Silay, and who started opening his family’s ancestral house—now the Manuel Severino Hofileña Heritage House, built in 1934—in 1962, marking it as the first heritage house in the small city to be opened to the public. After a stint in New York in the 1970s, Hofileña returned home and took it upon himself to restore and protect what he deemed were the distinct cultural heritage of Negros. Soon he was organizing an annual, and long-running, cultural tour of the province, with Silay as the crown jewel of that tour. Today, Silay is officially a heritage zone as declared by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines.


The efforts at heritage preservation in Silay was very much a grassroots movement, initiated by some of the sons and daughters of these landed families who must have thought that tearing down these grand, though decaying, structures was not exactly the right way to go—and proceeded to convince others of their class that, in fact, owning up to this legacy was perhaps the key to unlocking a treasure they still couldn’t see yet.

Today, these heritage houses, numbering about thirty, have become the engines fueling the local economy of Silay, much like Vigan. Some have become museums, others have become charming boutique hotels as well as bed-and-breakfasts, all of them embracing the past and reusing it for contemporary purposes. Only belatedly did the local government really get into the act. In 2015, the Silay mayor announced a landmark ordinance that more or less guaranteed the continuance of heritage efforts, giving the owners of heritage structures, “who properly maintain and adaptively reuse their properties,” 100-percent tax exemption.

In Cebu, on the other hand, deep in the heart of Colon, one can find the so-called “Jesuit House,” built by 18th century Jesuits stationed in Cebu, which has become a marvelously restored structure and is presently a museum, itself a well-curated and managed affair.

But the most extraordinary thing about the Jesuit House is that it is located inside a warehouse, a bodega that is still very much in use, the bustle of business coinciding perfectly with the serenity of preserving artifact!


The story goes that the old priestly enclave built in 1730 was soon abandoned when the Jesuits were being suppressed in Europe in the 17th century and soon their number was expelled from Spanish territories, which included the Philippines. The house in Cebu was sold off, and changed hands so many times, each time losing much of its distinctive structures. Soon it was lost in the bowels of the warehouse constructed around it—until the father of the present owner was approached by historians, who floated the idea that what was inside his bodega was in fact structure with important architectural significance. Reportedly, the old businessman did not at all care—but his son, now the present owner, did; after the passing away of the patriarch, the son saw in it a perfect opportunity to combine business interest as well as his growing interest in heritage.

And so, the bodega still hums with activity, with workers coming in and out managing what goods were being stockpiled for the family business. And within that humming is a perfectly functioning museum, which offers scheduled tours through the fascinating labyrinth of 17th century Spanish colonial architecture in the Philippines. It also has an extensive souvenir shop that mimics how an alleyway in old Cebu might have looked like. The Jesuit House in Cebu demonstrates that heritage preservation and commerce do not necessarily cancel each other out.

But to cite an example of heritage preservation done on a mass scale in the name of urban development—and quite successfully at that—Iloilo City has become the very byword for the local heritage movement. The city is one of the oldest in the country, becoming a major trading port in the Visayas in the 19th century, and contributing much to the culture of the country. With that of course sprang architecture scattered everywhere in the metropolis that reflected the riches and conditions of the times, and today collectively they stand as heritage structures much of which Iloilo is repurposing in pursuit of a goal that “[their] past is [their] present.”


The local government has moved in decisive ways to complement the historical—even recently moving the old grandstand used for its Dinagyang Festival to a new location facing the Iloilo River to revive the old Sunburst Park, a thing of beauty. There is a concerted effort to revive the Calle Real, which collects along its stretch the best period architecture from the 1920s to the 1940s, making it a rival to Manila’s Escolta. But while Escolta seems bent on getting rid of one heritage building after another, subjecting each one to the force of the wrecking ball, Iloilo’s various conservation groups are determined to uphold what they consider as their city’s roots and birthright.

The project of rejuvenating Calle Réal hatched in 2017 included restoring 26 vintage building façades, covering the sidewalks with pavers and installing old-style street lamps, relocating sidewalk vendors to viable locations, and ‘bundling’ or relocating electric and telephone cables. Today, much of the project is a success story, prompting the National Historical Commission of the Philippines in 2018 to consider this highly urbanized city as a “model heritage zone” for the country. There are three distinct stakeholders in these three stories: the local government, the local conservationists among the citizens, and the business people and families who own much of these heritage buildings. What Silay, Cebu, and Iloilo have demonstrated is that the forging of a common interest among the three is possible, and can only be good for the city in the long run.

Isn’t it high time for Dumaguete to consider this very forging?

To be continued...

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Sunday, February 03, 2019

entry arrow3:47 PM | The Heart Can Be Unforgiving Above All Things

There are people I’ve known in my life I’ve come to pretend don’t exist, or if barring that, to pretend that I have never ever known them. And the stance becomes such a given, instinctive even, that on ordinary days when I happen to meet them on the street, or in a cafe, or inside a tricycle, I catch myself giving them an airy glance and then I feel my eyes going beyond them, as if all I see are ghostly traces I have no vocabulary for; the erasure of recognition is such a performance that I actually find my heart lurching just a little. It is doing this dance, I think, of a little guilt, but also bountiful resoluteness. I don’t know you, my heart says. But of course I do, it continues, and I know what you have done to me and now you’re just a shadow my eyes do not care to see. He knows it, too, this old friend of mine that I see in this cafe on a Sunday afternoon. Our eyes meet for a second, and he looks away. And I go on playing pretend, my unforgiving heart dancing, dancing, dancing the unforgiving tango.


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