5:26 PM |
Taking Dumaguete Choral Music to the World
A few days ago, in the midst of the hubbub that was the long-awaited return of “normal” Founders Day festivities for Silliman University, the Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez [ESVS] International Choral Festival was officially launched at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium. It is scheduled to premiere in 2023, a year from now. According to its organizers, the competition hopes to bring in choral groups from all over the world to Dumaguete, in celebration of this distinctive type of music, and in honor of a woman who has been my mentor [and also artistic collaborator] for many years. I say it’s something that’s long time in coming.
The first time I truly met Ma’am Sue on a personal level—I’d seen her around Silliman campus before that, leading various choral performances—it was when I was cast as one of the Jets for a local production of West Side Story, for which she was musical director. This was in the mid-1990s. It, however, turned out to be an abortive production. Suddenly, the show was being replaced by Godspell. A bunch of us from the West Side Story cast was handpicked for the new production—and once more, Ma’am Sue served as our musical director.
It was the start of a long friendship and mentorship, which I will always cherish to the end of my days. Because it was a small cast, we all had solos—and our ability to deliver well the musical requirements of the show was under Ma’am Sue’s direction. To sing under her tutelage was an eye-opener—part learning technique, and part accommodating therapy. It was not just about hitting the right notes. It was also about delving deep into ourselves so that those notes would matter in a storytelling level. And it wasn’t about singing bombastically either. Ma’am Sue taught us to value the quiet moments, the spaces between breathing, the right cadence and the right volume.
Afterwards, she welcomed me to sing with the storied Silliman University Campus Choristers, where I was first bass throughout most of my college life. It was a wonderful time, a period in my life where my dreaming consisted of kundimans and staples of the Filipino Songbook which we had to learn to sing for this show and that, for this competition and that. That was also when she mentored me and the rest of her disciples her longstanding musical philosophy of “timpla”—essentially, an exercise in the exquisite mixture of varied harmonies, and fine-tuned in the best way possible. You see, Ma’am Sue was regularly horrified by the fact that for many choral groups, to be loud and bombastic was what was considered de rigueur. And what was worse was the fact that these groups kept on winning choral competitions, because their “loudness” was just too impressive to ignore. Ma’am Sue never believed in that. She believes in restraint, she believes in the graces of small notes, she believes in the drama of just the right combination of vocal prowess to give us the exact feel of a song.
She has been waging this “timpla war” for a long time, to be honest. With this international competition that bears her name, she has taken the battle to a new level. It’s about time.
But the launch of the ESVS International Choral Festival is also testament to all our collective love for music here in Negros Oriental, something which we hope to share more fully with the rest of the world. It recognizes and accomplishes two things that are important to consider in terms of the legacy of music in Dumaguete City:
First, it cements first the heritage of music in Dumaguete, which is very much a City of Music—a distinction made by its history of nurturing a culture of appreciation and a culture of application through performance. This history and heritage though has been largely ignored in the larger scheme of Philippine music history—something which we have been fighting to change of late. But a quick look at that history will give you the idea that Dumaguete has contributed a great deal to the development of music in the Philippines—from the pioneering ethnomusicology of Priscilla Magdamo, William Pfeiffer, and Frank Englis to the cathartic performances of Elmo Makil, Constantino Bernardez, and Emmanuel Gregorio; from the piano-playing of Ruth Pfeiffer, Isabel Vista, and Ricardo Abapo Jr. to the violin-playing of Gilopez Kabayao, Zoe Lopez, and KayCee Galano; from the classic voices of Gamaliel Viray and Katrina Saga to the contemporary tones of Enchi and Hope Tinambacan; from the choral triumphs of Albert Faurot to the concert band popularity of Joseph Basa; from the pioneering musical researches of Elena Maquiso to the pioneering technological innovations of Juni Jay Tinambacan. The list goes on.
We truly have a great heritage of music here—but among all the ones I’ve mentioned, one kind of music has come to define Dumaguete City the most: choral music. We are pioneering in the development of this genre of music, an observation once made by National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab. And if there is one person who has done the most in that regard, it is Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez.
Thus, the ESVS International Choral Festival is also a celebration of one person’s commitment and dedication to bringing unique chorale sound to the national and international stage. Over the years, she has led a variety of choral groups to successful international tours and recordings, and in that time has come to refine a kind of choral music that we—as her disciples—have come to regard as, “lami og timpla.” Not bombastic for bombast’s sake, but choral music that uses voices “just enough” to respect the integrity of the choral piece.
The choral festival, scheduled for next year and which will bring outstanding choral groups from all over the world to Dumaguete City, is an experiment in that timpla. We can’t wait.
I actually had a little accident yesterday on my way to interview Priscilla Magdamo. I’m never a morning person, so I didn’t really have enough sleep to give me enough wakefulness to go about preparing for the day. I was rushing to the venue which was mercifully very close to my apartment, and then I bumped my head really, really hard on a low-lying tree branch that cut across the sidewalk. I was immediately woozy, but I was aware enough to know I had to rush back home. Once inside, the sight that greeted me on my mirror was something else — there was so much blood dripping down my face. And my first thought was: this looks like a horror movie. I quickly attended to the fresh wound on my head as best as I could, but I had to hurry back to my scheduled interview. Later on, I learned it was a terrible gash, and I’m glad Renz was there to help me dress the wound properly. Moral: Get enough sleep, and never rush.
My mother turned 90 today. We share the same birthday. This is a biographical shorthand of her life so far, a few things one might want to know about her…
Mother was a child of the bamboo. She was a very young child when she lost her mother, Bebang, to childbirth [but which was spun off later on as being “gi-engkanto” by some spirit residing in a mango tree]. She had to live with her older sister Epefania with an assortment of aunts and her maternal grandparents in Bayawan, which was then called New Tolong. Mother’s father, a langyaw from Bohol, apparently disappeared after his wife’s death and had not been heard from since. In later years, when Mother would ask what happened to her parents, her aunts would tell her: “Gikan ka sa liki sa kawayan.” She would believe this story for many years. I have written an essay about this.
Mother is really Ceferina, not Fennie. Her birth name was Ceferina Malazarte Rosales, although for the longest time she thought Malazarte was her family name. Her sister was named Epefania. When they were younger women, however, my aunt made them change their names so that they would have “a better future,” because apparently, nothing of significance happened to young women named "Ceferina" or "Epefania." So my aunt renamed themselves "Fennie" and "Fannie." I’m not sure they did this legally though, and their usage of both names old and new has been erratic over the years. When you go over our birth certificates, some of us have a mother named Ceferina, and some of us have a mother named Fennie. Essentially, my brothers and I were born, according to official records, to two different women. I have written a story about this.
Mother escaped Bayawan by making tira-tira. This was after high school, and she was jealous of her more affluent friends who went to study college in Dumaguete and elsewhere. She wanted to leave the stifling life of small town Bayawan, and study in Cebu. But her aunts told her that only the worst things could happen to young women living alone in the big city. So she secretly made tira-tira to sell and earn money, and when she had enough saved, she bought a one-way ticket to Cebu to study to become a nurse, because a distant relative promised to fund her college education. When that promise was broken, she found herself making a living becoming a beautician in Cebu City. I have written an essay about this.
Mother fled Cebu to escape heartbreak, and found her way to Mindanao, in Nasipit, near Butuan, where she met my father, who was her landlord. She rented the space for her beauty parlor from him. He was a dusky bachelor with a penchant for dreams and beautiful women—and soon enough, she found herself married to him. They would stay in Agusan del Norte for many years. I have written an essay about this.
Mother returned to Bayawan in the late 1960s to help my father’s dream to become a sugar planter. They enjoyed a decade of success as hacienderos—but soon lost everything because of the sugar shenanigans of the Martial Law. We became very, very poor. I have written an essay about this, which became viral only a few months ago when it was published on Rappler.
When my father left for Davao to seek another fortune that never came, Mother virtually became a single mother. After selling what she could, she moved the family to Dumaguete in 1980, and for the next decade we moved nine times to seek cheap rent. She sold peanut butter and baye-baye to feed us, while at the same time plied her trade as a beautician without a parlor. She had one goal in mind: to put all her six sons through college at Silliman University—even though it was an expensive dream she could not really meet given her financial circumstances. She persevered. I have written stories about this period in our lives.
What point am I trying to make? That a lot of what I have written—my stories and my essays—have been inspired by my mother’s life. In a sense, she has always been my muse. When I write about her, I think I also write invariably about my own life and where I come from—and from her I take inspiration. My mother’s life has always been a source of encouragement. She defied all odds when she was younger to build a life for herself beyond the constraints of a small town existence. When she met challenges, she overcame them with determination and hard work, even when it took all of her. When the going became even tougher, she relied on her faith, but also on her will to survive. She was all guts and gusto. And through all that, she remained a beautiful person.
Ninety is a milestone, and a gift. Here’s to wishing my mother the best of all times, and the best of all worlds.
[This is Part 1 of my birthday essay, a memory piece to celebrate my upcoming 47th birthday. I’m trying to remember who I was and what made me by trying to recall four specific ages—7, 17, 27, and 37.]
When I was seven, I did not know the vagaries of time. [No child does.] The past did not exist when we were seven, or at least we were not aware of its growing but inchoate shadows; the future did not matter. There was only now, the waking moment, both in the short morning hours and the long afternoon march to evening—punctuated midway by the martial calls by Mother to take naps, to get out of her hair while she went about doing chores.
We resisted the naps, of course, and stewed with vehemence when we could not get out of the daily obligation. We’d ultimately succumb to sleep but in the defiant prologue before slumber, we anguished to spend those siesta hours furiously looking for play instead. Or looking for isolated space to spend solitary joys, away from the admonishing rejoinders of older, other people.
It was probably more the latter, when I was seven. Although I had yet to discover books at that age, I could already recognize the pleasures of the solo idyll, adventures without playmates: on my own, I imagined battlefields and lurking monsters in the vast backyard of the house we rented in front of Silliman Village; I imagined the wooden walls of our house hiding nooks and crannies that hid entire villages of tiny people; I imagined entire worlds sprung from my hand with my arsenal of paper and pen.
“Ian draws very well,” a friend of my Mother remarked. “He should be an engineer.”
I did not know what an engineer was.
When I was seven, I learned to read, so to speak, from a sticker posted on our front door, which contained the following phrase: “Jesus is Love.” I learned on my own that each letter was a sound, and that when I put all the sounds together, they formed a word I could understand. My portal to words was gnomic theology.
When I was seven, my world smelled of peanut butter and baye-baye and the acrid smell of chemical treatments to curl hair—the things with which Mother made a living.
When I was seven, I refused to go to school. Mother had enrolled me in first grade at North City Elementary School—although everyone called it “Piapi,” like the barangay it existed in—and I had gone along with what was expected of me those first few months of the school year of 1982-1983. I had a teacher named Mrs. Limpiado, and I liked her. She is fixed in my memory as a gentle, kind, and patient soul with white hair and spectacles. One morning, I arrived at school to find out that she had gone “on leave,” apparently to visit family in America—and we were going to be under a new teacher.
I did not like the new teacher at all.
She was not as nice as Mrs. Limpiado, not to my estimation.
She made me feel nervous—and one day, my nervousness probably got the better of me and I peed in my pants during class. Somebody noticed the uncharacteristic puddle on the wooden floor, and the telltale wetness on my khaki shorts. The new teacher was flustered, and my classmates laughed. I don’t remember the humiliation, but I remember thoroughly the resolve:
The next day, I refused to go back to school.
[This is the first time I have ever demonstrated a fierce refusal to endure something I could not bear, and how I could never be moved come hell or high water. I would do similar things later in life.]
Mother begged and cajoled me to go back. “You have to go to school!” she said. “You’re seven years old!” She promised me ice cream and toys and assorted things I was certain she could not afford. I refused.
I never did go back to school that year. [Which is the story of why I’m older than most of my classmates in later years.] The June before I turned eight, my family moved from that house in Bantayan in front of Silliman Village to a house inside a poblacion block along Silliman Avenue. I remember vividly the morning Mother took me to the corner of Alfonso Trese Street [now Perdices Street] and Calle San Juan, and said:
“If we go there”—pointing to the eastern side of the stretch—“we will find Chung Hua High School. Your brother Rey goes to school there. If we go there”—pointing to the opposite stretch—“we will find West City Elementary School. I have a lot of friends who are teachers there. Where would you like to go to school? Chung Hua? Or West?”
It must have made me feel like I had agency—a choice between two schools to restart my elementary school journey. For reasons clear to me that moment in that crossroad, all of me decided to go to West. I quarreled too much with my brother Rey.
When I was finally under the tutelage of the delightful Mrs. Valencia—who later became Mother’s regular hairdressing customer, and in whose house I first encountered Sinbad and James Bond on Betamax—I was not at all surprised to find out that the new principal in my new school was Mrs. Limpiado.
This is the zine of my literature workshop for the CCP Arts Academy. It compiles their final output: a balak, siday, or binalaybay about a heritage item relevant to their hometown. The participants were junior and senior high school creative writing teachers, but this is the first time most of them have written something creative in their own language. Link to download here.
I’m slowly coming out of convalescence, and the sun is finally shining outside after so many days of heavy rain and flooding. I know I’m getting well because last night the s.o. fed me udon soup, and I felt my fever break. I still cough, but no longer with the horrid retching of the past few days. While I go about my apartment slowly cleaning up the sick day remnants, I feel fine, strangely at peace. I’m also processing something now that marks a turning point in my life. Today feels like a new day, to be honest. I’m about to turn 47 in seven days, but today feels like my birthday.
12:51 PM |
A Grand Finale to the 2022 CCP Arts Academy
Have you ever had that feeling that you've done your best, and now it's up to the fates for that one last go to end up at least satisfactorily? We — the mentors for literature, dance, theatre, visual arts, music, and film — workshopped and workshopped and workshopped for five days straight, and now it came to this: a recital involving all the participants for the closing ceremony.
With barely half-a-day of rehearsals to iron out the kinks and to determine what needed to be done [choreography, choice of pieces, etc.], we were in it because everyone wanted it. In fact, we started the week thinking a final performance was going to be optional for each workshop. By Wednesday, all the mentors were keen to do at least something. By Thursday afternoon, we had some idea about what to do. By Friday morning, the rehearsals began. By Friday afternoon, the performances were on the slot.
AND IT WAS TREMENDOUS. It was like watching a concert of all the arts coming together in a spectacular and unexpected grand finale, with everybody doing their best to make everything work. You couldn't tell that most of the dances — sometimes paired with poets or with theatre artists — were improvised on the spot. It was just all seamless, certainly not without its flaws [a missing cue, a missing mic, etc.], but altogether fantastic. This is why in this video, as the last performers took a bow, we are all so generous with our applause, because we recognized that we just did something magical — and that all that hard work actually went to something tangible.
I think I echo my other co-mentors when I repeat what I said to myself at the end of the program: "Oh my God, they all actually learned something from us." We actually observed that our participants — 188 teachers from all over the Philippines — were hungry to learn, were willing to absorb something new and challenging, and most of all were generous to share their [sometimes newfound] talent in front of everyone. We made them dance, write, act, direct, make music, make art — and in the end, we were all very happy.
Thank you, Cultural Center of the Philippines Arts Academy [Chris Millado / Ron B. Mirabuena] and Silliman University Culture and Arts Council [Diomar Abrio] for making this possible. And congratulations to all my co-mentors [Dessa Quesada-Palm, Cheenee Vasquez Limuaco, Angelo Sayson, Aiken Quipot, Elvert Bañares, Juni Jay Tinambacan, Joseph Albert Perez Basa, W Don Flores, Ramon del Prado, and AK Ocol] for forming such a formidable group of resource speakers.
5:58 AM |
An Arts Academy for the Nation’s Teachers
One of the most dynamic, and humbling, things I do in my vocation as both writer and cultural worker has been moderating writing workshops for teachers. I cannot recall when this exactly began for me, but it has been a while. And my general takeaway has always been that of supreme fulfilment, a matter of giving back, so to speak.
In one of the most recent workshops I’ve given, I was asked by a participant how I knew I was a writer. My answer was immediately forthcoming: I had no idea I could write well until my teachers told me I could, paving the way to a career devoted mostly to creative writing.
In grade school, I remember enjoying doing the themed compositions my teacher, Ms. Bennie Vic Concepcion, made us do on an annual rotation—and missives devoted to “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” or “My Best Friend” became ripe ground to explore, in a creative manner, my childhood rumination on those themes. Ms. Concepcion, who was my English teacher from Grade III to Grade IV, also equipped me with the fundamentals of the English language, making my facility in it adept enough to be able to tell stories well. I was later appointed to become editor-in-chief of the school organ, The Western Star, although I had no idea I could do journalism as well. The same thing happened in high school, with teachers like Ms. Tessie Sedigo, Ms. Gina Fontejon, and Prof. Alejandra Bañas validating my writing, that I could also be tasked with editing the school paper. In college, Prof. Ceres Pioquinto took me under her wings, and under her I learned the nuances of literary criticism. When I was a freshman, Prof. Timothy Montes approached me after his BC 11 class one day, and essentially “ordered” me to apply for The Weekly Sillimanian [which I did, and years later, I would become its editor-in-chief]. It was also Tim who “ordered” me to apply for the Silliman University National Writers Workshop in 2020, where I rubbed elbows for the first time with many of the luminaries in Philippine literary circles. That essentially began my writing career.
My teachers were the ones who recognized something in me I did not even see in myself. They inspired me, they goaded me, they made me believe in a talent I never even knew I had. Thus, in giving these writing workshops for teachers, I am only coming full circle. These workshops have been a privilege and a pleasure.
The Arts Academy of the Cultural Center of the Philippines has been an annual tour-of-duty for me—vacated only by the pandemic in recent years. In past editions of this academic outreach by the CCP, I’ve taught regular writing workshops in poetry and fiction, but when I was invited to teach again in 2022, I decided that I wanted to pursue something I’ve been an advocate of in recent years: writing in Binisaya—in other words, mamugnaong katitikan sa Binisaya.
I felt it was necessary. I felt I could make a difference if I use Binisaya as the lens with which to do a workshop in creative writing, and succeed not only introducing obscure texts to a new audience of teachers [who might go on to teach these very works to their classes] but also in rekindling in them the often-ignored truth that when you write in your own mother tongue, you will discover a different kind of depth you can never really fathom when you use a borrowed language.
And frankly speaking, it also helps jumpstart a curiosity in learning the grammar and orthography of the native tongue—something we don’t learn at all in school. I always find it heartening when people who have been speaking Binasaya most of their lives eventually find out that there is actually a difference between “og” and “ug,” between “putli” and “ulay,” or between “ni” and “kang”; that you are actually using a Tagalog-corrupted lexicon when you say “nilugaw” [correct usage: “linugaw”] or “nilabhan” [correct usage: “linabhan”], “niluto” [correct usage: “linuto”], or “nilung-ag” [correct usage: “linung-ag”]; or you’re basically entertaining bad grammar when you say “taga-i” [correct usage: “hatagi”], or “tuho-i” [correct usage: “tuohi”], or “palikero” [correct usage: “palakero”], or “dalunggan” [correct usage: “dulunggan”]. What accounts for the mistakes we regularly make of our own language is the fact that for most of us, it has remained largely oral—thus, when we mishear something, we automatically use the spelling of that misheard word—and we are not used to reading the words or the “pulong” on the page. It’s about time we take seriously our own language, which also means using it correctly as much as possible.
While creative writing in both English and Tagalog continue to flourish—and helped by the fact that these are taught in schools and published widely—regional language literature always seem to be neglected in the larger scheme of things. Our writings in Binisaya, Bikolano, Waray, Hiligayon, Kiniray-a, Akeanon, Ilocano, Chavacano, and others are certainly not dead—of late, they have actually seen a resurgence [if limited] in popularity and in scholarship. But the fact remains that in terms of development it has lagged behind English and Tagalog. I’ve written in English most of my life, and I’ll probably continue doing so, since this is the language that I am most comfortable with—but I’ve become cognizant of this sense of responsibility of becoming an advocate of the literature of my own language because, to borrow the wisdom of two my mentors, this specific kind of literature is a valid building block in our continuing effort to build, and understand, the nation, which we should do city by city, province by province, language by language [something I learned from Tim Montes]; and learning the language as part of the culture of the place where we’re from helps us distance away from using outside models [e.g., Manila culture, Western culture] to understand ourselves [something I learned from Rosario Cruz Lucero].
In the past five days, I’ve been immersed in learning the nuances of Binisaya, and in crafting the balak, the siday, the binalaybay—all contemporary forms of poetry in Binisaya, Waray, and Hiligaynon—with an assortment of teachers from all over the Philippines, counting among them Bernardino P. Magno Jr. [Digos City], Beverly L. Deque [Bais City], Edwin Garcia [Baybay, Leyte], Eloisa Jane Ramos [Las Piñas City], Guia May D. Flordemarlin [Tagum City], Jeepee Magallanes [Bonifacio CIty, Misamis Occidental], Joseph O. Montajes [Baybay City, Leyte], Katybeth P. Sumalinab [Caraga, Davao Oriental], Kezia Keren L. Cagalawan [Tudela, Misamis Occidental], Leizel C. Quiatchon [Bacolod City], Marliel P. Castillejos [Pasig City], Maryjean T. Susaya [Jaro, Leyte], May D. Castino [Catbalogan City, Samar], Narciso Ogaya Jr. [Pasig City], Niña Rose D. Inoferio [Dumaguete City], Ninfa Jael Hopilos [Iloilo City], Patricia Villanueva [Iligan City], Rene Puson [Baybay City, Leyte], Rey D. Calo [Valencia City, Bukidnon], Rolinda Judith Carlobos [Butuan City], Roma Medina [Masbate City], Shelamar C. Garrucha [Bais City], and Tess Sedigo-Bernal [Siquijor], who was actually my freshman English teacher in Silliman High School way back in the early 1990s.
They are only a part of a bigger contingent of teachers [about 180 of them] who have been in Dumaguete the past few days, and here to sharpen more their classroom know-how in the teaching of Theatre Arts [under Dessa Quesada-Palm], dance and dance production [under Ronnie Mirabuena, Cheenee Limuaco, Angelo Sayson, and Aiken Quipot], film [under Elvert Bañares], band conducting and music production [under Joseph Albert Basa and Juni Jay Tinambacan], and visual arts [under W Don Flores and AK Ocol]. I’m sure I’m not the only one among the mentors who are gratified in the heartening response of our participants—I love my workshoppers’ hunger to learn, and I love their capacity for absorption and reflection, for their humor even in challenging activities, and for their willingness to also teach me in things that I lack.
A confession: I teach because I want to know. This springs from the adage: “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.” Hopefully, in doing a creative writing workshop in Binisaya, I am on the way to that last of lofty goals.
Pausing to reflect on today. To be honest, I was exhausted — I was running on three hours of sleep before going to an eight-hour workshop — and it reminded me just how much I used to throw so much of myself on my creative writing workshops. [Hello there, burnout.] Right after I finished my session today, I just grabbed a quick early dinner at Qyosko and had Renz drop me off at home so that I could sleep. At least I managed about five hours of zzzz's this evening. I'm only waking up now to do Tourism posts for tomorrow, and balik na pud ko og tulog. There's another long day ahead.
But to be honest, I'd rather have this whirling to-do's than let depression take over me because I'm doing nothing. [Typical ADHD conundrum. Something I'm still working on.]
7:00 PM |
Teaching Binisaya Literature for the CCP Arts Academy
From Day 2 of the CCP Arts Academy, where I'm teaching a workshop on Binisaya literature, using regional language as the lens to teach creative writing. [I think it's needed.]
My workshop is being held at the Silliman Library, and I have about 30 participants — all teachers from all over the Philippines, from Davao to Iligan, from Bacolod to Baybay, Leyte, from the NCR to Masbate, from Bais to Iloilo. This is most interesting, and I'm also learning along the way.
Yesterday, I lectured on a sense of place in literature, and today we touched on Binisaya orthography and the various literary forms [from traditional to contemporary] in Katitikang Binisaya. This afternoon, we began our writing workshop, where I asked them to write a balak/siday/binalaybay. We also did an exercise on crafting the sambingay [metaphor]. Can't wait for Friday, where we will see the fruition of all these efforts.
With some of the resource speakers for the workshops on the various arts ranging from theatre to dance, visual arts to film, music to literature.