(The following article was published in Manila Standard Today, in Diaspora section, on August 22, 2011)
Last month, a choir from the Adventist University of the Philippines—The Ambassadors—won the title “Choir of the World” in the 2011 Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod in Wales, UK. This is the oldest and the most prestigious choir competition in the world. Last year’s winner was another Filipino choir, the University of Santo Tomas Singers. I could think of my possible links to both of these choirs, like my beloved alma mater, or my church affiliation, or being a choir member once, but nothing closer than just being a Filipino.
We know that Filipinos love to sing. If you give a man a guitar, whether in a barrio or in the city, he would sing the whole night and serenade the moon. In our culture, we sing when we court somebody, also called the “harana”. We sing when we are heartbroken. We sing when we are planting rice. We sing when we are harvesting rice. We sing when we put our children to sleep. Others’ singing make people unable to sleep—think of the “tambays” drinking on the street.
Our religious traditions also involve singing. We sing in church. We sing in religious parades. We even have the “pabasa” during Lent. I remember when I was young and we would spend the holy week in our province. My grandmother’s house was near a small “bisita” with its bullhorn blasting loudly all night with the singing of the “pasyon,” much to my dismay, as it was impossible to fall asleep.
And of course, we sing for entertainment. If you visit a Filipino home, especially here abroad, it is not considered a true Pinoy home if it does not have a magic mic, or magic sing, or a karaoke, or a videoke, or some sort of sing-along system. Our parties are not complete without sing-along. Our town fiestas have singing competitions. I grew up watching singing contests on television, like the “Tawag ng Tanghalan,” (excuse me, that was before my time) and the “Bagong Kampeon” and “Tanghalan ng Kampeon” (these were more of my generation). These original talent search contests were way before the franchised Philippine Idol and Pilipinas Got Talent.
We have many individual singers who broke into the world-wide scene like Lea Salonga, Charice Pempengco, and Arnel Pineda. And when they perform, whether at home or outside of our country, they make us all proud.
But a choir or choral singing has a different charm. A choir’s repertoire is so much diverse, ranging from the classical, to religious, to Kundiman, to folk songs, and even pop songs. When a Filipino choir visits a Filipino community outside of our country, they bring with them a certain nostalgia. They bring with them a part of the Philippines that expatriates like me painfully yearn for.
Back in 2000, we were still in New York at that time, and I was in transition (okay, jobless), as I just finished my training and was waiting for a change of visa for me to start work. My family and I were homeless and were squatters in our friend’s apartment. The AUP Ambassadors came to town and toured New York City.
The choir members were divided among Filipino households for accommodations. Two male members stayed in the apartment where we were staying. As you can imagine, the NYC apartment was very small, and with already two families consisting of 4 adults and 3 kids, there was not much room for our guests. So they slept on the dining room floor, which they said they really did not mind, as we Filipinos are used to that anyway. Since I was not working and had nothing to do, I became the official driver of the choir’s van for the three days they stayed in NYC, bringing them to their concert venues and taking them home.
More recently, the University of the Philippines Madrigal Singers, after winning the 2007 European Grand Prix for Choral Singing held in Italy, toured the United Sates. One of their stops was Iowa, where I am now residing. Again the accommodation of the choir members was divided among the Filipino households in the area. We had two female members who stayed in our home for a couple of days. This time, I had a bigger space to accommodate visitors, and they slept in our guest room rather than on the dining room floor.
During their visit, we were held spellbound with their singing. From the liturgical “Pater Noster” (Our Father), to the folksy “Leron, Leron Sinta,” and to the children’s song “Tong Tong Pakitong,” it was simply enchanting. But the songs that brought me back to another place in time, were pop songs sang in choral arrangement, like “Kailangan Kita” by George Canseco, and “Bituing Walang Ningning” made popular by Sharon Cuneta. (It may be hard to admit, but I miss Sharon Cuneta.) These are familiar tunes that have mass appeal. And when they sang “Bayan Ko,” I almost stood up and raised my hand in a fist.
When the choir members left, they took my heart with them. I felt so homesick that it shook the foundations of my purpose, and I again questioned my reason for not going back home to stay. For several nights, I felt such a void, and the Madrigal Singers (through my iPod) lulled me to sleep. They sang me back home. In fact, even now, when the wave of homesickness surges, I would play their songs, and I would be transported to that land of coconuts, warm breeze and jeepneys.