Spreading unity through music

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By Michelle Anne P. Soliman, Reporter

A HARMONIOUS string instrumental of “Habanera” from George Bizet’s opera, Carmen filled the living room of the Gaston Mansion in Silay City, Negros Occidental — considered as “the seat of arts and culture in Western Visayas.”

The music produced by bandurrias, 12-string guitars, and a double bass was performed by the Santa Rosalia Rondalla — made up of the children of farmers at the Hacienda Santa Rosalia. The ensemble comes together to train once a week.

HOW IT BEGAN
The rondalla in the Philippines dates back from the Spanish colonial period.




According to an essay titled, “A Brief History of the Philippine Rondalla” by Loen Vitto and Laverne dela Peña at the Strings of Unity official website, “the rondalla is a plucked string ensemble composed of instruments belonging to the lute and cittern families,” which consists of five sections: the bandurria, octavina, laud, guitarra (guitar), and bajo (bass).

The string instruments are played with a guitar pick. Its sound is distinguished by the distinct tinkling sound at sections of the musical arrangements.

At the time of its emergence in the country, the rondalla performed around the streets of a town and in public gatherings.

“We inherited it from Spain but we sort of modified the rondalla to express our very own musicality as well as our emotions,” National Artist for Music Dr. Ramon P. Santos, the International Rondalla festival’s director, said at a press conference on Nov. 4 in Silay City prior the opening festivities.

But in the last few decades, the popularity of the rodalla has waned.

“During the American time, the rondallas used to be played in the ships. So that was part of the evolution of rondalla in the Philippines,” Dr. Santos told BusinessWorld. “But then after that, the [popularity of the] rondalla began to subside and it only began to play to accompany folk dances.”

Dr. Santos recalled film score composer Juan Silos, Jr. who wrote compositions for rondalla in the 1970s. “He made a lot of recordings on the rondalla. But then after that period, the rondalla laid low.”

STRINGS OF UNITY
The rondalla became a regular category of the prestigious National Music Competitions for Young Artists (NAMCYA) when Dr. Santos was its secretary-general in 1996.

In 2004, Dr. Santos headed the National Music Committee of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) when they established Cuerdas sang Paghiliusa (Strings of Unity): International Rondalla Festival as a flagship project and a model activity of the ManyMusics Action Programme of UNESCO’s International Music Council to sustain and enhance musical diversity. Strings of Unity is held every three years.

Dr. Santos chose to advocate for the awareness of the rondalla because, compared to other musical performances and traditional instruments, it “represents the whole country” since “it is performed from Appari to Jolo.”

The 5th International Rondalla Festival was held from Nov. 3 to 11 in Silay City. The festival attracted 21 local and international groups. The performers from France, India, Iran, Israel, South Korea, Thailand, Uganda, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Portugal, played their own plucked instruments which were, in many cases quite different from those that local rondallas play. The local groups — which went through an audition process — were from Silay City; Metro Manila; Bogo City; Dipolog City; the Municipality of Candelaria, Quezon; and Dumaguete City.

According to Mary Katherine Trangco, president of the Asian Composers League Philippines, which is one of the NCCA’s partner agencies in festival, the focus of the festival is to discover its possibilities of how rondalla can be performed, adding that aside from folk music, classical and popular music may also be arranged for the rondalla.

Dati hindi mo ito maririnig sa concert halls, pero ngayon may competitions na for this. So ’yung ibig sabihin, ’yung mga sariling atin ay nabibigyan na rin ng importansiya, nabibigyang atensyon, magandang bagay ’yun. Patuloy siyang mabubuhay (It used to be that you would not hear it in concert halls, but today, there are competitions for it. What it means is that we are already giving importance and attention to it. That’s a good thing. It will continue to thrive),” Ms. Trangco told members of the media prior to the opening festivities.

This year’s opening ceremonies were held at the Natalio G. Velez Sports and Cultural Center in Silay City (Silay City Gym) where the Barrocade-Naya Ensemble from Israel performed vocal belting songs; the Taiwan Bamboo Orchestra and the Taipei Guzheng Ensemble from Taiwan rendered mellow instrumental arrangements; and Hope to Hop Africa of Uganda showcased distinctive calming African songs. It concluded with the energetic performance of Silay’s award-winning group, the Kabataang Silay Rondalla Ensemble, with songs including National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab’s “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” and the Beatles’ “And I Love Her.”

Outreach performances, conferences, and workshops were also held around the city to educate and expand repertoire knowledge of Filipino pieces, as well as promote cultural exchange among the international groups.

For Ms. Trangco, creating new music is like cooking a classic dish with new ingredients. “The basic ensemble is the same but how you play the instrument — the sound and inspiration for the songwriting broadens. That leads to development.”

Dr. Santos highlighted the experience as a valuable takeaway of the participants from the festival. “It is also an opening up of their world into the plucked string traditions of the world. That’s very important because then they are able to acquire new techniques of playing plucked strings,” he said.

Ms. Trangco stressed that learning an art takes time and discipline. “It teaches you discipline. A lot of people think that everything is instant. In the arts, you need to develop the skills. Kailangan mong hintayin na gumaling ka (You need to bide your time until you can do it well). You have to work for it.”

“This is a continuing effort to forge unity among nations and is part of the search for peace understanding between peoples that share a common humanity and a common global environment,” Dr. Santos said of the festival’s goals.

As for future plans, Dr. Santos hopes to invite an ensemble from Spain. “We would like to invite more countries [to the festival] especially Spain. We have not had a Spanish rondalla here. That’s something to look forward to.”