Crash Chords: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Christmas-time cues the start of the sonic parade of nonstop carol medleys, sentimental wishing-you-were-here ballads, and religious hymns. It takes some effort to find something on the air that doesn’t sound like it’s being spewed by a perky elf, homesick OFW, or sanctimonious choirboy. During this most frenetic of seasons, ironically there’s a dearth of music to chill out too, or any tunes that just sound cool. This is supposed to be the time of Siberian winds and cold snaps and winter wonderlands (either real, imagined, or simulated) and yet the airwaves all seem to want to keep the sap-o-meter at a nice tepid level. Well, freeze that. Keep your stereo system frostily aloof by shunning those overcooked standards and reheated favorites. Crank up these CDs (or compressed audio files) and drown out the noise of the neighborhood kids and the neighborhood malls that are all just caroling and clamoring for your money anyway.


takk (Photo credit: 1541)

While not exactly having anything to do with the Baby Jesus and Santa Claus, the Icelandic group Sigur Ros’ third album, Takk, can almost make you hear the finger of God stirring up the heavens as he tinkers with the Northern Lights. Takk’s soundscapes flow like a glacier surging past fjords and icebergs. Takk makes us feel the raw yearning of a land defined by ice and frost. It’s like they’ve adapted the better parts of the novel “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” into an avant-garde musical.

Lead singer Jonsi’s chilling falsetto soars over notes of frozen glory, moaning and sighing as if he were the spawn of a Christmas elf and an archangel deep in the throes of orgasm (or dying of hypothermia). With song lyrics written in the mostly-made-up language of ‘Hopelandic’, he could actually be saying “deck the halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la la la la la la” for all we know, but the swirling crescendos make it all sound so magnificently grand and profound. It’s best to listen to this record while the temperatures are still low, it just might melt in the summer heat.

The Hague Jazz 2009 - Rod McKuen

The Hague Jazz 2009 – Rod McKuen (Photo credit: Haags Uitburo)

Rod McKuen‘s carols are nothing new or groundbreaking. To most modern listeners, they’d come off as quaintly old-fashioned, but in a good way. In the right mood, his songs can both soothe and charm. Rod speak-sings in a deep, velvety sigh that we Pinoys would characterize as “malamig at suave” (cool and smooth), quite an antidote to the overproduced treacly pap that usually fills the Christmas CD sale bins. Just left of folk, drifting slightly towards ballad territory, and very easy on the ears, Mckuen’s Christmas album presents some songs that are sad, some that are upbeat, but each one lyrically deep. His compositions have the tendency to borrow grace notes from classics like Pachelbel’s Canon or to erupt into delightful instrumental interludes. These are carols you can kick back, sit down, and sip hot chocolate to without having to turn your brain off.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra

Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Photo credit: James Marvin Phelps)

For more recognizable Christmas music interpreted in an extraordinary style, check out the Trans-Siberian Orchestra‘s rock opera trilogy. This ambitious and complex work tells the story of heaven’s youngest angel called back to earth to continue Jesus’ unfinished work. This time he has to help redeem not only Christmas, but the soul of humankind itself.

Straddling the borders of rock opera, progressive rock, and New Age music, these aren’t your typical Christmas albums. But then, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra just happens to be the alter ego of Savatage, a band known for building on high concepts and complex arrangements, raising them far above the limits of ordinary creativity.

Most of the tracks consist of walls of sound constructed from a mortar of electric guitar, synthesizers, choirs, and drums. Hard and heavy power chords crash into gentle piano or delicate classical guitar melodies. Just when all the bombast starts to get overwhelming, the band intersperses a few peaceful passages featuring vocal or instrumental solos. The effect is sublime but not sentimental, ingenuous but not affected, all in all a very Christmassy contradiction.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under music column Crash Chords in Manual magazine, 2005

Heaven For Little Girls

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2005

Cheerful but comfortable, fun but functional, the rooms of the young Abalos girls show how kids can make a space their own.

It has been said that all little girls are princesses. However, Charlene and Corinne Abalos, grandchildren of former mayor Banjamin Abalos, and daughters of former mayor and current congressman Benhur Abalos, can easily lay claim to being Mandaluyong royalty. But it’s not like they’re putting on airs. On the contrary, the kids are good-natured, chatty, and fresh-faced, full to the brim with energy and ideas. During the recent holiday season, the girls were bubbling over with excitement planning the Christmas party for the family and household staff, and organizing the Kris Kringle exchange gift logistics. It turns out that the Abalos girls are not only budding event organizers, but promising interior designers as well.

Charlene and Corinne can actually take the credit for much of the conceptualization of their rooms’ interiors. Their mom, Mrs. Menchie Abalos, gave them both free reign to think of how they wanted their rooms to look like. With the guidance of their Tita Myla Tirado, who also helped design the rooms of their other siblings, they were able to realize many of their whimsical decorating ideas. Left to their own creative devices, the girls came up with a cozy combo of Neverland, Wonderland, Oz, and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Each room is a little girl’s personal dreamspace, a tribute to a child’s imagination, a special playground for kids and by kids. They’re best described in the words of their visiting friends, who say that once you’re in Charlene and Corinne’s rooms, you never want to leave. The rooms glow with bright hues and quirky patterns. Wooden molding and shelves in pastel colors accent the walls of warm cream. As an added fanciful detail, flowers have been delicately hand-stencilled onto every wall, geraniums for Charlene, lilacs for Corinne. Most of the furniture has been made to order, from the uniquely shaped beds to the plush chairs with the fuzzy upholstery. Continuing with the floral motif, the mantelpieces, armoires, and side tables displaying the girls’ assorted knick-knacks follow a scalloped petal outline. While in Charlene’s room, a gigantic exotic pink blossom holds up her entertainment system, its counterpart in Corinne’s room is a large dollhouse of salmon and peach, within which resides a clique of Bratz dolls. Not one to be outdone, since Corinne had her dollhouse, Charlene asked for a vanity table in the shape of a castle complete with towers from which hang her school medals. But what the kids are really proud of though are their specially-made, one-of-a-kind beds. If there was one thing that Charlene had her heart set on once she started planning her room, it was a heart-shaped bed. Her Tita Myla was able to oblige her and then some, creating a curved headboard covered in velvet, and having the mattress custom-cut out of Uratex foam to the desired specifications. For Corinne, she put together a shooting star with a rainbow tail, finishing off with flower-shaped mattress and base. Lying down on these elaborate confections, sweet dreams are guaranteed. As a convenient space-saver, full-length mirrors double as sliding doors for the girls’ wardrobes.

Scattered neatly around the premises are an assortment of stuffed toys, memorabilia, and play figures. Disney princesses and M&M candies for Charlene, Spongebob Squarepants and furry animals for Corinne. Charlene is also an accomplished golfer. She was introduced to the sport by her grandfather, an avid linksman himself. Her room displays a trophy and a few framed articles and pictures showing her enthusiasm for the game.

Eventually the kids might begin to opt for more sophisticated designs for their quarters, maybe something similar to their elder sisters’ tastes. But for now, Mrs. Abalos isn’t at all worried about the kids out-growing their rooms’ décor yet, not when she sees how much they’re enjoying themselves. At their age, there’s still a lot of time for play and toys. The fun has just begun for Charlene and Corinne, and they’ve clearly got the rooms to grow.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Christmas Comes Home (Policarpio St., Mandaluyong)

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

Santa lives and the Christmas Spirit thrives at Policarpio Street in Mandaluyong City

Policarpio's Pride

Policarpio's Pride (Photo credit: d2digital)

Christmas inspires homeowners everywhere to unleash their inner decorator and bring out the ornaments, lights, and holiday cheer. In some neighborhoods, the frenzied and fancy preparations set off a friendly form of competition, resulting in streets lined with amazingly decked out houses. Regrettably, a number of these impressive displays lie behind gates and guards, in enclaves accessible only to their privileged residents, never to be shared with the general public. However, in a display of true Christmas spirit, one bighearted community has welcomingly opened its doors for everyone to enjoy their decorating efforts. For the past few years, the renown of Mandaluyong City’s Policarpio Street as a Christmas destination has continued to grow, spreading joy and merriment to all who come to visit and marvel at this colorful wonderland.
Mr. Anthony Suva, is the barangay chairman of New Zaniga, and the area around Policarpio is under his jurisdiction. He grew up in the community and his family has always been very active in the Christmas preparations.

This time of the year, the Suva residence temporarily transforms into Santa’s Philippine address. Mr. Suva doesn’t seem to mind accommodating their itinerant guest.

“I’ve been so used to it,” he confesses. “Ever since we were kids, my mother has liked Santas. The Santas come from all over the world. She buys them whenever she goes on a trip, or friends who go abroad bring them back for her since they know she collects them.”

At the Suva home, it’s really easy to believe that you’ve somehow been transported to the North Pole. The place is literally packed with everything related to Santa Claus. From figurines to lanterns, furniture and even table settings, every wall and every corner, from the garden to the roof, is dedicated to the jolly man in red. It’s quite obvious that Mrs. Suva, Ching to her family and friends, really takes her annual setting up of Santaland to heart.

“As early as August my mother starts unpacking and decorating here and there,” her son reveals. “Whenever she comes home from work or during her free time she works a little more on their arrangement. But because there are so many Santas, she usually ends up finishing by December.”

The other displays along Policarpio are no less impressive. Each home has its own particular theme, and each family within is just as enthusiastic at celebrating the season. Mr. Suva’s in-laws live across the street and their motif consists of carpeting their entire property, house, gate, and even water tower, with a blanket of Christmas lights. Down the street at Mrs. Lim’s, mechanical elves dance in time to music at Santa’s workshop, while an elaborate belen graces the facade of another home.

“All this started around ten years ago,” Mr. Suva relates. “The pioneers were my mother, and our neighbors, my future mother-in law, and Mrs. Lim. Every year they kept adding until it reached this.”

And “this” is truly a sight to behold. Sparkling lights cover almost every available surface, while life-size nativity figures, angels, and Santas greet passersby. As an added attraction, stalls selling food, gifts, and other Christmas items line the street, thus completing the festive ambiance. The street has been regularly featured in both the local and international media as a noteworthy Christmas attraction. Visitors from all over the country and even abroad, including some celebrities, have all flocked to Policarpio just to gawk at the displays and share in the merrymaking. From sunset to midnight the entire neighborhood resembles a giant outdoor Christmas party.

Policarpio's Pride

Policarpio's Pride (Photo credit: d2digital)

“In 1998, Policarpio street was officially recognized by the Department of Tourism as a tourist destination,” says Mr. Suva. “The tiangge started four years ago, and now it lasts from November 15 to January 6. We get around three to four thousand visitors a day, and this number increases the closer it gets to Christmas Day.”

There seems to be no stopping Policarpio’s popularity. It has gotten to the extent that the residents themselves are finding it difficult to reach their homes due to the additional traffic and parking woes. Mr. Suva’s responsibilities include dealing with the logistical challenge of keeping the area reasonably safe and orderly.

“The crowds and security are really a problem,” Mr. Suva admits. “There have been times when we’ve thought of scrapping the whole thing or at least toning it down. But eventually we all agree that it’s worth the trouble. Besides, it’s only 45 days out of the year.”

What makes it all worthwhile to the people of Policarpio are the smiles and happy faces they see on every child or child at heart who braves the hassles and hordes just to catch a glimpse of their marvelous decorations. All the efforts and expenses that they put into the preparation of Pasko Sa Policarpio are rewarded by the immeasurable amount of goodwill that is generated by the project.

Even Mrs. Menchie Abalos, wife of Mandaluyong’s congressman and former mayor Benhur Abalos, has been charmed by the Policarpio community’s efforts.

“As a kid, I never got to see the famous Christmas displays of C.O.D and other places,” she relates. “So I didn’t know what I was missing until Pasko sa Policarpio came about. Now I try to visit as often as I can, and each time I can’t help but feel like a child again and be amazed at all the lights and decorations. And it just gets better every year. What they’ve done is such a simple thing, but every Christmas it really means a lot to all of us here at Mandaluyong. You can’t fail to appreciate the boost in morale and spirits that their street brings.”

The continued success of a grassroots, non-profit, community project like Pasko Sa Policarpio once again proves that when it comes to celebrating Christmas, we Filipinos are all heart.

Policarpio's Pride

Policarpio's Pride (Photo credit: d2digital)

“We look at this project as our contribution to the community at large,” states Mr. Suva. “We’re located right next to Welfareville, and some families who live there don’t have much to spend on Christmas. The lights and decorations are like a free form of entertainment for all our neighbors. They can just come here, look around, and enjoy themselves. It may not be that remarkable for some of us adults, but the children get so much from it. And everyone seems to look forward to it every year. Christmas just won’t feel as complete without Pasko Sa Policarpio.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Starstruck (Parol – the Filipino Christmas Lantern)

Put Up A Parol and Let the Light Of Christmas Shine

A Filipino vendor selling Parols.

A Filipino vendor selling Parols. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the Philippines, Christmas commences when the stars come out.  Not heavenly bodies or celebrities, although we also have our fair share of those, but the colorful, star-shaped lanterns that start adorning every street and household once the “ber” months begin.  The Americans and Europeans might have their snowmen, holly wreaths, and Christmas trees, and we like those symbols too, but only we have the parol.

Years ago, whenever one went Parol-shopping, we used to be limited only to the traditional bamboo sticks and papel de hapon, and the simple five-pointed star shape.  But these days, Parols are crafted from all kinds of materials, from durable plastic to delicate capiz, and come in all sorts of designs, from intricate flowers to jolly Santas.  The common factor among this extensive variety of lanterns is that they all feature some way to allow light to shine through them or illuminate them from within, in order to achieve the glowing, Christmassy look that we all look forward to every year.

During this season, any Christian home without a parol or any form of decoration is thought to look sad, barren, and unwelcoming.  These sentiments impel families to go all out in decking their houses with ornaments and lights, fuelling a friendly rivalry among neighbors to outdo each other in displaying their depth of Christmas spirit.  At night, when the lights start to sparkle, entire streets are transformed into shimmering wonderlands.  Who needs snow when you’ve got lightbulbs?

The provinces of Pampanga and Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon are famous for their lantern-making industries.  The ongoing efforts of this community of craftsmen have sustained an annual competition for the grandest parol.  These prizewinning lanterns feature complex mechanized parts and choreographed lighting schemes, with price tags reaching millions of pesos.  Smaller versions of these elaborate creations may be bought at the numerous stalls along the highway, or throughout the city, or even in the malls and department stores.  But many Filipinos travel all the way to these provinces in order to stock up on their renowned products at the best prices.

Some parols serve a greater purpose besides mere ornamentation.  By purchasing a lantern, you can also help contribute to the funds of a worthy project.  Multi-colored cardboard stars, with translucent cutouts that impart a stained glass effect, are being made and sold by the Kababaihan Ng Maynila Foundation, a livelihood project of the City Of Manila.  Along the Roxas Baywalk can also be found a group of stalls selling parols and other Christmas ornaments and light fixtures who are also beneficiaries of another of the City Of Manila’s livelihood programs.  And elsewhere, many other handicrafts are available for sale whose profits go to supporting a range of worthy charities and foundations.  This way, you can observe the spirit of Christmas twice over, by spreading the good cheer through lively decorations, and also by contributing to a good cause.

A Parol

A Parol (Photo credit: magandafille)

In the parol, we Filipinos have found another way for us to express our creativity, ingenuity, and religious fervor.  Combining indigenous materials and distinctive designs has produced a uniquely Filipino art form not to be found anywhere else in the world.  The lights of the parol also take us back to that one day, when a star shone brightly in the sky, guiding all those who sought a child to give him their devotion.  They are eye-catching reminders of what we are really celebrating and why we should be merry.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved,  first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

Casa Ala Cabana

(first published in Manila Bulletin, 2003)

They began seeing each other when he was a rookie in the PBL, and she was a young business student. As a player in the Triple-V PBL team, which was managed by Pia’s family, Dwight was often invited to company events, such as restaurant openings, anniversaries, and parties. Some of those parties were held in the cabana by the pool of the Villavicencio home, the setting for many happy memories of the young couple’s romance. Little did they know then that they would end up building a home on the very same cabana. Now a veteran cager of the PBA, and managing director of the Kamayan, Saisaki, and Dads restaurant chain respectively, Dwight and Pia Lago are busy preparing for their third Christmas as a family.

Cheerful garlands of Christmas fruits and flowers frame each of the large glass sliding doors that serve as entryways into the house’s main living area. Boxes of ornaments lay scattered around the room, all set to adorn the happy home.

“The first Christmas that I decorated our house, I had help from a friend with Designer Blooms. Every year since then we’ve just been getting more stuff from them and adding to what we already had last year. So each year is just a bit grander than the last,” Pia says with pride.

Today has been set aside for the family to start decorating their Christmas tree. However, it appears that Riana, the Lago’s darling three year old daughter, has already held her own dry run for the event.

“Every year, right after Halloween, we start setting up the Christmas décor, including the tree,” Pia explains. “Last year, Riana wanted to have her own little tree, just the right size for her to hang ornaments on. When she first got it, we asked her what she would like to put on top of her tree. We thought she’d ask for a star, or an angel. But no, she wanted a golden butterfly. It was a bit difficult finding one, but we did. And there it is now.”

“I love my golden butterfly,” Riana pipes in.

“Every year she gets to reach higher on the big tree though, and help more with decorating it. But her tree comes first,” says Pia. As the family goes about filling out the tree with glittery santas, snowmen, fiddles and bells, Riana scampers about purposefully and manages to hold her own with the decorating duties.

Dwight declares, “This month we’ll also be celebrating Thanksgiving. My family from the states will be coming over here. It’ll be a little funny having Thanksgiving dinner in a house decorated for Christmas, but I think it helps make the house look warmer and cosier. I think it’s wonderful how it all turned out, especially with this room,” he says, indicating their sizeable sala.

Pia says, “Our ‘sala’, if you can call it that, is somewhat hard to decorate simply because it’s just so big. This entire space used to be the original cabana and so it was meant to be large enough to hold parties in, in fact, this was where I held my debut.”

“The space is great for entertaining,” Dwight agrees. “When we have guests over we end up playing a lot of games. If it’s just my guy friends, I plug in the Playstation. But for family or mixed groups we play anything from board games to parlor games. Once, we had a lot of fun role-playing with a murder mystery game over dinner. This Thanksgiving and Christmas we’re already planning how to make things more fun for all our guests.”

“I’ve come to realize that our living room is unusually large. Over in the States, most people don’t have a room like this, or a “sala” as we call it here in the Philippines,” Dwight adds. “There’s just a family room where the TV and sofa usually is, maybe a hall to receive guests in, and a separate dining room. But we have to use all of this one big space for all those functions. It’s a bit of a problem, to be honest. We still haven’t figured out how to utilize it best. Maybe you have some ideas?” asks Dwight half-seriously.

Reserving our suggestions for later, we note that the living room is almost huge enough to play basketball in. It’s furnished with an appealing mix of carved Chinese teak and bright floral prints, not exactly a conventional combination.

Pia describes how things came together design-wise. “We just retained the furniture that was already there from when it was still a cabana and added our own personal touches. I thought that it would be a waste not to use what we already had, but we also wanted to bring in some things to make it look like our home.”

“We like to decorate with objects that remind us of our travels,” elaborates Dwight. “We got the painting of elephants in Thailand because elephants are a really big deal over there. And we got the painting of Balinese dancers in Indonesia because they represent the place so well.” He evidently appreciates these two pieces of folk art more than the three small Goyas hanging on one wall, remnants of the cabana days. What’s important is that they picked them out for themselves, even if they were painted by unknown artists. “The paintings, chairs and cabinets are somewhat Asian in style, but the couches and some of the knickknacks are Western. So the overall style is kind of eclectic,” he states.

What Dwight and Pia have yet to remark on however, is that throughout the Lago home, one person’s influence is front and center. Above everything, the house has obviously been set up to cater to Riana’s whims and desires. The lawn is sprinkled with her toys, and two whole rooms are devoted to her use, one for play, and one for sleep.

“If we have another baby, maybe in a year or so, we plan to convert Riana’s playroom into the new baby’s room,” Dwight muses.

As one would expect for a little Lago, Riana even has her own mini basketball hoop. Surprisingly though, it’s the only hoop in the house. Dwight expresses his own puzzlement at this noticeable deficiency, “I guess it’s really ironic how we don’t have a basketball court. Maybe one day I’ll put up a hoop by the pool.”

This brings the conversation to the grounds of the house, otherwise known as Riana’s private playground. “I originally thought of building another wall between the main house and the cabana, but Dwight didn’t want to sacrifice the lawn space,” Pia says.

“We wanted Rhiana to have a lot of space to run around. I believe that having a lot of running space is very important for kids,” explains Dwight.

“It was also Dwight’s idea to use buho, bamboo slats, to cover up the wall behind the pool. It used to be plain cement, now it looks a lot better,” affirms Pia.

“I saw them being used as a wall in another house and thought it was a good idea,” Dwight explains. “The old pool used to be huge, to build the house we had to take up a big portion of it. When it was done, we fixed up the garden and placed some lawn chairs. The landscaping is interesting because it was designed by Dr. Nelson, who is in charge of maintaining the aquariums in the restaurants, and he was really serious about which plants should go together. Now we like having barbecues outside by the pool.”

The Lagos didn’t always have this much space at their disposal. “When we got married, we first lived in a condominium in San Juan,” Pia recounts. “But then Dwight’s parents from the States decided to visit for a while and we couldn’t find a place good enough for them to stay.”

“So we decided to let them use the condo while we stayed here at Pia’s house,” Dwight adds.

“They ended up staying for six months. And then we had gotten used to living here. And then of course, I got pregnant with Rhiana,” relates Pia.

“Putting up the house here was the most practical decision. We realized we would be better off in a lot of ways. No more worrying about elevators, fire escapes, or where to have your laundry done. And it’s a lot more secure inside the village. Not to mention all the extra space for the garden and lawn. A condo is okay if you’re starting out as a couple, but for a family, it’s best to have a house,” Dwight declares.

And from the most unlikely foundations, it has turned out to be a lovely home. Emerging as a charming depiction of the Lago family, Dwight’s easy-going nature combines with Pia’s practical sensibilities to form a haven of warmth and joy. “All I really wanted was a comfortable sofa and a recliner,” states Dwight good-naturedly. “Everything else is Pia’s doing.”

Pia counters diplomatically, “I left the den to him, it’s his space and he can do anything he wants with it.”

“It’s nothing much to look at now, mostly things stored in boxes,” explains Dwight. “But I plan to put up all my basketball memorabilia one day, all my jerseys, trophies. From all the way back to my La Salle days up to San Miguel.” A stack of neatly labelled boxes stands testament to this work-in-progress.

“The kitchen is the one room I was very particular about,” Pia asserts. “I made sure it was built to my satisfaction. It’s because I like to cook, so I expect to spend a lot of time and do a lot of work in the kitchen.” This comes as no big surprise since Pia shares her family’s passion for the art and business of food.

“Our second home includes all the restaurants that I help run with my family. Almost every day, Riana accompanies me after school as I go about the restaurants,” says Pia. “Sometimes, Dwight tags along as well,” she teases, thus revealing how her family sticks together, in business or in health. The Lagos might have put together a quirky house, but their partnership is plainly harmonious. He might be a bit more laid-back and she a little more high-strung. But like the best of relationships, it’s a complementary pairing, as balanced as a spinning basketball or a three-course meal.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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