A Haven for Heritage

As a travel writer, one can get used to everything being laid out for you just so. The press junkets and familiarization tours are all programmed to maximize what the sponsors and organizers would want you to see and experience, and then bank on their hopes that you actually write about it as positively as possible. All well and good, we all need to take a living. But when each stop is just another item to be ticked off on an itinerary somebody else thought up, what happens to the sense of adventure, of discovery, the thrill that comes from cleverly figuring out how to find that special place?

Those were the questions I was asking myself as I and three French first-timers to the Philippines were driving around twisty mountain roads in the near dark still tens of kilometres away from where we hoped to end up. As we curved around yet another tricky stretch, dodging goats and barrio lasses, one of my wards asked half-jokingly, half-nervously: “What if after all this, we get there and it’s not very nice?”

But I get ahead of myself. Tasked to tour a friend of a friend and his friends around during the year-end holidays, it was up to me to formulate our game plan for a road trip. I decided to go for broke and look for a destination that was unique, off-the-beaten-path, and one I had never been to before. I already had a pretty good idea where.

Like a city of myth, secreted away from the madding crowd, shrouded by the mists of time, I’d heard snatches about and caught glimpses of the legendary Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar. Scooped by various websites and blogs, and even showing up as background scenery for the local production of Zorro, these tantalizing teases whipped me up into a must-go-there frenzy. This road trip was my opportunity, and I was gonna seize it, and I didn’t care if I had to drag three unsuspecting foreigners with me to satisfy my selfish whim.

One of my first beats ever as a writer was on architecture and design, and I was drawn to Philippine heritage architecture in particular. So knowing about a whole village composed of authentic 18th-19th century Principalia Mansions and original Bahay na Bato (Stone Houses), painstakingly restored and arranged around a cobblestone plaza and streets had me rabidly frothing at the mouth. Fortunately, I had fellow archi-enthusiasts and shutterbugs in tow, so they were keen on the adventure as well. I booked a room for four at the nearest deluxe resort, the rambling Montemar beach club, utilizing it as the starting point for exploring the region, and squeezing some R&R in between.

And that’s how we found ourselves in the dark, on the road, tracing our route on the map, hoping to get to Bagac in time for dinner. Mt. Samat, the supposed can’t-miss landmark to lead us to our destination, loomed to our left like an imposing black bogeyman. Thankfully, Montemar’s house restaurant El Meson just had its menu and wine list overhauled by respected chef consultant Ed Quimson, so we were properly sated and sloshed before turning in for the night.

After breakfast the next day, we decided to take advantage of our Bataan base camp and spend some time on the beach and in the sea. Though not lily-white, Bagac’s beach sand is fine, clean and algae free, and the clear water had just enough wave action going on to make swimming interesting. Swim out far enough though and you’ll be treated to an even more intriguing sight, the dome of the dormant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. This prompted a few jokes about radioactive fish, but being the world’s top consumers of nuclear energy, my French companions were nonplussed.

For lunch we explored the center of Bagac town and decided to tuck into a simple meal of noodles and sandwiches in a small kitchenette right by the plaza. Barring the Burger Machine cart, it was our only option in the area, but a taste of hearty, down-to-earth local fare was just what the tourists hankered for. But the quaint shop fronts and modest homes of Bagac hardly prepared us for what we were next to see.

Now, beyond the physical effort of getting to Bagac, however scenic, what appeared to be the more insurmountable obstacle to gain access to Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar was the seeming tight cordon around it imposed upon by its developer and management. From when I first thought of paying a visit to the site, letters, messages and phone calls flew at an increasingly furious pace between myself and various people in charge of different departments across two separate companies, just so I could guarantee my entry into this restricted area. There came a point where I almost surrendered and decided that no place would be worth the trouble, and another point where I imagined us having to sneak into the site like a Franco-Philippine impossible missions force. So when we finally hit the property’s gates, I was bowled over by two pleasant surprises.

Light streams through capiz windows in the U.P. School of Fine Arts building

One, despite our rather surreptitious arrival, the staff on-site were very welcoming. Our guide Mao, gamely toured us around the compound and even opened up some houses up for us to explore, offering some information about the development. Two, all the fuss was more than worth it, gaining a thumbs-up, even in its unfinished state, from my travel-jaded companions. This was a destination that was truly unique, beautifully thought-out, and exquisitely executed. If they can pull off the finishing touches, and all signs point to that coming to fruition, then not only Bataan, but the entire country, will have a resort that will put us on the must-see maps.

Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar goes beyond the warm beaches, watersports, and charming country scenery that most Philippine resorts are content to offer. By bringing together this unquestionably stunning collection of heritage structures and ensconcing them in an equally dramatic setting, mastermind developer Gerry Acuzar proves himself a genius, with a passion bordering on madness. But if this is insanity, then we need more crazily passionate people taking on projects like this. Whatever you may think of the resort’s concept, it is definitely not uninspired nor mediocre. They really went all the way with this, and it shows, from the intricate details to the big picture postcard-perfect view. What started as a lone vacation house has blossomed into a 400 hectare complex complete with a deluxe hotel (housed in a recreated Escolta building), plus villas, shops, a bar and restaurant, all carved out from the gorgeously gilded heritage halls and homes that Acuzar has personally plucked from the cream of the country.

As supervised by Mexico-trained restoration architect Mico Manalo, the painstaking reconstruction of each heritage house, at least 14 by the time of our visit, with several more (and a chapel) in the process of being scoped out, is not some slapdash uprooting and pastiche job, but a careful, respectful integrated preservation effort. Once seen in situ, it’s easy to dismiss his detractors and accept Acuzar’s rationale for relocating these heritage treasures. With the government or their former owners unwilling or unable to properly safeguard these endangered structures from the ravages of time and greed, their best hope for survival is really behind the safety of Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar’s fences. What he did was not a rape, but a rescue. Even the modern elements and fixtures that they unavoidably have to incorporate have been carefully designed or cloaked to harmonize with the architectural tenor. Anachronisms are avoided unless necessary. This devotion to authenticity can clearly be seen in the transplanted School of Fine Arts from Quiapo, the centuries-old columns have been left un-repainted, retaining the patina of age, while the new columns replacing damaged ones have been moulded from the originals and accurately display the original colors albeit in bright new enamel.

With the late afternoon sun slowly setting down into the sea, the lengthening shadows and warm light altogether cast an eerie glow on this enchanted village. As it was, with nobody around except for our small party, a few construction workers and random townsfolk who had wandered in for a stroll, we couldn’t help but imagine ourselves as temporal travellers stuck in a time warp, or ghosts come back to haunt the remains of their days.

text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010

Bye to the Baltic

…continued from Turning Swedish

The tail-end of my trip was partly spent appreciating the simple mundane joys of Swedish life. I went to the church, library and market, and carbo-loaded with hearty everyday fare such as pyttipanna (a plate of pan-fried diced potatoes, vegetables and meats). The stored calories were then walked off around charming parks and neighbourhoods shifting from modern to medieval. In contrast to what may be deduced from the dark and depressing films Swedish directors are renowned for, and also the false myth of Sweden’s high suicide rates (actually lower than France and Germany), the best thing about Stockholm is just how pleasant everyone and everything seems. Even at its summer peak, it doesn’t seem over-run by hordes of package tourists and other itinerants. And you rarely come across the roving gangs of rowdy delinquents that have become worryingly common around some other European cities. Globalization and multiculturalism may have mixed up the city’s cosmopolitan colors, but they have yet to dilute the strong Swedish identity enough to make it seem like Anytown, EU.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

Danish sports fans in Sergels Torg

Yet all isn’t sunny in Scandinavia. Stockholm’s heart of darkness may beat in Sergels Torg, a 1960s-tastic plaza carved out by demolishing entire city blocks, the fever for modernity changing the city’s face far more drastically than any war could manage. Now the concrete crater plays host to a raucous collection of troublemakers and rabble-rousers – from militant pro-lifers, Native American and Amazonian tribesmen, Danish footie fans, and campaigning politicos, not to mention the odd grifter or gypsy (terms not mutually exclusive). But their openly flaunted freedoms show that at least in Sweden, socialism and democracy can coexist. It may not be the ideal Asgard for the ages, but while the sun shines it’s a brighter place than most.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Getting There: KLM flies between Manila and Stockholm via Amsterdam daily. For this trip, I was able to grab a preferred seat. This means that for only an additional 70 euros, you can choose a seat with extra leg room or a seat in a row of only two seats. On a 14+ hour flight, this can really make a huge difference in comfort.

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Holland From a Higher Plane

…continued from Bikes and Dikes

Back in Amsterdam, I was in for one last treat. Michael, a British expat and long-time resident of the Netherlands, invited me to his loft apartment atop a 300 year-old 5-storey building right between the Royal Palace and the red-light district. Buttressed by thick wooden beams that make the space feel like a huge, cozy attic, his home has its own rooftop garden where we sipped wine through the long sunny afternoon with the city spread out before us.

Drinking it all in among the flora and foliage of this unlikely spot, I realized how horticulture is such an integral part of the country’s fabric. As sombre as their architecture can be at times, the Dutch sure know how to touch things up with a well-placed row of tulips or spray of ivy. Their charm really creeps up on you, it’s not a massive all-out assault with everything pretty all of the time. Sometimes there’s gloom, and a little bit of doom, but then the country’s beauty blooms through and true.

After one last perfect zero-degree-cold Heineken at the Schipol airport lounge, I got on the plane back to storms and semi-sobriety in Manila. As we took off and ascended, I looked down at the Netherlands’ patchwork patterns, carved precariously from the invading tides and foreign powers, and realized how I’d expanded my consciousness simply by chasing the horizon and keeping my head in the clouds. Try puffing on that!

The Facts of Flight

KLM flies direct from Manila to Amsterdam daily. A nifty way of passing the time on the long journey is to study a few lessons in Dutch or other languages using the in-flight entertainment system. Besides the pampering and other perks (which you really come to appreciate on a 14+ hour flight), World Business Class passengers are also given a Delft blue porcelain figure of old Dutch canal houses filled with jenever. Now collectors’ items (some styles go for US$1000 at auction), there are 90+ different houses, one for every year of KLM’s operation, with a new house style introduced every year.

Steadfast for Spain: Ambassador Luis Arias

The Spanish Ambassador to the Philippines has always been held in high regard and afforded a lot of attention. As the country’s official link to Spain, the ambassador has to be able to look back on our shared pasts, and also move forward by implementing programs that will benefit our countries’ futures. Modest and earnest, H.E. Luis Arias Romero brings to his position 33 years’ worth of experience in the foreign service.

“At one time I wanted to teach in the university,” admits the dedicated diplomat. “But I decided to remain in the service to represent and serve my country abroad. It was not a difficult reflection.”

He explains how as a diplomat, he is tasked to protect the interests of the Spanish people and to expand the idea of Spain. Fulfilling this function in the Philippines is both a great challenge and privilege considering the more than 400 years of common history and tradition shared between us.

“We have very good relations in the political realm and we do many projects in the cultural realm,” he says. “But there are still many things we can do to improve our economic relations. Spain can contribute so much in the areas of energy, climactic change, and tourism. My government expects many things to be accomplished.”

The ambassador notes that there are many institutions in the Philippines that are very helpful and hospitable, thus lightening his load. And yet he does confess to not having much free time. Rare is the day when he has no social event to attend. But he does try to set aside at least half an hour a day to go swimming for his health and to unwind.

It’s this demanding schedule which has made the busy envoy appreciate the value of time.
“I choose to seize every moment.,” he states. “Everyday is the most important in my life. Every time I’m working in my office, I’m doing something useful for the Philippines and Spain. Every day I feel that I will be able to do more. The possibilities are enormous and the future is optimistic.”

Despite his long years of service, an accomplishment he is most proud of, the envoy remains as enthusiastic as ever. It is his first posting in Asia and he likens it to starting a new career. Costa Rica was his first overseas assignment, and also his first time to go abroad. It was while living in another country that the ambassador professes to having discovered himself. He was then posted to the USA, Poland, Canada, and Belgium. “Each place has its own character and particularities,” he muses. “As a professional, we have to always find the interesting and positive things in any place.”

The envoy remembers encountering Filipinos almost everywhere, especially in the US, the foreign service, and in Spain where there are many who are well-established. His impression of Filipinos is of a very hospitable people, sympathetic and compassionate.

Prior to his arrival, the ambassador talked with many people who had been to the Philippines those with knowledge and experience to share about the country, whether in business or government. He diligently read up on the work of the embassy in Manila for the last 25 years, and began reading the history of the Philippines.

But studying the country in theory was still not quite the same as experiencing the real thing.
“When I arrived here there was a moment to get in touch with reality. Now that you are here you have to start work,” he told himself. I arrived on the 27th of February and on the 28th I was in my office.”

Although he knew beforehand about the country’s 88 million inhabitants, it still made quite an impression on him to actually live amongst them. “It’s very easy to connect with people here. I feel at home,” he declares. “The most obvious influence may be from the US but Spain’s influence goes deeper. It’s a part of your way of life and understanding things. I think another characteristic of Filipinos is that your sense of humor is rather different from other Asians. It’s very familiar for me, a Spaniard. We laugh at the same things. When I talk with somebody or I see the names of streets and places, there are so many things that constantly remind me of Spain or Spanish things. I always have to make an effort to remember that I’m really in Asia here. It’s like being in a Latin American country.”

Despite all that is familiar, there were still quite a few things Ambassador Arias had to figure out and get used to. “One thing I didn’t know about before was Filipino time, the daily timetable,” he reveals. ”Now we are perfectly adapted. I wake up at 6 in the morning then we have breakfast and I’m working by 7:30am. Then at 12:30 we are having lunch. I think it’s a very clever timetable compared to in Spain where we have lunch at 2:30, and dinner past 9pm. Here I feel I have more time to work and enjoy myself.”

The ambassador’s family has also apparently eased into their new situation with aplomb. “My wife is very happy and very positive. There are many activities to do here and she’s collecting many friends,” he shares.

“Our 26 year old son likes Asia very much and is very happy to have us here. He has been working in Beijing and speaks good Chinese. In fact he visited Philippines years before we came. Even now he e-mails me places to go. He wants me to use the jeepney. It’s a bit more complicated and difficult for me than it is for him though!”

The envoy was finally able to carry out his son’s suggestion on a trip to El Nido. “I used the jeepney once from the airport to the port where we rode the banca. I think it’s a very ingenious way of transport,” he concludes. The trip also whetted his appetite to further explore the country. “When we were flying over the islands, I could see the reality of the Philippines. I definitely have to travel more, to go to the Visayas and Mindanao where we have many projects of cooperation, and for me to be able to talk properly about the entire country.”

The envoy is obviously quite dedicated to his work and role. “When I eventually leave the Philippines I want to have quite a bit of knowledge about the country and its many different people. I’d like to be remembered as an ambassador who has done his best to extend the friendship, good relations and brotherhood between the Philippines and Spain.” And even just over the span of a few months, Ambassador Arias has already been receiving compliments for his approach to the job, high praise indeed for a first-timer.

“I feel that maybe I am changing or the country is changing me,” he reflects. “I’m very happy here and I’d like to really know the country from the north in Batanes to the south in Mindanao. That is my horizon.”

-text & photo by Jude Defensor. first published in What’s On & Expat Newspaper, 2007

The Renaissance Man Returns: Jose Rodriguez, Director, Instituto Cervantes

The Instituto Cervantes Manila has truly grown into a veritable institution in the lives of many Filipinos. Officially tasked with promoting the Spanish language and culture by organizing classes and events, this year has seen many new developments for the Instituto. In January, they moved into their new building located beside the Casino Espanol at T.M. Kalaw St. in Ermita, Manila. Then in July, Manila laid to rest its distinction as having the only Instituto Cervantes in Asia with the opening of Instituto Cervantes Beijing. August bore witness to the despedida for the much-admired Dr. Javier Galvan, who ended his term after five fruitful years as the Director of the Instituto.
When news of Dr. Galvan’s imminent departure first started trickling out to the students and patrons of the Instituto, speculation naturally turned toward the identity of his possible replacement. Whoever it would be, everybody was strongly hoping for someone who would have a great affection for the Philippines and rapport with Filipinos. For these criteria at the very least, the new Instituto Director, Jose Rodriguez, definitely qualifies. He loves Filipinos so much that he married one, then went on to live here for more than 25 years.

“My romance with the Philippines started some 30 years ago when I first met my wife in Spain. I was seduced.” Dr. Rodriguez confesses. “So today we have this total interconnection between a Spaniard and a Filipino.”

To demonstrate, he peppers his speech with Tagalog words and expressions, and even prides himself on his appropriately Pinoy-sounding palayaw, “Pepe”. It was indeed an inspired decision by Spain to appoint as Director of Instituto Cervantes Manila, not a stranger to the country, but an old friend.
Born and raised in the province of Ourense, in the Northwestern region of Galicia in Spain. Dr. Rodriguez’s wife is renowned Filipina portrait artist Lulu Coching. Their two children, Lara María and José Francisco, “grew up as Filipinos,” he asserts.

To get here Dr. Rodriguez has come a long and roundabout way from his Ph.D and M.A. in business administration, and Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural technical engineering. After completing his military service in Africa’s Sahara desert in the 1970s, he shifted to the field of journalism as a correspondent for major Spanish dailies, and eventually joined the Spanish News Agency Agencia EFE where he went on to become regional bureau chief for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It was during his term and through his efforts that Agencia EFE established its English-language world service headquarters in Manila.

He became president of the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) in 1992 and was elected president of the Manila Overseas Press Club (MOPC) in 1995. He is also a member of the International Press Institute (IPI) and an honorary member of the National Press Club of the Philippines. He co-founded with the late Secretary Raul Manglapus and a group of Filipino Hispanistas, the weekly Crónica de Manila, a Philippine publication in Spanish.
He has been Honorary Consul of Bolivia in the Philippines (1987-2004), and President of the Academia Filipina de la Lengua Espanola since 1989. Dr. Rodriguez has been awarded the Encomienda de Isabel la Catolica by His Majesty King Juan Carlos I of Spain for his contributions to the strengthening of Spanish-Philippine relations and was recently conferred the Order of Sikatuna by the Republic of the Philippines. He has also been conferred a degree of Doctor of Humanities honoris causa by the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.

Dr. Rodriguez has spent the past four years away from our shores, and is very happy to be back here in his new role. “It was worth it to wait for this opportunity. This time I will no longer be just reporting on the Philippines. I hope to be able to make things happen in my field of endeavor that will be of mutual benefit to my two dear countries.”

Although he just officially started his term last September 1st, Dr. Rodriguez hit the ground running. In only two weeks his leadership style at the Instituto is already clearly felt. “I come back to the Philippines to assume this new position with something very important: a vision. My mandate is to focus on activities that will further strengthen the social and cultural relationship between Spain and the Philippines,” he explains.

Listening to the director, it becomes obvious that it is this clear vision that drives his enthusiasm. “My dream is to be able to increase Filipino interest in Spain in such a way that they will begin to appreciate that they have to learn Spanish in this day and age. Spanish was very much a part of the Philippines’ past. Having learned our lessons, my dream is that Filipinos will now consider Spain as part of their present and future.”
This dream rests on deep foundations, which the director respectfully acknowledges. “I hope to build on what my predecessors have accomplished and even dare to try to raise the level of awareness of our historical ties,” he states. “We share a great number of things in our culture. Let’s not forget that we have almost 10,000 Spanish words in the Filipino language. But in my own judgment, the Spanish culture is beyond language. It is customs, traditions, food, etc. In short, it is a way of life.”

He is positive that the Instituto’s work and worth will speak for itself. “I want to invite everyone to come visit the IC, to look at the beautiful building with state-of-the art facilities for students, an auditorium for conferences and film showings, and a library with, as of today, some 25,000 books.” The director also invites everybody to participate in and enjoy the many activities the Instituto Cervantes has planned for this year’s ¡Fiesta! the Spanish Festival for Culture and the Arts in October.

For Dr. Rodriguez, the Instituto’s further success lies in those who have yet to learn of it. “The youth, as Jose Rizalcorrectly said, is the hope of the land,” he avows, laying out his grand plan for targeting them. “Our goal is to make the Filipinos come to the Instituto Cervantes, not only for educational and cultural reasons, but as part of their way of life. To thrive, the Instituto Cervantes, or IC, must be a welcome home for everyone. We are committed to bringing the IC to the millions of students around the archipelago. Students are the soul of the Instituto Cervantes. They are the main hope to be able to achieve a dialogue between the two cultures.”The director stresses how the Instituto’s mission entails a coordinated effort. “We will try to achieve this dream by working very closely with my colleagues here, the Spanish Embassy, The Spanish community and the home government, and with the youth of this land through the universities and colleges of this country. But I know that our efforts will be crowned by success only when Filipinos embrace these programs as if they were their own. And I am confident that they will do so.”In all his statements, the consistent theme to the director’s stance is his great respect for the Filipino people and desire to serve the Philippines.

He passionately waxes effusive over our country in a manner that would bowl over even the staunchest militant nationalist or revisionist historian. “The Philippines is one of the richest cultural mosaics in the world. It is a unique window display into the westernization of the Orient. I would like to say to all foreigners who still have doubts, come to the Philippines, try the Philippines, stay in the Philippines, you will never regret it.”

Aside from raising his family and devoting half his professional life here, Dr. Rodriguez has also left a lasting legacy in the form of two books that he has published about the Philippines. “Crónicas is a mini-memoir of my stay in the country, he describes. “You will see all the major protagonists in the political and social life of the Philippines during those years, as well as other stories on themes like the Sto Nino, myths, faith, earthquakes, transition pains, the Spanish language, and prominent personalities.” He is most proud of his most recent book, published two years ago. Featuring portraits of Philippine First Ladies, he co-authored the book with his wife Lourdes, one of the country’s foremost portrait painters. “This is a book of portraits of women who shared their lives with men of power, women who played significant roles in the history of the nation,” he relates. “The book focuses on the first ladies as wives, mothers, and in one singular instance, as daughter, in the midst of revolution, war, tragedies, and political and economic challenges from 1898 to 1998.” Crónicas is available at National Book Store branches, while Philippine First Ladies Portraits is available at all Rustan’s Department Stores.Although the director has already so much to look back upon and be proud of with what he has already accomplished, he believes that it is more cause for gratitude and inspiration than an indicator that he should begin resting on his laurels. “I will never forget my 25 years in this country and the hand extended by the Filipinos, frank and kind, reaching out to hold me with a unique affection and brotherhood,” he concludes. “So now I am committed to everything left in my hands and more, to demonstrate that what has been given to me by the Filipinos has not been in vain.”
-text & photo by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

Stranded By the Lake (embroidery & artisanal cheese in Lumban, Laguna)

South Luzon Expressway Southbound lane from Su...

South Luzon Expressway Southbound lane from Susana Heights to San Pedro. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many Metro Manila residents may no longer consider Laguna to be a travel destination. As an immediately adjacent bedroom community to the metro, a lot of workers and commuters in the city actually call the province home. It’s easy to take for granted how close the countryside and its charms can be. Driving down the South Luzon Expressway on a Friday morning, going against the flow of traffic bound north to Manila, one starts to sense the urban sprawl slowly melting away. The highway gets greener and greener, the plant life literally having a field day thanks to the recent schizophrenic weather pattern of sunny days and evening showers. Before you know it, the landscape starts going all rural on you, and the crazy city gets lost in the recesses of your memory.

The town of Lumban, Laguna lies 104 kilometers southeast of Manila. It is the fourth largest town in the province, with a population of 25,936 people within an area of 96.8 square kilometers. Named after the lumbang tree, of which only two specimens are left standing across from the church, it is also one of Laguna’s oldest towns. The province’s capital, Santa Cruz, as well as Cavinti and Pagsanjan, were all once part of Lumban.

For a time, Lumban was the center of all missionary activities in Laguna. Lumban Church, completed in 1600, was the first stone church built in the province. It was also in this church where the Holy Sacrament was first celebrated by the Franciscans outside Manila. The church and convent complex also served as a resthouse for Franciscan monks from 1606 to 1618.

Lumban, Laguna

Lumban, Laguna (Photo credit: ~MVI~ (bonn-ed))

The Franciscans are said to have brought the craft of embroidery to Lumban. It is the only town in Laguna where embroidery has thrived as a major industry. The streets of the town are lined with shops displaying barong tagalogs, ternos, and other embroidered works of art. Connoisseurs of fashion and handicrafts all troop to Lumban to get their fix of fine needlework. Lumban’s embroidery earns its distinction from its extraordinary refinement and intricacy. The town’s main objective is to maintain its claim as the embroidery capital of the country, despite the presence of other challengers.

Wilfredo Paraiso, the amiable Mayor of Lumban, explained to us how Lumban first started celebrating a Barong Tagalog festival during the town fiesta in 1998. This got expanded to a full-on Burda (embroidery) festival in 2001, and has continued as such for the past 5 years. The Lumban Municipal Hall shoulders all expenses of festival. They also coordinate with the DTI (Dept. of Trade and Industry) for help in organizing the town’s participation in trade fairs around the country.

One barong passes through at least four hands before it is finished. First the pintor or design painter outlines the design on the fabric, then it goes on to the burdadora who sews the actual embroidery, then some more ornate pieces pass through the caladera who pulls out threads from the cloth to produce the delicate open-weave effect known as calado, then the embroidered panels are finally sewn into a complete piece. Beyond the Philippine clothing market, finished outfits are also exported to Hong Kong, the USA, Japan, and Spain

Barong Tagalog

Barong Tagalog (Photo credit: Mommysaurus75)

I got to speak with Marivic Gordovez, president of the Lumban Embroidery Association (LEA), and a veteran of the embroidery business who has been running her shop La Burda de Filipina, Tatak Lumban for the past 14 years. She counts famous Filipiniana designer Patis Tesoro among her clients. LEA was just established last July 27, 2005, and is an endeavor initiated more by the newer generation of burdadoras. The association is 42 members strong, representing 80% of the embroidery houses in Lumban. Its objective is to unite embroiders and producers, and to enforce consistent standards in price and quality to ensure the industry’s continued sustainability. Each burdadora has her own forte in terms of a particular embroidery technique, be it emboss, shadow or ethnic styles. A barong may be crafted from Chinese linen, the cheapest and lightest fabric for barongs, traditional jusi, or piña , the most premium material which originates from Aklan. There is piña cocoon, a slightly coarser type of piña, and piña orig, the most delicate kind. A first-class barong sewn from the finest pina fiber can cost from around Php3,500 to 12,000 depending on size, cut, and the complexity of the embroidery. A project that the LEA has proudly notched in its belt is the Saludo sa Lumban fashion show, showcasing the best of Lumban fashions. A future goal is to eventually put up House of LEA, a cooperative fashion house that will serve as an umbrella trademark for all LEA members. Other clients and supporters of LEA members include former President Corazon Aquino and top designers Renee Salud, Rajo Laurel and Eddie Baddeo.

The passing on of the embroidery tradition and skills has been ensured by including their teaching in the home economics subject of the local schools. Professional training programs are also being developed with the assistance of Canadian Executive Services and the DTI. The University of the Philippines has also been coordinating with the town regarding a plan to put together and publish a coffee table book on Lumban and its embroidery industry.

The charms of Lumban are not completely based on clothing, but also on cooking. The dish most identified with the town is Guinataang Hipon (Shrimp in Coconut Mik). It is a mildly spicy shrimp dish, made creamy with coconut milk, that goes well with warm Lumban puto or steamed rice.

List of Philippine dishes

List of Philippine dishes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although not the town’s major industry, it is widely acknowledged that Lumban produces the finest Laguna white cheese in the country. Lumban cheese is creamier and much fresher tasting than the white cheese you can buy on the street or stores, reminiscent of smooth cottage cheese. Testimony to this is the fact that the De Ramos family supplies their fine cheese to such renowned Manila restaurants as Ilustrado, Cravings, Makati Skyline and Lush Life. The De Ramoses have been making cheese for four generations, more than 100 years. Only carabao’s milk, said to be much creamier and less sour than cow’s milk, is used for the cheese. One pail of fresh carabao milk a day is delivered from carabaos pastured in Barangay Wawa, also in Lumban. Every 100 gram portion of cheese is still individually wrapped in a circle of banana leaf as a nod to tradition. The cheese goes perfectly with pandesal, but Lumbeños are also known to enjoy it with their rice.

Lake Caliraya

Lake Caliraya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once you’ve had your fill of the town’s dresses and dairy, then it’s time for some deep water. The province of Laguna curves around Laguna de Bay like the reverse mirror image of the letter “c”. As befitting a province named after a lake, each town is closely identified with a body of water: Los Baños has its springs, Pagsanjan its (in)famous river, Lumban has Lake Caliraya. The Lake was created in 1937 by US Army engineers by flooding the Cavinti valley of the Sierra Madre mountain range to supply water and generate hydroelectric power for Manila. Situated at an altitude of 400 meters, and 50 meters at its deepest point, the lake is well-known as the bass fishing capital of the Philippines and as a windsurfing, jet skiing, water skiing, boating, golf, and camping haven. For most captives of Caliraya’s charisma, the lake’s most picturesque point rises at the site of the old spillway. A small circular structure, the spillway is commonly mistaken as a lighthouse, chapel, or bell tower. Its exact actual function may be too technical to explain, but over the decades it has also served as backdrop, inspiration, sanctum, and shrine for artists and romantics from all places and of all persuasions. Looking back down on the city from the edges of Caliraya, the streets, grids, and blocks form a delicate pattern of humanity, boldly embroidered onto the terrain like the grandest terno you could ever imagine.

How to Get There

Take the South Luzon Expressway up to Calamba City, then the National Highway towards Los Banos and Victoria. Lumban is just past Pagsanjan town. In light traffic, the drive will take less than 2 hours. An alternative route, longer but more scenic, is east via Ortigas Extension to Antipolo then around Laguna de Bay, Lumban is just downhill from Paete.

Resorts in Lumban

Lake Caliraya Country Club: Bgy. Lewin, Lumban, Laguna. Facing Kalayaan town to the north

Caliraya Re-Creation Center: Bgy. Lewin, Lumban, Laguna. Facing Kalayaan town to the north

Caliraya Hilltop: Bgy. Caliraya, Lumban, Laguna. Facing Cavinti town to the south

Official seal of Municipality of Lumban

Official seal of Municipality of Lumban (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s On & Expat would like to extend our gratitude to the Department of Tourism, the municipal government and the people of Lumban.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

Necro Manila: The White Man and the White Lady

The spirit world permeates our reality. Material barriers such as locks, gates, and walls cannot keep it out. Spirits do not discriminate by race, religion, or status as we mortals do. They follow their own code, their own criteria in choosing those who they show themselves to. Rich or poor, weak or powerful, foreigner or native, these labels may no longer matter to ghosts. What they do sense, is a certain sensitivity to their kind, a spiritual kinship perhaps, or a defiance against their existence that they are only to willing to refute. But what is most likely, as those in the real estate business would say, is that what really matters is location, location, location. As the succeeding story will attest, it turns out that no matter how exclusive the enclave, as far as ghosts are concerned, there are no exceptions.

John Dee and Edward Kelley evoking a spirit

John Dee and Edward Kelley evoking a spirit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An American businessman moved into a grand mansion in a prestigious Manila neighborhood. A logical, practical, educated man, he had never given much credence to the supernatural. That was until he found himself unexpectedly sharing his home with an unwelcome tenant.

The household staff was composed of several maids, handymen, and guards. Amongst themselves, they would often talk about seeing a lady in white, a spectral vision gliding through the mansion in the twilight hours. Gradually, their employer began to comprehend snippets of his staff’s conversations, and become conscious of their shared fear of walking around the house and its grounds while alone at night. His initial response to all this was to dismiss these notions as irrational fantasies, probably the result of overactive imaginations at best, or drunken or drugged hallucinations at worst.

But then the haunting got personal. His first encounter with the spirit was a relatively low-key incident. It was late evening and he was taking a shower after a long day at work. As he was in the middle of rinsing himself, he felt an eerie presence, as if someone were close by, watching him. He turned off the water and slowly turned to look at the frosted glass walls of the shower enclosure. Through the hazy steam and cloudy glass he could make out a human form, vaguely female, standing just outside the shower. He walked toward the figure and pushed open the door, expecting to see a maid, and getting ready to berate her for disturbing his privacy. But he found nobody there. Exiting the bathroom, there was nobody to be seen in either the hallway or the adjacent rooms. The next morning, despite his thorough and intimidating interrogation of the maids, none of them would admit to having lurked around that area of the house the previous night. They all stuck to their story of having already gone to bed by that time.

日本語: ホワイトレディ

日本語: ホワイトレディ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

His second encounter with the spectre was much less ambiguous, and a lot more disturbing. One evening, as he was relaxing in his living room, he looked through the French windows out onto the garden. And there he saw standing a woman, very pale and dressed all in white. Her face was hidden by her long, wavy dark hair. She began to walk slowly across the lawn, towards a fish pond located at the other end of the garden. As she approached the fish pond, the woman knelt, then started to creep on all fours. At the edge of the pond, she bent her head down to the water, and began lapping it up with her tongue like a dog. The man watched her, transfixed by the chilling scene, wondering if and when the white lady would notice him. She must have sensed his thoughts. With her thirst finally sated, she slowly raised and turned her head, her wet face was now visible, and her menacing stare was directed straight towards the man who had been watching her. Then as suddenly as she had appeared, she faded into nothingness.

From then on, the American businessman began to think a bit more openly about paranormal phenomena and illogical concepts, and be more accepting of the regular parade of preposterous events on display here in the Philippines.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under horror column Necro Manila in Manual magazine, 2006

Dirty Dining (all about Philippine street food, safety & nutrition)

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Street food is convenient, fast, easy, uncomplicated, and cheap. So are street hookers. Caveat emptor. Buyer beware! Unless you want to gamble with your well-being you shouldn’t play in the street. You don’t stick your tongues or dicks just anywhere, so if you don’t know where it’s been, should you stuff it in your mouth?

Pinoy streetfood is a huge part of our culinary culture, a showcase of how we Filipinos can squeeze fun and flavor from the unlikeliest and least palatable ingredients. Street food is both pop art and comfort food in one portable package, pushed around on wheels or carried on backs. Street foods are consumed by an estimated two and a half billion people world-wide. The street food business is a billion peso industry and a major driver of the underground economy. Thousands rely on it for their livelihood. Properly regulated, it has enormous potential. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have all managed to promote their street food to tourists as tasty and healthy gastronomic adventures. Why can’t we seem to reach their standards?

The Hand that Roasts the Chicken

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many street food handlers may use ingredients that are of dubious quality. They may observe faulty food preparation and handling practices, and work in facilities that lack the minimum sanitation standards. They may use recycled cooking oil. They may not use hair nets nor do they wash their hands prior to food handling/preparation. The food, containers and utensils may be improperly stored or freely exposed to dirt, smoke, flies. These practices can promote bacterial overgrowth and contamination, increasing the hazards for the consumer.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Moreover, some vendors have indiscriminately adapted “modern” techniques to counteract some of the shortcomings in their food hygiene. They use nitrites and nitrates, unauthorized dyes and cooking oils, and insecticides. Beware of food products free of flies in areas where flies are plentiful.  Such items may be sprayed with insecticides.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“In the context of the impoverished economic situation of our street food handlers and vendors, I observed that the negative attitudes of pagtitipid, bahala na, mediocrity and procrastination remain to be the culprits of the ever growing foodborne illness outbreaks (many of which remain unreported) in the city,” says Ma. Veritas F. Luna, PhD, Associate Professor and Chairperson, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, College of Home Economics, University of the Philippines.

Dra. Luna expounds that food vendors will not practice safe food handling procedures unless there are clear policies and strong demand. Implementing food safety procedures are perceived to result in unwanted expenditures that increase their cost of production. And even if they realize that they can be penalized for endangering the public, they will persist in economizing their resources.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Warnings for violators of standards on food sanitation are ignored and they say, bahala na! For as long as no one files a complaint, they claim na pwede na ‘yan, wala namang nagrereklamo!,” (that’ll do, nobody complains) she gripes.

But it appears that poor sanitation is not a problem limited to the Philippine setting alone. Street food has been the source of many recent disease outbreaks, notably cholera: in India, from sugarcane mixed with ice; in Malaysia, from noodles with rice; and in Hong Kong, from a green vegetable dish.  Cases of cholera from street food have been documented in Peru, and also in Singapore where sanitary standards are generally good. And who hasn’t heard of that urban legend about rats jumping in and out of the pails of water insideNew York’s famous hotdog carts. In Bangkok, Thailand, studies consistently found unacceptably high levels of bacteria and other toxins in street food. With support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a Code of Practice for Street Foods, including 10 steps to make street foods healthier, was taught to food inspectors and a public awareness campaign was developed to teach consumers about the importance of improved hygiene.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Street food by its very nature always presents a degree of risk to the consumer. But the hazards can be minimized. A balance must be struck between standards of quality and sanitation and keeping product costs low.

The Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the College of Home Economics at the University of the Philippines offers assistance to organized groups of street food vendors by conducting training and workshops, paving the way for safer food offered within the premises of the university. For inquiries you may call 981-8500 local 3407. The many patrons of Diliman’s famous barbecued isaw can only hope that the stall handlers attended a workshop or two!

Gut Feel

Waiting for diarrhea to strike is not the best way to find out whether what we’re eating is unsafe. Most food safety hazards are not visible to the naked eye. The hazards (in the form of toxins, microorganisms, chemicals, physical contaminants) are also odorless and tasteless. Most victims do not suspect or care whether the food they’re eating is fit for consumption in the first place. You’re doomed by the first steaming, deliciously dirty mouthful.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr. Antonio Comia, Gastroenterologist and Associate Professor at the U.P.Collegeof Medicine, and consultant at the Philippine General Hospital and Asian Hospital lists acute food poisoning, amoebiasis, typhoid fever, and Hepatitis A as the more common illnesses linked to ingestion of contaminated street food. More unlucky patrons may also find themselves harboring parasites such as tapeworms or ascaris. Gastrointestinal infections usually present with symptoms of abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, vomiting. Hepatitis may initially present as jaundice or yellowing of the skin. “The specific treatment varies depending on the diagnosis, but we have to make sure that patients are well hydrated when there is diarrhea,” states Dr. Comia.

Go and Glow

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When prepared fresh and with natural ingredients, some street food can be quite nutritious. Like all guilty pleasures though, you’re not supposed to live on this stuff. It’s better to regard street food as an irregular treat, or as an emergency energy source in the absence of healthier alternatives.

Animal-based products like fried or barbecued chicken or pork, and organ meats like isaw, rambo, helmet, kwekwek, adidas, and eggs such as quail, balut, or penoy, and others are high in protein. In a pinch, you can nibble on these to keep your nitrogen levels up, but keep in mind that they’re likely to raise your sodium and cholesterol as well. Barbecued and smoked meats are also laced with nitrates and free radicals, the consumption of which has been linked to an increased risk for some gastrointestinal cancers.

Fried food will be drenched in oil, which depending on the type, yields about 9 calories per gram. A serving of fried food easily provides about five grams of fat. Animal fat such as chicken skin, chicharon, and pork rinds, is sure to be swimming in cholesterol. Breading or other flour-based coatings are packed with calorific carbohydrates, the same goes with rice cakes or other native kakanins, and other flour-based products such as fish and squid balls. These starchy snacks stuff about 4 calories into each gram.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since this is a tropical country, the popularity of roadside refreshment stands needs no further explanation. Aside from helping stave off dehydration, these sweet concoctions give a quick energy boost from all the sugar mixed in. Sago and tapioca pearls contain some carbohydrates, while gulaman which is made from agar-agar (seaweed) can provide some fiber. These drinks may also be spiked with artificial food colors and flavors. Try going for beverages made from fresh fruits, they present an array of vitamins including A and C, and other beneficial phytochemicals. Taho is another wholesome street food option – a good source of plant-based protein and energy.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The much-beloved “dirty ice cream” our moms would scold us over (but secretly indulge in themselves) consists mostly coconut cream, skim milk, and cassava starch. Basically, ice cream consists of 15 percent sweetener and flavoring, 11 percent skim milk for body and texture, 10 percent fat source for creaminess, and .4 percent emulsifier-stabilizer to distribute the fat evenly and minimize the formation of ice crystals. These comprise 36.4 percent of the volume, the rest taken up by water. A cup easily provides the following nutrients: 200 calories, 3.9 grams of protein, .31 grams of calcium, .204 grams of phosphorus, .14 mg of iron, 548 IU of vitamin A, .038 mg of thiamine, and .236 mg of riboflavin.

For healthier snacking from the street, stick to fruits, vegetables, fish and other low cholesterol food. Try to steer clear of all the deep-fried fare, and seek out snacks that are steamed, grilled, or boiled. Boiled or grilled corn, boiled peanuts, steamed dumplings, and especially fresh fuits and veggies such as turnips, pineapples, watermelons, melons, and green mangoes (But watch the bagoong! It’s really high in sodium) make for smart street eating.

Street food in Manila, Philippines

Street food in Manila, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our experts, Dra. Luna, Dr. Comia, and Mr. Ted Fajardo of the Bureau of Food and Drugs, enumerated certain procedures that must be followed by food handlers to ensure safety.

  • Make sure ingredients are fresh and are of good quality. Food should be processed with clean raw materials and in clean conditions.
  • Wash hands frequently before, during and after handling food.
  • Cook food thoroughly and adequately to kill all possible pathogens.
  • Store food properly and monitor for spoilage. Place food in the right container and at the right temperature within the minimum length of storage time, which will depend on these conditions and the type of food
  • Avoid contact between raw and cooked foods.
  • Serve food properly using clean utensils and condiments
  • Eat food immediately after cooking
  • Re-heat leftover food thoroughly

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Men’s Health Philippines magazine, 2006

Necro Manila: Death Calling

Grim Reaper (advertisement)

Grim Reaper (advertisement) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Popular horror show Nginiiig’s resident top psychic, Ruel Ruiz, shares with us another one of his horrific encounters with the supernatural this month. Ruel’s family home had always attracted its share of ghostly and ghoulish visitors. But over the course of that certain week, a more morbid caller came knocking. Ruel’s grandmother had taken ill, and the family was worried that she was now lying on her deathbed. Their fears were compounded by their grandmother’s unwelcome sentinel. Every day of that week they were greeted by three loud ominous knocks on their door. But once the door had been opened, they would always find nobody there. Until one night…

At around two am, the entire household was awakened by a loud scream. The scream seemed to come from the sala and everybody rushed out of their rooms to see what was the matter. There they saw Ruel’s Tita, slumped in a dead faint. When she eventually came to, she told them what she had seen. For some reason, she found herself still awake and about at that time of the night. And again the menacing knocks sounded off. Annoyed by the noisy intrusion, Ruel’s Tita decided to walk straight up to the door and fling it open. She was met by a blood-curdling sight. Standing there in the doorway was a most sinister figure, a dark hood draped over its bowed head, a bloody scythe in its hand. She realized that she was staring right into the face of death.

After this episode, the threatening signs began to intensify. They would hear dogs howling, as if calling for someone’s soul. The knocking began to extend past the doors and onto the walls and windows. One night, Ruel and his cousins were all together when the knocking came, but it was soon followed by a spine-chilling creaking noise. “What was that?” they asked of each other. Plucking up their courage, they ran to the main door to check. They came upon the door half-ajar. And curled against the door’s edge was a pair of hands. The hands were skeletal, little more than bone, and they were tightly gripping the door’s edge. Ruel and his cousins were all struck dumb and still from fright. Eventually, the wraith-like hands released their grip and slunk away, closing the door in their wake. This was the first time Ruel had encountered such an entity. His mother explained that it was supposed to be his grandmother’s time to pass on. The Grim Reaper sensed this and had decided to stand vigil for her soul and eventually collect. But his grandmother’s spirit was too strong. And despite death’s warning, she survived her illness and remains alive to this day.

Proceeding to a tale from further beyond the grave, Dr. Phil Hernando and his cousins had just finished attending the funeral of their recently deceased aunt at the Manila Memorial Park. With the ceremony over, they then thought of visiting the grave of their Uncle Loy, which was located within the same cemetery. Unfortunately, none of them could remember exactly where it was. After an arduous search of the vast cemetery in the half-light of dusk, they just could not locate their uncle’s burial place. One of Phil’s cousins, out of frustration, said out loud “Fuck it, Tito Loy will understand. Let’s just go”. A moment after those words had passed his lips, the car’s door locks began popping up and down in quick succession. His cousins told the one driving, “Hey, stop fooling around with the locks”. But the driver immediately pointed out that he had both his hands firmly on the steering wheel and could not possible have been manipulating the locks. Realization dawned on them all, and one finally thought of apologizing to the slighted spirit, “We’re sorry Tito Loy, we’ll go visit your grave now.” And with that, the locks stopped jumping, and the car came to a halt. When they got out to look around and check where they were, they discovered that they were parked right beside their Tito Loy’s grave.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published under horror section Necro Manila in Manual magazine,2006

Crash Chords: D’ Hebigats

Heady, heavy assignment, figure out the TEN most influential Pinoy albums EVER in less than a week. In the end, I could only come up with nine, and a few days late too. But, tough noogies. During crunches like these it turns out that everyone’s an expert, everyone’s a critic, and everyone interprets the word “influential” in a different way.

Ultraelectromagneticjam!: The Music Of The Era...

Ultraelectromagneticjam!: The Music Of The Eraserheads (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everybody agrees on one album though – the Eraserheads’ “Ultraelectromagneticpop”. I can still remember watching their first TV performance on Dawn Zulueta’s late night show RSVP, and foreseeing that they were going to be big. Released in 1993 by BMG Records, the album’s commercial success rejiggered the sound of the decade, reintroducing band-based music into the pop mainstream, leading the way for rivals Rivermaya, Yano, and arguably every Pinoy pop-rock band created since then.

Filipino musician Pepe Smith, Philippine Rock ...

Filipino musician Pepe Smith, Philippine Rock n Roll Legend (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Going back to the era when Pinoy rock first exploded, the Golden Age is tied irrevocably to the rise of The Juan Dela Cruz Band, founded by legends Edmund and Mike Hanopol. The band was named after the common man and played rock for the common man. Although the band debuted with “Up in Arms,” in 1971, it is “Himig Natin“, released in 1974 and featuring the too-cool trifecta of Mike, Wally Gonzales, and the notorious Joey “Pepe” Smith on the cover that will always resonate for a generation of teenagers that lived through the “maximum tolerance” of martial rule, a time when sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll raged under the cloak of curfew.

Hotdog’s Unang Kagat” combined big band music with droll Taglish lyrics resulting in their patented “Manila Sound”. Hitting it big with the theme song to the 1974 Ms. Universe Pageant held here in Manila, “Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko” could have cemented Hotdog’s immortality all on its own, if it hadn’t been followed by the just-as-memorable smashes “Pers Lab”, “Annie Batungbakal”, “Bongga Ka ‘Day”, “Beh Buti Nga”, and eventually “Manila”. The 1970s saw Hotdog, together with VST and Company and the Boyfriends, pushing Filipino pop music to innovate, adopting foreign trends such as disco to serve local tastes.

The culturati may beg to differ, but novelty songs are as important a subgenre in Pinoy music as jazz and classical. Although its roots can be traced as far back as vaudeville and even bugtungan, and its fruits continue to haunt us in the musical stylings of the Sexbomb girls and the Masculados, only one man can stake a claim as conquistador of this turf, and that’s “Magellan”, Yoyoy Villame’s first recording in 1972. As an artist, Yoyoy has had his ups and downs, but he’s never worn a frown.

Freddie Aguilar is a very popular folk musicia...

Freddie Aguilar is a very popular folk musician from the Philippines who is best known for the hit – Bayan Ko-, which became the anthem for the opposition to the Marcos regime during the 1986 EDSA Revolution. Photo taken in Tondo, National Capitol Region, The Phillipines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the late 1970s Filipino rock musicians started infusing folk influences into their sound, leading to the 1978 breakthrough success of Freddie Aguilar‘s debut recording “Anak”. This album was the most commercially successful Filipino recording in history, even crossing over to the rest of Asia and Europe. Master Freddie went on to record other powerful (and revolutionary, in a literal sense) anthems such as “Bayan Ko“, and he also paved the way for later Filipino folk stars such as Joey Ayala and Grace Nono.

Rey Valera

Rey Valera (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few could have predicted that a fresh young 12 year-old mayor’s daughter would eventually spawn a veritable industry unto herself after first listening to the sweet, inoffensive, obviously-sucking-up-to-the-radio-stations ditty “Mr. DJ”. But the hits and record albums kept coming and a Megastar was born. To her credit, Ate Shawie has managed to use her considerable popularity to boost the careers of talented composers such as George Canseco and Rey Valera, and even other singers like Raymond Lauchengco…

…who, as we of a certain age all know, shot to stardom with his songs for the soundtrack to the mother of all 1980s barkada flicks – Bagets (and its sequel). Not only did this flick define teen fashion, trends and morès for the pre-Edsa era, but its accompanying songs burrowed into the collective consciousness, prompting laughter and tears for many proms, graduations, homecomings, reunions, and nostalgia sessions to come. “Growing Up”, anyone?

Francis Magalona

Francis Magalona (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Francis M’s “Yo!” exploded in 1990, the first rap album by a Filipino to be commercially released in the Philippines, giving birth to Filipino hip hop (for good and ill). Francis M always seemed to take rapping seriously, unlike some of the subsequent pretenders (like the Es, Vs, and “Amirs”) to his throne as “King of Pinoy Rap”, thus earning the respect of even the folksters and rockers, and bridging a customarily unbridgeable divide.

A couple of years ago, thanks to an inundation of Chi-novela-induced pop and other Pan-Asian pap, it was a real slog wading through the sickly-sweet waters for something less cloying. But something was there all right, and ‘twas Sugarfree no less. Drowning in obscurity for months, their album “Sa Wakas!” was finally rescued from the depths and heralded the resurgence of the real Pinoy music scene. Record labels started taking chances on local talent again, and the rest, as they say, is the present.

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

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