Part II: Philippine Chamber Singers-LA’ s heart-cramping Original Pilipino Music overflows with love for country, family, friends and musical heritage

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Part II of II Series

“It is only with the heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“The Filipino kundiman [part of OPM] is the voice of yearning love in song, plaintive in its lyrical heartbeat and yet transcendent through melodic expressiveness. The kundiman came to the fore as an art song at the end of the 19th century and early part of the twentieth, when Filipino composers such as Francisco Santiago and Nicanor Abelardo formalized the music structure and sought poetry for their lyrics, blending verse and music in equal parts. While the sentiment of the kundiman tends toward the melancholic, the commitment of the heart to passion is celebrated in every piece. The singer of the kundiman expresses the pain and beauty of love felt by every listener, for the kundiman is not merely entertainment but an embodiment of collective emotion. Endowed with such power, the kundiman naturally came to serve as a vehicle for veiled patriotism in times of colonial oppression, in which the love for a woman actually symbolized the love of country and desire for freedom. The contemporary love songs of the Philippines are as much related to the kundiman as to Western popular music, reveling in the universal theme of love but saturated with the heartfelt sentiment epitomized by the finest kundiman.” –Christi Anne Castro, Filipino American Library Program, October 2002.

I READ the first quote to the founding members of the Philippine Chamber Singers-LA (PCS-LA).

“Art opens up the heart,” as the saying goes, so did Dale Francisco’s sparkling eyes as he recalled that he was asked to sing a harana (a courtship love song) by a suitor friend for Jennifer. In singing with his friend, Dale fell in love and eventually asked permission from the suitor to pursue Jennifer. He courted her, he proposed, she said yes, they got married and are now blessed with two children.

He took a sabbatical to help raise them and now that they are older, he rejoined PCS-LA “because I missed singing with them.”

Dale (unrelated to Gelo Francisco) is the only singer amongst his siblings. He discovered his passion at a very young age of 3, but he was not encouraged to pursue it. In college, he pursued his love for music by forming a University of Santo Tomas choral group and when he immigrated to the U.S., he co-founded PCS-LA.

His mentors included Lourdes Osuna, an instrumentalist for the church’s choir. He became part of the choral group at mass and would join Fr. Arnold Zamora in his concerts.

He was invited to be part of the Far East Bank’s Chorale group by Doris Estallo, a much sought-after teacher of chorale groups, who became Dale’s mentor.

Dale credits living in God’s grace, as he seems to be smooth sailing with doors opening in his life, it was true for his wife, his marriage, and his chorale groups. He is now a U.S. citizen.

Founding members of Philippine Chamber Singers-LA (PCS-LA) from left to right, Marivic Belo Francisco, Gelo Francisco, Dino Padallan, Ana Burog, Dale Francisco, Anna Hurn.
Photo courtesy of Ana Burog

What these musicians sacrificed to be green card holders and citizens in America

Ana Burog is one of PCS-LA’s founding members, who takes care of the group’s logistics, liaisons with the community, and is their costumes’ coordinator as well.

Ana is a natural performer onstage, as Lily, her generous mother, exposed her to the various facets of the arts: piano, organ, jazz, ballet and cooking class.

“I was not trained to watch television,“ she said, “I grew up listening to the kundiman’s guitar music played by Salicio, my dad with his friends. In third grade, I auditioned for the glee club and was not accepted. But, I kept seeing beyond, that this was like playing a game, and I can be a star someday. So I applied in fourth grade, pasok ako (I got in). In high school, I was the only one singing of my three siblings.”

Then, Ana’s mother, Lily, got sick. Ana had to apply for a probationary permit, so she could go back to Manila, take care of Lily and within two weeks, Lily died. That decision bears no regrets for Ana, a daughter who chose love for her mom, chose to serve her till her dying moments, even if it meant taking a risk and prolonging her waiting period for her green card. After nine years, she has a green card.

Equally generous in spirit to Ana were her music mentors, noting “Raymond Romen was my choral mentor who exposed me to all these facets: how to prepare for a concert, how to join a competition, how to sing in harmony and while in Maryknoll (now Miriam College), I sang in a joint concert with the Ateneo Glee Club.” Her other mentor was Boy Delarmente, a De La Salle University choral conductor.

Gelo Francisco had a similar challenge when his father died. Gelo was still waiting on his green card. Each renewal of his working visa would cost $2,500.

“If I went home, I would be overstaying and that would not be favorable in getting my green card, ultimately, a citizenship. Even if I were to go home, what about my children, kawawa naman ang asawa ko. (Pity my wife?) So I had to consider my options – do I want to remember my father, while he was alive or as a corpse? Instead of going home, I ended up giving my siblings the cost of my airfare but, iyak ako ng iyak. (I kept crying and crying). But, if I stay, where do I get the monies?”

Gelo ended up taking more part-time jobs to support his pregnant wife, Marivic, including a scary-for-him graveyard shift of duplicating CDs, at an office whose window overlooks a cemetery.

“I had to keep playing sacred songs and I had to make a deal with the souls in the cemetery that I would pray for them,” he recalls.

He is now a U.S. citizen and credits Atty. Kelly O’Reilly for being kind and compassionate over a decade-long journey to naturalization. As soon as he got a chance to travel to the Philippines, he went to visit his father’s grave.

Emman Miranda helped organize a men’s choral group when he got to Los Angeles.
“Hindi ko alam na iiwan ko ang buhay ko sa Pilipinas (I did not realize I would leave my life in the Philippines),” he said.

As each working visa permit arrived, he kept renewing each year. Imagine what he had to do with only $300 in his possession, with only a part-time job, what would he do now with an upcoming concert with this men’s choral group?

He was faced with the same dilemma as Gelo and Ana: “Do I go home or do I stay and keep going for permit renewal?” Given his determination and his faith in God, he stayed until he got a visa for his extraordinary talent, and now is a U.S. citizen.

I inquired as to the requirements to become PCS-LA members, not that I would ever qualify, a long-cherished dream of mine is to sing, if only I was blessed as these PCS-LA members.

So, here goes, my dear AJ readers: you may be able to sing, willing to learn the Tagalog language through songs, but most important of all, you must have a commitment to attend rehearsals, able to get along with members with a demonstrated enthusiasm for your culture or in the beginning, an interest to learn Filipino culture.

The founding members cited the enviable examples of the Ulanday couple (Lisa and Louie), both of whom are Filipino-Americans, were born here and do not speak Tagalog. But, given their love for music, previously into comedy and bowling, they went with gusto for PCS-LA, as much as they’re singing at Sunday mass for Blessed Sacrament Church.

That, plus raising a toddler son. They used to dance Pasigin, a song they learned in their gatherings, but until PCS-LA, they did not know they should be dancing like fishes.

To sum it all up, what traits would you develop, I asked PCS-LA, aside from commitment and showing up for rehearsals?

Fearlessness – it does not matter if we are a Filipino and Filipino-American choir, it is by our actions that we will command respect from anyone, as that is our past experience as UP Madrigals singing even to Germans “Dahil sa Iyo” and moving them to tears and to folks around the world.

Versatility and daring ambition – “Kaya natin iyan, kung ginagawa ng iba, kaya din natin (If others can, so can we).” It is a belief in our collective capacities. It comes from past experiences of some members who had performed in the palaces in Europe, but also the only choir allowed to sing in person for St. John Paul II in Rome.

Breaking barriers – We have no predecessors. We are pioneering our own culture as a choral group. We can break all barriers. Yet, we do our best to protect the reputation of our group, PCS-LA, alive for 14 years now.  You are your own boss as a singer – you come equipped, you study the notes, you can stand alone, if needed and whenever needed. The only time you can contribute to the group is when you can say, “I can do this on my own!”

That is the expected standard from each member, a “can-do” level of heightened musicality!

Perhaps more than their masterful musicality, we are witnesses to their sacrifices to give dignity to their God-given talents and to give honor to their heartwarming heritage, as if royalty-bearers of the Filipino-American culture.

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 10 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

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