Everyday poets

“To be the poets of our life — first of all in the smallest, most everyday matters,” as my favorite philosopher puts it, has always been for me the best formulation of a New Year’s wish.  The metaphor evokes images of meticulous composition and subtle artistry, of wit and beauty, in all the things we do, starting with the most common pursuits.  Beauty is not the work of professional artists alone, and is not found only in concert halls and galleries.  It is a quality that belongs to all of us whenever we make a conscious effort to create style in the course of our otherwise ordinary lives.

I had glimpses of such abundant beauty in Pampanga just before Christmas when the group ArtiStaRita Foundation treated the townsfolk of Sta. Rita to a serenade of traditional and new compositions of Kapampangan folksongs.  The group, formed in December 2001, combined the talents of the town’s singers, composers, costume designers, and choreographers to bring out one of the most accomplished performances I have ever seen on any stage in the country.  The performers were a mix of schoolchildren, teachers, housewives, carpenters, farmers, bank employees and other professionals who shared a common passion – singing.  To prepare for this one-night performance, they followed a strict schedule of weekend rehearsals under the leadership of three incredible artists: Andy Alviz, Recy Pineda, and Randy del Rosario.

Kapampangan music is often equated with the popular signature folksong “Atin ku pung singsing” (I had a ring), which, in its literal sense, may sound shallow and stupid. The song tells of a ring inherited from a dear mother.  The owner kept it in a safe, but lost it. Inconsolable, she tells the world that her heart now belongs to the one who finds the ring.

The artists of Sta. Rita have given this song a new meaning.  By their efforts, they have found the ring of Pampango culture, and all of us who grew up in this landlocked province of farmers and artisans owe them our hearts.  They have brought us back home to a language and a tradition now fast being engulfed not only by Metro Manila pop culture and Taglish, but also by Western-driven globalization. From the din of “Otso-otso” and the pit of “Spaghetting pababa”, a paper kite has taken flight.  It sends a clear message to all who care to listen: a people must express their artistry and develop their culture from what they already have and know best.  Thus, the ArtisStaRita serenade begins grandly with the enriched tones of the ditty “Oyan na ing papel” (There goes the paper).

There is undoubtedly in all these songs a deep and recurrent pride in one’s ethnic roots.  When the nation seems headed for nowhere, it seems natural for the centrifugal tones of ethnic identity to acquire greater resonance.  One of the stirring numbers in the Sta. Rita program is Andy Alviz’s original composition “Kapampangan ku” (I am a Kapampangan).  At first blush, this song may sound like an ethnocentric paean, but it is not.  This powerful song is rather a tribute to the courage and resilience of the people of the province who rose from the Mt. Pinatubo explosion and lahar devastation of the 90s. The refrain goes: “Kapampangan ku, daya ampong kaladua ku/ Sese naku ning Ginu, miyabe-abe tamu” (I am a Kapampangan, blood and soul/ I am God’s beloved, let us stand together).

This kind of culture is not a simple return to ancestral beginnings. This is not nativistic revivalism, or mere nostalgia.  The sentiments, values, and images are the same ones we encountered as children, but the words and the music are brought up to date.  The tones and movements of Broadway, for example, are recreated and interspersed with traditional strains in the most astonishing way. Xenophobic anti-globalism is nowhere to be found here.  There is only everywhere an ear, and an eye, for style, beauty and originality.

A visit to Pampanga is never complete without food. The ArtiStaRita Christmas Eve serenade began with dinner and ended with a midnight snack.  Dinner was simple, but the setting was exquisite. The performance was held in front of the elegant 1920s mansion of the Guanzon family (the setting for Laurice Guillen’s “Tanging Yaman”), while dinner was served in the large garden at the back.

The beef and pork asado revived all the taste buds of my childhood. This was exactly how my late mother prepared this dish.  The snack included steaming arroz caldo and puto bumbong, and thick native chocolate made from finely ground cacao seeds and peanuts. The guests sat around cloth-covered round tables.

One would probably find such food these days in any of the fine Pampango restaurants in Metro Manila and San Fernando or Angeles.  But it would be difficult to replicate the respectful and solicitous way in which the old townsfolk of Pampanga receive their guests.  Urbanization has not erased the nobility and subtlety of their manners.

The best time to visit Pampanga is during a town fiesta. On that day, all the poetry of the town is to be found in its kitchens.  December 30, Rizal Day, was also fiesta time in Betis, where I grew up.  On this day my three sisters – Raquel, Agnes, and Marivic — searched their culinary memory to bring out an array of inventive dishes to serve to our guests.  They worked with the same basic tastes and ingredients, but they improvised, fused tastes, and experimented.  No one doubted that the flavors were distinctly Kapampangan.  The careful style was there, the identity was discernible, but amid the traditional fare there were new dishes.  After lunch, the neighborhood brass band serenaded the guests.  They could have just clapped their hands, but they danced.  Such is the poetry of everyday life.