Penman No. 176: The Heart’s Serenade


Penman for Monday, November 30, 2015


I WAS down in Davao a couple of weekends ago to speak at the Philippine International Writers Festival organized by the National Book Development Board, and while these festivals and conferences can become a repetitive blur after a while, I’m always happy to attend them, because they’re a chance to meet with many new writers as well as to touch base again with old friends.

This time around, I felt particularly lucky to have had breakfast at the same table with Dr. Michael “Mike” Coroza, a guy I’d been meaning to have a chat with for a long time. The reason was that my wife Beng and I have been fans of Mike’s weekly radio program, “Harana ng Puso,” which goes on the air every Sunday from 8 to 10 pm on DWBR, 104.3 FM. Like many members of our generation, Beng and I have remained avid radio listeners even in this age of the Internet and satellite TV—an interest abetted by Manila’s horrendous traffic, in the grip of which radio often offers the only consolation.

Marikina-born and bred but with family roots in Laguna, Mike—who teaches literature at the Ateneo—is one of our finest poets in Filipino, a SEAwrite awardee who also happens to be a proponent and practitioner of the balagtasan, the traditional Tagalog poetic joust that used to cap many a fiesta celebration. He has taken the balagtasan to appreciative audiences in America, parrying the thrusts of his longtime stage rival, fellow poet Teo Antonio.

It was, however, Mike’s other passion—the kundiman—that prompted me to sidle up to him at breakfast in Davao and to confess to being a follower of his radio program, which will be celebrating its tenth anniversary next February.

Almost certainly one of its kind in Philippine radio, “Harana ng Puso” features performances of the kundiman as sung by such mainstays as the seemingly immortal Mabuhay Singers (composed of individual members Raye Lucero, Cely Bautista, Emma Lucero, Peping de Leon, Eddie Suarez, and Jimmy Salonga) and such occasional guests as the late singers Susan Fernandez and Gamaliel Viray, and Armida Siguion-Reyna, Heber Bartolome, and Joey Ayala. The talented and irrepressible amateur Sonia Roco—among other friends of the program—also sings frequently on the show. They’re all accompanied by the nimble-fingered Eddie Suarez, who can make a guitar sound like an orchestra, without any sheet music to boot.

Mike’s love affair with the kundiman began as a boy in Marikina, when he would listen to Tia Dely’s musical program, “Serenatang Kumbidahan,” on DZRH. (Being older than Mike, I too recall long afternoons in Pasig with my ear glued to the transistor radio—then as big as a shoebox—on which I would follow both musical and dramatic programs. The romance of radio is a hard one to explain to millennials—try movies without the pictures, which made a show like “Gabi ng Lagim” even scarier, with the imagination supplying the imagery.) The iconic Tia Dely (Fidela Magpayo in real life) died in 2008, and her program ended in 2005, but by that time Mike had already convinced the late DWBR station manager Jun Ruiz to host “Harana ng Puso” as the station’s contribution to the promotion of traditional Filipino music.

Thanks to that support, Filipino listeners can now enjoy two hours of the kundiman every Sunday evening, rendered with informed expressiveness by people whose own musical careers have been synonymous with the form, in the footsteps of such legends as the late Ruben Tagalog (who, despite his name, was actually from Iloilo) and Ric Manrique, Jr. Both Ruben and Ric were, incidentally, members of the Mabuhay Singers, which had been formed by the Villar Recording Company in 1958.

The kundiman’s origins continue to be debated; while today primarily Tagalog, some scholars trace its roots to the Visayas. “At some point,” says Mike, “the kundiman was so popular that translations would be made into Spanish by the likes of Manuel Bernabe and Jesus Balmori.” The form was refined and brought to its apex by such master composers as Francisco Santiago (“Madaling Araw,” “Pakiusap”) and Nicanor Abelardo (“Nasaan Ka, Irog?”, “Bituing Marikit”—and I’d have to add the music to “UP Beloved,” later “UP Naming Mahal”).

“It seems to me,” I told Mike half in jest, “that all the kundiman ever says is ‘I love you and and if you don’t love me, too, then I will kill myself!’” He laughed and said, “Well, that’s true, but it wasn’t always all about romantic love.” He brought up the example of the kundiman “Jocelynang Baliuag,” popular among Filipino insurrectos during the revolution against Spain, where the beloved is allegorically not just a beautiful woman but Freedom herself.

Outside of Sundays, I get my kundiman fix on YouTube, but there’s still nothing like hearing it on the air like a live serenade, which is what Mike Coroza and his deathless crew endeavor to do with their show—which, incidentally, Mike hosts pro bono, as a labor of love. “We survive on donations,” he says, “on the kindness of compatriots who feel as strongly as I do about the need to preserve this most Filipino of musical forms.”

If you feel like giving Mike Coroza and the kundiman a helping hand, get in touch with him at “Harana ng Puso” is a serenade well worth crooning and listening to for many more decades to come.