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.








Penman No. 35: Return to Radio


Penman for Monday, February 25, 2013 

I ACCEPTED an unusual invitation for an interview a couple of weeks ago—unusual because of the medium involved, which was radio, specifically DZUP, the on-campus station of the University of the Philippines. DZUP station manager Rose Feliciano asked me to guest on her noontime show so I could talk about the UP Institute of Creative Writing and its flagship programs, and I was happy to oblige—not only because, as UPICW Director, it’s my job to promote the institute, but also because I’ve always had a warm spot for radio, and remain a fan of the medium.

For Filipinos weaned on the Internet, radio must seem like a blast from the past, and, in a very real sense, it is. We’re told that the first local radio stations came on the air in June 1922, so we’re just nine years away from celebrating radio’s centennial in the Philippines. While there’s some dispute as to who really invented radio, no one disagrees with the fact that Guglielmo Marconi made the first successful radio transmission in 1895—when our revolucionarios were just plotting their moves against Spain—and received a British patent for it the year after.

Of course a century’s just a drop in the bucket of human history, but in terms of technology, it’s virtually an eternity. The idea of an invention remaining just as useful after a hundred years boggles the mind, in an age when, say, the floppy disk gave way to the CD, which then gave way to the DVD and then the USB drive, all within the span of a few years. And of course radio today is a far cry from the rasp across the ether that it was at its inception (you can hear a pin drop and bounce off the floor on FM), but the basic idea remains the same—a message is electronically transmitted and received, completing the cycle of communication.

I belong to that generation of Pinoys for whom radio, and not even TV, was our main source of information and entertainment while we were growing up. I remember listening to radio soaps such as “Eddie, Junior Detective” “Erlinda ng Bataan,” and “Gabi ng Lagim.” This last program, a horror show, would go into a TV version (on MBC, Channel 11, if I remember right), but there was nothing like being in your room and quaking all by your lonesome at every creak of the door or every drag of the chain, all these creepy sounds magnified by your fervid imagination.

And that was the magic of radio, especially in the pre-visual age. TV and film may look busier, but they’re actually more passive, in that they require little more of the viewer than for him or her to sit back and be flooded by images and sounds. Radio reaches deep into your brain and forces you to supply the missing image. (When I was very small, I was convinced that there were little people inside the big wooden box that ruled the living room, and was perplexed when I managed to peek into the back of the cabinet and could find nothing but glass tubes.)

One British commentator explains the continuing relevance of radio this way: “Radio is at once intimate and universal, capable of keeping you company like a proper pal and able to impart the gravest of news with a little respect rather than the hubris of its flash-git brother, TV. And it’s also brilliant at being (a) bridge builder…. I remember sitting at traffic lights as one of my British radio heroes, Chris Evans, cracked a joke on his breakfast show a decade or so ago; I turned left and right to see a plasterer in his pick-up truck cracking up and a suit in a Jag grinning at the same moment at the same joke, right there, live—and it was moving. It was like an advert for something but it rang true.

“The thing is this: radio does what we do, it sounds like we sound…. Radio’s better at being really well-behaved. It doesn’t need to be lit, over-orchestrated or faked. Radio requires a bit of description, it’s got an artistic bent; radio’s beauty is that it’s a bit abstract—it’s painting pictures, while TV’s just taking photos. Radio is also the secret to younger-looking skin because no-one can see you.”

But who listens to radio these days? I know I do—I tune in to the news the minute the car rolls out of the driveway, if only to check out the traffic situation, although of course I get to listen to the commentary (admittedly often insipid) as well. At night, on our way home from a movie and dinner, Beng and I gorge on the free medical and legal advice on radio for dessert.

Like that Brit said, radio comes across to us like an old friend—sometimes funny, sometimes silly, sometimes even truly useful and irresistible, such as during impeachment trials, disastrous floods, and post-election vote counts. And I know we’re hardly alone—it’s a safe bet to say that in an archipelago like the Philippines, radio remains the best and the cheapest bridge across the islands, shaping the tastes and opinions of millions of our countrymen, particularly the working poor who have to leave for work on jeepneys and buses at five or six in the morning.

I do wonder if my teenage and twenty-something students still listen to radio; I suspect they don’t, preferring to retreat into the individualized, hermetic cubicles of their iPods rather than engage in the community-building enterprise that’s radio. Perhaps I should worry, but I don’t. DZUP just marked its 55th anniversary, and I have little doubt that some version of it will live to be a hundred. In the same way that print survives and continues to be needed in this era of electronic and digital media, radio will continue to find its audience, for as long as the human voice appeals to the human ear and to our dreaming brain.

(Photo from