Penman No. 417: From Cory to Covid: An Alternative History

for the Star’s 35th anniversary, July 2, 2021

WHEN THE Philippine STAR was founded 35 years ago, we were still enveloped in the euphoric glow of having successfully deposed a dictator peacefully and installing an icon of democracy in his place. I was one of that happy throng on EDSA celebrating what we believed was a new dawn of hope, a fresh opportunity for our people to grow in freedom and prosperity. Like many writers, I ran out of metaphors and superlatives to describe that moment, which seemed nothing short of miraculous. 

Nowadays it has become commonplace—indeed even fashionable in some quarters—to revise and reject that narrative, and to claim that it was a foolish mistake to have replaced a seasoned politician with a rank amateur. Martial law wasn’t so bad; no wanton thievery took place; only a few were hurt for the good of the many; we were never so disciplined, and our streets were never so clean.

How we came to this point—like the resurgence of Nazism in Europe and of racism in Trump’s America—is for me the great mystery of those 35 years, an arc of sorts marked by Cory on one end and by Covid on the other. There’s certainly no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, as should happen in fairyland—which we rather quickly realized, right after EDSA, was not where we were.

For some such as Jose Rizal, Alexander the Great, Wolfgang Mozart, Manuel Arguilla, Bruce Lee, Eva Peron, and, yes, Jesus Christ, 35 years was a lifetime. You could have been born in a hospital while the tanks were massing at EDSA, and died this year of Covid, gasping for breath in that same place. Had that happened to me, I would have protested and pleaded, albeit inaudibly through my tubes, that it wasn’t fair, that I deserved a peek over the horizon, at least through to the May election, to see if it was worth the wait—or not, and then slink into sullen slumber. 

During that time, I grew from a young father and a writer on the verge of a teaching career to an aching retiree surrounded by old books and creaky machines, and I have to wonder if our nation fared better and learned as much. Or should I say “unlearned”? At EDSA I learned to hope, to trust in the ideal and the good again, to have positive expectations of the new century looming ahead. FVR and his “Philippines 2000” thumbs-up may have seemed hokey at the time, but there was a genuine spring in that step, a sense of things going in the right direction. And then they began falling apart, the old mistrust and suspicions returned, and we took one president down and nearly succeeded with yet another.

But it wasn’t just us. The closing decades of the 20th century were a time of sweeping changes all over the world. Soon after Marcos fell, a tide of reform and revolution washed across Eastern Europe and eventually into the Soviet Union itself; that union collapsed, the Berlin Wall fell, and it seemed like the era of dictators and despots was over, but it was not. With Hong Kong in its navel, China morphed into a commercial colossus, proving that freedom and capitalism do not necessarily go together. The 1997 financial crisis shook the planet.

After 9/11, whatever remaining hopes we had of a better new century vaporized, and the new specter of terrorism now stalked the globe. Barely had ISIS retreated from the sands of Syria when a new and even more insidious plague, Covid-19, threatened to annihilate mankind. 

Others will remember this period as the age of cocaine, corporate greed, mass shootings, and, generally speaking, a culture of excess, of over-the-top indulgence on whatever floated your boat: drugs, sex, money, power, toys. Very few people had actual access to them, but the media—that’s another whole story—kept glorifying vice as virtue, until many began to believe it well enough to dream. It was Dickens’ “best of times and worst of times” all over again.

That would be the sober—and sobering—summary of what tomorrow’s history books will be saying about those decades. But of course—and thankfully—it wasn’t all politics and the misery that often comes with plays for power.

There’s a part of me that wants to tell the story of these past 35 years as the rise of consumer technology toward near-total domination of our daily lives. Humor me as I recall little vignettes to show what I mean.

When the EDSA uprising broke out, we heard the news over a big black Panasonic radio-cassette player that I had picked up years earlier at the Zamboanga barter trade place (along with the obligatory sotanghon and White Rabbit candies). It was—beside our 12-inch, black-and-white, red plastic-bodied TV—our news and entertainment center in the boonies of San Mateo. It sat on our dinner table, accompanying our meals like a permanent guest, sometimes directing the conversation.

When it spewed out the news that something dramatic was taking place at EDSA, and when we heard Cardinal Sin calling on people to go, we knew we had to. Not long after, we piled into my VW Beetle, turned on its radio for updates, and headed for the trenches. For the next few days or so, radio was king, whether at home, in your car, or in your pocket (yes, boys and girls, there was pocket radio; TV was around but only the coolest people had portable versions).

I missed out on most of the Cory years because I went to America for my graduate studies, and there I became anchored to the payphone for my calls home, clutching a handful of quarters to feed the machine. I had hand-carried an Olympia typewriter to write my thesis on, but then I discovered computers, and in 1991 I lugged home a 20-pound behemoth with all of 10 megabytes to fill up. I felt like a gunslinger—I was going to write the next Noli, protect the weak, and get justice with one floppy disk after another.

Nothing would define the ‘90s more than the personal computer, and I soon equated the machine with creation, the blinking cursor with a challenge to produce. I drooled (and lost the plot) when I watched Scully and Mulder hunched over a super-sexy PowerBook 540c in the X-Files, and when I got my own, it was like Moses receiving the tablets—with a trackpad and an active-matrix display. 

Soon another gadget emerged with which we felt even more tethered to some central brain: the pager, whose insistent buzz enhanced our importance, even if it all it asked was where you were and could you please come home. Fake news had yet to be invented as a cottage industry, but a lot of it, I’m sure, went through EasyCall and PocketBell.

By the time the next EDSA happened, we had something far snappier and more personal than radio with which to undertake regime change. Yes, I was now writing speeches on a Mac, but the messages flew thick and fast on a new gadget—the cellphone. If EDSA 1 succeeded because of radio, this iteration flew on the wings of SMS, the millions of texts (the jokes, the rumors, the calls to action) whose accretion would spell the end for an inebriated presidency. 

As it happened, 2001 would be memorable for another image seared into our consciousness: the collapse of the Twin Towers, brought to us slightly delayed and in full color by satellite TV. We’d had TV before, of course, but had always seen it more as Comedy Central, a box to gather the family around. CNN changed that, and brought the world’s torments to our living rooms. Cheaper TVs, one in every room, had long fragmented the family, especially when Betamax and VHS, the precursors of Netflix, became available.

A few years later, a cellular phone call and a recorder almost took another political giant down, causing millions to gasp and laugh as the tape was replayed on TV and radio over and over. “Ang importante hindi madamay yung sa itaas,” said a female voice, which was exactly what happened. That year, 2005, was also the year a platform called YouTube was born—and thanks to YouTube, the tape can still be heard, for all digital eternity.

Indeed, video, the Internet, and social media would soon change the political and cultural landscape, not just here but the world over, although the Pinoy—perhaps in response to that elusive quest for Olympic gold—has towered over much of humanity in terms of Facebook usage (and earlier, in SMS transmissions). One way of putting it would be that we are the world’s champion usiseros and chismosos, resorting to Twitter or Instagram at the merest hint of an idea, no matter how malformed. 

Today we have an abundance of information and information sources at our disposal—and yet we seem to be as ill-informed as ever, with opinions shaped and manipulated by Sith Lords in the Dark Web. Dismissing newspapers and editors as gatekeepers of the truth—which not all of them have been—we create our own versions and peddle them instantly for a thousand “likes,” the supreme accolade of the early 21st century. Most others might prefer to be simply receivers and forwarders of whatever crosses their screens, the passive agents of mindlessness.

Thirty-five years ago, we drove to EDSA on pure conviction that it was the right thing to do. Without Twitter or even SMS, no one could tell us “Right on!” or “Me, too!” We listened for scraps of news and turned them over and over in our hushed minds; we could be killed; we could be free; would our friends be there; what else did we study for. It was a long drive from San Mateo to my in-laws’ place in Project 4, where we parked the car and walked to EDSA. It was a lot of time to think. 

Thirty-five years is a lot of time, but looking around today, with Filipinos still dying by the gun or by drowning in one’s own fluids in some alien hospital, I have to wonder how this narrative arc from Cory to Covid will end—or how much longer it will go, at least in my lifetime, which naively still yearns for a happy ending.

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