LIKE many of my wanderings, watching Mabuhay Singers perform live last Thursday, November 26, for their 50th year as a group was never premeditated. This time, it was simply a coincidence involving award-winning poets Vim Nadera and Mike Coroza, and, albeit without his knowledge, National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario or Rio Alma. Mike sent Rio a concert pass through Vim, Vim thought Rio could not make it and, alas, the pass ended up with me. I arrived in Philamlife Auditorium along UN Avenue 30 minutes late after a UP-Mandaluyong-Manila traffic ordea;. When I entered the hall, the group was halfway serenading the crowd with Constancio de Guzman’s Babalik Ka Rin—the first song of the second set which awfully meant that I have missed a dozen songs already. The program notes said I missed a series which included Maalaala Mo Kaya and Hatinggabi.
After Babalik Ka Rin, I was surprised to have known that the concert host was no less than Mrs. Sonia Roco who delivered with gusto glimpses of the history of Mabuhay Singers as well as how the group can indeed be considered a jewel of Filipino music heritage. In the second set, pastoral Philippines was felt in Lawiswis Kawayan, Nicanor Abelardo’s Mutya ng Pasig which is actually my favorite kundiman, Bituing Marikit, Madaling Araw, and several more which were testaments to the group’s place in the musical tradition of our country. It was obvious, however, that the group members—Cely Bautista, Carmen Camacho, Raye Lucero, Peping de Leon, Eddie Suarez, Jimmy Salonga, and Marlon Marifosque—are no longer young in age. But their music was beyond the limits of age. There may have been a difference between their performances now and those done decades ago, but what was highly noticeable was the firm resolve to present the beauty of the Philippines in the songs they sang.
I take special interest in the ‘Tanghalan ng Kampeon’ winner Carmen Camacho because she is a Bikolana. In the third set, which was introduced by Mrs. Roco as the set which would show us the soloist in each of the Mabuhay Singers, Ms. Camacho came in first and sang Philip Maninang’s Magtitiis Ako. She belted the song with a deep alto voice which reminded me of her own versions of Bikol folk songs. We should be reminded that no any other Bikolano singer had ever recorded Bikol songs as many as Ms. Camacho did. Ms. Camacho’s voice was already in the airwaves even before the time my auditory sense started processing sound. While I expect that the Bikol songs she recorded may not move a music scholar’s baton, I firmly believe that everything she did did something great for Bikol music. Why? Because no one had ever dared to do the things she did with equal commitment. Not even the musically schooled. There can be no denying that in this case, even if what Carmen Camacho did was what is considered now as bakya, she had helped prevent Bikol songs from being obliterated and consequently fading from our consciousness. Of course, many would laugh at Sa Baybayon nin Sisirang, Ano Daw Idtong sa Gogon, Pantomina, and other Bikol folk tunes; later, however, and I am sure of this, this region of ‘bulkan Bulusan, Mayon, Isarog, na magayón na tunay...’ will never stop thanking Ms. Camacho.
In the fourth set of the concert, Mike Coroza, who I consider as the walking encyclopedia and almanac of kundiman (unabridged!), led the pagpuputong, an act of honoring the group, with his delivery of what I think were impromptu verses for each of the members. After the pagpuputong the last set saw a series of lilting songs characteristic of the Philippine fiesta traditions. It was nostalgic to hear Mabuhay Singers sang Pista sa Nayon, Fiesta, Pandangguhan, which ended with Amado del Paraguay and George Canseco’s patriotic song Filipinas.
For us Bikolanos, end recipient of Ms. Camacho’s efforts to popularize our own folk songs, her achievement comes as a challenge to do the same if not further. We are a region where music history is practically nowhere to be found. The are no traces of pre-colonial musical practices and, perhaps, the richest collection of songs in our vernacular belongs to the Catholic church. But, indeed, big dreams like really having something we can call as Bikol music may start with us singing them. We have a range of popular stars—from Bugoy to Imelda Papin to the superstar Nora Aunor. We also have singers admired in the scholarly world, like Jonathan Zaens and Raymond Roldan. We have a lot of musicians, all of high caliber and respect. With these, we do not have any legitimate reason to leave Bikol music in the mire of neglect and perhaps, if worse times come, death. Let then the irony come to an end.