Arts and Culture

Prison songs from the heart

PASSAGE - Ed Maranan -

Several weeks ago, I was listening to one of my favorite radio programs, Harana ng Puso, emceed by poet-singer Michael Coroza. The main performers of the show, the Mabuhay Singers, gave a rendition of the now iconic, and anthemic, Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa, the poem of Gat Andres Bonifacio set to music. First popularized by Inang Laya (Becky Abraham and Karina Constantino David), it then became a staple of protest concerts, and has been covered by various performers in countless venues, including YouTube.

From its melody, one would think that it could have been contemporaneous with Jocelynang Baliwag (the favorite kundiman of the Katipunan) or Kundiman ni Abdon (based on the Kundiman de 1800), composed in 1920 during the American occupation and thus stirring patriotic feelings. The composer of this kundiman was Bonifacio Abdon, and the lyricist was Patricio Mariano. This song was adapted in the 1970s to express a yearning for freedom from political prison, and thus was born the prison song Mutya. The original kundiman’s first line “Sa tapat ng laging palangiting araw” became “Kay taas ng pader sa aking paligid”. We are indebted to the late Dr. Ochie Baes, an ex-detainee, nationalist scientist, poet and composer, for writing the lyrics of Mutya and composing other prison songs such as Huwad na Kalayaan.

Sometime in 1977, the cultural committee of the political detainees in Bicutan decided to adapt the poem of Andres Bonifacio into a song for a special presentation. (We used to hold concerts or stage political plays for the benefit of relatives, friends, solidarity workers and foreign visitors.) Out of Bonifacio’s 28 stanzas, we selected six that we thought summed up the lofty sentiments of the Great Plebeian. We turned to our resident guitarist, accompanist and composer, Luis Jorque, for the melody, and thus was born the shortened song version of the Bonifacio poem, a song which became the anti-martial law anthem, in the same way that Bangon (from the Internationale) was the protest song of the First Quarter Storm, and Bayan Ko symbolized the spirit of the EDSA revolt.

I texted Mike the same night I heard it sung by the Mabuhay Singers, giving him the background of the song. He texted back, agreeing with me that it was a crying shame that the composer of the popular piece has never been properly credited with the soul-stirring melody of Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa (alternate title: Aling Pag-ibig Pa). The following Sunday, he announced during the program the story behind the song. But knowing Weslu (as Luis Jorque was called by his fellow detainees), all these 25 years since he composed the melody for this song — and for several other prison songs — he has never grieved over the non-attribution. It was his task, after all, it was his part in the collective struggle even within the walls of prison. I also suggested to Mike that he might want to invite Weslu to his program to be interviewed and to give his own rendition of his composition, and my poet friend readily agreed.

Five ex-detainees and a song: Luis Jorque, composer of the music for the popular song Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa from Bonifacio’s poem, sings the original version as first heard in Bicutan. With him in photo are playwright Boni Ilagan and poet-journalist Pete Lacaba who sang his Salinawit translations.

Last month we had a gathering of former political detainees who had spent time in Camp Crame and Bicutan. We were honoring visiting “alumni” Hermie and Mila Garcia —publishers of the 23-year-old The Philippine Reporter (founded 1989), a widely read and very progressive Filipino newspaper in Toronto, which chronicles not only the events in the lives of Canadian Filipinos but also the latest happenings in the Philippines, including political and life-and-death issues such as corruption, the human rights situation, and problems of development. We held the potluck party at the Bambi Santos Hall of the Bayan (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan) office in Quezon City. The rooftop conference hall was named after the Bayan staff member who was killed by the military in October 2000 while doing political immersion work in Mindanao so that she could write stories and poems about the plight of the peasantry. The hall also houses a library named after the revolutionary poet and popular blogger Alexander Remolino who died last year.

There must have been at least two dozen of us who responded to the short notice texted by award-winning playwright and screenwriter Boni Ilagan (of the globe-trotting must-see films Dukot, Sigwa and Deadline, and of Migrante which premieres soon). He emceed the lively, rollicking, jokey, understandably emotional afternoon reunion. The old (as in ageing but still closely knit) comrades were in high spirits as arroz caldo, suman, lechon manok, chicken nuggets, fries, pizza, chocolate cake and ice cream were partaken of, and memories of underground work, capture and torture during the martial law years were recounted and shared.

Our deeply respected Cell Leader (well, it was prison, after all) and chief morale-booster in Bicutan, Bayan Muna party-list official Satur Ocampo, who gave the welcome speech, was there with his wife Bobbi and their two grandchildren. So were Leoncio and Linda Co, who brought the rich chocolate cake, and Chit Agcaoili, whose steaming arroz caldo was the main dish. Geologist and writer Rolly Peña regaled us with tales of mysterious travels in years past to a cryptic “Chinatown” for some undisclosed missions. Myrna Hombrebueno and daughter Joy showed up. Two very important consultants involved in the ongoing peace negotiations between the National Democratic Front and the government, themselves former long-term political detainees, dropped by and stayed till the end to enjoy the fellowship of aging activists. Rey Casambre of the Philippine Peace Center managed to make it, too. UP Centennial grand prize literary winner Lualhati Abreu, another Bicutan graduate, was there, and so was Angelina Ipong of Karapatan, who was already sixty plus when captured by the military in Mindanao, subjected to long hours of interrogation and sexual molestation, and imprisoned for six years. She launched her book A Red Rose for Andrea: writings from prison on February 29 in UP Diliman.

We had stories to tell. When it was my turn to speak, I shared an anecdote about Hermie’s romantic pursuit of Mila in UP in the 1960s, how he was always accompanied by BFF Nick Atienza — both of them stalwarts of the SCAUP and the Kabataang Makabayan — in waiting for Mila outside our classroom (she and I were classmates in Spanish 40). I also mentioned their stint with the Dumaguete Times in Negros, which led to their imprisonment in 1969. In his response, Hermie narrated the full story of how that advocacy newspaper, purposely set up to expose the exploitation of the peasant workers in Negros, was being linked to the New People’s Army by the political warlords of the landed gentry.

Enjoying the afternoon musicale are former Congressman Satur Ocampo and his wife Bobbi Malay-Ocampo, with their two grandchildren.

For her part, Mila said that living abroad never meant for them isolation from the cause, for they have continued organizing forums and networking with Canadian Filipinos to gather support in the campaign for peace, justice and human rights in the Philippines.

Two late arrivals gave everyone a pleasant surprise. Pete Lacaba came with a bottle of red wine, with which we toasted Hermie and Mila and the company’s enduring comradeship. Pete probably never dreamt he would attain near celebrity status as one of the most heavily tortured detainees of martial law at the dreaded CSU (Constabulary Security Unit) in Camp Crame, and also at present as the creator of the Salinawit music phenomenon. He obliged with his Isipin version of John Lennon’s Imagine, and segued with the song he wrote for Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L, Sangandaan, music by Ding Achacoso.

The other welcome latecomer was Weslu, whom I had contacted that morning to tell him of the ex-detainees’ reunion. Someone brought up a guitar from the Bayan office below, and we relived the past as Weslu accompanied himself in singing Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa. Some of us were groping for the exact lyrics, but we were all singing with fervor ever burning.

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