A symbolic song

AT RANDOM - Fr. Miguel A. Bernad, SJ -
There is a folk song among the Hiligaynon of Panay that seems to me one of our saddest of songs. I learned it in English translation as a child in primary school long ago, but it was not until many decades afterwards that I began to appreciate it. I was in a car in a country road sitting beside the driver who wanted some music. He put in a diskette of Philippine folk songs (music without words) and I heard once more the song long forgotten, and it has haunted me ever since. The music itself, even without the words, is hauntingly sad.

It is a parting song. A person is going home to a distant place, leaving behind his loved one who will never again see him. Here is the Hiligaynon text in Professor Damiano Eugenio’s monumental collection of Philippine folk songs:

Dandansoy, baya-an ta icao

Pauli ako sa Payao.

Ugaling kun icao hidlauon,

Ang Payao imo lang lantauon.

The translation we learned in school (with some adaptation) was somewhat as follows:

Dandansoy, I must leave you today,

For Payao is far, far away.

If you long for me to return,

You must look to Payao far away.

The ancient Hiligaynons who composed that song must have thought of Payao simply as a place. But compositions have an autonomous life of their own and they can acquire meanings not intended by the author. Payao in this song can be symbolic of death and the inaccessible place beyond.

What struck me about the song was its hopelessness. It implies unalleviated hopeless loneliness. We have other songs that seem similarly hopeless, especially abandoned maidens’ lament, like the Hiligaynon "Ay Kalisud" or the Cebuano "Dinapit sa talamayong palad."

There is something paradoxical in this, because the people who sing these hopeless songs are themselves not without hope. The Filipino people, if anything, are over-optimistic. Filipinos are a basically happy, resilient people who can joke and laugh in the midst of disaster.

The Japanese Occupation was one of the worst ordeals any people could be subjected to, yet, looking back, it seems to me one of the happiest of times. Jokes abounded, mostly at the expense of the invader.

Being a priest, I try to find a theological explanation for things. The large majority of our people are baptized. And baptism infuses into the soul the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Faith is prevalent among our people. That is obvious to anyone who has dealt with people. Faith is widespread. But so is hope.

As for charity, the well-known patience that our people have and which many (including Rizal) have deplored, is probably a form of charity. Even our tolerance of wrong-doing by our politicians. We have murderers and kidnappers among us: but for every murderer, there are hundreds who will go out of their way to help people in distress.

And yet, our songs are sad. And some express hopelessness. Perhaps the English poet was right: "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."

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