Bango ng champaca

SINGKIT - Doreen G. Yu - The Philippine Star

My amah (paternal grandmother) had a champaca tree planted in a corner of a pocket garden in the old family compound in San Miguel district. Along with memories of playing touching ball (the sosyal name is dodgeball) and sneaking into the unoccupied (the relatives had moved to more upscale locations like New Manila) “haunted” houses at night, the scent of champaca is an indelible memory, even now, decades after we too left the compound, and the tree undoubtedly long gone.

There was a speckled red stone bench under the tree, and a photo on my dining room buffet table shows my amah, seated on the bench, with all her grandchildren gathered around, some perched on the bench’s backrest, my older cousins in their pretty dresses seated primly beside amah, and us kiddoodies (I must have been about four or five) filling in the gaps. I always ask first-time guests to pick me out in that photo; if they guessed wrongly they didn’t get dinner. Nobody has missed out yet; I guess I’m as cute now as I was then, white hair notwithstanding.

In season, we would gather the blooms that fell on the ground (the tree was too tall to climb to pick flowers) and cup them in our hands to inhale the subtle sweet scent. Then we’d put them in a bowl or jar to perfume a room or a cabinet or a drawer.

The champaca, perhaps like the sampaguita, is an “old” flower – makaluma, as they say, no longer in fashion, replaced by showier, more bongga flowers. So I have been searching for a champaca tree. A friend has one, but he rues that the flowers have no scent. Thankfully, we finally discovered a couple of trees in front of a friend’s neighbor’s house, with flowers that spread their fragrance throughout the neighborhood.

Like the lingering scent of the champaca, the lines from the rock opera ballet Rama, Hari – recently restaged at the Metropolitan Theater and the Samsung Performing Arts Theater – play and reply in my head:

Bango ng champaca

Awit ng pagsinta

Nalimbag sa alaala

Ingatan mo sana

At nang magkabunga

Ingatan mo, ingatan mo, sana.

I should have asked the late National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera why he picked the champaca as the underlying symbol of his libretto. Written four and a half decades ago, Bien’s words are pure poetry, from sublime (Magiging butil ang hamog, mananaog ang buan sa bundok) to street lingo (brad, brad, tsinapter ako ng isnaberong macho), set to music by the incomparable Mr. C, National Artist Ryan Cayabyab.

Ryan said that at the time – 1979 when he was just 26! – he had just finished his studies, so he basically threw everything he had – pop, classical, Asian music – into Rama, Hari. And what a heady, intoxicating brew it turned out to be, as sing-able and hum-able today as it was in 1980 (when it was premiered with then emerging artists Kuh Ledesma and Basil Valdez). In fact, the audiences at the recent performances were singing along, above the applause, during curtain calls.

The alchemist who put it all together is Alice Reyes, the third of five National Artists involved in this production, the other two being Badong Bernal (theater design, for costumes and sets) and Rolando Tinio (literature, for turning Bien’s poetry in Filipino to poetry in English). Back in 1979 when they collaborated, they weren’t National Artists; they were just kindred creative spirits who were committed to the arts and the Filipino aesthetic.

Rama, Hari is indeed a work of National Artists, and it was fitting that six NAs were present on opening night – Alice and Ryan, plus Agnes Locsin (dance, all the way from Davao), Rio Alma (literature), Ricky Lee (literature and film) and Bencab (visual arts). NA for Literature Gemino Abad – my professor in 20th century English literature many years ago – attended an afternoon show.

Based on the great Hindu epic Ramayana, Rama, Hari is nevertheless so very Pinoy. There is a love story of a dashing prince winning the hand of the princess; the battle – literally and figuratively – between good and evil; kontrabidas using every trick and wile to spoil the adventures of our heroes. Said Alice: “Being aware of the position of sanctity, and the importance and vitality that this epic occupies in Oriental cultures, my instinct nevertheless was to interpret it in the rock opera ballet medium with the idea of translating it into very human and contemporary terms.”

It certainly resonated, then and now, with both the seniors (like me) and the bagets, like the very young musicians of the Orchestra of the Filipino Youth of Ang Misyon Inc., the non-profit that supports talented, less privileged young people through programs focusing on orchestral training under professional mentors. Likewise, nearly a thousand students and teachers experienced the production through the Sining Alamin arts appreciation program of the CCP’s Arts Education Department, who enjoyed not just the music and the dancing but the introduction to an Asian classic.

The clamor for a repeat has led to plans for a run next year during National Arts Month in February. That will certainly be something to look forward to. Until then, ang bango ng champaca nalimbag sa alaala – the fragrance of the champaca imprinted in our memory – will have to do.

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