Monday, February 23, 2015

Sorry I can't...I have choir

One nice thing about being a musician is it makes you part of a tribe. Like magnets we attract each other and discourse about forces incomprehensible to the non-adept. Classical musicians, being scattered few and far between, are especially prone to this magnetism. So two of the first friends I made arriving at Easter were Ma'am Rouilla, soprano, one-time conductor of seemingly every Anglican choir in the city, and music teacher at Easter School; and Reis, tenor, composer, music student, and staff accompanist. When I met Reis his first question was how good my sight singing was, and his second was whether I wanted to join the Holy Innocents choir for their concert next week. I figured it would be a good way to meet people and agreed to help them out, four months later I'm still singing with them.
btw, have I mentioned how beautiful Baguio is?
When I joined the choir they were having rehearsals every evening, it was intense, and not just musically. It was like joining a family. We would typically have rehearsal at 5 30, so at 5 30 I would show up to find maybe half of the choir sitting around downstairs (Filipino time). So we sit and chat, drink coffee and eat the snack that someone would invariably bring; we go upstairs to start singing when a quorum of people has arrived, around 6 or 6 30. The songs for this concert were a mixture of showtunes arranged for choir, which I found pleasantly incongruous; and Filipino songs, which I found pleasing melodically but difficult linguisticly. After a little while its break time, and we go downstairs where a big pot of pinikpikan (boiled chicken soup) or adobo (ubiguitous recipe involving vinegar, soy sauce and any available meat) on the boil by an overflowing pot of rice. Dinner is served. Typically Filipino, dinner is a lengthy event, and involves a long stretch of sitting around, drinking coffee and chatting. After dinner we rehearse some more, and go home, usually around 9 or so; rather a long rehearsal, but I gained so much! Aunties, Uncles, a gang of friends my age, and of course a week of free dinners.

Before the Concert

Any place is defined by the people that live there, I think that is especially true of the Philippines. This country cannot be understood by keeping abreast of the latest natural and man-made disasters, nor by eating a bunch of exotic parts of animals, nor by reading up on the colonial histories of Spain and the USA. The Philippines is a country of interpersonal relationships, of vast extended families, clans, and tribes. Because of this the Philippines is much much bigger than its 77 islands, because these relationships extend to every country in the world, spread by the vast Filipino diaspora. So when I say that joining the choir was like joining a family it's no mere nicety, joining the choir really was one of the best things I've done here, I became part of the community. For one thing my new Aunties and Uncles also happen to be the Lolas and Lolos (grandparents) of several of my students. Many of them are teachers as well in Easter, or are good friends with my fellow teachers and my superiors. Churches are very much community organizations here, most of my new friends live within walking distance of the church, which incidentally is directly next to where I stay, so I now have the experience of being able to walk down the street and see people I know, stop for a chat just like any other person in the neighborhood. This is a tremendous moral comfort, and it is also of great practical use. I've found that things are not scheduled in the Philippines in the same way that they are in the States. There is no calender of events for the next year, or if there is it is probably wrong. Even knowing dates and times a month ahead is iffy. One finds out about coming events by chatting with other people, things come through the grapevine. If you have no one to chat with, your best bet is to hang out somewhere conspicuous and hope someone warns you before important events.

Here in Baguio there are many choirs. There are at least 5 Episcopal Churches with choirs within Baguio City and La Trinidad. There are amateur choirs attached to many other institutions, operating out of City Hall or the Department of Agriculture, choirs made up of lawyers and choirs of students and choirs of priests. I'm assuming there are more choirs in churches of other denominations. I doubt that ours is an unusually busy choir, nonetheless we are much busier than any musical organization I've ever been a part of back in the states. We sing for weddings, wakes, funerals, Sunday services, holy days, secular events, and friends. All of these are community events, so everyone is there, all the friends and family, some having crossed boundaries and oceans to be in attendance. Invariably there is food, Aunties sitting around chatting, or walking around making everybody eat; Uncles slightly removed, sitting around and chatting; children running around playing; plates and babies being passed around. Probably the most frequent of these events are wakes, with weddings a close second. In the States I have been to one wake, here in the Philippines I go to at least one a week. But these are not particularly sad occasions, they are a chance for people to gather, to support each other with music and speeches, cash donations and by simply hanging around and helping out. They're a chance to remember and say good by and look back on hopefully a long life well lived. Being able to be a part of these community events is why I am so grateful for my choir.

during the concert

I'll close by talking about Uncle Gilbert Dao-ey, an elderly cancer patient who we visited at home about a month ago. We didn't do much, we hung out, we chatted, we brought some food, we ate the food, after an hour or two we sang a few songs and went home. Uncle Gil was lovely, cracking jokes, teaching me words of Ilocano, reminiscing about his days teaching at Easter School and his own student days. I remember him telling me what he claimed was an old saying, “Give a Filipino 4 wheels and a bag of GI garbage and he'll give you a jeepney” This was during a conversation about Filipino ingenuity and lack of concern for safety protocols. All in all it was a charming afternoon, and when his wife told us (at a wedding reception a week later) that during our visit he had been happier and more lively than she had seen him for months, I was touched. It's good to be a help for someone.

We have fun too

Today I sang in Uncle Gil's wake. It was one of the first wakes that I found genuinely touching, because it was one of the first ones where I had met the deceased. But it was not sad, or at least not only sad. Instead I found myself thinking about him, the things I remember him saying, the way I imagine he used to be, and how wonderful it was that such a lot of people were in some way connected with his life, enough people to fill the room for 3 days running of the wake. I was thankful for the chance to meet him, and the chance to say goodbye.

From Left to Right, Uncle Johnny, Reis, Uncles Bede, Jimmy and Gilbert, Me

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