Discovering the ‘Paris of Negros’ through the rondalla

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In a city that reveres much of its history and heritage, music takes centerstage at Silay City via the 5th International Rondalla Festival: a grand celebration of the rondalla and plucked string traditions in the Philippines and the world. Photo from RONDALLA FESTIVAL/FACEBOOK

Silay City (CNN Philippines Life) — Silay is a city that sings.

It is the fifth of November, and the sound of rondallas can be heard through Silay City’s streets, loud and clear amid the vibrations of its living history.

This year, it has much to celebrate for “Al Cinco de Noviembre,” which honors the 1898 Negros Revolt that freed the island from Spanish rule. In a city that reveres much of its history and heritage, music now takes centerstage, via the 5th International Rondalla/Plucked String Music Festival (“Rondalla Festival”): a grand celebration of the rondalla and plucked string traditions in the Philippines and the world.

The rondalla, an ensemble of plucked instruments (including the bandurria, mandolin, laud, guitar, bass, sometimes accompanied by a piccolo bandurria and drums) — represents a fascinating aspect of Filipino musical tradition. Its origins are foreign but adopted to local stylings, as in familiar folk tunes. If an Amorsolo painting had a musical backdrop, for example, it would probably be the music of a rondalla.

But the rondalla is more than just folk tunes, as Silay’s celebration embodies “Cuerdas Sang Paghiliusa” (Strings of Unity): the shared heritage of plucked string music. The carefully selected roster of performers includes local rondallas from Metro Manila, Bogo City, Dipolog City, the municipality of Candelaria, Dumaguete City, and Silay, as well as international musicians from France, Uganda, Taiwan, Israel, Iran, India, South Korea, Portugal, and Vietnam.

Rondalla Festival 1 “Cuerdas Sang Paghiliusa” (Strings of Unity) embodies the shared heritage of plucked string music. Performers at the festival hail from Philippines cities like Bogo, Dipolog, Dumaguete, and foreign countries like France, India, Korea, Portugal, and more. Photo from RONDALLA FESTIVAL/FACEBOOK

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Silay is a coastal city that prides itself as the “Paris of Negros,” with cultural activities as one of its priorities. This elevated focus on culture is rooted in its geographical location. Silay — which formerly housed Asia’s longest seaport — is the main gateway to the rest of Negros Occidental. The city remains the home of some of Negros’ wealthiest sugar barons.

Its moniker “Paris of Negros” feels well-earned. The Silay Heritage District, lined with heritage houses built by rich hacenderos, is zealously protected under local law; some are preserved for the modern era via ‘adaptive reuse.’ Food is also a strong source of pride, as celebrated via regular food festivals such as “Kaon Ta!” and the annual Adobo Festival.

Artists and owners are present in museums, ready to tell you about their works and their collections. There are physical marvels (think brutalist architecture meets Bali aesthetic) by way of hideouts like Punong Gary’s Place in Hacienda Tinihaban, and getaways in the mountains, such as Duyan in Lantawan.

This sacred regard for the arts, for history, for culture — and whatever else that nourishes the spirit — is apparent in how the Rondalla Festival harmonizes with the city’s cultural heritage. Silay’s Tourism Code places the rondalla ensemble as one of its permanent programs. It is also home to what might be the only rondalla house in the Philippines.

CDNP at Hofilena House.jpg The rondalla is an ensemble of plucked instruments (including the bandurria, mandolin, laud, guitar, bass, sometimes accompanied by a piccolo bandurria and drums) that represents a fascinating aspect of Filipino musical tradition. Photo from RONDALLA FESTIVAL/FACEBOOK

The festival’s weeklong performances are free to the public, evincing a strong commitment to celebrate music and its power to unite people. “There is nothing better than music to bind the community,” stresses Mayor Mark Golez, “and to serve as a bridge between generations and countries.”

The vision to elevate the rondalla belongs to Ramon Santos, National Artist for Music and festival director. In a 1994 essay, he wrote* about the rondalla as a medium for light classical music, defining it as “an ensemble comprising of plectrum instruments, which evolved from the Spanish murga (a band of street musicians) and estudiantina (student groups).”

In the American colonial period, the rondalla was also called the comprasa, distinctive for its wide repertoire “which ranges from native folk tunes and ballroom music to classical pieces, including operatic overtures.”

“We inherited the rondalla from Spain,” says Santos, “but we modified the rondalla to express our very own musicality and emotions.” The rondalla, he adds, is present from Aparri to Jolo, making it the representative musical expression to project the Filipino identity. The shared heritage of the rondalla also allows for enrichment via foreign traditions.

20181104_160405.jpg Eighteen-year-old Cindy Labendia (right) and 19-year-old Katrina Guce are both college undergraduates and aspiring teachers who play for the Sariaya Community Rondalla. Labendia plays the bandurria while Guce plays the octavina. Photo by ANNA BUENO

While the rondalla is not indigenous to the Philippines, it is indigenized, and lends itself to a wide range of musical possibilities, from symphonies to pop. Rondalla music is included in the school curricula. There are many independent groups that recruit and hone young talent, such as the Sariaya Community Rondalla based in Quezon province.

Eighteen-year-old Cindy Labendia and 19-year-old Katrina Guce are both college undergraduates and aspiring teachers who play for the Sariaya Community Rondalla. Labendia plays the bandurria while Guce plays the octavina.

What Labendia and Guce get out of rondalla music is more than recognition or enjoyment. “Masaya kami, naipapakita namin ‘yung talento namin at kung ano meron ‘yung Pilipinas,” says Labendia, and adds that the practice also teaches her discipline. “Kung walang disiplina, walang kwenta ‘yung tinutugtog.”

The festival gathers some of the best rondalla ensembles in the Philippines and the world, giving young musicians models to aspire to. Silay itself takes pride in its homegrown Kabataang Silay Rondalla Ensemble, an award-winning group formed in 1993, which Santos himself considers as “one of the best rondallas in the land.”

8.JPG Kabataang Silay Rondalla Ensemble is Silay City's own award-winning group, which was formed in 1993. They play at the opening ceremony of the Rondalla Festival. Photo from RONDALLA FESTIVAL/FACEBOOK

Elsewhere, the youthful Santa Rosalia Rondalla plays with zeal and energy (though they are not part of the festival roster). The ensemble comprises of children of farmers and workers inside Hacienda Santa Rosalia in Manapla, Negros Oriental, and they train once a week.

It’s the first performance I witness, right before the festival started. Inside the Gaston Mansion — a protected heritage mansion-slash-museum inside the hacienda — I am acquainted with Queenie, a 16-year-old whose fingers move nimbly across the strings of her bandurria.

Along with 11 other companions, she plays a piece from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen” opera, titled “Habanera,” or “L’Amour Est un Oiseau Rebelle” (“Love is a Rebellious Bird”). It’s one of the world’s most beloved pieces of music, and the performance in the Gaston Mansion gives it a certain weight.

The mansion was the main setting of Peque Gallaga’s film “Oro, Plata, Mata.” It is also beset with its own memories from World War II, including a miracle involving Japanese tanks and an American fighter plane. Nearby is the Cathedral of Cartwheels, a place of worship built to honor both the teachings of Christianity and the value of farmers’ work.

In such a place, the musical performance, if raw, acquires a subtle conviction: the children play with a passion that rivals the best of their contemporaries.

20181104_111537_HDR.jpg The Gaston Mansion, a protected heritage mansion-slash-museum inside the Hacienda Santa Rosalia, was one of many heritage houses that played host to numerous performances around Silay. Photo by ANNA BUENO

Cinco De Noviembro at German Unson Heritage House.jpg A Cinco De Noviembro performance at the German Unson Heritage House. Photo from RONDALLA FESTIVAL/FACEBOOK

Cinco de Noviembre at Hofilena House.jpg The Hofileña House is another heritage house that served as a venue for several rondalla ensemble performances. Photo from RONDALLA FESTIVAL/FACEBOOK

Many of the international festival’s performances mimic such a setting: the ensembles play in many of Silay’s heritage houses, such as the Hofileña House, Locsin Ancestral House, and Balay Negrense, where the musical ensembles add to the layers of stories these structures have witnessed.

But the festival also extends beyond Silay. There are outreach performances all over Negros, conducted in various public spaces, open for everyone. The delicate strings of the Taiwan Bamboo Orchestra and Taipei Gusheng Ensemble, for example, find an audience in the Escalante coliseum; India’s Malvica Chopra mesmerizes by playing the sitar, with tabla player Muthu Kumar, in Bacolod’s University of St. La Salle.

The nine-day affair presents itself as a rare, one of a kind, cultural event: “You will never experience this music elsewhere,” says Santos.

Rondalla Festival Opening Ceremony - King Juanico - FB.jpg Musicians from all over the world participated in the festival, including the Taipei Guzheng Ensemble. Photo from RONDALLA FESTIVAL/FACEBOOK

7.JPG Hope to Hop Africa is a muiscal ensemble from Uganda. Photo from RONDALLA FESTIVAL/FACEBOOK

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The Rondalla Festival accommodated 250 musicians from 10 countries all over the world, equivalent to 21 ensembles, which played from Nov. 3 to 11. To organize and fund the event is no easy feat, but Silay had help from its neighboring cities, towns, and various sponsors.

After all, Silay is but a part of the whole of Negros’ Sugarbowl, marked by the glory days of hacendados, their decline, a still-existing semi-feudal system, and an ongoing drive towards other industries, such as tourism.

As the city attracts recognition for its laudable emphasis on cultural heritage through activities like the Rondalla Festival, it is also important to understand how this heritage helps its people, and what the city (or even the province) can learn from it.

When the festival settles down the rondalla will remain, and so will the other melodies that make up Silay’s song. These are the slow and idyllic notes of the vast expanse of sugarcane; the lilting ballad of hacienda life; the cacophony of voices in the city’s development; and the delicate but familiar rhythms of its indelible routine.

They say music helps articulate emotions. As rondallas play in Silay’s magnificent heritage houses, I hear the proud opulence of an era gone by and the singular industry that enabled it. Where the blade slices against the sugarcane, I hear the subtle dissonance of loyal, hardworking farmers, strong and empowered but without a title to their name. And then a sound I can’t quite explain.

If you listen carefully to the empty spaces between the music, it’s the tremulous sound of a culture that may take a while to understand, reverberating a people’s triumphs, their unities and divisions, their evolving identity and place in history, and their ever-continuing search for dignity.

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*Ramon Santos’ essay is titled “Musika: An Essay on the American Colonial and Contemporary Traditions in Philippine Music,” published by the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1994. It is part of the “Tuklas Sining” series.