AnthemBy Michael L. Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
Notice how one thing leads to another, and I don’t mean the “thing” and the “another” that usually come to my mind. Instead, I’m thinking of how one event seems to link up to another, all falling into place in the most unexpected places, times, and ways.
It started last Friday evening. I had just finished a graduate class at the University of the Philippines Manila and had to get some household stuff from the hardware store Handyman at Robinson’s. One of the salesmen was crooning away to demonstrate a karaoke microphone. Fairly good voice, I thought, but then I’ve always thought karaoke was Japan’s way of getting back at the world. I proceeded to pick up my stuff, but as I was checking out the items, I couldn’t help but listen.
It was some mushy love song but the quality of the voice was so good I found myself suddenly wanting to go to what we called in the 1970s a “folkhouse,” where you could listen to music originally from the likes of John Denver and Cat Stevens. But I did a quick and painful reality check: There aren’t that many folkhouses left. Then I thought, Hobbitt House should be close by, but the last time I was there, it was still on Mabini near the Remedios church. That’s how long it’s been since I’ve had a night out.
I asked tricycle drivers parked nearby and found my way to Hobbitt, still on Mabini but on the corner of Arquiza. It’s not the best location, but the place has shifted to offering the world’s beers, and I really mean the world’s. Pricey, but you can get all kinds of beers, from Belgian white to Czech pilsen.
I’ll save the beer talk for another time and focus instead on the music. Yes, they did have good folk singers whose faces were familiar from the past, their voices still strong, and an acoustic band called Radical Change, younger guys but still in touch with the past… Was that a Billy Joel song, and hey, that’s “Himig Natin,” our sound, our music.
I sat mesmerized, but knew I had to get home, to the kids, feeling guilty I had taken half a night off. That’s it, I thought, enough fun for the weekend, but it turned out there was more to come. The next afternoon, again after a class, I attended the birthday celebration of UP Diliman’s former chancellor, Sergio Cao, who is now president of Manila Tytana Colleges. As “Chancellor Gerry,” he used to do birthday concerts, so I wasn’t surprised to walk into the events place to hear a quartet—three women and a man—singing away with top-notch voices. I was to learn that afternoon that Manila Tytana has quite a few officials with voices that can compare with professionals. The marketing director, Dr. Lizelle Villanueva, later gave a solo number that was of concert quality, no exaggeration.
But it was Gerry Cao’s show as he sang excerpts of songs made famous by Filipino male singers, to name a few: Edgar Mortiz, Eddie Peregrina, Rico Puno, Ric Segreto, Hajji Alejandro. I can imagine some of you humming some of those songs now, just as some of the tunes are dancing in my head now, but I’ve always been so bad with song titles and regret I didn’t take notes.
I’ll try to get you the play list from “Sir Gerry” some time and share it with you, but what I appreciated was the way we were treated to a live documentary history of Philippine music, at least of male vocalists, and more. “Life, love, lyrics” was the pitch Gerry used for his concert, and indeed, our lives and our loves are so often associated with songs, and the older we get, the songs almost become sign posts for our milestones, tucked away in the memory vaults of our brain and waiting to be evoked in the most unexpected places—and in the Philippines, that can even be a hardware store. Really, now, where else would you have someone singing on a karaoke amid mops and screwdrivers?
Again I had to leave early to get home, and as I drove away, I thought it was a wonderful weekend. But on the way home, listening to Internet radio on the phone, I had still another treat on “All Things Considered,” a radio program from National Public Radio. Don McLean’s “American Pie” came on, followed by the host’s voice explaining this was “Mom and Dad’s Record Collection,” a special series where they invite listeners, and some celebrities, to talk about music they heard in their youth and which made a difference in their lives.
This particular episode featured a listener, Mel Fisher Ostrowski, whose parents separated when she was very young, and how, one day, she discovered records her father had left behind, including the album with McLean’s “American Pie.” She played the piece, got hooked on it, and was to return to the record many times. She never got to actually listen to it with her father, who died when she was 10, but the piece was a way for her to converse with her father.
Fast forward to the present, with Ostrowski now a mother of a rather fussy baby, Owen. She frequently sang lullabies to him, and one day she decided to use “American Pie.” There is no way Owen can tell his mom if he likes the song, but Ostrowski figures that he does, since the song seems to calm him down, and for her, it has taken on a new meaning, bridging the gap between her father and her son.
The highlight of the show was Ostrowski singing “American Pie,” as she would to her son, and at one point, she declared, softly but with conviction, that we all need anthems. That’s it, I almost shouted, we’re all in search of anthems.
The one thing leading to another doesn’t end there. Sunday I was out driving with the kids and they started to sing. They do that quite often, with ever-changing repertoires: nursery rhymes in Filipino, English and Chinese picked up from school, but sometimes, too, pop songs—for example, Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me.” That day they did something from the cartoon series “Phineas and Ferb.” The eldest is a natural conductor, getting everyone organized to sing together, not always in total harmony but with good rhythm, and elan. When we got home they galloped out, still singing “Gitchee gitchee goo means that I love you…” as they ran, hopped, and danced. And that Sunday, as they did that, Don McLean’s “American Pie” came back: “Cause I saw you dancing in the gym/ You both kicked off your shoes…”
We pass on songs to our kids, through lullabies, through listening to music together, nights out, or, better still, jamming at home. Sing to them and they will sing back, with songs they choose themselves, rendered in their own style. Raise children with song—dads especially need to be bold enough to do lullabies as well—and they will sing back to you as they grow up. And someday, they will look back, with or without those videos, and remember the good times together, their songs becoming our songs, our anthems.
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