Once upon a time, in the ancient monastery of Montserrat, on a mountain outside Barcelona, my reflections on things religious were jolted when one of the few monks who spoke English sought me out and invited me for coffee in his cell at merienda time. I accepted. While he was serving me a small cup of strong brewed coffee, he exclaimed, ?I said Mass for Ella Fitzgerald this morning. She died yesterday.?
This was in 1996, in a monastery famous for a venerated old image of the Virgin Mary and the monks and choir boys who sing in the church dedicated to her. This is a monastery where monks would huddle to seriously discuss the merits of a 12th century ?Alleluia? whose tune one of them found in one of the many manuscripts in their great library. Everyone seemed so learned and erudite that I felt out of place, so it was a pleasant surprise to be sipping coffee in a monk?s cells listening to Ella Fitzgerald from long playing records. I cannot imagine now what the abbot or the choirmaster would have said about our afternoon of remembrance.
I remembered Ella Fitzgerald over the holidays because another gifted singer passed away. Eartha Kitt succumbed to colon cancer last Christmas. She was 81.
My students don?t know Eartha Kitt, but the Internet ensures that if they know where to look, they will find out that she played a sexy purring Catwoman in the 1960s television series ?Batman.? More importantly, Kitt had a Philippine connection because one of her signature songs was ?Waray-waray? which she performed in her many concerts. There are at least two recordings of ?Waray-waray,? the most recent being a live performance at Café Carlyle in New York recorded in 2007. This East Side café has hosted many other performers, including Woody Allen who doesn?t do stand up comedy but regularly jams with the resident jazz band.
If you do a Google search, you will find a number of YouTube videos that have static screens while Miss Kitt sings ?Waray-waray.? One of them even has a still picture of the iconic San Juanico Bridge that connects the islands of Leyte and Samar. Her performance in Café Carlyle was described by The New York Times as ?indestructibly seductive.? You have to hear Kitt to appreciate her rendition, but unfortunately the people who posted the YouTube music didn?t take the trouble to cut and paste pictures of Miss Kitt so that Filipinos would not only enjoy the song but recognize Kitt?s signature tilting singing posture. While I was surfing the Net with ?Waray-waray? playing in the background, someone looking over my back gasped, ?Sa kanya pala kinopya ni Pilita ang pagliyad-liyad niya.? [?So it?s from her that Pilita Corrales copied her bending singing posture.?] Imitation is indeed a compliment and Diana Ross and Madonna also got a thing or two from Eartha Kitt.
I don?t speak the language of Samar and Leyte, and I wonder how faithful Kitt was to the original song. In fact, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of her transcription of both the Tagalog and Waray lyrics of the song. Still true artistry is taking something old and transforming it into something uniquely your own. The transcription of the song goes:
?Waray-waray hindi tatakas / Waray-waray handang matodas / Waray-waray bahala bukas / Waray Waray manigas!?
[She stops singing but the music continues and she addresses the audience: ?I suppose you wonder what language this is. It?s the language of the Philippine Islands called Two-galog (sic)? And it says, the women of Waray-waray have muscles of steel, and we can fight any battle, but our kisses are as sweet as wine.? And then she continues.]
?Waray-waray / tawag sa akun / Sa bakbakan diri maguron / sa sinuman ay humahamon / kahit ikaw ay maton!
?Likas sa ating paraluman / kaming palagid, mapagbigay / guniti baring waray waray.?
[Kitt fades off again and while music continues to play, she talks to the audience again: ?Don?t you think that?s terribly expressive? (Laughter from the audience.) What do you think it means? (Laughter again.) It means, give me everything you got, honey, and I could make you feel like a king.? And she continues the song.]
?Likas sa ating paraluman / kaming palagid mapagbigay / gunitibaring Waray-waray / walang sindat kaninuman/ Warang babaeng Waray-waray / a siga siga, kahit saan/ kabakina, ay lumalaban / kabakina manang habay / Waray-waray sadyang di siya tatakas? Waray-waray handa nang matodas / Waray-waray bahala bukas / Waray-waray manigas! Likas sa ating paraluman/kaming palagid mapagbigay / gunitibaring Waray-waray / walang sindat kaninuman / walang babaeng Waray-waray / a siga siga, kahit saan / kabakina, ay lumalaban / kabakina manang habay / Waray-waray sadyang di siya tatakas / Waray-waray handa nang matodas / Waray-waray bahala bukas / Waray-waray... Waray-waray... Waray-waray...?
[Kitt fades off again and leading to the finale she sighs, ?You fought that battle, I didn?t.? Then she belts out the last word, ?Manigas!? and cackles and laughs to applause.]
Listening to Kitt and reading the transcription, I can?t make out what she is saying but she makes everything sound so sexy and funny at the same time, adding yet another footnote to Philippine cultural and popular history.
* * *
Comments are welcome at email@example.com.