‘Pabasa’: the sound of Lent and nostalgia
Lent is one of the most memorable traditions of summer. And perhaps Holy Week is observed at the height of the season because the punishing heat tends to epitomize Jesus’ suffering, of which we must partake.
As a youngster, I joined my friends, mostly my classmates in grade school, in long walks under the sun during Holy Week, unmindful of sunburn and dehydration, while the monotonous pitch of the “Pabasa” blared from loudspeakers installed at every street corner. There could not be a more fitting background music for those summer days, creating imageries that last a lifetime and are capable of bringing you back in time whenever you hear it.
In those days the streets of Navotas in Barangay San Jose were covered with dust, and no breeze could be felt. From a distance you could almost see heat waves rising from the ground as the sun bore down hard on the dry earth. Maybe it was meant to be that way, to accentuate the message of penitence and atoning for sin which the “Pasyon” communicates in the agonizingly musical way of a revered religious tradition. Walking the streets at midday to the sounds of the “Pasyon” evoked thoughts of Calvary, and somehow the difficulty became a little bit bearable—an almost self-inflicted punishment that people willingly endured in the spirit of penance.
The “Pasyon” would seem to grow louder during the night when everything was quiet and the only sound to be heard was the voice of a woman who I imagined was a scary grandmother with long white hair and a toothless grin. There was no way you could escape the “Pasyon” when you were a child curled up in bed, forcing yourself to sleep. I’d cover my head with a pillow and pray that morning would come soon. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I’d imagine that the “Pabasa” was actually being read inside a cave somewhere by a troika of witches—some form of magical incantation intended to cast a spell on the people of our town. And then I’d feel guilty at the thought of equating a religious exercise with evil things that scared the hell out of me.
The strange thing is that for all those years that I was bombarded day and night with the harrowing recital of the “Pasyon,” I cannot remember a single line of it. I know it is about Jesus’ last days, but everyone else knows that. Maybe I should plead guilty of not taking it seriously. And I know a lot of people should feel the same way, too, especially now that things have changed.
I’ve heard that in some places, kids would belt out the “Pasyon” to the tune of Voltes V, and that potbellied men would take turns reading it in between gulps of gin bilog. It didn’t help that when I was past my teens, Tito, Vic and Joey would sing sacrilegiously: “Nang si Hudas ay madulas … tatlong balbas ang nalagas” (When Judas slipped, three strands of his beard fell off). Ironically, that’s what most people remember. Well, the “Pasyon” is not exactly a dying tradition yet, but it has gone through a radical transformation through the years.
Summer memories don’t always come back as a welcome blast from the past. Sometimes, they make a harrowing melody that you don’t easily forget.
Adel Abillar is a private law practitioner with a small office in Quezon City where, he says, “I alternate between being boss and messenger.”
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