Presidential singing in the rain (off-key)

/ 05:02 AM August 03, 2019

One wonders why, instead of singing the Hollywood ballad “Moon River” after his State of the Nation Address (Sona), President Duterte didn’t croon something more apropos, perhaps a ditty he’d have been more comfortable in, like the Visayan “Usahay.” (The song is a lament about unrequited love.) It was what the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, performing in Congress for the first time, played before the start of the Sona speech, which was delayed for an hour by rain while some 40,000 protesters raised their voices outside.

The great actress Audrey Hepburn must have been wincing in her grave on hearing an Asian tin-pot dictator’s rendition of the song, which she made famous in the film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The scene in that 1961 movie where she sat strumming a guitar on a fire escape with her head wrapped in a towel was a memorable one. By contrast, the scene in Congress on July 22 was so cringe-worthy, one wonders if the audience, which included foreign diplomats and visiting journalists, had left right after the speech or whether they were a captive audience during the off-key performance by the nation’s leader.


As he warbled the whimsical lyrics of “Moon River,” like “huckleberry friend” and “rainbow’s end,” the words were obviously gobbledygook to the President—he may as well have been murmuring “Ya grasdanyinska sovietska vasayuva (I am a citizen of the federated Soviet republic)” to his pal Vladimir Putin.

Obviously, the musical program was staged to highlight the President’s “lighter side,” to perk up the mood after his habitual harangue containing the usual gutter language, as well as a death threat toward an agency that upset him. It was well-scripted because, as the President strolled out casually and stopped by the orchestra to banter with the members (“It’s very lonely in the Palace, I should invite you to come play and have dinner with me”), one of his handlers stepped up to hold a sheet with the lyrics to “Moon River” for him to read. His entourage listened respectfully and gave some halfhearted applause at the end of the off-key performance.


There was a new twist in the proceedings: The President was wearing spectacles in public for the first time. Apparently a concession to aging eyes, this was in contrast to the 73-year-old grandfather’s penchant for jet-black hair, which obviously gets a regular touch-up.

On his foreign visits or whenever foreign diplomats attend conferences here, the President’s ebony top looks incongruous beside the greying locks of distinguished world leaders in their 60s and 70s (who don’t seem to mind looking their ages). Furthermore, the Filipino head of state likes to display his informal side by always wearing the sleeves of his barong Tagalog rolled up and his hands thrust in his pockets as he swaggers like a regular guy.

The President’s singing must have taken a leaf from former first lady Imelda Marcos’ penchant for warbling in public (which she said endeared her to the masses). That habit of hers once included stopping the airing of a popular TV program so her daughter Irene could perform for the diplomatic corps. I still recall my young daughters’ angry shrieks at the time at having to miss “The Muppet Show.”

President Duterte’s crooning attempt also reminds us of the genius comedian Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator.” Filmed during the time when Adolf Hitler came to power, it featured a rabid character named Adenoid Hynkel who controlled his country by keeping his citizens mesmerized by his antics. One scene, with “Hungarian Rhapsody” playing in the background, showed him lying on his back and bouncing a big rubber globe with his feet, to show that he planned to conquer the world.

The Sona show ended on a bizarre note, with the aging bloated-faced actor Phillip Salvador issuing a malediction on all those opposed to the President. Loudly wishing death on them all, he looked for all the world like the ugly old witch who placed a curse on the infant in “Sleeping Beauty.” Meanwhile, on the sidelines, reflecting the current state of Philippine journalism, a simpering female reporter turned to his sidekick, actor Robin Padilla, to comment on the fact that his barong matched that of Salvador’s. Discussion of the state of the nation was obviously not as important as remarking on attire for formal occasions.

Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the 1980s.

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TAGS: Moon River, State of the Nation Address, Usahay
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