Remember When … Small Town Serenatas Have Faded Out

SERENATA. Pagdiriwang 2012 at the Concert at the Park, Manila, with the performance of the Philippine Barangay Rondalla that, over the years, etched a name of its own with dedication and passion to Filipino Folk music.

Honor Blanco Cabie, 1st Trombone of The Ilocos Cultural Arts Club of Ilocos Norte and The Mendiola Brass of Manila in the 1960s, is a song lyricist and leader of the now defunct Tiger Boys Band of Ilocos Norte.

By Honor Blanco Cabie

NEARLY 70 years ago, soon after the smoke had vanished from the guns of the second world war, many small town bands and orchestras in the north of the country often staged weekend serenades – from the Italian serenata or evening song.

This was taken from the 17th century practice in Europe, kind of musical performance at night in open air or a form of secular cantata, almost always of a dramatic or imaginative character.

This was an instrumental composition in several movements, intermediate between the suite and the symphony.

That was before the global health issue, which forced several stages of lockdown in the Philippines, which stormed across the archipelago in mid March last year.

Classic Pieces

If one were a senior citizen today, one would definitely remember the serenatas of the 1950s and the 1960s played by at least a 25-piece small town band in the countryside – like the town of Paoay in Ilocos Norte, where three bands alternated among themselves the assigned Saturdays playing classic pieces near the town hall.

In the capital town of Laoag, now a city, the 46-piece Ilocos Cultural Arts Club staged weekend serenatas at the Ablan Heroes Hall near the meandering Padsan River that emptied into the Luzon Bay, the overtures lifting manners of those who went to the public square to listen to classical music.

If a person were newly married in his 20s in the 1970s, he would as well remember the concerts at the Rizal Park, colloquially called Luneta, by the Manila Bay, where bands from towns in the city’s outskirts played martial music to the delight of afternoon strollers.

At The Park

In recent years, the concerts at the Rizal Park had faded out, and the serenatas in the country have been overtaken by CDs and DVDs bought from the nearest department stores if not brought in from the metropolis or from overseas by returning workers in the mold of Overseas Filipino Workers.

A northerner, himself a trombonist in his youth in the 1960s, still remembers the weekends in Paoay, the town which at the time had three major bands of at least 40 members each, doing afternoon serenatas beside the two-story town hall.

Their weekend repertoire included overtures and martial music which always gave great pleasure to the population, mostly farmers and fishermen and some young and middle-aged professionals.

It was soothing to hear any of the three bands – The Majestic, the Smart, and the Rhythm Masters – play, one weekend after the other, Franz von Suppe’s “Poet and Peasant” and other operettas, a genre of light music in terms of subject matter.

And they always heard, among many familiar classic compositions that were part of the culture of that generation, “Haydn Concerto in e flat Minor,” the first movement of the opus of Austrian-born Franz Joseph Haydn, acknowledged as a great composer of the classical era.

Popular Compositions

The small town bands’ supply of soothing music for their captive listeners included Rafael Hernandez’s “El Cumbanchero,” Lara’s “Solamente Una Vez,” and “Quien Sera” by Ruiz and Gimbel, where a listener can easily be won by the sighing reeds and the hugging trombones.

There was also Serradel’s “La Golondrina,” “Csárdás,” a traditional Hungarian folk dance — the name derived from csárda (old Hungarian term for tavern), and was popularized by Roma music (Cigány) bands in Hungary and neighboring lands of Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Burgenland, Croatia, Ukraine, Poland, Transylvania and Moravia, as well as among the Banat Bulgarians, including those in Bulgaria.

”Csardas,” like “Poet and Peasant,” and “La Virgen de la Macarena” were very popular in that generation, who danced to the beat of Perez Prado’s “Cerezo Rosa,” Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood” and Tommy Dorsey’s “Song of India” as well as Harry James’ “Ciribiribin” during town fiestas.

Ballroom Beat

In Manila, the Philippine capital, bands in colorful uniforms of red and white, blue and white, or the original khaki outfit, played “Stars and Stripes,” a patriotic American march widely considered to be the magnum opus of composer John Philip Sousa.

They also played Sousa’s “National Emblem,” “Under the Double Eagle,” “The Washington Post,” which has remained as one of the composer’s most popular marches throughout the United States and foreign countries, including the Philippines.

Or they would play Sousa’s “El Capitan” or the locally composed “Dalagang Naic” or the “El Palikero.”

Or the bands would play ballroom beats like “La Cucaracha” and “La Cumparsita” as interpreted by the country’s trumpet king Anastasio Mamaril of Pangasinan, or Prado’s “Cerezo Rosa” which featured trumpeter Miguel Calderon as interpreted, in perceived better lilting trills by Amy Galinato of the Jolly Boys of Ilocos Norte, the notes on his trumpet frolicking like some ice cubes falling on the pavement, doing one better than the own version of Cuba’s mambo king.

But Prado’s nearly eight-minute “Mosaico Cubano” was always a winner, punctuated by healthy and vibrant applause from the audience, sitting on kind summer’s green grass.

Weekend Serenade

Concerts at the Rizal Park had members of the audience feeling more comfortable as they – young men and women and their grand children – enjoyed the two-hour gift of sights and sounds on benches while the sun was reluctantly setting on the placid Manila Bay.

The concerts, now with other brands of cultural performances, are provided for free to the general public by the National Parks Development Committee.

Many old hands are agreed the performances in the metropolis, and notably in the country, have started fading out and others gone beyond andantino, literally the 64-72 beats per minute.

The weekend serenatas in the countryside have also gone to a moderately slow pace – and are on the last tied note of the last bar, no thanks to the lack of funds and local government support.