Sunday 18 August 2013

Aliwan Fiesta: the Mother of all Fiestas

Philippine culture is rich in rituals and celebrations of all kinds. And with the varied cultural influences, we are rife with fiestas that are both of pagan and Christian origins, observed all throughout the year. Each fiesta distinct from others, i.e. the rhythm of the Ati-Atihan, the colours of the Panagbenga, the masks of the Moriones, the creativity of the Pahiyas, among others. They are diverse and so spread out in time and geography that it will take years to be able to witness a majority of them.

The Manila Broadcasting Company conceived of a brilliant idea of an annual event gathering the different cultural festivals in the Philippines at the Star Complex in Pasay City. This event is the Aliwan Fiesta, dubbed as the Mother of all Fiestas. Started in 2003, its objectives are two-pronged: to showcase the country’s cultural richness and diversity, and promoting economy and tourism for the respective regions. Initially held as a Christmas extravaganza, it has then evolved as a summer celebration, in the months of April or May.

The Aliwan Fiesta brings together about 5,000 dancers, musicians and artisans who compete for prizes totaling to 3 million pesos. The regional contingents perform in a 4 kilometer stretch along Roxas Boulevard, marked by street dancing and gigantic floats. The participating floats are required to utilize only local textiles, produce, and other products representative of their region. Thousands of people brave the heat and line up the streets to witness this 7 hour spectacle. Major categories for the event are: PasaKalye, the Inter School Dance Competition; Reyna ng Aliwan, the Beauty Pageant for Festival Queens; the Float competition and the Street dancing competition.

Scheduled in 2013 for April 11-13, the 19 featured contingents are: Ang Tipulo festival of
Antipolo; Pamulinawen festival of Laoag, Ilocos Norte; Panagbenga festival of Baguio; Bangus festival of Dagupan, Pangasinan; Mango festival of Zambales; Pandang Gitab festival of Oriental Mindoro; Mahaguyog festival for Batangas’ Ala-eh; Fiesta de Toros of Nasugbu; Unod festival of Castilla, Sorsogon; Lumad Basakanon for the Sinulog of Cebu; Tribu Panayanon for Iloilo Dinagyang; Salakayan of Miag-ao for Iloilo’s Kasadyaan; Kabankalan’s Sinulog for Negros Occidental; Pasaka festival of Tanauan, Leyte; Tuna festival of General Santos; Padang-Padang festival of Parang, Maguindanao; Sagayan festival of Buluan, Maguindanao; Zamboanga Hermosa festival; and Kalivungan festival of Midsayap, North Cotabato.

Previous years’ winners have been: the Dinagyang Festival of Iloilo City (also the first to be inducted into the Aliwan Hall of Fame); the Sinulog Festival of Cebu; the Sinulog sa Carmen, and Lumad Basakanon, also from Cebu; and Halad Festival of Midsayap, Cotabato.

Other activities, aside from the major categories for the competition, include design and photo exhibits, and a shopping bazaar. These are booths showcasing indigenous handicrafts, garments, jewelries, accessories, delicacies and agricultural products - giving the public a flavor of each participating region. In a single location, one can find: the dreamweavers’ creations from the T’nalak festival in Koronadal, South Cotabato; the Ilokano damili pottery; the Pampanga lanterns; and Marikina footwear, among others.

Few countries can boast of a culture as diverse and as numerous as the Philippines, reflected in the music, the movements, the rituals, the beliefs, and the industry. And the fiestas provide a creative and economic outlet for its peoples.

So if visiting or going back to the Philippines is in your near future bucket list, consider timing your visit around the dates of the Aliwan Fiesta. You not only are treated to a visual cultural spectacle, but you get to witness a gathering and celebration of what the 7,107 islands of the Philippines can offer.

* This article was written for and published in the April 2013 issue of the Pinoy Times.

Friday 16 August 2013

Cecile Licad: a Pianist's Pianist

She is showered with glowing accolades: a pianistʼs pianist by The New Yorker; her artistry is a blend of daring musical instinct and superb training; and in possession of enormous virtuosity with great potential for poetic imagination. In my days as an artist, then subsequently director at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the whole theater will just buzz with excitement whenever sheʼs in the building, backstage or onstage. Witnessing her performance, would prove a truly unforgettable and touching experience.

Named after the patron saint of music, Cecile Licad started playing the piano at age 3 under her mother Rosario, a professional pianist and teacher. She started reading notes at age 5, performed with the University of the Eastʼs symphony at 6, and at age 7, under the tutelage of Rosario Picazo, made her debut as soloist with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Philippines.

At age 11, Cecile flew to the USA for an audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  It was in this circumstance that Imelda Marcos became the sponsor of her flourishing career. It was then 1972 and the Philippines was under martial law, when her family requested permission to leave for the United States. First Lady Imelda Marcos granted their request and named Cecile First Piano Scholar of the Philippines Young Artists' Foundation, which sponsored her eight years of study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. In later years, Imelda would gift her with a Steinway grand piano.

At the Curtis Institute, Cecile was mentored by the three of the greatest performers and

pedagogues: Rudolf Serkin, Seymour Lipkin and Mieczyslaw Horszowski. In 1981, she won the prestigious Leventritt award (one of the youngest to do so), and marked her debut with the New York Philharmonic, the following year. The award, which came with a guaranteed 3-year international concert bookings and recordings, was her main ticket to global fame. She remarks, “I was very grateful for it, but it also made my life difficult, because of the pressure... suddenly I was doing 70 concerts a year.”

Cecile has since collaborated with: Buffalo Philharmonic; Tupelo Symphony; Germanyʼs
Wurtemburg Philharmonic, and Freiburg Orchestra; Seattle Symphony; Chicago Symphony;
Boston Symphony; Philadelphia Orchestra; New York Philharmonic; National Symphony;
Cleveland Orchestra; Los Angeles Philharmonic; the London Symphony; London Philharmonic; Bayerisches Rundfunk Orchestra; Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; the Moscow State Academy Symphony; the Hong Kong Philharmonic; New Japan Philharmonic; Tokyoʼs NHK Symphony; among others.

Her list of concert venues and engagements reads like a listing of the most prestigious musical events in the globe: Lincoln Center; Orchestra Hall in Chicago; the Kennedy Center; Apollo Theater in New York; as soloist in the Steinway Piano Sesquicentennial Celebration at Carnegie Hall; the International Music Festival of Seattle; Mostly Mozart Festival (in both New York and Tokyo); the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; La Jolla Chamber Music ; Eastern Music Festival; the Great Mountains Music Festival in Korea; to name some. Her recordings, on the other hand, span the labels: Music Masters; Naxos; Sony Classical; and Angel/EMI. The release of her Sony Classical Chopinʼs Piano Concerto No. 2 and Saint-Saensʼ Piano Concerto No. 2, with Andre Previn conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque Frederic Chopin.

Known for her extraordinary range of touch, hypersensitivity to dynamics and obsession with perfection, Cecileʼs vast repertoire as an orchestral soloist spans the classical works of Mozart, Beethoven, the romantic pieces of Brahms, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, and the 20th century compositions of masters Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Bartok.

Cecile and her performances have been described as: Licadʼs performance was one of the
highlights of the season. Daring, imaginative, and impeccably played, this was quite simply a spectacular performance by a top notch artist. (Arlene Bachanov, Daily Telegram); Licad plays with a character and commitment entirely her own; a far cry from todayʼs more fashionable austerity and circumspection. (The Gramophone)

Undoubtedly, one of the most, if not the most, accomplished musician of our time, she has these to say about her art:

  • A piece of music does not say anything. Itʼs just a bunch of notes. But if you look at the score, thereʼs something between those notes that you have to conquer. Otherwise, the music doesnʼt do anything, and it canʼt relate to anybody.
  • You canʼt always aim for perfection in a live performance. Sometimes, things donʼt happen according to the plan. You have to go deep into yourself - into the unknown - and be in a place where youʼve never been. If you are well-prepared, you can discover something that enriches you forever.
  • A great pianist is someone who has discipline, dedication, and has a unique relationship with the piano which has been developed since his/her training. What sets apart a great artist in this field, however are two things. The first is just an ability to approach the same piece of music over and over again as if learning it for the first time every time. The second is the creativity to have a vision before you even sit down at the piano, and then having the chops to execute that vision.
  • I always consider myself a student and I never would see myself as a great master.

Memorable words from an equally memorable artist.

- (some quotes taken from Movimiento)

* This article was written for and published in the March issue of Pinoy Times.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Raise the Filipino Race

There was an article a couple of months ago stating that Tagalog is the fastest growing
language in Canada, the most common immigrant home language in Edmonton, and the
second most common in Calgary. This also reflects a broader immigration pattern showing that the Philippines has been the biggest source country for the past couple of years, surpassing India and China. Furthermore, the Philippines seems to be playing a more vital role in Canadian trade and foreign policy, with Prime Minister Stephen Harperʼs visit to the country last November.

It is difficult to determine whether this piece of immigration news is a positive or negative turn around for our country. On the one hand, it shows the quality of our citizens in its ability to be qualified and readily accepted by a first world country. On the other hand, an increase in Filipino immigrants means a strong desire for the people to leave their mother country and a drive to look elsewhere for something that the native country can no longer provide.

What does this increasing visibility in a foreign country signify and entail? For whatever reasons for our leaving the Philippines, we are inadvertently ambassadors of our country, a reflection of our race and culture, in the adopted country, and are no longer just after our own interests, living lives in our individual ways.

In this new year, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what we show of our culture, in our daily living in foreign shores. In a multi-cultural society as Canada, do we lift up our race? Or do we put it into shame?

In one of my internet browsing moments, I chanced upon a forum discussing the traits of
Filipinos as observed by both Filipinos and by people of other nationalities/race, abroad. A lot of people have remarked about the Filipinosʼ traits: hospitality, respect for elders, generosity. In the same breadth, there were comments about: crab mentality, fatalism, short memories, tactlessness, lack of discipline, racism, colonial mentality. This does not mean though that weʼre the only culture/race who exhibit these traits - only that these are the predominant ones that characterize us.

The discussions on Filipino traits somewhat perplex me, with certain contradictions. Some say weʼre hardworking - others say weʼre lazy, respectful - rude, caring - gossip monger. But in fact, there is an ambivalence with some traits and it is our choice on how to use them. The fatalistic attitude may show true faith and spirituality for some, but at the same time, be an excuse for human weakness. What other people refer as our “short term memory” may be good in the sense that we do not hold grudges, but at the same time we never learn from the errors of the past. The motto of “utang na loob” (indebtedness) is good but may be carried to the extent regardless of moral measures and outcomes. Loyalty, whether to an individual or to a group, is a way of putting otherʼs welfare ahead of ours but can result in turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to their faults and errors.

In the end, how we live and act is a personal choice. Driving around the city, I see bumper stickers and displays of “I am Filipino”, “Proud to be Pinoy” or signs of the Philippine flag and map. As we live our lives and raise our children in foreign shores, will we choose to replicate the negative traits, the very traits that we fled from but inadvertently display in our adopted country? Or do we raise the Filipino race to our ideal? However we define success in our individual lives, we eventually define ourselves by highlighting our values.

Observing our penchant to honor and put in pedestals Filipinos with great achievements like Manny Pacquiao, Lea Salonga, Arnel PIneda, CNN Hero of the Year Efren Penaflorida, among others, it is obvious that we all love a hero. So why not be a Filipino hero in your own individual way?

* This article was written for and published in the January 2013 issue of Pinoy Times.

The Filipino Christmas Lantern

In a multi-cultural society such as we live in, we encounter different celebrations, symbolisms and customs in the month of December. There are those who enthusiastically celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, the winter holidays and those who do not believe in celebrating anything at all. As Filipinos, we have learned to be recognizant of this fact but at the same time, cling to our memories and experience of a Filipino christmas.

A most distinct symbol of a Filipino Christmas, among others, is the Christmas lantern or what is most widely known as the “parol”. The parol is so iconic that some of us would remember having this as one of our school projects in elementary, made with bamboo sticks and Japanese paper. Today, there are a variety of designs, shapes and sizes - utilizing: indigenous materials like capiz shells, straw, wood; modern materials like fiber glass, metal; psychedelic lights and music. But what is constant in the design is the five-pointed star.

The parol is derived from the Spanish word “farol”, for lantern. It is an image of the star of
Bethlehem, the guiding light of the Three Kings to the manger and metaphorically, a symbol of hope and joy for the yuletide season. It is believed that the original design was crafted by Francisco Estanislao in 1928. This lantern was used by rural folk to light their paths for the dawn masses.

The creativity and ingenuity embedded in the parol design and production, has given rise to
competitions whether in the school, community and national levels, and with some Filipino
communities in other countries. Two such events in the Philippines that I have had the pleasure of witnessing are: the Giant Lantern Festival in Pampanga and the Lantern Parade of the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

The Pampanga Giant Lantern Festival is a competition of giant parols that are about 40 feet circumference, with lights that are programmed to music. A lantern would approximately weigh at least 1000kg and would have a minimum of 50 people working on it an entire year. The months of January to May are often devoted to laying out the electrical framework, June to July for the electrical wiring and August to December for papering and accessorizing. Then once the competition is done, itʼs back to the drawing board for next yearʼs concept and design. Each  lantern would require a generator that is powerful enough to light a barrio. This visual display of lanterns are akin to the famous fountain choreography of the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

The festival is sponsored by business and private organizations, which enables the city
government to provide a subsidy to the participating barangays. Participants come from San Jose, Dolores, Lourdes, Sto. Rosario, Del Pilar, San Pedro, Sto. Niño, Sta. Lucia, San Nicolas and San Fernando. The lanterns are judged on the basis of design, color combination, interplay of lights and rhythm to the music.

The University of the Philippines Lantern Parade is also a visual spectacle, marked with a
social consciousness thematic approach, showcasing the critical thinking and ingenuity of the ʻskolars ng bayanʼ. The first Lantern Parade was in 1922 when the UP community used
lanterns to light their way to the church for the Christmas midnight mass. It was then
institutionalized as a university event in 1934 by University President Jorge Bocobo.

It is a parade of large lantern/floats around the university oval, taking place on the last day of classes before the Christmas holiday, and after a couple of hours of the popular Oblation Run.  The floats feature the diverse causes of the different colleges of the university like government corruption, LGBT equality, foreign dominance, and other political issues.  Aside from the lantern, there are also presentations in key stops for the judges. Cash prizes are allotted for those judged as Overall Best Lantern Grand Prize, Judges Choice and Most Resourceful Awards.  This parade likewise attract thousands of people in the city and is normally a media event.

These use of the parol as a holiday decoration, treat and event is a tradition that marks the
Filipinosʼ creativity, ingenuity and conviction. Whatever your tradition or reminiscences are for this holiday season, I wish everyone a joyous and prosperous season!

* This article was written and published for the December 2012 issue of Pinoy Living.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Miss Saigon: a Filipinos’ Gateway to International Stardom

With the planned revival of the hit musical Miss Saigon in the West End for 2013, and the consequent auditions held in Manila last November, the musical has caused once again quite a stir and renewed interest amongst Filipinos and artists.  

Miss Saigon is a story based on Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”, inspired by a photo of a Vietnamese mother handing over her child to an American soldier who was about to board a plane for the United States.  It premiered in London in 1989 and has gone on to be one of the longest running musicals, performed in 25 countries, 246 cities and translated into 12 languages.

When the creators Cameron Mackintosh, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil were casting for the 1989 premiere, they noticed from auditions in London and in the US that there was a common denominator on the stand outs - Filipino blood.  They then decided to go to the source and found for themselves a mother lode of talents in Manila.  In Manila, they casted the lead roles of Kim (Lea Salonga, Monique Wilson) and Gigi (Isay Alvarez) and an ensemble of 13 actors who eventually performed some of the major characters.  Among them were: Victor Laurel, Robert Seña, Jon Jon Briones, Pinky Amador, Junix Inocian, Michael Williams.

This huge contingent of Filipino artists to West End opened the doors for other Filipinos as well, who were cast in various stagings of the musical.  These included: for Kim, Jamie Rivera and Ima Castro; Leo Valdez, Raul Aranas as the Engineer; Joanna Ampil as Kim in London (1993) and Sydney (2001); Ma-anne Dionisio, a Filipino-Canadian raised in Winnipeg, who portrayed Kim in the 1993 and 2010 Toronto staging, and moved to play the same role in London, Sydney and Pittsburgh; Aura Deva as Kim, Robert Seña as Thuy, and Milanie Sumalinog as Gigi, in Stuttgart (1994); and Laurie Cadevida as Kim in Australia.  

These landmark performances garnered awards for artists, most notable of which was Lea Salonga’s winning of the Best Actress in a Musical category for the Laurence Olivier Award (1989), Tony Award, Theatre World Award and Drama Desk Award (all in 1991).  Laurie Cadevida was also awarded the Helpmann Award for her portrayal of Kim in Australia in 2007.  And Aura Deva was named one of the most influential people in Germany.

Manila holds a vital place in the Miss Saigon saga.  Aside from being a major source of cast members and the only Asian city where auditions were held by the artistic team, it was given the distinction to be the first city to stage the musical in its Asian tour, where it moved on to Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea.  Furthermore, the Manila run was the only Asian production that received immediate coverage from CNN.

Now 24 years after, the same team with additional key production members, has turned to Manila once again for auditions not only for the lead role, but for ensemble cast members as 
well.  It is also rumoured that American roles in the musical were open for casting too.  And although no casting news will be released as yet, the latest word is that six artists have made it to the final round of auditions - Rachelle Ann Go, Frencheska Farr, Mary Joy Solomon, Emerald Bañares, Apple Chiu, Tanya Manalang and Aicelle Santos.  Up for grab will be three possible Kims, with the two as understudies.

For sure, the people who will be part of this revival, will have their lives turned around in ways they would not have imagined.  As the original Kim, Lea Salonga, expressed recently in her Facebook page, “And so it begins again... It was in November 1988 that I auditioned for ‘Miss Saigon.’ Whose life is going to change this November 2012?”

* This article was written for and published in the Pinoy Times December 2012 issue.

Filipino-Canadian Gala 2012

Ida & Jojo Lucila
The 2nd Filipino-Canadian Gala was held last September 15, 2012 at the Northlands Expo Centre. Organized by Gala and Event Management lead by Lixmila Serrano and Ramon Cifra, the Gala is an annual event aimed at bringing together Filipinos and friends for a night of cultural feast and dancing, to celebrate the achievements of the Filipino community and at the same time, to support local charitable institutions. It had, as its beneficiary, iHuman, an organization that supports at-risk youth in Edmonton to rebuild their lives through the arts.  Last yearʼs beneficiary was the Edmonton Food Bank.

Philippine Choral
The Gala was held in a sumptuous hall that seats 800, in tables decked in red, white and blue, with the Philippine flag as the pattern for its layout. A tropical hut served as the dance floorʼcenter piece, perfect for photo opportunities. Around the hall were booths of Filipino businesses and Gala sponsors, and display items for the silent auction. An added bonus for the night was the grand raffle prize of a free trip to the Philippines.

Philippine Ambassador Gatan
MP Rona Ambrose
MLA Thomas Lukaszuk
Guests were treated to song and dance performances prior to the official opening of the Gala, which was marked with messages from the three levels of government of Canada and the presence of the Philippine Ambassador to Canada, Leslie Gatan. Guests of honor were: Rona Ambrose, Minister of Public Works & Government Services, and Minister for Status of Women - Canada; Thomas Lukaszuk, Deputy Premier of Alberta; Stephen Mandel, Mayor of Edmonton; Naresh Bhardwaj, MLA; Richard Andersen, Northlands President; among others. In their speeches, they extolled on how the success of Filipinos all over the world serves as an inspiration and a reminder that much can be achieved through vision and guidance, and the Filipinosʼ reputation to be hardworking, generous and wonderful contributions to society, making Mayor Mandel exclaim
Mayor Stephen Mandel
We need more Filipinos to come to Edmonton! There are currently 
330,000 Filipinos in Canada, 70% of which are Philippine-born. And to these people and their Canadian friends, Ambassador Gatan appealed for more Canadian investments in the Philippines, to keep both the cultural and economic ties, and declared that the Philippines is not the sick man of Asia anymore.

After a buffet of Philippine-inspired cuisine, guests were treated with performances by the Philippine Choral and HOJA. This performance of the Philippine Choral marked its transformation from a church choir to a show choir, with a full repertoire suite and choreography. HOJA, on the other hand, is an acapella trio who has performed all over Canada and recorded five cd albums. This followed with everyone dancing the night away, more photo opportunities and revelry. It was good to see the people of Edmonton come together in their evening finery to celebrate Filipino culture and achievements, and support a very deserving local charity. We look forward to the 3rd Filipino-Canadian Gala!
Philippine Choral

Post Dinner Dance
Photos courtesy of Kitakits Studio Inc. To view more photos of the event, go to http://

* This was written and published for the Pinoy Times, October 2012 issue.