Tuesday, May 25, 2010

GESANG - The Man and His Music

GESANG and His Music

In 1995 while I was in Solo for an ASEAN Composer’s Forum, I met Gesang through the good fellowship of my dear friend DR. Rahayu Suppaangah, another legend from the same little town of Solo. I wanted to meet Gesang because I saw in him some of the same qualities and aspirations as our own Zubir Said, who came from Padang, many miles to the north in Sumatra. I had many conversations with Zubir Said in the 1980’s while I was on a Cultural Foundation project to document some of his music.

The world was not talking much about Gesang then, although his famous song “Bengawan Solo” had encircled the world, and received so many interpretations, that the original style langgam in which it was written, had all but been forgotten. There were burning questions in me as a musicologist, and great curiosity as a composer, to ask him, similar questions I had asked Zubir Said, who both came to fascinate so many of us, placing an indelible imprint on the East-West confluence of music in the mid-20th Century.

I thought I would meet an old man, in retirement mode, who was bemused by yet another academic trying to understand something that was best left alone. Instead, I met a robust man in his mid-70s, soft-spoken, casual and extremely polite, like a true Soloanese, and who had an active performing and teaching schedule, which I thought was much more than my fulltime one.

With a sparkle in his eye he also told me that he had just re-married – as if it was the most casual thing on earth – and proceeded to ask questions about me, which I knew was to place me in a list of others, who had come on similar missions. His humble home was as traditional as it could get in Solo, a blend of nature and humanity literally, and all the walls spoke of what others spoke of him – photographs, citations, and unique souvenirs, given to him in appreciation, from many parts of the world. The link with Japan was particularly strong.

Jokingly, he told me that his surroundings were good for his music compositions. What he could not understand was the world’s obsession with just that one song he wrote – Bengawan Solo. I was suddenly reminded of Freddie Aguilar in the Philippines, whom I also know, and who thrived on just one song “Anak”, after which his creative life seemed to have thinned off. Yet, there was a marked difference in the wealth between these two.

After much prodding, Gesang reluctantly revealed that it was difficult to get royalties from Bengawn Solo, and many of his other equally famous compositions like “Sapu Tangan” and Jambatan Merah”. He was aware that there was no infrastructure to ensure this. What sadden him more, was that many others were claiming to have composed these songs. Like Zubir Said, he just wanted to be a peaceful and happy musician, and not be bothered by these worldly things. They were complicated, and sounded dangerous, especially when legal jargon was thrown around.

Lately, the Indonesian government did set up a body to deal with these copyright and royalty issues. He obtained some compensation, but it was a pittance. It is the rest of the world that needs to make up for the injustice done to Gesang, and all others like him!

It was a joy talking to him. I learnt that the original “Bengawan Solo” was in the langgam jawa style of Central Java. It was not mundane popular music, as I and many others thought it was. Langgam has no time measure. It is based on pantun (poetic quartrains), and the musical accompaniment is colotomic, as in gemelan music. Langgam Bengawan Solo is the gentle flow of the Solo River, and the deep thoughts of love and gratitude that the people of Solo have for their life-sustaining river.

Gesang always paused in our conversation to remind me that he was not an academic, and that he did not study music formally. This was exactly what Zubir Said also did in our conversations. Both men made me reflect, not on their “inadequacies” but on mine, as well as, the entire discipline of ethnomusicology. From him I gleened an understanding of the other kroncong forms (stanbul, morescu, togu and other derivatives).

And, he still claimed he was not a musicologist! One understands in conversation with men like Gesang and Zubir Said, how they are aware of musical topography, geography, and history, in a deeply imbibed manner, that makes them able to produce works that define new musical forms that endure, and yet they are humble and defensive.

Gesang is a national hero. He was buried with full military honors on Friday 22 May. On Monday 24th May, the ASEAN Korea Traditional Orchestra (AKTO) performed, for the delegates at the 2nd UNESCO World Conference of Arts Education at Seoul, and in it’s repertoire was Bengawan Solo, sung by one of Solo’s establised langgam jawa singers, Surti Respati. This arrangement by Soloanese composer, Franciscus Purwa Askanta, is a difficult and challenging one to the orchestra and conductor as the art of langgam has to be imbibed. My good friend, Dr. Supanggah was there in Seoul to supervise the performance of this work.

The legacy of Gesang is alive just like that of Zubir Said, and will pose a challenge to those of us trying to work through the East-West confluence in music.

To watch a performance of Bengawan Solo by AKTO: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxRf7SIyqoY&feature=related

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Music of the Great Depression

Brother, Can you Spare me a Dime? Vinyl Record: New World Record - Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc. NW 270, LP, 33 1/3 Mono.

I have a huge vinyl record collection, and a few days ago, I came across this very rare album in my collection - American Songs during the Great Depression. By any standards, this was a mammoth production by New World Records, made possible through a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The production drew from many sources - CBS, RCA, MCA, Twentieth Century Fox, Folkways, Library of Congress and even Robert Altshuler, a private collector. It is an album that has pathos and humor all rolled into an absorbing commentary, not just about the depression, but also about the important juncture song-writing in USA reached during the Depression years.

Song-writing in America, as we know it, grew out of it's stratified social settings in pre-twentieth century communities. By the early twentieth, century song-writing fed into the business machines of New York, Chicago and many other major cities. Music performance and recordings were money spinners, typified best by Tin Pan Alley, the musicals of Broadway and the large movie studios. In the ten years of the Great Depression, creativity and song production reached it's height, although purchasing power was at its lowest. What a paradox! Just imagine, George Gershwin did much of his best work during this period!

The very first track of this recording, "Brother. Can you spare me a dime?" (1932), is the defining song, not just for the production, but the Depression itself - speaking directly and plainly, in Tin Pan Ally ragtime style, about the effect of the cash-drought at ground zero. Written by Jay Gorney ("Stand Up" and "Cheer" musicals), and with lyrics by E.Y Harburgh ("Wizard of Oz", "Finian's Rainbow", "April in Paris" and more), it became an international hit with Bring Crosby and the Lennie Hayton Orchestra. Other "tongue-in-the-cheek' songs in this album include the anonymous "Unemployment Stomp", the "NRA Blues" by Bill Cox (surprisingly not a protest song, but a song of praise for the agency that sought to create more jobs), and "All In Down and Out Blues" by David Macon - a hilly-billy contribution to the niggling cash problem - "I've got no silver/I've got no gold/ I am almost naked/ and it done turn cold".

In the same vein, is the song "I Ain't Got No Home in This World Anymore" written and performed by Woody Guthrie. In true wandering minstrel style he sings, in a very prophetic way, of the sorry state of ordinary Americans in the Great Dust Bowl: " Rich Man took my home/ and drove me from my door/ And I ain't got no home/ in this world any more". There was no Fanny Mae or Freddy Mac then - to help, needles to say, to bail out!!

Shirley Temple too (she must have been five at that time) has a band (the old term for tracks) called "On the Good Ship Lollypop" by Sidney Clare and Richard Whiting. Apparently, going to any of her movies back then was a great relief from the woes of the day because her songs, and demeanor, invoked innocence and hope - the other side of Wall! Perhaps, she should re-appear on the screens today! On the flip-side of Shirley Temple, is the song "The Death of Mother Jones", anonymously written on the life and contributions of Mary Jones, a historic figure in early American unionism in mid-nineteenth century. And so this song goes: "May the miners all work together/ To carry out her plan/ And bring back better conditions/ For every laboring man". Would Obama be a re-incarnation of her?

One of the most definitive songs in this album is from the movie Moulin Rouge: "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams". written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, who are acknowledged as one of the best song-writing teams of the thirties (Tiptoe through the Tulips", Lullaby of Broadway", "Jeepers Creepers" and more). The song was first performed by Deane Janis and the Hal Kemp Orchestra. Bye the way, this Moulin Rouge is not the same as what appeared in the 1950's (about Toulouse-Loutrec) and which we know more about today. "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" had a life of it's own, out performing the original movie, and recorded by many illustrious singers and bands including Benny Goodman and Helen Ward.

Another definitive song, by the same team (Dubin and Warren), but this time in an anecdotal way, is the "The Gold Diggers' Song" on Band 8. The story goes that when the song was in rehearsal, the Depression broke out, and the show had to be cancelled - for the same familiar reasons: foreclosures and unemployment. In true "Upturning the Downturn" style, the show organisers re-named it as a show about the Depression. So much for creativity!

George Gershwin's song "Love Walked in", with lyrics, as usual, by his brother Ira, appears on Band 5. Gershwin is really the odd man out as he was not a product of Tin Pan Alley. However, his style, and sense of timing of his compositions (producing most of his great work from 1929 till he died in 1938) just made him one of the most emblematic composers of the Depression. "Porgy and Bess" written in 1935 is, perhaps, a binding definition of being black during the Depression. Surprisingly, none of the songs in this musical appears in this album. Nevertheless, "Love Walked In" is on par with other songs like "Embraceable You" and "Can't Take That Away from Me" - it gave Americans, and others around the world too, a feeling of fantasy and release.

The last song in the album is "The White Cliffs of Dover" - a song that brings back images of World War Two. The Depression ended with America's entry into the war - how ironic! If this could only have been a parallel for USA today, with the recession and the two wars it is fighting. Written by Nat Burton and Walter Kent, and based on the the poem (and subsequent film) of the same name by Akice Duer Miller, the song touched an emphatic chord in Americans - they held in high esteem, England's steadfast stand against the the bombing by Nazi Germany - Churchill versus Hiltler to Obama verses Osama. History does repeat itself.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Xoan Singing Tradition Seminar in Vietnam

I was invited to be part of this seminar in Pho To Province in North Vietnam. Unfortunately, I caught bronchitis and was not able to join them. However I wrote a short paper for them which I will share with this blog.

Xoan Singing can be classified as an Intangible Culture. The purpose of this Seminar is to build up a case for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural AWard.

If you want to hear and see some aspects of this very involved God-worship and courting ceremony, go to these UTube sites:

My Short Paper follows:

Dr Joe Peters, Chief Consultant
Sonic Asia Music Consultants
126 Jalan Chempaka Kuning, Singapore 489155
Tel/Fax: +65-64460979
Blog: http://thesonicenvironment.blogspot.com/
Liaison Officer (Singapore)International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM) UNESCO
External Music Examiner, University of Wales, UK
Co-Chairman, ASEAN Korea Traditional Orchestra, South Korea
Commission Mixte, (RILM) International Repertoire of Music Literature, USA
External Examiner, University of Wales, UK
Advisor, World Cultural Observatory, Hong Kong.

Technologies & Services:
Tremolo Orchestra (using Singapore-Vietnam designed musical instruments)
Listenology (New Laboratory Method)
SEMMI (Sonic Environment Music Measuring Index)
14 January 2009
Xoan Sing Tradition Seminar, 14 – 18 January 2010, Hanoi / Pho To, Vietnam
Xoan Singing Tradition – A Case for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Award
Dr. Joe Peters, Singapore
As Vietnam and the rest of Asia develops their own mapped knowledge of musico-cultural phenomenon in the years to come, and develop socio-cultural backdrops and platforms for true nation building, god worship rituals like, Xoan Singing, will take their place in the thrust of national development. This process requires international collegiate participation for the purpose of documentation and proposal presentation – in this case for the unique UNESCO Award for preservation of Intangible cultural forms. This brief paper will give some information about Xoan singing music as was referred to in the publication by the ASEAN COCI - Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics: A Field and Laboratory Study of Musical Cultures in Southeast Asia (Peters, Chief Ed., 2003). Some general guidelines are also suggested for analysis of this genre of God-worship where movement over territory is part of the ritual – this characteristic is termed ambulatory. As most God-worship rituals are localized in churches, temples and other designated religious sites, meaning they are static rituals in one place, it is important to make this distinction, and compare Xoan to ambulatory rituals. Some comparison will also be made of parallel systems of God-worship in Singapore, like the Chinese tang-ki ceremonies and the Indian religious rituals of thaipusam and fire-walking. Reference will also be made to Nanyin, not based on the ambulatory classification, but for it’s similarity to some aspects of singing and music tradition based on set forms. Nanyin is one of the last remaining traditional musical forms in Singapore.

General Characteristics of God-worship Ambulatory Ceremonies in relation to Xoan Singing
This section proposes that some general guidelines be developed to classify this genre of ambulatory God-worship. The static God-worship ceremonies have many examples and will not be considered as they may not provide relevant comparisons. There are four features on God-worship suggested here for consideration:
1. that the worship sequence is ambulatory, meaning different aspects of the
ceremony are enacted in different parts of a community domain.
2. that there is immediate community relevance  according
to social, cultural, political and other relevant variables of Vietnam’s make up.
3. that there is artistic merit identified with indicators like the presence of
repertoire in it’s widest sense, there is performance practice that has to be
learnt, and there is some form of format or design or choreography, again in
their widest explanations.
4. that there is community participation which can be at two levels: active roles
within the ritual and/or as a spectator.
Some general examples of ambulatory God-worship include the Alim and Huhhud (recipient of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Award) of the Ifugao in Northern Philippines, the Dreamtime rituals of the Arnhem aborigines in Australia. This paper will not expand on these God-worship rituals, as there is documentation at the source.
Features of Xoan Singing
  1. It seems to have originated in the Le Dynasty Era (1010AD – 1225 AD) when Vietnam was developing Buddhism country wide with the building of pagodas, and the Kingdom of Champa was influencing the court music of the Ly Dynasty with their Hinduistic features.
  2. It is a spring activity and connected to the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
  3. There are only four regions practicing this tradition of which only two genres can be documented to some extent.
  4. There are rules and repertoire and the Nom book is an indispensable part of the ritual as it contains what is described as the 14 tempos, which govern this God-worship tradition.
  5. Blended into God-worship is the undeniable feature of Xoan as a courting ritual as the performing cast is indisputably divided into male and female roles, costumes, song sets and choreography.
  6. The ritual itself is structured into three stages with definitive repertoire and choreography.
  7. The use of musical accompaniment is simple with one drum and a set of castanets, and this reinforces the ambulatory nature of the ritual.
  8. Poetry is a vital part of the song structure, but there is flexibility to add other genres like lullabies, love songs and humor songs.
  9. The use of metaphors in the extend form is a vital part of particular the third stage when it takes on a courting ambience with the imagery of “catching a fish in the net”.
The Musicological Aspects of Xoan
Here I will highlight references to the scale systems and other theoretical features referred to by the authors of the chapter on Vietnam in the ASEAN publication Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics. This publication funded by the ASEAN Committee on Culture and Information was the first major intra-regional field and laboratory study of the musical cultures in nine of the ASEAN countries. It was meant to be step-one for deeper studies into the term sonic orders that defined the musical elements of this region with some neutrality and independence of the common Western term of musical scales. The follow studies, as expected in such extra-academic projects, never took place. Tucked into this book is a rich plethora of information, ten compact discs of representative music, and suggestion for future research.
The chapter on Vietnam was the largest and most prolific in the two-volume book, written by a national team led by the honorable Professor Nguyen Phuc Linh from the Vietnam Institute of Musicology. Here are some of the comments and observations made on Xoan singing tradition:
  1. Xoan songs generally fall within the five-tone scale and have some similarities with Cheo and Muong songs (Nguyen, p. 584), in terms of scale systems but not content.
  2. There are melodies in Xoan that use leaps of sevenths (Nguyen, p.678).
  3. Legato tones play an important at the beginning of Xoan songs and these can be linked to interval jumps of seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths and sixths. These configurations are closely related to the lyrics with the sole purpose of emphasizing expressiveness. Sometimes there are even three tones in the legato at the beginning of the phrase that is being sung (Nguyen, pp. 690-693).
  4. Xoan singing is classified as folk music, which has three categories – work songs, love songs and games songs. Singing in Vietnam is widespread especially in an agricultural community where it has the tendency to be dramatized as customary rituals. Xoan singing is one of the best examples (Nguyen, pp. 497-498).
  5. Xoan singing tradition as a whole is classified as Folk Performance as it integrates singing, dancing, costumes and games (Nguyen, p.500).
The musical examples quoted in the book to explain Xoan songs are a few and will not be reproduced here as it was taken from various sub-regions of North Vietnam. Perhaps, these statements could be assessed against the field research that this project on Xoan singing in Pho To.
Some examples from Singapore
Here I will deal briefly with Chinese tang-ki (medium invocation rite), Indian thaipusam (penitential rite) and pookkulittal (fire walking penitential rite) and the nanyin music tradition of the Hokkien community.
Hokkien Tang-ki is spirit medium worship of the Hokkien people of southern China has its roots in pre-Chinese tribal folklore more than 5,000 years ago. Tang-ki ceremonies feature self-mortification by entranced mediums held to be gods incarnate (tang-ki). It is performance as both religious phenomenon and theatre event. Tang-ki ceremonies are theatrical in that mediums perform the roles of gods using costumes, make-up and props. However to believers, the very act of theatre, where a medium assumes the role of a god in full-view of his audience of devotees, is a magical ritual that transmogrifies the medium-performer into the god in the flesh. Tang-ki worship as religious phenomenon is ineffable for its basis is a contract of faith between the worshipper and her/his gods. It is the tang-ki performance as theatre event that bears analysis (Chan, 2006). Music, is performed by drums and gongs, and serves as an accompaniment for dramatic effect. The performance is semi-ambulatory in that it could start in a location but if the tang-ki moves then the flowers will also have to move. Taoist religious rites are most often the format for such performances.
Thaipusam has been in Singapore for about 150 years and is a hindu form of God-worship in the design of a penitential rite to the deity Murga. It is ambulatory in that devotees walk along a five mile route between two temples in Singapore carrying kavadis (light weight metal structures) made into floral offerings, with the end of the metal spikes pierced into the devotee’s flesh at various parts of the upper-body, arms and fore arms, and cheeks and tongue. There is one set melody, which is in call-and-response form, and the supporters of each kavadi chant improvisations to this melody as they move along the route (Peters, 2003).
Pookkulittal is also an ancient hindu rite in the form of a penitential vow to walk barefoot on burning coals, made to Mariamman, the rain goddess. In Singapore it is now held at only one temple and therefore it is a non-ambulatory rite (Peters, 2003).
Nanyin (Nanguan) Music of the Hokkien Community is a musical tradition that originated in the south of Fujian province in China. It traveled with itinerant Chinese workers as they traveled to other parts of the world and developed nanyin at their domains. In some ways this art form is ambulatory in a macro sense as it has created a nanyin diaspora. But, this music is not related to God-worship in a direct manner. The most interesting part of nanyin is the repertoire which consists of three types of compositions: 1. Zhi – 48 song suites; 2. Qu – thousands of individual songs that are based on the form of zhi; 3. Pu – 16 instrumental suites (Ying-fen, 2003, pp. 145 -146). In Singapore there is a move to incorporate the study of Nanyin in the school music curriculum (Chong & Chia).
Xoan Singing Tradition has a strong case for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Award, as it is an ancient art form based on semi oral and written tradition that is currently being reinforced by performances, research and competitions for the practicing troupes. It blends God-worship rituals and courting intentions, and thereby will bring to the attention of the world that there are many other types of courting, mate selection and marriage practices imbedded into worship. Most of all there is repertoire to sustain as well as to recover With international recognition through this award, Xoan may provide a method for sustaining intangible artistic traditions in a fast globalizing world.
Chan, Margaret. (2006). Ritual is Theatre, Theatre is Ritual: Tang-ki – Chinese Sprit Medium Worship. Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University.
Cheong Kwok Yeng. (1999). Unpublished Paper. Pronunciation of Minnanyu in Nanyin.
Chong, Sylvia and Chia Wei Kuan. (undated). Music of the South: Workshop Manual. Siong Leng Musical Association, Singapore.
(write to them for a copy with a CD enclosure: 2&4 Bukit Pasoh Road, Singapore 089816. Email: slmusic@singnet.com.sg
Nguyen Phuc Linh et.al. (2003). Sonic Orders in the Traditional Music of Vietnam. In Peters, Joe (Chief Ed.). Sonic Orders in ASEAN Musics (2003). Singapore: National Arts Council on behalf of ASEAN COCI, pp. 496-708.
Peters, Joseph E.E. (1994). (ED.). Forum Papers: Presentations at the 2ns Asean Composers Forum on Traditional Music. Singapore: National Arts Council on behalf of the ASEAN COCI.
Peters, Joe. (2003). (Chief Editor). Sonic Orders in the Musics of ASEAN, Vol1 &2 and 10 CDs. Singapore: National Arts Council on behalf of the ASEAN COCI.
Ying-fen Wang. (2003). The Significance of Binary Durational Ratio in Nanguan Music. In Budenconsejo, Jose, S. (2003), (ed.). A Search in Asia for a New Theory of Music. University of the Philippines: Center for Ethnomusicology, pp. 145-160.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Music of Mount Mayon in the Philippines

The piano score can be downloaded at this site, which is open for one month from 23 January 2016:https://www.sendspace.com/file/3kx30m

I first saw Mount Mayon in 1978 while I was on a working school vacation from the conservatory at the University of the Philippines. It is about 12 hours by bus from Manila, southwards – an overnight journey. Despite the darkness during the journey, I had an inkling that the Bicol region (the southern most part of Luzon island) where Mt. Mayon is situated, and all the towns that ring it’s base (Iriga, Naga, Daraga, Legaspi), were quite different from the cacophony of Metro-Manila. I was right – and I kept going back to Bicol these last 30 years, and I always checked on Mayon each time.
One of my other affinities with Bicol are, that they eat chilies in their food, and their language has many “Malay” words. I am used to making long trips, when I am away from Singapore, just to get hot food! You can easily impress the local folk if you eat the c

hilies off their trees, or tell them that kannan(right) angin(air) dua(two), lima(five) and much more, are also in a language I speak - Malay. If you eat their chilies, then be prepared for a full bowl, placed in front of you, when you dine with them! Bicol chilies are hot – very hot!
Food in Bicol is just different from that in the Tagalog regions. If you are there, make sure you try pinangat – a dish made of elephant-ear gabi leaves (from a tuber like plant), stuffed with chilies and spiced meat or fish, and stewed in coconut milk. Make sure you try this in authentic restaurants or a family home, as they are poisonous if not prepared well.
The first job I had to do when I arrived at Legaspi (which is a gateway to Mayon), was to get a picture of the most perfect cone that Mayon was touted to be. My college-mates back at the International Center, where I lived, would always ask for proof, before anyone rambles about their adventures – a fair deal for any international dialogue!! It took me a whole day, sourcing out, haggling (I spoke enough Tagalog to get around) and finally, making a trek to an adjacent hill - more than twice the height of our Bukit Timah hill - to take some photographs. I am not a professional photographer, but the picture I took of Mt Mayon in 1978 (see above) is a treasured possession now – because Mayon is no more a perfect cone!
If you are in Legaspi, you cannot get out of the looming and dominating shadow of this fabulous volcano. It is always spewing white steam, as a constant reminder to all, that life can change anytime. Although the bulk of the people in Bicol are Catholics, they still retain the ancient mysticism that Mayon comes with – and of which they are very proud inheritors. Musicians, poets, painters and writers have all languished about Mayon – some even without visiting the mountain!!
One of the reasons why I had to see Mayon was because I came across the colossal Mayon Piano Concerto written by the late Francisco Buencamino Sr. He is a grand uncle of the famous Filipino concert pianist, Cecile Licad. She has performed this work. It is a three-movement work that captures the barrio (village) life around this beautiful, yet threatening volcano. Coming from Singapore in the 1970s, where we were aspiring to write such works, this musical score made a marked impression on me.
Subsequently, Buencamino wrote a piano fantasy based on this concerto, and which is in the Filipino piano repertory today. If you would like to hear the work go to this site – the pianist is Ms Ingrid Sala Santamaria: http://www.jahu.net/videos/video/B5b6SsBaGjo/
(If any pianist in Singapore wants to try this work, I will lend you the score – the fist page is shown above)
Mayon is steeped in legend – in fact, there are three such legends. However, all the legends are based on the central character, Daragon Magayon, in a brew of “romeo and juliet-ish”, ramayan-ish and even mahabarata-ish stories. Bicolanos are good story-tellers. In one of the Spanish-mestizo towns, Bacon, in Sorsogon, further south from Mayon, where I played in the church orchestra that Christmas in 1978, and since then many times again, there was an old farmer who told me a story that weaved parts of the story of Haiwatha into the Mayon legend.
This is the Mayon legend, I prefer telling, one that seems to be told most among the towns, many of which are named as rivals in the tragic story.
Since ancient times, Bicol was a peaceful and flat agricultural land, known for handsome men and beautiful women – and it still is. The maidens we called “daragas” and there were strict codes for courting and marriage. Daragang Magayon, the heroine in this story, was the daughter of Tiong Makusog, the king of Bicol, ruling from Daraga. Both, father and daughter brought peace and love to the region, and the king dotted on his beautiful daughter. Magayon was most sought after by many young men.
One powerful, but not so suitable contender was, Paratuga, the ruler of neighboring Iriga. He was bent on marrying Magayon. He made three attempts to please, and then threaten Makusog into handing his daughter over. Each time he also brought expensive gifts – pearls, gold, precious stones and carvings. Mukusog finally agreed to the proposal.
In the meantime, Magayon, unknown to her father, was in love with a Tagalog lad, Panganoran (many other names have been used for this character), who lived on the other side of the river – some stories state this was Naga. It was taboo for Tagalogs and Bicolanos to marry at that time.
This part of the story always puzzles me, because the Tagalog people actually live many hundreds of miles away to the north, in the Manila region – remember, it took me 12 hours by bus to get from there to Mayon!! Anyway, the Bicolanos and Tagalogs have been habitual rivals, and it does give some pungency to the tragedy.
Panagoran had apparently saved Magayon from drowning in the river some years before, and they kept up secret meetings ever since. Magayon confessed this to her father who accepted her folly but told her she must marry the king of Iriga, because he had agreed to the marriage. Otherwise there would be war. Magayon kept pestering her father saying that she loved Panaganoran, and that she would prefer to die than marry Paratuga. Her father’s heart melted. Paratuga was angered and furious. He kidnapped the father to force the marriage. Magayon had to agree to marry Paratuga to save her father.
The news of the coming marriage spread like wild wife – and believe me, this is real even today - in the form of gossip (which goes by the local term of “tis-mis” - pronounced “chis-miss”). When Panagoran heard this, he gathered his trusted friends, and a bloody battle occurred at the wedding site. He killed Paratuga.
The drama at this point is always vivid as each story-teller, instead of telling the expected happy ending, has to craft the explanation of the coming tragedy. Seeing the victorious Panagoran, Magayon ran to him, thinking all was forgiven and forgotten. As he took her in his arms with love and forgiveness, a stray arrow pierced Magayon’s heart from the back. And then, while she was dying in his arms, someone stabbed Panagoran in the back. This twist has been the crucial point for the legend becoming a moral lesson,
The saddened father buried the lovers together at the spot where they died. Soon, the grave mound began to grow, to the astonishment of all Bicolanos, and it became the perfect cone-shaped volcano that Mayon was.
Till today, when the people of Bicol see the omni-present smoke ring around the top of the mountain (see image above), they teasingly say that the lovers are kissing – this makes them happy. When storms come, and there are huge torrents of water flowing down the slopes of Mayon, the poeple say Magayon is crying – and there silence in the towns and barrios. Mothers narrate the Mayon legend at this time.
When Mayon erupts, as it is about to do any day now, they take refuge (although some stubbornly wait till the last minute). It is Paratuga and his army coming back to take revenge, and re-coop the gifts he gave to Magayon’s father. All the boulders, the lava and the ash that Mayon spews, is symbolically seen as the gifts which he gave Magayon, and which he is now re-collecting.
I was there earlier this year, and Mayon looked angry – I could not get to see the damaged peak as thick fog covered it. It is still a perfect cone, but only from one of it’s sides. I never got to see that because that side is difficult to access. I wonder if that will be blown off this time. I will let you know.