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:

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:
(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.

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