Thursday, August 21, 2008

Kasilag: ‘Making a difference in music’

MANILA, Philippines—I was in Davao City last week for the soft opening of the Heritage Museum of the Pamulaan Center of Indigenous People’s Education and to attend the opening of the 2nd National Conference of Indigenous Peoples Higher Education in the Philippines. (I will write a feature story about the events in another section.)

While the members of the University of Southeastern Philippines’ Pangkat Silayan Theater Collective, gloriously clad in their ethnic attire, were playing genuine ethnic sounds, I thought of National Artist for Music (1989) Lucrecia Kasilag. She had worked hard to put ethnic music in the mainstream through her compositions, until the sounds became familiar and ensconced in the Philippine musical landscape.

I went back to Manila with the sound of the kulintang, sauroy, dabakan and ahongan still reverberating in my soul. The next day, I learned about the passing of one of the country’s musical icons. Kasilag, fondly called Tita King by many, passed away last Aug. 16. She would have been 90 on Aug. 31.

Kasilag reaped many awards and honors but an award from one’s school is always special. Kasilag received the Pax Award (1980) from St. Scholastica’s College where she finished a degree in music education (1939). The award was for having “consistently exhibited outstanding cultural leadership especially in…music and the performing arts … acknowledged … in the national (and) international world of musicians and artists.”

Part of the PAX write-up on her read: “Once asked what she would like to be remembered for, the grand dame of the arts said: ‘That I made a difference in music.’ And she has. Her passion for indigenous musical forms and instruments and integrating them with Western idioms has infused her six-decade career as composer (she has more than 300 pieces to her name), conductor, educator, researcher, administrator and cultural entrepreneur.”

I mention her Scholastican background because she wrote a short piece for the beautiful book “Daughters True: 100 Years of Scholastican Education” (which won a 2007 National Book Award). This was about her student days at St. Scho.

Her piece “Practice, practice, practice” was one of the small sidebars in the chapter on the college of music. It has a photo of Kasilag with her piano teacher on a flower-decked stage on her graduation recital day in 1939. One can’t miss the giant G-clef made of flowers which was standard in those days.

Here is Kasilag’s piece.

“When I was a college senior at Philippine Women’s University, I decided to cross-enroll at Sister Baptista Battig’s Conservatory of Music at St. Scholastica’s College, a few blocks away from PWU. Every Thursday, the trusty Buick would take me there where I worked for a Music Teacher’s Diploma. Josephine Cojuangco (Reyes), (President) Cory Aquino’s elder sister, was my first piano student there, as we were required to handle grade school piano lessons during their recess. She was to become president of Far Eastern University. Angelina Barredo and her sisters were also my students during this period.

“‘Practice, practice, practice’ was my answer to the query, ‘Which way to Carnegie Hall, please?’ That is what I devoted my time to at home.

“Papa had been appointed Commonwealth Commissioner for Mindanao and Sulu. Nevertheless, he always made it to my piano recitals, proud of my junior recital of which Alejo Valdez of the Spanish daily ‘La Vanguardia’ had this to say:

“‘In the musical firmament a new star of great magnitude has appeared. Miss Lucrecia Kasilag. Her recital was a great event … (she) surprised the audience with her sense of exactitude, time and value to the written notes of the musical piece. This is done without much apparent effort but with natural grace…’

“With great glee, I received another ‘stick’—a flat 1—in Apologetics (theology) from Sr. Withburga Kilger. Since I had no real grounding in catechism before then, it was good to know that the extra work I put into Sr. Withburga’s class was worth the effort.

“In PWU, I was on the baseball and volleyball teams, though this was short-lived. After suffering so many sprained fingers from catching and tossing balls to the great dismay of Doña Pura Villanueva, my piano teacher, she demanded to know, ‘Do you want to be a baseball player or a pianist?’ She forbade me forever from baseball and volleyball if I were to give my scheduled junior recital.

“For my graduation recital, Doña Pura wielded the baton herself for my piece de resistance, the seldom played work by Ignaz Paderewski, Concerto in A minor for piano and orchestra, with Professor Ernesto Vallejo as concert master. The composer was Poland’s president as well, a distinguished statesman.”

Kasilag was at the helm of the Cultural Center of the Philippines for many years. She was music director of the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company and was responsible for its emergence as one of the country’s premier cultural groups. She was chairperson of the League of Filipino Composers for over 30 years. She was director of the Center for Arts and Humanities of PWU and dean of the Philippine College of Music and Arts. She had haired the Asian Composers’ League for over 20 years and was honorary adviser to the Asian Arts Festival and honorary member of the Unesco International Music Council.

Although born in La Union, Kasilag had a Mindanao-Sulu connection. She had a huge collection of Asian ethnic musical instruments.

While parts of Mindanao burn and the sound of guns reverberates in the darkness, I imagine the ethnic Mindanao sounds that Kasilag had worked to preserve and to make known to the rest of the country and the world.

Final tribute for National Artist Lucrecia Kasilag will be at 9 a.m. this Thursday in the Main Theatre of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.