Brief note: solitude 

Yesterday and today, I have been making plans to go on retreat. I have been meaning to for some time now, as I had not gone on one for five years. It will be longer as a result, and this will mean a huge radio silence from here.

The choice of date I had made reflected the desire to learn something I will need in the time to come. But most of all, I wanted to learn how to experience solitude, to be at peace with myself and with everything else. I also feel that the monastic in me would be better off being separated from all in order to be united to all, as the Desert Fathers and Mothers taught and lived. There is no fear of missing out when one believes that.

I have yet to get a final schedule for the retreat, so for now, we wait.

The last five years: Top 5 local songs

This is the first in a series of posts this week about something, more of which I will disclose over the coming days. Oddly enough, this is a coda to the Fete de la Musique experience I had on the 18th, as four of the acts whose songs I have on this list played there, three of them in the same stage.

My criteria are that, apart from the tunes being mostly well-crafted and obviously of local origin, these have personal resonance for me. Almost all of those in the top 5 (yes, I owe this concept to both High Fidelity and Filmspotting) and others in the “honorable mentions” list have been in and out of my personal music playlists over the years. The songs represent, in one way or another, landmarks in my own journey as an arts and culture writer.

5. “Para Sa Tao,” Humanfolk

My piece on the album on which this track appeared was the first music-related article I ever wrote. I discovered the band by sheer serendipity, as I happened to be in the area where MCA was having an afternoon press event launching the record. (It was too early for the Vinyl on Vinyl exhibit opening later that night.) It turned out to be a veritable super-band, and in a way tied together several strands of music that would emerge as those I would be following in later years. For example, the fusion jazz strand which Johnny Alegre represented would find contemporary resonances in the likes of Extrapolation or Farewell Fair Weather. Cynthia Alexander epitomized the singer-songwriter strand which I was already following in some way through the Folk U series. Malek Lopez, who worked on the album’s electronic beats, stood for the electronic and experimental music that would converge and diverge in such things as Fete de la WSK and the Buwan-Buwan Collective. Abby Clutario, the band’s keyboard player and vocalist on this track, was part of the burgeoning progressive music community that paved the way for instrumental rock–and through her partner Eric Tubon in Fuseboxx, a key musical act in the current landscape.

The whole album itself is interesting but the full lineup has never been together since that May 2011 launch, for which, I distinctly recall, I had to contact my editor in utter excitement. These days, Clutario and Alegre are still together in Humanfolk, along with a newer lineup of musicians.

4. “There’s a Lonely Road to Sunday Night,” Ciudad

I was making up my mind between whether to include this track or Mikey Amistoso’s solo project Hannah+Gabi’s “Waiting for the Rainfall,” which is also a personal favorite (and an honorable mention), but if 2012 marked anything, it was the year when music helped me, in a big way, to get into independent film. This is the second single from the soundtrack to Marie Jamora’s film Ang Nawawala. I recently had a brief discussion about its impact with another writer and producer on the sidelines of a Red Turnip event, and we agreed that in a way this did lead others to local independent cinema in a big way. It was a film that had little to do with the kind that was often being touted as the standard aesthetic of what had gone before. But what counted was how it used music in a compelling way, something which other films here had done. What Ang Nawawala used in that memorable way was a musical palette that straddled generations, with Tagalog folk tunes sitting alongside Tarsius’s “Deathless Gods.”

On a bit of trivia, the song “Jonestown” by the Strangeness, which appeared on the said film’s soundtrack, became the closing credits tune for Dodo Dayao’s Violator, a rare instance of a song appearing in two non-studio films. I mention Violator because, well, I think viewers of the film already know.

3. “Misteryoso,” Autotelic

It was in November 2012 that a few Twitter users I followed were raving about this new band that featured, among others, Maya’s Anklet lead guitarist and composer Josh Villena and Fuseboxx’s keyboard/keytar player and composer Eric Tubon. “Misteryoso” was the first song Villena wrote for the band, whose name means “self-fulfilling” in Greek.

This is not the place to describe how big the band has become since then. This is about the time I skipped a gig of theirs to visit a Buwan-Buwan Collective night at a club called Purgatory, back in May 2013. Before dropping by, I had dinner at McDonald’s near Greenbelt, and my table happened to be across that of a woman who was not only physically attractive but was, memorably, using a computer a wee bit smaller than a netbook. I took note of her for a few minutes before she left. It then hit home that what Villena wrote about in “Misteryoso” was precisely the experience I had, and I told the band’s drummer Gep Macadaeg about it.

The version I prefer is the EP version from April 2013, a seven-minute tour de force that includes Eric Tubon’s synth intro. It reminds me that before “Dahilan” and “Laro,” the early contours of the band’s sound were partly shaped by someone who had a flair for the memorably grand keyboard hook, and since then Autotelic has found other interesting ways to reel listeners in.

Another honorable mention is another Autotelic song, “Unstable,” which is the second song Villena composed. It was used in the 2015 film project Where the Light Settles. The band played this, “Misteryoso,” “Laro,” and “Dahilan” last Fete de la Musique at the indie stage, where they have been playing since 2014.

2. “Nakauwi Na,” Ang Bandang Shirley

This song has been in my consciousness before I started writing about music, when I would drop by a Meiday gig or two to catch Outerhope and then hear Shirley end their sets there with this tune, composed by Ean Aguila. This was before I later learned that the best way to enjoy the tune live was to dance to it with a group of people while trying to shout along.

In an interview I did for the now defunct site pindiemusic, I asked Aguila about the story of this song. He explained that he wrote it for a woman he was dating up there, and it consisted, lyrically, of lines from their conversations he remembered. He and Shirley lead vocalist Owel Alvero went up to Cagayan to serenade her with the song. Sometime after, I asked him in person how that went, and he merely gave me a big smile. Read into that what you will.

Ian Urrutia of Vandals on the Wall noted their performance of it at Fete de la Musique’s indie stage as one of the night’s most memorable in a piece he wrote for The Philippine Star. The crowd’s reaction, as he described it, is the reaction I will always associate with the song. As I would put it, it is energetic singing and dancing from a crowd that shares the song’s sentiments about love and finding home in a loved one.

1. “In Darkness,” The Sun Manager

The first time I heard the song was in March 2014, when I was invited to catch the third Songs from a Room gig here in Manila, but April Hernandez and her musical work was not quite unknown. The last two acts I list here are both from the UP Underground Music Community, a group whose musical and personal imprint I felt the most in the last five years. April played for at least two of their bands. But it was her solo project, a Folk U performer twice over (talk about it being life-changing!) was what turned out to be the most memorable, and personally resonant.

It may help to note that in May 2012, I asked Bob Lyren and Jesse Grinter to play the song “We Walk the Same Line” by Everything But The Girl from their 1994 record Amplified Heart on their Lost in Translation radio show on Jam 88.3. It was my birthday, and I remember hearing it as I was about to board the train to Makati. The song’s refrain had a lyric, “If it’s dark, baby/there’s a light I’ll shine.” It was yet another lyric that echoed, in a way, a line from one of my favorite passages from the Bible:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” – Jn. 1:5 (NRSV)

Two years later, April performed that song, and again I heard those resonances. But it spoke more to me at that time when I was on the verge of gaining yet another second chance on life, a few months later. And in November 2014, I was speaking with someone with whom I would be working on a project, and when I listened to her story, the opening chords of “In Darkness” echoed in my head. That was when I believe Where the Light Settles was born.

“In Darkness” was one of those songs that made it past Jam 88.3’s Fresh Filter poll in its first week and, at one point, made it to the top three in the Ten Top Tracks on that station. But if you ask me, it is right up there with the small list of songs that changed my life. Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is one of them. Arnel Aquino’s setting of Psalm 116, “I Love the Lord,” is still another. What they all have in common is that, in ways explicit or otherwise, they remind me of that profundity which I hope I will be able to spend the rest of my life reflecting upon, and handing on to others.

Here are some other honorable mentions, with a brief summary of reasons:

  1. Kate Torralba’s “Northfleet” (and why Folk U changed my life)
  2. Fando and Lis’s “Sapat Na” (ditto)
  3. Stomachine’s “Your Turn” (and its connection to Paul Ricoeur)
  4. Ang Bandang Shirley’s “Di Na Babalik” (also an Ang Nawawala song)
  5. Up Dharma Down’s “Turn It Well” and the next three tracks of Capacities (that song reminded me most of the visual arts scene)
  6. Maya’s Anklet’s “Kung Alam Ko Lang” (a beautiful song about relationships in crisis)
  7. Farewell Fair Weather’s “Rough Skies” and “Sakali” (the latter being their most potent song)
  8. Outerhope’s “Lost Year” (a reflection on nostalgia which impressed me at that time)
  9. The Purplechickens’ “Dayami” (a song whose opening chords continue to give me the goosebumps)
  10. Cheats’ “Accidents” (a power pop tune that got me hooked since I first heard it)
  11. Kai Honasan’s “Ngayong Gabi” (one of the best things about her 2014 EP)

Honestly, I would have to come up with a top 50 of my own at this rate!

Reframing the landscape 

I started working on what was, as late as four years ago, an annual practice of an essay to mark Easter. One of the goals then was to attempt, at least at this special time, something of the long-form essay which I’ve decided will become more of a focus from now on, as i take a much-needed step back. I realized that, as Easter is fifty days long, I still have some time, but I intend to finish it within the Octave because I would not want to keep myself waiting.

One of the themes that came to mind as I revisited the writings of Paul Ricoeur last Saturday was how, to put it less elegantly, telling stories helps reframe how we see ourselves. It is the narrated self which, as one of his essays later notes, becomes the locus of conscience and the sense of being called, not only to account (as in the later part of his Oneself as Another) but also to a vocation. The latter requires, in my case, reframing how I see the landscape where I once roamed.

A key insight from last weekend was that part of this calling is to revisit an almost forgotten idea, for me: to ask where one can find something beyond the surfaces of that landscape. Revisiting that won’t take place in the space of an essay, but it will need a course correction of some magnitude. It means, most of all, that I will have to take the torturous path back to something that will not surprise those who’ve met me before 2011.

Good luck to me.

Faith-building

This has nothing to do with very recent events, but an upcoming one. 

2013 is supposed to be the Year of Faith, a time when Catholics and institutions run by them are supposed to consider how faith matters in our time. Central to that is going back to the foundations of faith, to the witness of the apostles and the Bible. It is meant to challenge many of our assumptions about the world and what we value in it. It makes me wonder how our big Catholic institutions, especially our universities, are celebrating this.

Nation-building is founded first on faith-building. In what sense can we talk about building a country when the Christian faith, which transcends national, racial, and ethnic boundaries, has yet to take genuine root in the way we live our lives?

Honestly, I don’t know how else to put it, but anything, even a defeat in a big sporting event, ought to be seen as a sign. For, like Paul after whom I was named, I must confess “that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” The Cross is folly, but it is our salvation. Go back to that and our questions will be answered; go back to Christ and our answers will be questioned.

So yes, even if I am proud of my education, I wish we took the challenge of faith very seriously. We lost the ball when we forgot to be charitable about those who believed in the sanctity of life, when we forgot that they were right about how our supposedly “modern” understanding of sexuality needs to be challenged by the “narrow way” of following Christ. We also lost the ball when we forgot to exercise a prophetic witness when it mattered, choosing instead to uphold the trappings and prestige of Establishment and forgetting that our call is to transform the world  according to the mind of Christ.

Yes, I welcome how much my university has changed. There are opportunities that this generation has that I never had during my time. But I am convinced now that it is time for a big rethink, not for tinkering around the edges. 

And this does not just go for my university. Every university that has Catholic (or for that matter, Christian) roots should really start rethinking whether they are true to what Christ preached, what the apostles witnessed, and what the martyrs gave their lives to defend.

I think it’s time we went back to basics. 

Plainchant power, or why we need to mourn

It’s about time we made sure plainchant regains a valued place in Philippine liturgy. If it can’t be done every Sunday, we should use prominent public celebrations of the liturgy to reintroduce it to people. I offer the following introit (or opening hymn of the liturgy) as a starter for a particularly prominent celebration:

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion,
et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem.
Exaudi orationem meam;
ad te omnis caro veniet.
Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat eis.

The adoption of this particular chant, and indeed of many of the chants of the older repertoire restores one aspect of the funeral liturgy I think has been lost in the mania for emphasizing the Resurrection as a theme in funerals, an awareness of the judgment that awaits us all. It is particularly necessary in the light of a suggestion a friend of mine made: sometimes, especially when we remember deceased leaders like the one we recall now, we should be utterly penitent for not having done enough ourselves, especially when things have gone wrong since then. I think this has to be emphasized, and I am coming to the conclusion that in a sense the old ways are better.

Now more than ever, we need to be shaken to the core of our fallenness, shaken enough to be awakened that we have to take on that mantle, fallen though we are, not because of our own merits, but because of the same God who graced us with that kind of leadership.

And that is all – a word to the Churches.

Last Sunday, Corazon C. Aquino, who served her country as the Philippines’ 11th President, passed away.

People like me are predicting cynicism could be so over after this week of events. I don’t think it will be rid off so easily, after hearing a colleague tell me that “he has never seen a president who has ever truly loved their country.” But I had to remind him: “Isn’t it that when one points a finger in accusation that three fingers point back?”

In the end, it will be up to us to prove him wrong. Perhaps we may not have to look to some Caudillo to save our country, a mentality that’s still prevalent amongst certain groups (including one religious group that, as of Saturday, forgot to place its flags on half-mast at its headquarters) and individuals, but we may have to look to what we can do, as groups and individuals, to imagine what can happen or what can be possible.

What counts, though, is that in a society where there is little space for the secular, our Churches should be a place where a counter-politics that reexamines even the very foundations of the state is imagined. Bill Cavanaugh, a Roman Catholic theologian, has argued that it is the power of the act of Great Thanksgiving that enables this to be possible. Read more here.

Doing it in lower case

My first user name on the Ship of Fools discussion boards was Post-Denominational Catholic. It was a silly idea on my part, really. I wanted to make a pun on both postmodernism and non-denominational Christian communities (which, I must say, is my favorite paradox in contemporary ecclesiastical discourse). The Catholic part would be obvious to a number of readers.

Of course, this proved to be too long and too clunky even for me (I got known as PDC sometimes) that it was changed to something closer to my real name.

The point of this anecdote is to suggest that when it comes to defining what one does (in this case, the kind of “thinking about God” that is commonly called theology) it is always good to come up with a convenient and handy way of describing it. And then one has to worry, later on, how to define oneself in relation to how other people do it.

This enterprise is indeed made more interesting when we consider that some of these labels often gain a more profound and universal significance, or a significance closer to what it says, when we change the case. Let me give two examples:

1. “Evangelical” with a big “E” has gained a good deal of baggage because of its associations with the kind of Christianity that is connected, for better or for worse, with a high view of Scripture and a low view of Church and the political complications thereof, notwithstanding Jim Wallis and Brian McLaren. (I will not of course go into detail into the complicated way it wove through Pentecostalism, and the resultant “worship wars.”) However, turn the capital letter into a small one and you get something pretty different. As Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America said, being evangelical is being “of the gospel.” It does clarify things somewhat, and it rids the term of some of its unfortunate connotations, at least in the North American and Philippine setting.

2. The same could be said for the word “Catholic” and the diminutive thereof. “Catholic,” in my country, is often used in a binary opposition with “Christian.” This is tragic because, historically, the terms go together. Even many of the churches of the Reformation use creedal statements that speak of the catholic, or universal, nature of the church. (Here, already, we see the diminutive, the lower case, being used to give a proper understanding of the term.) I would suggest that using the diminutive in this case would diminish its use as a polemical opposition, but on using Catholic with a big “C” I think it does have a particular significance in the light of a properly (Roman) Catholic theology that does exist and has a long pedigree. (At the same time, to overcome the binary, I would suggest that Roman Catholics in this country claim and celebrate the term “Christian” whenever they could, with a tacit understanding of its ecumenical implications. That’s another essay entirely.)

Now where is this all leading to? If I would identify my theological position, I would agree that it would have to be founded on the Gospel (making it evangelical) and it is grounded in the faith of the church universal (making it catholic), which has passed it on in different ways over the centuries, not merely in propositional truths which we must accept (a deeply modern construct), but also in the life of a community of believers that ultimately culminates, and starts from, the celebration of the Eucharist.

But of course, that is open to judgment and revision. Part of this project is to see, perhaps, how this has changed in the light of what I am learning. And I offer these in the hope that I can figure things out, with God’s grace and “with a little help from my friends.”