Close encounters with National Artists

Close encounters with National Artists
HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) Updated August 16, 2009 12:00 AM

Ohoto by RayVi Sunico
Ohoto by RayVi Sunico

I am lucky to have met and worked with four National Artists as teachers, mentors and collaborators. Of course they were not National Artists then. They were simply brilliant people I looked up to because they were very good at what they did.

Three of them were my teachers at the Ateneo de Manila — Rolando Tinio, Bienvenido Lumbera and Virgilio Almario. The other one is Salvador Bernal, “Badong” to those who have worked with him as a set designer and costume-maker.

Virgilio Almario, or Rio Alma as he is known in the literary world, was a gentle teacher who taught me Pilipino poetry. I remember that he looked so young and clean-cut, not at all like the mental picture I had of what a poet would look like. Instead of the long, shaggy haired, beatnik weirdo that I imagined him to be, Rio Alma was quite the opposite. He was so neat, and would sometimes even wear a Barong Tagalog to class.

He was so good in Pilipino and I was impressed not just with his fluidity in the language but also that he used words I had never even heard of. I was a hopeless inglisero then, having been schooled all my life under the Jesuits who at that time discouraged the use of anything except American English.

I imagined that Rio must have been frustrated at his Atenista students, many of who had no real appreciation for poetry, much less the Pilipino variety. But he got me personally interested in his own work and that of E. San Juan and Amado V. Hernandez (another National Artist!) whose books I bought at the Erehwon Bookstore on Katipunan with my hard-saved baon.

It was from Rio Alma that I first began really appreciating Tagalog and the possibility of even writing in the vernacular. And my one subject with him served me well when I actually began writing songs in the ‘70s when we started OPM.

It was from Amado Hernandez’ Ibong Mandaragit that I picked up the word “tigang” which I used in my song Nakapagtataka to rhyme with “maramdaman.”

The late Rolando Tinio was a fun teacher. I enrolled in two of his subjects: English Literature and a Pilipino subject, the name of which I can no longer recall. Rolando was loud, challenging, outlandish, funny, and often went for the jugular when he felt he needed to jolt us to a bigger consciousness. He did so by raising his voice, arguing with us, in his theatrical manner with fingers flying all over, to make his point. He could be ridiculously funny and entertaining in a very witty way. His putdowns and his comments were always quotable.

I remember one classmate (who now holds a prominent place in the GMA administration) who raised a point that was too long and winding. Rolando looked him straight in the eye and asked him seriously if he had a headache, which got the class giggling. When my classmate replied in the negative and asked why, Rolando answered, “Because you’ve been sitting on your brains for too long.” We roared with laughter!

And yes, he did awaken many of us. At a time when 90 percent of what we knew and aspired for in the world was largely American, Rolando introduced us to literature from different countries. He awakened our sensibilities to the seriousness and relevance of theater (his passion), the issue of language, and discernment in all things during those days when the political atmosphere was polarized. He was just brilliant.

During Martial Law, the APO was invited to sing for the political detainees at the YRC in Fort Bonifacio, a detention center for political dissidents. It was there that I ran into a former teacher at the Ateneo, Bienvenido Lumbera. It was a pleasant reunion under difficult circumstances.

A few years after his release from detention, I called Bien to ask it he would be interested in collaborating on a musical I had in mind. He was about to leave for Hawaii then on a grant, but he was excited to collaborate with this upstart songwriter who had these crazy ideas about what would have happened, like if Rizal and Bonifacio had actually met, or how Josephine Bracken and Maria Clara would have wooed the national hero.

It is amazing that we got the work done through exchanges of snail mail. He worked on the libretto of Bayani in Hawaii and I wrote the music in Manila. To me, writing the music came so naturally, it seemed to come out of my sleeve. And Bien’s lyrics were brilliant! We were not only on the same wavelength, we were on a roll.

The entire production, from the songs to the direction, production design, staging, execution, was pure magic. Bayani was very well received. But sadly, Bien was away and he never got to see the musical. He had to content himself with the reviews.

I worked with Badong Bernal in Bayani where he went wild and wonderful with the sets and costumes. For those who saw the musical, it was quite impressive to see bridges appear and disappear, and the walls of Intramuros move about the stage when the scenes changed.
The APO also worked with Badong in some shows before and after the People Power Revolution. He did set and production designs for Kuh Ledesma — we were her favorite guests then — and he designed some of our costumes. One of our favorite performance costumes made by Badong, which people remember to this day, was a unique shirt that allowed us to change its look by simply snapping on various built-in designs. It was so creative.

Common to all these National Artists I have met and worked with is their passion and effort to achieve excellence in whatever they did and continue to do. And they were so good, they could not help but rub off some of their talent on the people they worked with.

Last August 8 at the CCP where artists of all kinds of disciplines gathered to mourn the “Death of the National Artists Awards” in protest against this year’s shoddy list, I saw Bien, Badong and Rio. My Pilipino poetry teacher had gained weight, I thought, and with his hat he came across a bit like Pablo Neruda. Badong and Bien had aged, but they still had that glint in their eyes that suggested they could still wow their countrymen if they wanted to. I was thrilled to see other National Artists there like BenCab, Napoleon Abueva, Arturo Luz and F. Sionil Jose who left me in awe when he called me over to say that he reads my Sunday column.

I am so privileged to have worked with some of the best people in their fields, and I am thankful to have been exposed to their genius. They have inspired my work ethic and creativity no end.