Monday, March 30, 2015

Impressions on the book "The Music of Zamboanga: A Historical Perspective"

This was a talk delivered during the launch of the book "The Music of Zamboanga: A Historical Perspective" on March 28, 2015 at the Crystal Ballroom of Astoria Hotel in Zamboanga City. The author, Prof. Norma C. Conti, and her daughter Cielito Olegario, asked me to give my impressions of the book.

The front and back cover of the book "The Music of Zamboanga: A Historical Perspective" by Prof. Norma Camins Conti.

Professor Norma Conti has crafted many love letters to Zamboanga City. These love letters have invariably taken the form of songs, songs that have since become icons of Zamboanga culture. I call them love letters because it is immediately apparent to the listener that the creator of such songs as Vamos a Zamboanga and Paseo de Amigos is hopelessly, irrevocably in love with Zamboanga.

Prof. Conti either writes about Zamboanga, or writes in Zamboangueno, or writes songs about Zamboanga in Zamboangueno. In all these songs, her infatuation with all things of this city is undeniable.

And so when I heard about this latest labor of love of I was eager to get ahold of it. A love letter from Prof Conti, this time in book form. 

I have read the book. It was a fast read for me because it is written in a very conversational and natural way. Admittedly, it was also a fast read for me too because I do not know how to read musical notes. There are pages upon pages of musical score, some painstakingly hand written by the author that would delight the educated musician. The beauty of these music sheets were lost on me, unfortunately.

But like Prof Conti, I love music. However, as her daughter Cielito, my best friend since high school can attest, the songs that I prefer are not necessarily the songs that Prof Conti would prefer. But I am an academician and I am someone who has done some research in history and in music, specifically in the history and in the music of Zamboanga. It is for these reasons that I am delighted that Prof Conti has come out with this book. 

The book straddles the two literary disciplines: academic writing and journal writing. The book will be a worthy addition to any library for its value as reference in the areas of music, traditional music, music history, Filipino music, and Philippine culture. You all know that books like those I have just mentioned tend to be dry and boring. This one isn’t. While erudite, Prof Conti’s book is filled with trivia and interesting tidbits about Zamboanga life, especially about a lifestyle that is long gone. 

For example, did you know that the song No Te Vayas has the exact same melody as the regimental march of an American infantry regiment? The regiment had been assigned here during the American occupation of the Philippines. It makes one wonder, whose melody was it originally, theirs or ours? Also, did you know that the same song, No Te Vayas, was played during the international trade fair St. Louis Exposition in 1904? This means a song from Zamboanga was chosen to represent the Philippines!

The book also tells us that the canonical Filipino love song, “Dahil Sa Yo” was in fact written by someone who grew up in Zamboanga City, and probably written while he was in Zamboanga. The romantics in us would say that the song was probably inspired by the mythical beauties of Zamboanga. 

Prof. Conti’s book is informative. It reveals to us that songs can give us a glimpse of the kind of relationship that most likely existed between natives and Spaniards such as in the lyrics of a zarzuela that has a female singer saying: “…yo Filipina, uste Espanol”, hinting at an insurmountable divide between the two races.

The book has a list of Zamboanguenos who made significant contributions to the musical culture of the city, from the indigenous tribes to the various invaders, to the current crop of rock and pop musicians. It lists favorite songs of our civic leaders. It features songs written and sung to express our collective aspirations, such as the song written about the our fate after the Zamboanga Siege of 2013.

The book makes you realize that Zamboanga music might have changed over the years; gone are the zarzuelas of old, now replaced by popular melodies like Porque and Cuando, but that all of these songs exists in a continuum. 

For example, the rap battle that regularly takes place at Paseo del Mar, participated in by many of our youth, how different is that really from the bantayanons of old?

According to Prof Conti, bantayanons are verbal jousts or duels between two or participants employing the dynamics of music. That exact same definition can be applied to rap battles. Bantayanon is usually done by people in the barrio rather than residents of poblacion or town centers. Rap battles are more common among the youth in the street, the kanto boys. This means both bantayanons and rap battles are mass culture rather than high culture. They are, in other words, pang-masa. The similarities go on. Both involve improvisation, both are battles of wits, with participants trying to outdo each other usingn words set to music. Both can be on any topic relevant to the participants, both can involve naughty themes and naughty words.

The book does not say that bantayanons are the pre-cursor of rap battles but it does give you the information that allows you to make these connections.

The book is a combination of intellectual insights, insider information, and rigid research. Because of this, the book is a worthy addition to any library. The book is for everybody interested in Zamboanga, interested in music, interested in history. 

To Professor Norma Conti, my warmest congratulations on the publication of this book. It is an amazing additional to an already amazing body of work.

To everybody, I hope all of you will give yourself the gift of reading of this book. 

Delivering the talk.

With the author after the launch.