Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Night out: Ishmael Bernal Gallery, UP Film Institute (10/12/07)

I made it last Friday to the benefit gig for the husband of Carol Bello, Pinikpikan lead singer and UP journalism instructor. A similar gig was held the night before at Penguin Cafe, with Cynthia Alexander among the performers. The line-up for the UP gig included Engkantada, Bayang Barrios, Spy, and Cordilleran musician Diego Lazo, a nephew of Carol's husband.

I arrived five minutes before the stipulated time, and I immediately felt disheartened to see that only about 10 people were inside the venue. The gig was to raise funds to augment the expense for surgery; I learned later that it was for colon cancer. With tickets priced at only P100.00 each, I felt sad because I knew the proceeds just won't be enough. Far from it. Should I have forwarded Carol's invitation for the gig to more email groups so that more people would have come? It was also a holiday last Friday so students weren't in school. The organizers even bought food for the musicians and there was a good sound system; I hope they didn't have to pay much for those or nothing would have been left. Thankfully, the crowd swelled to about 40 (Cynthia Alexander also attended but did not perform).

Anybody who has been confined to a hospital, or has taken care of somebody in a hospital would be able to relate to Carol's situation. Hospitalization is very costly, plus the added psychological burden of not knowing when it's going to end. Nothing screams REAL LIFE louder than illness. Just a couple of weeks ago I had to spend time at the hospital to take care of my mom, and I've had surgery before, so I know how difficult it is. I was just happy to be there for the gig because I know it would mean so much, not really because of the money, but because I know how good it feels when people try to show that one is not alone in a situation like that.

First on the lineup were Engkantada, an all-female percussion and guitars ensemble with Carol as lead vocalist. Before they performed, Carol thanked the audience for coming and said that there was really no other reason for the show but to ask for financial support for her husband's operation. Talking about her husband's illness, she even did it with humor, telling the audience the difficulty of watching over at the hospital (in "PGH, ward 2, bed 23"), availing discounts from the social service, and why her husband had to "choose" a disease na "pang-mayaman." She also confessed, "ngayon ko lang talaga naramdaman kung paano mag-alala sa isang asawa...people ask me how I feel...there are no words."

I admire Carol as an artist of great talent and depth, but her honesty and humility made me admire her more as a person. In the few occasions that I've seen her perform with Pinikpikan, I recognized right away that here was an artist with no pretenses, no artificiality, no delusions of greatness and grandeur. When Carol sings, I'm captivated by her intensity. The emotions in her performances come from a place grounded in reality. Gritty and full of angst. I could compare her to blues greats like Billie Holiday. Walang pa-cute. Galing sa sikmura, kumakawala. She's a working class musician, singing not for glamour but to live. She's very much of this world. She's one of us.

Engkantada did a handful of songs, from a rousing rendition of "Babae," to the touching "Uyayi," which Carol said she wrote as if she had a baby, as the couple never had a child.

Bayang Barrios sang two songs, backed by Spy who also did a couple of songs after. Spy, of course, was the multi-ethnic world music trio headed by Sammy Asuncion, but the current line-up has Sammy with Budeths Casinto and Louie Talan of Pinikpikan (Boy Garovillo took over Budeths' spot for this show). Spy did an acoustic set, which means it was not a typical Spy set, which I read usually end up with everybody dancing.

Diego Lazo, backed by Spy again, showed the audience how to play the kulintong, a bamboo stringed instrument, which, Diego explained, people in their community use during celebrations. He also said that they even hold kulintong playing competitions. Carol and Diego then played tungatongs, also bamboo instruments, with improvised accompaniment by Spy. The night ended with chanting, percussing, clapping, and Bayang Barrios dancing, which I doubt will ever be replicated as everything was improvisational.

* * * * * * *

How apt is it that a section of the UP Film Institute is now named after the late great director Ishmael Bernal? I saw Bernal in person only twice in my life, and they were both at the film center. The first time was during a screening of the international version of The Flor Contemplacion Story, around 1995. The second time, there were only three people at the theater: Bernal's mother, seated on her wheelchair at the cinema lobby; me; and Bernal, regally lying in his coffin at center stage, surrounded by flowers from people who owed him their careers and credibility. At that time, I still had the strongest desire to be a filmmaker. Silently, I told Bernal, "you don't know me, but you've had a big impact on me."

Indeed, Philippine cinema wouldn't be what it is now without the enduring works of Bernal and his contemporaries. Bernal was often compared with Brocka, but their styles were very different from each other. While Brocka's films were clearly inspired by the neorealists, Bernal's films had touches of surrealism and the absurd. As a young film enthusiast, I was awed by Bernal's work more than Brocka's, maybe because my idea of a good film then was, "hindi ko gaanong naintindihan, pero alam kong maganda." I love Himala. I love Manila By Night. They tackled themes that were not that different from the movies of his contemporaries, but Bernal's films had a dreamlike (nightmarish?) quality that was difficult to shake off. Each movie's milieu was familiar, but instead of feeling comfortable with this familiarity, the audience felt disoriented and disconcerted, because Bernal liked to show things in a different light, and to tell stories in a different perspective. Bernal's influence was much evident in the works of Filipino independent filmmakers in the '90s, when indie filmmaking meant breaking relatives' bank accounts to make a 10-minute (pa-art effect) surrealistic journey into the filmmaker's psyche, using film stock or Super 8. Those were the days.

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