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Bayanihan: Searching for Chinese Elements in Philippine music and dance

by Pio Andrade

   

Chinese influence runs deep in Philippine life and culture permeating Philippine language, religious rituals, family relationships, games, customs, crafts, paintings. Although less written or heard about, Chinese elements have also crept into Philippine and music.

Bayanihan, the country's premier dance troupe, has been researching this area in preparation for a dance performance called "La Elegancia Binondo." It hopes to present at the Cultural Center of the Philippines this year.  "La Elegancia Binondo" will highlight Chinatown's rich cultural heritage and feature Chinese influences in Philippine music and dance.   

   

Last March, I got an unexpected call from Guillermo Gomes Rivera, the premier Spanish Dance Instructor in the Philippines,  who invited me to join him and several other Bayanihan members in a guided tour of Binondo on Holy Thursday.  Rivera is a mestizo terciado: Filipino, Chinese blood through his maternal grandfather.

Visits Bahay Tsinoy (from left) Helen Legion (assistant to costume   director),   Vale Cruz,   the author,   Isabel

Santos (artistic/costume director), Kaisa Heritage Center Executive Trustee Teresita Ang Se, Kaisa President Ang Chak Chi, and Leo Lorilla (performing artist)

   

Rivera arrived at the Binondo Church,  the meeting place,  with five Bayanihan members: music director Melito Vale Cruz,  dance director and choreographer Ferdinand Jose and dancers Macky Mangasi,  Maggie Mae Castro and Melvin Manuel.

Because of parking problems in Binondo, we decided to drive to Intramuros to grab a bite before embarking on the tour.  But all the restaurants there were closed, so we headed back to Binondo.

My first choice, Sincerity Restaurant, was closed.  We proceeded to Cafe Mezzanine at Nueva and Ongpin streets and were happy to find it open.  Cafe Mezzanine is also referred to as the Firemen's Restaurant because its proceeds benefit the volunteer firefighters.  Over tasty refreshments, Rivera talked about several Filipino songs, the melody and rhythm of which are recognizably Chinese.  One of these, "El Collar de Sampaguita," a Francisco Buencamino composition, was popular in the 19th century and was usually sung in celebrations where the honorees were presented with sampaguita garlands .  The songs was later eclipsed by the famous sampaguita song composed by Dolores Paterno whose roots are Chinese.

When Rivera identified "Sitsiritsit Alibangbang" as another such song, I was surprised.  But when he sang it in Chinese rhythm,  I was convinced.

As for dance, "Sakuting," from the sound itself, is of Chinese origin.

I contributed my two cents' worth about the origin of the folding Spanish fan, which despite its name, is of Chinese origin.  This, I told the members of the Bayanihan dance troupe, leads me to believe that Spanish dances where the fan figures prominently are of Chinese influence.  

I also recommended a study of dances that use small bells,  having heard recorded Chinese music with bells ringing.

   

I likewise suggested that Bayaniha's presentation includes harp playing.  The harp was a favorite musical instrument of the mestizas in Manila in the 19th century.  A European traveler in Manila at that time wrote of harps being played in Chinese homes.  There is an account about the daughter of an American  and a Chinese mestiza playing for guests in their Binondo home in 1850.  The Chinese version of the harp is the lute.  In old Philippine towns like Lopez,  Quezon where Spanish, Chinese, Filipino presence is prominent, there are a lot of harps.  Kaisa member Rosalinda Tu once told me that harp repairmen still operate in Aparri, Cagayan.

 

(from left) Castro, Sr. Guillermo Gomez, Jose, Mangasi and Vale Cruz at the Sta. Cruz de Longos Shrine in Binondo

   

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