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Aleta General and Those Old Love Songs

Allow me to take a break from cultures and politics and talk about Aleta General, an old soul, a beautiful old soul. She sings those old, old lovely songs about love unrequited or love fulfilled, or even love merely imagined, as though she were born in the period those melodies were conjured and those lines crafted.

Because she makes this art of singing old songs look easy and facile, it is easy to dismiss her craft as something that belongs to a hobbyist. But, listen to her, listen to how her phrasing, and how she works with the lyrics, sliding a note to another, making sure the breathing is kept to a minimum. Then you realize, here is a song where you hear each word, where you understand a phrase because the singer is paying attention to what the music is saying.

For those who were born during the days when the radio swayed over all kinds of communication and when the voice coming from your Avegon was the voice of an announcer, not a DJ, then Aleta’s contribution to the memories of a community becomes keener and more significant.

In the absence of television – and when the Internet was not even yet a speck in the technological universe – the radio was our windows to the worlds outside. We listened to all kinds of music and there were all sorts of vocal timbre from men and women who made you happy as the evening came, and as the moon waxed and waned, and the stars shone brightly ever.

There were vocal contests then. If you could not make it to the plaza, then the radio brought those magical voices to your living room. You did not listen alone then; somehow, there was a family with you – a father, a mother, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The radio would usually occupy a central space, an elevated alcove, the better for the sound to spread all around the living room and into the kitchen, where the dinner (we called it “supper” in those years) was being prepared. Of, it was already eight in the evening (people ate early), then the music was even needed by those cleaning the table, dishes and other utensils.

If my memory serves me now with fidelity, the singers whose voices graced the airlane (does anyone still use this term?) were stellar and, each one, singular. At present, when a singer sings another singer’s song, that singer “covers” the music. In those years, “cover” did not yet gain currency; rather, each singer in the past took on the vocal styling of an established vocalist, usually a foreign one. Thus, there was Diomedes Maturan becoming the Perry Como of the Philippines; Belle Gonzales as our answer to Jo Stafford (go to YouTube and listen to her rendition of Stafford’s “No Other Love” and be pleasantly shocked with their similarity).

In Naga, there were many excellent singers. I recall Arthur Israel who stole the hearts of many with his own take of Johnny Mathis’s “Wild is the Wind.” Then there was Neddie Decena in the 70s reviving not only the songs but also the vocal styling of Brenda Lee and Timi Yuro (again, go to YouTube and surf the songs Neddie of Dayangdang, Naga City made into hits). There were many more.

With these singers and their music was gilded past now long gone.

The radio days meant also newscasters who had a mastery of the English language and, for those who opted to use the Bikol language, an overwhelming grasp of its vocabulary – the nuance and color particular to said means of communication.

And now, presently, we have this rarity, Aleta General, who does not mangle the grammar and diction of the songs she gives life to. In the age of videoke, where the beat of the music is programmed to kill any attempt at interpretation, it was such a grace to encounter Aleta at a hotel lobby, singing with a live pianist.

The songs Aleta sings bring us back to that Age of Manners and Etiquettes, of long days when love was still seen as pure, or when one had to remain pure (perhaps in intent), idealized because there was no other way.

Aleta is also the purveyor of the so-called “torch songs,” which literally call to mind the image of a woman (rarely, a man) holding a torch in the dark, waiting, waiting for that man, that love to come back. And, while that love is like hope that springs eternal, she sings about someone to watch over her, or being bewitched, bothered and bewildered, or having a crush she calls her sweetie pie.

In this dreadful period of lockdowns when the thing we see at the end of the tunnel is not a light but a vaccine, Aleta with her songs marked by elegant words of happiness, sadness, and, of course, love, is the closest we can get to believing in forever.

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