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Old Notes on Bikol Ethnography, Language and Literature

Long before Fr. James O’Brien asked his Ateneo de Naga high school students of the mid- and late 60s, there was H. Otley Beyer. He was an American anthropologist credited with being a founding member of the Anthropology department at the University of the Philippines in 1914. To H. Otley Beyer is also attributed the now-debunked “wave migration theory,” which teaches that the ancestors of the Filipinos traveled to the Philippines in a series of migrations: with the Negritos, a hunting-gathering “tribe” arriving some 30,000 years ago by way of land bridges, followed by a group coming from Indonesia who traveled by boats and bringing with them more advanced tools. The last wave was supposedly the Malays, described as “civilized” and becoming the people that preceded the arrival of the Spanish colonizers.

My generation and the previous generations took this theory at heart. The present should be questioning this theory for being simplistic. And if there is still a teacher who spreads this fact, then there is indeed a problem with our education.

In the 1920s, H. Otley Beyer began asking his students at the University of the Philippines to gather cultural facts and data from the province where they came from. To save from fieldwork, we could imagine these young students becoming amateur but eager ethnographers excited to gather stories and information for their American professor.

The National Library has these papers now, written by the students, recording for posterity what anthropologists or teachers of culture then believed to be expressions of social meanings as located in a town, city or province.

One interesting trivia about the collection is how Beyer spelled the word “Bikol” with a “K” instead of a “C.” Those batches of students who had gone through their Bikol Culture classes under Fr. O’Brien, SJ, will remember how the good Jesuit introduced the said orthographic practice during those years.

In the Preface written to the Vol. II of the Ethnography of the Bikol People, Beyer underscored how the Bikol materials were scarce relative to the population. His explanation: there were fewer students coming to the university from the Bikol provinces. While half of the report was about folktales, social customs and belief, Beyer called special attention to the papers on Bikol language from a certain E. E. Schneider and to the collection of Bikol songs by Rodolfo Dato.

When one examines the collection, one can find a few songs and the rest were folktales.

Rodolfo Dato, of course, was the brother of Luis Dato. He is described as a lawyer, editor and educator from Baao, Camarines Sur. He holds the honor of having produced the first seminal work on Philippine poetry in English in 1924, with the assistance of his brother Luis, who went on to become the famous poet of the region.

Online I found a soft copy of the book, where in his introduction to the book he edited were these words: “a collection of the maiden songs of our native bards warbling in borrowed language.” The anthology included works by Maximo M. Kalaw (the Filipino political scientist remembered for his argument for independence from the United States, Fernando Maramag(the poet known for his “The Rural Maid”) Maria Agoncillo (was she the second wife of Aguinaldo?) and, his brother, Luis Dato.

By 1937, Rodolfo Dato would publish a second collection of verses of Luis, his brother. Bearing the title My Book of Verses, this treasure was printed by N. S. Sanchez of Naga City. Who has information about this man? According to AVH Hartendorp, “the little book should be in the collection of every one interested in Filipino poetry in English. That little book contained the poem, The Spouse. Recall the lines: “Rose in her hand and moist eyes young with weeping/…Fragrant with scent that wakens love from sleeping.”

Rodolfo Dato, living a less flamboyant life, it appears in many short biographies online, would become an educator, teaching Law, at a certain point, in the University of the Philippines. He would transfer to the University of Nueva Caceres and left a legacy in the form of the university hymn the music of which was composed by Luis Ocampo Aguirre, with its lyrics composed by him.

In the collection of H. Otley Beyer, we see this literary gift and musicality. The first entry in the collection of Bikol songs has no title. Its first two lines go: Cadtong sarong aga na bulan nin Mayo/aco nagpaduman buquid na harayo (note the orthography), which he translated into: One happy morning in the month of May/I climbed a verdant mountain far away. The lyrics are there intact but no musical notations accompany them. Who could hum this song that seems not to be in our recollection anymore.

The second song has a title, Cundiman: Magna inagrangay canugon na lamang/ Si magna pagnaco simong sinumpaan (again, note the orthography), which then he translated as Useless were my sighs and useless were/The hundred promises that you have sworn. Was this song as maudlin as its words? We can only swoon with the verses and conjure the tune that has but altogether disappeared.


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