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The Singer and the Songs: An Evening with Carmen Camacho

It is said it is never proper to talk about the age of a woman but there she was on the screen, in her 80s, and not looking it. With that youthful lilt in her voice, Carmen Camacho was again in the limelight. This happened last Sunday in that rare program called Plaka , initiated by Michael Coroza, prize-winning poet and scholar with cultural stalwarts, Prof. Felipe Padilla M. de Leon, Jeannete Job Coroza, and our very own, Sonia Malazarte Roco.

The title of the program wittily stands for Pamana ng Lahi, Arte, Kultura Atbp., a talk show that is more than talk but music, discussions of heritage and the many wonderful trivia about the sounds of the islands we listen to.

Plaka is program perhaps is the only radio and online project that possesses the daring to systematically present to us each week a remembrance of culture by way of music composed by our very own artists. It is magical enough to be listening to music that are not anymore played over the radio or TV; it is a social reward to be in a universe where four individuals also talk about the origins of these songs and the cultures from where they come. The bonus comes by way of the expertise and unflagging interest of the Corozas, De Leon and Roco who remain forever curious about our music.

Months back, Kristian Sendon Cordero and I participated in this program. Featured in the program was Bikol music. We had a field day talking about those days when a voice entered our living rooms and consciousness. That voice was singing in our own language; that voice recorded in vinyl or plaka was rendering songs that belonged to our land.

That voice was Carmen Camacho’s. She recorded those songs that, were she not interested in them or were no producer was interested would have not been imbued with the power of commerce and communication. What this meant was the arrival of a product that could be repeatedly played and listened to, reaching the whole of of Bikol, including the island-provinces of Masbate and Catanduanes, and even some parts of the nation.

Some of the songs have their own versions in the other regions and provinces. But people were not complaining. No one even knew or bothered to ask to which province Miss Camacho belonged. The only good thing was she sang those songs and they were being played together with those in English, Tagalog (it was called then as such and it still is by Bikolanos) and other languages. Perhaps, if there were complaints if could had been from those little town bands that were invited to play the Pantomina during weddings and fiestas, for even that song got recorded by Carmen Camacho and with lyrics to boot.

And yet last Sunday was special. Mike Coroza had invited me to join that edition of Plaka. No pressure. I would not be tasked with discussing anything about Bikol music. I would be there to listen to Carmen Camacho and, more than that, be free to ask the singer any question related to her music.

That night, we learned about a gilded period gone. We listened enraptured to Carmen Camacho as she recalled their grueling (for this generation’s standard) hours of practice, which ran from Monday to Wednesday. On Thursday, Leopoldo Silos would then ask them to perform the songs they had rehearsed. Then it was time to rehearse with the orchestra, followed by recording. At times, Miss Camacho said she would excuse herself and take a taxi en route to more performances.

It was, observed by Mike Coroza, like having office hours. Those hours logged in also spoke of discipline on the part of the artist.

Although we knew the answer, we had to ask Miss Camacho about the recording. “Did they perform together with the live orchestra?” They did. The so-called “minus-one” or that recording which contains the instrumental part of the song was not discovered yet when she began her singing career. This meant the singers of those years had to develop an ear for live music. One mistake on the part of the singer meant the orchestra had to do the accompaniment all over again.

Would the evening be complete without us requesting Carmen Camacho to sing for us a few lines from any Bikol song? I made one or two requests but she seemed not excited about my choices until I mentioned the song, Si Nanay si Tatay.

That night, without those musicians crowding the Villar recording studio in Escolta, and all alone in the living room that became a stage, Carmen Camacho sang the song as moving as it was full of grandeur: Si Nanay, si Tatay, di ko babayaan/Balakid na buot an sakuyang utang…It soared on – the love song to mothers and fathers and the tribute to children who unconditionally their parents loved.


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