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When Music Accompanies our Memories

When generations recall the past, most of the time, one can imagine melody playing in the background, a sound accompanying an event that is being retold in our mind.

For my generation and the periods before that, songs or tunes were ferried thru local singers who figured greatly in vocal concourses. Their winning and eventual popularity provided a source of pride, even a sense of identity. One became proud being a Bikolano because a singer who happened to be known personally or whose roots were right there in one’s small city or town had now become a national figure, even if for days only after a competition.

One of the most revered musical competitions then was Tawag ng Tanghalan. Its beginning was in the Purico Amateur Hour. Purico was a lard, a white, creamy solid or semisolid fat almost like a butter. When one bought “oil,” then, one did not bring a bottle or expected to get a bottle. In sari-sari store, the lard was heaped on wax paper or some such material.

Outside Tawag ng Tanghalan, there were, on the side, the popular Liberty Big Show and Darigold Jamboree.

For many years, “Tawag ng Tanghalan” was, however, the arena for champions. The eliminations happened in selected areas where a radio station became the regional center. Not all the cities in the Philippines were marked as entry points for would-be singing sensations. Only the following cities provided the gateway to vocal – and if one’s lucky star shone upon him or her – or movie stardom, and these were: Dagupan and Naga in Luzon, Iloilo and Cebu in the Visayas, and Cagayan de Oro, and Davao.

In the 1950s, Naga was not yet a huge city. Its inclusion among the more urban sites mentioned could be because of a strong radio presence. Thus, the history of music festivals can be also about the story of the radio in the nation.

A diminutive girl belonging to a family with no radio set (and this was already the 60s) would travel from the town of Iriga (it would be a city only by 1968) to join the Liberty Big Show in Naga. Her name was Nora Villamayor.

She would win and she would use the cash prize to augment the income of the household.

Nora would win several times but she would never win big in the region. Her problem was she could not get hold of any music sheet. She would listen to a song, jot down the lyrics fast, as she listened to the music being played from the neighbor! If she had not completed the lyrics of a particular song she was interested to sing, she had to wait again for that song to be played over the radio.

It was when she moved to Manila and began to live with her aunt who was married to an “Aunor” that she joined Tawag ng Tanghalan, this time as “Nora Aunor.”

Long before Nora became part of the history of Tawag ng Tanghalan, the competition already had a gilded history. Anyone who joined it had to be good. And anyone who made it to the final must be excellent as he or she had to be unbeaten continuously for several weeks before qualifying for the Grand Final. Take note: there was a mighty gong that could eliminate contestant shamelessly in the middle of a performance.

In the first Tawag ng Tanghalan, the winner was Jose “Pepe” Pimentel who sang Pedro Infante’s Spanish classic, “Angelitos Negros,” a bittersweet song about a young mulatto girl asking her father why there were no “black angels” on the ceiling of the church. It is a powerful song with lyrics that go: Aun que la Virgen sea blanca/Pintame angelitos negros/Que tambien se van al cielo/Todos los negritos Buenos (Even if the Virgin is white/Paint little black angels for me/Since the blacks who are good people/Also go to heaven).

Pepe Pimentel would initiate from 1954 a line of celebrated and excellent singers of different styles and sensibility. In 1958 and 1959, Diomedes Maturan and Cenon Lagman would be the Grand Champions, respectively.

Singing a Perry Como original, the version of which critics would claim as better than the original, Maturan would prove the legacy of Tawag: it was a legacy of voice and not celebrity. It did not matter where you came from and whether you did not possess a matinee idol look, so long as your voice – timing, phrasing, diction, style – was above the rest.

Competing with Diomedes Maturan in 1958 was a baritone from Buhi, Pastor San Miguel.

Cenon Lagman won with “Ikaw Lang ang Iibigin,” an English adaptation of a Hiligaynon song, “Walay Angay/.” One of the singers defeated by Lagman was Ric Manrique who would go on to immortalize theme songs of classic romantic films like, “Sapagkat Kami’y Tao Lamang,” and “Kapag Puso’y Sinugatan.” Strangely enough, in that 1959 edition, Manrique sang an English song, “Alone at Last,” a song popularized by Tony Bennett.

Nora’s winning song during the finals was “Moonlight Becomes You.” For several weeks, Patsy and Lopito were wondering where this young girl was getting her selection of obscure and difficult songs.

In March 2015, Nora came home again to Naga. She was to be given the Bulawan Bikolnon Award, the highest honor given to an artist by the Ateneo de Naga University. The night before that, she was recognized as an Honorary Nagueña. That night, Zaida Sancho offered Nora a bouquet and sang to her once more the song, which began her journey in the city embracing her and her story. This was the girl who confessed how she kept on singing “You and the Night and the Music,” not because she loved the song but because that was the first and only song she learned by heart then.


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