Sunday, July 28, 2013

Elitist Regime in Baguio

We were excited by the thought that from our new home, the jeepney passes first right by the school of our youngest child, then his manong’s school next. So on the first school day after moving to our new home, I walked our three children to where they can take their respective jeeps – our daughter would have to take another jeep since her school is in another part of the Central Business District.

But the boys’ jeepney took another route and skipped their schools – during the morning rush hour, jeepneys are not allowed along Gen. Luna Road. They had to walk the few blocks from where they got off to their schools. I don’t think they’re the only ones who live in our part of the town who go to those two schools in that area of the Central Business District. Those children, too, would have to walk the extra few blocks because, again, public utility jeeps aren’t allowed along Gen. Luna Road during the morning rush hour. They do this, presumably, to help de-clog that area in the morning.

We’re fortunate enough to have access to a private vehicle. One morning, while driving the kids to school, I noticed the huge cars ahead of me drop one child each to school. Three huge cars, three passengers got to their destination. We'd really rather take the jeep, not only is it cheaper, we also contribute less to the degradation of the air quality and traffic congestion in the area.

So to help ease traffic, they ban vehicles that can carry about 20 persons at a time and allow private cars that bring one student each at a time. Not so long ago, to ease traffic along Session Road, they closed a couple of pedestrian lanes forcing those on foot to walk the extra hundred meters or so to cross to the other side.

Our local government finds it easy to inconvenience the masses to please those who have more in life. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? That those who have less in life should have more in law? Not in Baguio City.

And that’s also why those clamoring for a fully pedestrianized Session Road, or at least just car-less days perhaps, that would result in much cleaner air within the Central Business District, will never get to realize that dream under the present regime in Baguio. The moneyed people are opposed to the idea, and judging from what we see right now: Gen. Luna Road closed to public vehicles so that private car owners will not be inconvenienced in the morning, lesser pedestrian crossings on Session Road so that those million-peso SUVs will not get stuck in traffic, endorsing the cutting of 182 trees for a parking lot for the convenience of those who actually own cars, the ceding of the Athletic Bowl to a private company for the benefit of the investors and those in power more than anyone else… add that to the putting up of gates around a public park because according to the city’s environment and parks department head, we, the masses, do not behave properly in open spaces and that we might just improve our behavior if we’re inside a gated and fenced area like a country club.

Today’s Baguio is for the elite, the rich, the moneyed, much like what the rest of the country thought when the Americans were just starting to establish a hill station in these parts when members of the Philippine Assembly voiced out their opposition to what they believed was a project that would benefit only the elite, the rich, the moneyed.

At least the Americans listened to the sentiments of local legislators then, and made sure that there are amenities in Baguio that would benefit those of moderate means, or the masa. Among them, a public transportation system for those who don’t own cars, those pedestrian crossings on Session Road so that those on foot can also easily navigate the Central Business District, and public open spaces for those who cannot afford a country club membership or a round of golf at Camp John Hay.

I don’t see this regime ever putting the welfare of the masses ahead of the moneyed. We’ve seen too much to expect anything of that sort from them.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Art of Dionne Warwick

She walked towards centerstage like she owned it. She did – Dionne Warwick entered, conquered and owned the UB Gymnasium stage last Thursday. And once again it was proven that at the end of the day, it’s not about hitting those high notes, flashy costumes or fancy theatrics – it’s all about the music and the artist’s commitment to the craft.

Her Philippine concert tour schedule was a challenge – the Manila Hotel on July 20, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum the following day, in Davao on July 23, then zigzag her way up to Baguio on the eve of her July 25 concert in Baguio. Even the vocal chords of the much younger Per Sorensen, one half of the duo Fra Lippo Lippi, gave when he toured the country in 2011, struggling through his hour-long set in a concert brought to Baguio also by Waltrix Productions.

Warwick’s voice was hoarse by the time she stepped on the Baguio stage, but struggle the 72 year-old artist did not. As she said to her audience in her opening spiel, “whatever I’ve got to give, you’re gonna get it.” And get it we did, “it” being a world-class, once-in-a-lifetime performance by one of the "40 biggest hit makers of the entire rock era." She conquered that vocal challenge and performed her songs as if they were meant to be sung with that raspy voice.

Her performance was pure, honest. It was brimming with passion. She was onstage not to show off, most artists fall into that trap when in front of an audience. She was there to share a life-changing experience with her audience. That’s what art’s all about, and that’s what one gets from a true artist such as Dionne Warwick.

She sang her heart out – and connected with her audience individually. I could have sworn that she was singing “keep smiling, keep shining, knowing you can always count on me...” to me, personally. She did look me straight in the eye for a moment during the song, that’s when tears started filling my eyes. She told the story of each song with so much sincerity and heart. I believe it wouldn’t have mattered whether one was a seasoned Warwick fan or a teenager who had no clue as to who this towering figure of a woman on stage was – the performance was a deeply emotional, very intimate experience, it touched everyone. My son couldn’t help but say, “she’s the coolest human being I’ve ever seen on stage.” Or something to that effect. Coming from a 14-year old music buff whose usual musical inclination includes The Beatles, The Doors, XX and the Killers and who has seen Sting perform live, that means a lot.

Waltrix Productions head, Jen Manasala-Bautista, enabler of such world-class concerts in Baguio, shared with me what Warwick whispered into her ear after the performance – “I want to come back here.” I sure hope she does. I’m quite sure my son would save up to pay for his own ticket this time.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Willie Revillame for National Artist

I will not discuss whether Carlo J. Caparas deserved the title of National Artist, there are much better minds out there who can do that. But I do agree with the Supreme Court decision recalling the award given to him and three other artists.

In the late 90's, I was sent by the Baguio Arts Guild as a representative to the National Artist Award pre-selection process. I liked the idea of having artists determine who deserves the award. There were dozens of us artists, cultural workers, representatives of various art institutions and others invited as individuals. We were grouped according to our respective art fields.

Our group, theater, deliberated for hours to come up with a shortlist of theater artists whom we believed deserved the award. The other groups representing the different art fields came up with their own shortlist of candidates coming from their field of expertise.

Then each group presented, and defended their respective candidates in front of all the members of the pre-selection panel. The government can only give the award to so many artists at a time, so the goal of the presentation was to further trim down the shortlists, each containing an average of five or six names, to the least number possible.

The result of the deliberations was one master shortlist of artists, which would then be forwarded to MalacaƱang for the President's confirmation. The idea was that the President can either confer the award to everyone in the shortlist, or choose some, or none, from that list. He is not supposed to confer the award to any artist who was not endorsed by his peers.

And there lies the anomaly in the way Caparas received his award - he was not endorsed by the panel of artists in the screening process, administered jointly by the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the National Commission on Culture and the Arts. This process is enforced to avoid, or at least minimize politicizing the award, the highest given by our government to artists. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo apparently didn't think much of, in fact spat on, the artists' opinion when she inserted her own set of candidates.

The following are the criteria to become a National Artist:
- Living artists who have been Filipino citizens for the last ten years prior to nomination as well as those who have died after the establishment of the award in 1972 but were Filipino citizens at the time of their death;
- Artists who have helped build a Filipino sense of nationhood through the content and form of their works;
- Artists who have distinguished themselves by pioneering in a mode of creative expression or style, making an impact on succeeding generations of artists;
- Artists who have created a significant body of works and/or have consistently displayed excellence in the practice of their art form, enriching artistic expression or style; and
- Artists who enjoy broad acceptance through prestigious national and/or international recognition, awards in prestigious national and/or international events, critical acclaim and/or reviews of their works, and/or respect and esteem from peers within an artistic discipline.

These criteria serve as a guide for the CCP and NCCA-led screening process. Perhaps Caparas' string of massacre films "helped build a Filipino sense of nationhood," or earned for himself "awards in prestigious national and/or international events," or "critical acclaim and/or reviews of their works," but the fact remains:  he was not nominated by his peers during the screening process. In the case of one of Caparas' co-awardees, Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, it was not just about the nomination, she was then the chair of one of the institutions tasked to oversee the screening process, the NCCA. Delicadeza must not be in their vocabulary.

Caparas, in a live face off with National Artist Virgilio Almario on television, dismissed the Supreme Court decision and said that at the end of the day, he's still more famous and better known by Filipinos than Almario. 

Hmmm, I suggest we take a second look at the criteria lest Willie Revillame is conferred the National Artist Award for the same reason Caparas believed he deserved it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Serendipity And What Kafagway Stood For

On Tuesday, July 16, 2013, it would be 23 years since Baguio was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake. A Baguio old timer took exception when I said that a lot of people gave up Baguio for dead at the time. I can understand her sentiment, she must have been one of the many Baguio residents who stood by their beloved city and rebuilt it from the ground up.

But that’s how it felt for people like me who were not living here then. A lot of my friends, some of whom were students here at the time, some were living here, left Baguio after the tragedy and the news they brought down with them was not encouraging: Baguio was almost completely devastated that it seemed impossible that it would ever get back on its feet again. Or at least it would take a very long while. I even know of a friend whose mother worked as a caretaker of a house who ended up virtually owning the house after the owners left Baguio for good, and along with it their property. To this day, the owners have not returned.

The following year, another natural calamity struck: the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, one of the worst volcanic eruptions in centuries. While Baguio was not directly affected by the eruption, save for the few days of gloomy skies brought about by the unthinkable amount of ash that Mt. Pinatubo released, access to the mountain city was hampered due to the destruction in Pampanga and Tarlac. Roads were closed, reopened, and closed again every time the rains fell and lahar flowed.

But Baguio’s residents stood their ground – tourists or no tourists, this was their home, and they will never give up on it. Artists set up soup kitchens to help in the relief efforts of the government in the days following the earthquake. Families rebuilt their homes and their lives. In the blink of an eye, Baguio was back on its feet. Just three years after the earthquake, Baguio hosted one of the biggest international arts festivals the country has ever seen – the Baguio International Arts Festival put together by the Baguio Arts Guild, which served as an inspiration and a model for other art festivals all over the country.

I was here at the time, in 1993, as a member of the cast of the movie “Sakay,” promoting the showing of the film here in Baguio which was sponsored by the Baguio Arts Guild. I remember having to take Naguillian Road on our way up because both Marcos Highway and Kennon Road were closed due to landslides. The arduous journey up to Baguio from Manila, which took more than 10 hours that also involved navigating through lahar-stricken roads in Pampanga and Tarlac, took a toll on my body and I arrived in Baguio shivering and spent the rest of the week here woozy and feeling very weak. But that didn’t stop me from visiting the galleries, spending afternoons at the dap-ay at Cafe by the Ruins pounding on drums with local artists, attending mass at the Baguio Cathedral, and woozy nights at one of the cottages at Teachers Camp.

A couple of years later, I was back this time as a member of the cast of a foreign film being shot here. We did scenes at the landslide prone area along Marcos Highway where the viaduct is now, at Ambuklao and Binga dams, and at the end of the day, while the rest of my co-actors would immediately go to the nearest bar or the tourist section at the market, I would walk to Burnham Park, the Rose Garden in particular, and would just lay on the grass, watch the fog blanket the city until the sun disappeared for the night.

Then I would walk, through the park, just as I did with my mother and brother as a child during our frequent trips to Baguio, by the lake where couples in boats took advantage of the last few minutes before the boatman told them that’s it for the day; through the biking area where kids try to ignore their parents telling them it’s time to go home; through the Melvin Jones Grounds where football players are just packing up and shaking mud off their shoes after a rigorous game.

All that made me decide to make Baguio my home. I moved up here and put up a theater group called "open space." But I digress.

Baguio survived World War II, a devastating earthquake, the countless typhoons that brought immeasurable amounts of rain and the resulting landslides. It withstood all that, it endured and remained a haven, cradled by majestic mountain ranges and towering pine trees even as it continued to progress into a highly urbanized city.

And that’s why we cannot just sit and watch as a few politicians forward their misdirected initiatives that aim to lay all that’s left of Baguio to waste with fences and gates around our parks and concrete on every available natural space.

A friend reminded me just a few days ago, after talking about our effort to oppose the putting up of gates around Burnham Park along with the planned concreting and privatization of portions of it, that the general area where Baguio is today was once known to the natives as “Kafagway,” which meant “open space.”