Sunday, March 30, 2008


THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT. A traveling band of performance artists such as this group, made the rounds of Pampanga towns, especially during town fiestas, to mount kumidyas and sarwelas for the entertainment-hungry public. Sta. Rita, Pampanga. Dated 24 June 1915.

Show me a Kapampangan who does not like to perform before a crowd. At the drop of a hat, a Kapampangan will sing, dance, act and perform feats of daring, without so much encouragement. A natural born performer, a Kapampangan loves basking in the spotlight, making it a point to maximize his enjoyment of his 15 minutes of fame when called onstage. That has been true for the last hundred years or so, when colonial entertainment, which consisted largely of plays with roles essayed by actors, musicians, dancers and poets, became a national past-time.

The idea of leisure in old Pampanga was to socialize and gather together to fill up free hours. And so, to the poblacion or town center the whole family congregated. Here, they were treated to spectacular didactic plays culled from the epics of Medieval Europe or inspired by the life of the town’s patron saint. This was the kumidya—a play in verse that dazzled the local audience with choreographed battle scenes, stylized acting and fabulous costumes. Plays that carried royal themes were also called moro-moro, and soon, scores were being written in Kapampangan, led by Padre Anselmo Jorge de Fajardo (1785-1845). This Bacolor-born religious, a product of the University of Santo Tomas, wrote the famous kumidya Gonzalo de Cordova, based on the real-life story of the Spanish royalty and his affair with the Moorish princess, Zulema.

Moro-moro plays were often carried out after the Mass, thus guaranteeing a captive audience. Stories often told of controversial courtships between a Catholic princess and a princely moor, with the latter converting to Catholicism to win the princess’ hand. Characters like moros, cristianos and reinas wore expensive colorful costumes complete with jewelry, thus providing the crowd with a fantastic visual treat. Favorite parts of the moro-moro included scenes involving magia—or special effects: moving animals made of bamboo and abaca, manipulated from underneath the stage. Music was provided by a brass band which played marchas, pasodobles and Himno de Riego for war scenes.

Just as mesmerizing were the musical zarzuelas derived from the Spanish theater. Unlike the kumidya, the zarzuela dealt with reality-based themes such as family issues and romantic conflicts. Mariano Proceso Pabalan holds the distinction of writing and mounting the first vernacular zarzuela in 1900, with the presentation of Ing Managpe in Bacolor. Pampanga’s leading zarzuelista of course was Juan Crisostomo Soto, who wrote the frequently staged “Alang Dios”, last performed at Clark Air Base in 1998.

Pampanga was among the first provinces to have theatrical companies with resident actors, playwrights and directors. Artists received anywhere from P4-P15 per show while the author got P100. Travelling professional groups like the Bacolor-based Compania Sabina (named after Ceferino Joven’s spinster-sister) toured Pampanga, Tarlac and Manila performing the works of zarzuelistas like Pabalan, Gutierrez-David and Soto.

Other popular entertainment events include tertulias, intimate socials often held in large mansions, with hours of music, poetry and free-wheeling conversation. Bodas, on the other hand, were held during weddings, marked with dancing, orations and poetry recital. Schools on the other hand offered more professional theatrical performances called veladas—music and literary programs with rich production design.

The Kapampangan’s love for the performance arts shows no sign of waning. Turn on the TV, tune in to Channel 7’s Starstruck and you’ll find a Kapampangan star finalist there. Then change the dial to the other channels, and chances are, you’ll find another Kapampangan singer-contestant belting his heart out in those popular star searches. Open a playbill and you will encounter the names of Lea Salonga, Andy Alviz, Yolanda Tolentino—all Kapampangans—lighting up the marquees of Broadway and the world’s best entertainment circuits with their formidable talents, providing relief and momentary diversion to a country in turmoil. For these gifted Kapampangan performers--despite coup talks, peso devaluation, increased criminality and economic crisis--the show must go on.
( 6 December 2003)

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