It’s our Mabalacat city fiesta as I write this article---and it’s a pity that I am not there to enjoy the festivities, not to mention the colorful sights, smells and sounds that accompany the yearly February 2 proceedings. You just know it’s fiesta season when blue and white buntings start lining the streets and tiangge stalls begin popping up along the church perimeter, offering all sorts of goods, from the useful to the bizarre.
But nothing says “fiesta” more than the presence of music-making bands—“musicus”—staples of every fiesta, in every town and barrio of the Philippines. With their gleaming brass horns, cymbals, lyres, trumpets, drums and bugles, uniformed band members--preceded by a bevy of pretty, baton-twirling majorettes—are always a striking sight when they take to the streets, making stirring melodies as they march, with a bit of choreography on the side.
Evolved from the roving “musikung bumbung” (bamboo bands), today’s bands drew early inspirations from the acclaim gained by the Philippine Scouts Band at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. The band was the largest at the fair, and it had a large repertoire of 80 pieces, against Fredric Sousa’s 65. “They were good and had temperament which the other bands lacked”, wrote one visitor.
Needless to say, they took the world’s fair by storm, often performing in drills with “Little Macs”—young Macabebe veterans who enlisted for service to fight for the Americans in the Philippine-American War. Certainly, the incredible feat of that Philippine band helped fuel interest back in the islands for organized bands.
Just 4 years after that U.S. triumph, the Philippines had its own national fair—the Manila Carnival—and in 1909, the band from Angeles outplayed its rivals to clinch first place in the musical band competition. It was during town fiestas, however, that local bands gave rein to their musical creativity.
In the Betis fiesta of 1959, a local band—Banda 46—was tasked to march around the town starting on the fiesta eve, from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m.— to rouse people from their sleep—for a period of nine days! The day was capped with musical duel between bands---Serenata ning Musicus—in which Banda Sexmoan 12 played against Banda Sexmoan 31 at the church patio in a test of musical endurance and bravado.
On 29 December, an exhibition was staged by a bevy of band majorettes, displaying their dancing and baton-twirling skills while band members in their gala uniforms played their best. On the fiesta day itself, 12 bands paraded along the streets, with some, invited from different provinces: Banda Baliwag, Banda Cabiao 96, Banda San Leonardo, Banda Bocaue, Banda Sexmoan 31, Banda Sexmoan 12, Banda Pulilan, Banda Candaba, Banda Duat Bacolor, Banda San Antonio Bacolor, Banda 48 Betis, Banda 26 Betis and the 600 Clark Field Air Force Band thru the courtesy of Mr. Salvador Pangilinan.
The bands then converged to escort the carrozas of the town patrons for the grand procession. The 1939 Lubao town fiesta from 4-5 May, was also made exciting with the presence of 3 “musicus”: Banda Lubao, Banda Sinfonica (Malabon) and Banda Buenaventura (Baliwag). The 3 bands were gathered at the municipio before they set out for the Poblacion, treating Lubeños to a musical extravaganza never before seen in the town.
A 1946 fiesta souvenir program from Sta. Rita detailed also the arrival of 3 bands that played on the eve of the fiesta, the first one held after the Liberation: Banda Sta. Rita, Banda 31 from Sexmoan and Banda San Basilio. The next day, May 22, they gave it their all at the Serenata ding Banda de Musica. Even a small barrio could very well afford to pay a local “musicus” to lend gaiety to its fiesta.
In 1957, Valdes, a barrio of mostly agricultural families in Floridablanca, had two bands performing for their May 19 fiesta: the popular Banda 31 of Sexmoan which delighted residents in Gasac and Talang, and Banda Juan dela Cruz which came all the way from Cabiao, Nueva Ecija, to play at Looban and Mabical. On May 18, Saturday, a free concert was mounted featuring the two bands, highlighted by a military drill.
I just can’t imagine a fiesta without a “musicus”. Bands just don’t set the stage and the mood for a celebration. But long after the food, the drinks, the rides, the sideshows and the baratilyos are gone, it is the voice of the band that will live on—inspiring, rousing, uplifting airs, that may as well be the theme music of our joyous lives!