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On May 21-22, chanters and dancers from the Cordillera will perform side by side with Manila artists-a sharing of cultures and inspirations
MIDDLE OF LAST YEAR, MITA RUFINO of Filipinas Heritage Foundation asked me to come up with a concept for the annual Heritage Month concert that the foundation does at the CCP in May.

I had had the good fortune to work with the foundation in past events, and had just done their tribute to the late great Conching Sunico. I was pleasantly surprised when Rufino asked me to try and put together a concert about the Hudhud chant of the Ifugao.

The Hudhud is just one of the many chants of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera. Not many Filipinos are aware of these chants, and if they know about the Hudhud at all, it is because the Unesco had declared it an invaluable part of the world?s artistic and cultural heritage.

The Unesco recognition has spurred a revival of Hudhud chanting in Ifugao, where NCCA Schools for Living Traditions encourage young Ifugao to learn to chant.

Why not, I thought, try and create a concert that would bring the Ifugao Hudhud and the Kalinga Ulallim, two of the most enduring chant forms of the Cordillera, to the CCP?

The concept was simple: to bring the chanters of Ifugao and Kalinga face to face with Manila artists who would seek inspiration from the chants to create new works. But, as subsequent presentations to the National Museum and the NCCA would prove, there were tricky issues that had to be resolved.

Misused concept

Both institutions were concerned, and rightfully so, about any branding that would misuse the concept of ?authenticity.? The rituals and dances of the indigenous peoples have been used, many times carelessly, for performances that are branded as ?authentic? and ?traditional??in commercial locales ranging from tourist restaurants to Japanese karaoke bars.

Jess Peralta, an institution in the field of ethnography, carefully outlined the specific circumstances in which the Hudhud is chanted, as well as the character and significance that had led to the Unesco recognition, and the need to preserve the integrity of this heritage.

Jun de Leon gave his own notes on preserving the dignity of indigenous people and their intangible heritage (a term used to refer to aspects of culture?song, dance, ritual?beyond the material art forms.) The last thing they wanted was a ?show? like the infamous St. Louis Exposition of 1904, where indigenous peoples would replicate their practices, labeled as the real thing.

For both scholars, any replication of these chants beyond the original settings and circumstances had to be, very clearly, simulations or performances. And as far removed from the ?authentic? as possible.

It was Gov. Teddy Baguilat of Ifugao who, in one of our discussions, pointed out that the schoolchildren of Tung-ngod Elementary School in Lagawe were the consistent winners in the yearly Hudhud competitions.

If they could represent their people and their chant, then it would clearly be both simulation and performance. It would also be a poignant reminder that even if so much in traditional culture had been lost, there were still young Ifugao who were interested in the chant.

De Leon recommended the group of Gawad Manlilikha ng Bayan, Alonzo Saclag and his Kalinga Budong dance troupe based in Lubuagan, Kalinga, to do the Ulallim segment.

At last, a happy compromise. Two groups of indigenous people used to the dynamics of a performance. Far from ?authentic,? yes?but through their own sensibilities, these young Ifugao and Kalinga have distilled the chants of their peoples and adapted them for ?public performance.?

In a way, their efforts have helped expand the concept. For they have taken the original forms of their ancestors, drawn their own inspiration and added their own voices.

That was exactly what I hoped would happen with composer Jesse Lucas, choreographer Gener Caringal, mezzo-soprano Clarissa Ocampo, the members of Philippine Ballet Theater and the UST Symphony Orchestra, the core of Manila-based artists who would be part of ?Chanted Journeys.?

The title came from the fact that both groups of artists would have to undertake journeys to draw their own inspirations.

Measured, precise

In March 2010, a few concept revisions and almost half a year later, myself, Jesse, Gener, videographer Iggy Bilbao, production manager Del Cayetano and our team visited Lagawe, Ifugao, to meet the schoolchildren of Tung-ngod Elementary School.

Their teacher and Hudhud mentor, Fatima, gathered the children under the spreading branches of a large balete tree right in the middle of their small campus.

We met Merced, 12, the youngest munhawe or lead chanter in Lagawe. It was Merced who began the chanting with her mellifluous ?Owe!,? a signal for the chorus to take up the story of the epic hero Aliguyon. Their chanting was measured, precise, learned by rote but not without charm and even poignancy.

I asked the kids if any of them had ever been to Manila. They giggled, and Merced gave me a look that could only be translated as the Ifugao version of ?Duh??

After recording them, as well as the performances of the Hagiyo troupe who would also visit Manila, Fatima had a surprise for us. She had also invited some of the senior members of the community to share their chanting for us.

Wow! At last, the real thing! I eagerly explained the concept of a rehearsal take for the cameras to the elders. Of course, there was no such thing for them.

Manong Leonardo Dangayu, the munhawe (a male lead chanter for a chant traditionally associated with women!) began the chant and off they were, robust, unrehearsed, proudly proclaiming their animist roots in the spontaneity and unpredictability of their chanting.

A full 30 minutes later, we had to signal them to stop, as we had run out of tape.

?Hindi nyo ba kami isasama sa CCP? Yung mga bata lang ba?? one of the elders jokingly asked through Fatima. How could I explain things like budgets and agreements? I tried lamely, and it broke my heart.

A bigger surprise was waiting for us back in Manila. Both Iggy and Jesse, whose recorded material we had previewed before leaving Ifugao, found that both the audio of the senior chanters now mysteriously vanished when they got to the city.

?Ayan,? Del joked, ?na-engkanto tayo! Ayaw talaga parinig ang original na hudhud sa Manila.?

But to hear and see the chanters was inspiration enough. Jesse came up with three original works to be choreographed by Gener: ?A Kalinga Cycle,? ?Hudhud Impressions? and ?Chanted Journeys.?

All of a sudden, Jesse needed a choral group to sing with Clarissa, just as the munhawe worked with a chorus! Suddenly, Gener thought of bringing in a strong group of male dancers from the Silangan troupe of the University of the East to interpret his take on the Ulallim.

Suddenly, Clarissa was e-mailing from Boston where she was based, to say that the wordless chanting Jesse had written and e-mailed her was in keeping with the essence of the universal chant that had long fascinated her! Suddenly, as artists are wont to do when faced with inspiration, the ball was rolling.

Collaborative process

As a director, I?ve never believed in the vanity of full control. The theater is, above all, a collaborative process, and each artist gives and takes what he or she can. Things will happen along the way, the ancestors may smile at us, the foolhardy endeavor takes on a life of its own.

When I presented the lineup and sequence to Rufino, she had only one thing to say.

?Bring down the senior chanters also. They will enrich the show.?

But how?

Del and I reviewed the budget and found that if we did away with certain lighting equipment, we?d have enough to bring the elder chanters down to Manila. I very nervously asked Monino Duque, the dean of Manila?s lighting designers, if we could do away with the expensive stuff he required and focus on the honesty of the performances.

I was expecting him to say ?No way!? halfway through my song-and-dance. Instead, he said ?Of course, I get your point exactly.?

The chant of the elders would be heard after all. That?s why their voices vanished from the recordings!

As of this writing, ?Chanted Journeys? brings together 27 Hudhud chanters, seven Hagiyo dancers, 15 members of the Kalinga Budong, two Kalinga and one Ifugao student to act as narrators.

Then, there are the 20-something members of the PBT and UE; the 15 members of Imusicapella chorale; the 15 traditional instrument soloists of the Barangay Folk troupe who will meld with the 40 members of the UST Symphony; as well as the splendid Clarissa Ocampo, who flies in from Boston.

The journey has, indeed, begun. Hopefully, if the ancestors continue to smile on the endeavor, these artists will meet on May 21-22 at the Main Theater of the CCP, to show the public the fruits of what will be an inspired journey.