In Majayjay, the music played at funerals was unusual and unforgettable. The sound was a cross between a dirge and a kundiman, with a touch of jazz in between.
The walking ensemble was also unconventional—a bass drummer, a snare-drum boy, a guitar strummer, one sax/flute and one trumpeter and a solo violinist. As they ambled along the street, the music beat also ambled like the music played by African-Americans in rural New Orleans, Louisiana.
There were about two dozen musicians in Majayjay who earned their livelihood by providing music for funerals, weddings, club dances, parties and processions. This service was called assiste.
Even illiterate farm folk who lived in the remotest hills were assiste for weddings and funerals. There’s this funny story about an old woman from Barrio San Roque whose husband died. She came to the parish to arrange for funeral services and was charged seven pesos.
As she handed her money to the clerk, she asked in her singsong accent, “Ay doon po ba sa pitong piso ay kasama na ang eng-ereng-eng (violin) at hot-horot-hot (flute) na parang tubo?” (Does seven pesos cover the use of the violin and the flute that resembles a sugarcane?)
There were two groups of music-makers in Majayjay. Banda Ibaba was made up of musicians mostly living in Santa Catalina and San Francisco on the southeast side of town. The group was led by Mang Demi (as in Demi Moore), who played the bass drum.
The trumpeter was Mang Iking, Mang Demi’s close friend and neighbor. A guitarist, a flutist/saxophonist and a drummer boy completed Banda Ibaba’s ensemble.
The other group, Banda Ylaya, was a family of musicians, led by Ma Santos with his three sons: Novi on sax; Tudy on trumpet; Brandi on drums; plus a guitarist and a bass player. Ma Santos was recognized in Majayjay as the sole authority on music. He played either solo trumpet or violin with feeling and dexterity.
A mean horn
Like those of all great trumpet players, his upper and lower lips had a blower’s mark, similar to Louis Armstrong’s. When Ma Santos played a mean horn, you could see his lips curl and pucker up, his cheeks balloon, and his neck expand as he blew music into the atmosphere.
For funerals, Banda Ylaya always played an original piece, whose title no one knew. The music was a cross between a Gounod and a kundiman. When played, it lasted long enough for the funeral to travel from the church to the cemetery gate.
There was no music when the bereaved were sobbing and wailing hysterically. But as soon as the coffin was lowered into the grave and earth was shoveled in, Banda Ylaya played a bumblebee-fast tune, similar to William Tell’s racetrack-theme music.
Here Ma Santos exhibited his violin solo, complete with head-banging, chord-twanging, and pinging notes at the highest pitch. Mourners even stopped to admire his virtuosity.
The William Tell music was also the signal for the mourners to disperse, change their facial expressions from sorrow to relief, and talk of rumors as they walked back to their homes.
What’s original and distinct about Majayjay music-makers was the sound, not the melody. Because their repertoire was routine, Ma Santos and his musicians played music by ear, the sound a cross between mood music and jazz ad-libs.
Since they were mostly played on the street, the sax and trumpets came out loud and echoed in the open air. The band was heard as far as Barrio Pook, three kilometers away.
Majayjay is a high and echoing town surrounded by hills. Even the old church bells, shipped in galleons from Acapulco hundreds of years ago, can be heard within a seven-kilometer radius from the church.
The bells tolled seven times a day (at 8 and 10 in the morning and 12 noon, at 2, 4 and 6 in the afternoon, and 8 in the evening.) They also tolled at Masses during the Introibo and the Consecration. Plegaria bell meant someone died. Repical chime meant fiesta celebration. The bells’ tonal qualities were exactly like those of the bells that rang in the cathedrals of Rome.
A memorable sound affected my young mind in a spiritual way—the Gregorian chant, named after St. Gregory the Great (patron saint of Majayjay). Its ancient sacred music used to accompany the official Latin verses of the Mass and canonical rites of the Catholic Church.
The Gregorian chant was enchanting because it was monophonic (single-line melody), using pneumatics (one to four notes per syllable) or melismatics (unlimited notes per syllable). It was music with a monotone quality, akin to a placid pool in a river, uplifting and calming the unconscious.
In Majayjay, the chant was always sung in church rituals by an old priest, usually a Batangueño. The responses were sung by Ma Tistang, the older brother of Ma Santos. Ma Tistang, called the cantor, chanted from memory all Latin responses in the Misa Cantada and all other rituals.
He was a middle-age man, tall, fat and dark. His singing voice had a sandpaper-coarse quality, like Louis Armstrong’s.
Ma Tistang sang the Gregorian chant in a plaintive tone that was sacred to my ears, especially during funeral rites at the cemetery. Dum ve-neee-ris, ju-di-ca-reee sae-cu-lam per ig-nem, Ky-ri-e e-lei-sooon, Kri-es-te-e-lei-sooon (When you come to judge the world by fire, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy).
When Inay Aurea died in 1998, I wanted her funeral to be accompanied by the scintillating violin of her kumpadre, Ma Santos, and the supplicant Gregorian chant of her good friend, Ma Tistang. But both men died many years ago.
I couldn’t even get a band. The musicians have died and there were no replacements. Ma Santos’ sons, Tudy and Brandi, had left Majayjay to play in the big clubs in Manila for better pay. The eldest son, Temiong, who took up Medicine as a working student by playing soloist in the legendary Tirso Cruz band, is now a doctor living in Delaware, USA.
Toobal, the bass exhibitionist who twirled and strummed his big fiddle, migrated to California. Toobal was the most peripatetic musician in Majayjay. He played music in the hotel lobbies of Hong Kong, the honky-tonks in Bangkok, the nightclubs in Taipei, all the way to the military club in Guam.
He always came home loaded with dollars for his family, but would leave flat broke for his next Asian city stint. Toobal was the most gregarious and nattily dressed musician in Majayjay.
Mang Demi and Ma Iking Mibale of Bandang Ibaba were petitioned and taken to America by their daughters, who worked as nurses in Illinois. After a year, Ma Iking Mibale was miserable in Chicago. There was nothing to do there and he hated staying home doing nothing. He didn’t like going to the mall either. He truly missed his friends, relatives and neighbors in Majayjay.
Most of all, he missed playing his trumpet. He often thought of assiste and the processions and funerals in the streets of Majayjay, where he blew his trumpet for the whole town to hear.
After a year, Ma Iking went back to Majayjay to play his trumpet at many assiste, and to eat ginataang laing on rice with his hands. He died a few years ago.
There’s no Majayjay music anymore. And the silence is deafening.