Since the visit of US President Barack Obama last week, our newsroom has been enjoying a chuckle over a funny footnote to it.
We think that the breach in security protocol—perhaps the only one during Mr. Obama’s Manila visit—was committed by our editor in chief.
It happened at the Rizal Ceremonial Hall of Malacañang last Monday evening. With the state dinner and the performance of the Filipino artists just done, an announcement reminded the guests to remain seated as the US delegation, led by Mr. Obama, made its farewell.
That was when we spotted our editor gone from her chair, which was two seats away from ours. Before we knew it and before we could grab our phone camera, she was already standing in front of and speaking to Mr. Obama, a book and a ballpen in hand.
She really made good what she told us earlier she would do, and which we didn’t believe she could actually do—ask the US president to sign her copy of her favorite book of his, “Dreams from My Father.”
As President Aquino looked on fondly beside them, Mr. Obama and our editor exchanged pleasantries. Our editor would recount later, “I told him that of all his books, this one I love because it’s almost lyrical.”
Perhaps what allowed her to break through the cordon was when President Aquino, gallantly protective the moment he saw her beside him, introduced her to Mr. Obama as “one of the heroines of Edsa (revolution).” Our editor could only blush later, bashful, at the memory of such a special moment, and President Aquino would later grin at the recollection.
She would chide me later about how I wasn’t quick enough to photograph the moment. “I wanted to see first,” I told her, “if you would survive, or if the Secret Service would tackle you to the ground.” That would have been a better—and more graphic—scoop, we laughed.
Our editor collects autographed copies of books of visiting US presidents. She also has a Bill Clinton autograph, secured during his Manila visit when he was president.
Last Monday’s state dinner was relatively relaxed. Even in a setting as grand as the Rizal Ceremonial Hall—with its massive chandeliers and the dark antique woodwork—we found the atmosphere light and laid-back. It didn’t have the pomp, glitz and stiffness one usually associated with Palace functions of previous eras.
“Tonight is going to be a different Malacañang,” a top Palace official muttered to us as we stepped out of the Guest House to walk the Palace driveway leading to the Rizal Hall, where the dinner reception would be.
As soon as the guests caught the scent of sampaguita as they went up the grand staircase, we understood readily what he meant. This time, the style wouldn’t be so low-key as to be almost diffident. It would have the usual elaborate attention to details, but it would have some levity and drama.
The Aquino administration has always wanted its state receptions or Palace social functions not only to be low-key, but to be politically correct in its simplicity. This must be, not so much to serve as counterpoint to the opulent eras of the past, as to be in keeping with the character of the bachelor president himself. Mr. Aquino is simply neither extravagant nor vain. He’s one president whose face you don’t see splashed on tarps nationwide, certainly not even on state-funded ambulance vehicles. He does things by the book. He’s always conscious of having to set the right example.
This state dinner was no different. While the thorough preparation was evident, it didn’t go overboard.
Cocktails were served at the Guest House, where music by a string ensemble welcomed the guests.
With a twist
The hors d’oeuvres were Filipino delicacies given a twist, including Philippine cheeses, ham, jam and honey—Davao Malagos selection of blush, goat cheese and blue pepato, Laguna smoked kesong puti, dried mangoes and jackfruit, pili and cashew, Excelente Quiapo ham with watermelon and honeydew melon, Guimaras mango jam, santol marmalade, Negros guava jelly, sugarcane honey.
Closer to dinnertime, the signal for the guests to move to the main Palace for the dinner reception was the performance of famous Philippine festivities, including the ati-atihan, by youngsters. This recreation of the Philippine fiesta on the Palace grounds was in time for the promenade of the guests.
What made the fiesta contemporary and vibrant was the hip interplay of light and sound. The guests, especially the foreign diplomats, stopped their leisurely walk to have their photos taken before the ati-atihan; some even took videos.
In the main Palace, the tall columns in the foyer were wrapped in sampaguita garlands. Such garlands also draped the baluster of the grand staircase, so that you caught a whiff of the floral scent as you went up the steps.
It was a very elegant welcome, nothing opulent yet symbolic of the Philippines. The use of sampaguita garlands, strung at a deadline pace by craftsmen from Laguna, has become a style hallmark of this administration.
No matter how often one has seen them in previous political eras, the mammoth chandeliers hanging in the grand corridor leading to Rizal Hall always make an awesome sight. A throwback to the refurbishing done in the Marcos era, they never fail to remind you of the heritage and colorful history of Malacañang itself.
From the hallway, before you loomed the center platform decked with nipa. The small nipa hut may have seemed too native for social media cacklers, but in fact, the images don’t do justice to how this setup really looked—the lighting made it thoroughly modern. Graduated hues of green and yellow light cast a contemporary pattern, an attractively elegant glow.
Before it was the presidential table, the only round table in the hall. All the other tables were rectangular, running the length and width of the hall—a stroke of layouting genius to accommodate the 350 guests without leaving them feeling cramped.
On the entire length of each table ran an arrangement of native produce—fruits and vegetables nestled in straws of green grass. It was a mirage of colors, shapes and textures heightened by muted candle lighting in capiz holders.
The table décor denoted bountiful harvest—the organic and natural feel a good counterpoint to the opulent chandeliers and vintage wood of Malacañang. In this way did it succeed—it could have looked too native, but didn’t, because of the palatial setting. The contrast worked.
All this styling was done in-house, by the Palace team under the direction of Social Secretary Susan Reyes, who has always preferred to stay anonymous the past three years of Palace receptions and socials, and Jun Mogado, the Palace stylist.
Like the ambiance, the performance was a good mix of the Filipino and the Western, of western pop, OPM and Filipino classics. We loved the way apl.de.ap.’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” segued to the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company’s “Singkil” and the Power Dance. The music layering was a masterstroke; the blend of East and West—indeed, the Filipino culture by-product of centuries—couldn’t have been more evident.
The Madrigal Singers opened with “Kaisa-isa Niyan” and “Da Coconut Nut”; then Leo Valdez and Bituin Escalante joined them, with the Power Dance, in “Hibang sa Awit” and “Balut.” The mood turned young and soulful with Kuh Ledesma’s “Let’s Stay Together.” This rocked, and Obama rocked with it.
After apl.deap.’s “I’ve Got a Feeling” and the Bayanihan’s “Singkil,” the whole ensemble returned to sing “Happy,” to the accompaniment of Mel Villena and the AMP Big Band.
The show was short and snappy. And over dinner, we loved the way they played “Moonlight Serenade” and jazz from the big band era.
When we told Secretary Rene Almendras how we were enjoying the performance, he said, “Wait till you hear us.” They would top it, he said. We thought he was only kidding; he wasn’t.
Next second we looked, he was gone from his seat, and was standing up front, with Cabinet members Butch Abad and Babes Singson, being introduced by the President in their number, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” And the rest, as they say, is history. (If Obama is good at selfies, our President’s official family has its sing-along. In the 21st century, the karaoke moment is a Pinoy’s inherent right, or haven’t you noticed?)
The dressed-up crowd cheered and actually sang along with the three lead vocalists. It would be recounted later that, as the newly discovered singers did their Marvin Gaye cover, Mr. Obama kept muttering, “I can’t forget this night… memorable.” Well, it’s nice to know that one of the most powerful men in the world enjoyed his dose of Filipino humor… we mean, musicality.
Meanwhile, the real appetizers of the dinner were appropriately light and refreshing—Lobster Kilawin Carpaccio, Baby Sprouts and Fiddle Fern with Calamansi Jam, followed by a Seafood Stew of River Prawns, Scallops, Smoked Mussels, Sweet Banana in rich Tomato and Coriander Sauce.
This was to pave the way for the main course of Marinated Beef Tenderloin with Annatto Lemongrass, Pumpkin Mash and Vegetables from a Batangas farm. The serving was just right, not huge.
It left room for a most interesting dessert—Coconut Lychee Ice Cream with Mango Macapuno Strudel, served in mini-coconut husk that was actually chocolate made to look like a husk, complete with ultra-thin light-colored strands.
As the guests left, the Palace grounds returned to silence, the vines of flickering lights from the centuries-old tree on the driveway stirring in the midnight breeze.
The day was done.
Mr. Obama wasn’t the only one who found the night memorable.