To the public mind, the poet José Corazon de Jesus (1894-1932) is primarily the lyricist behind Constancio C. de Guzman’s famous anthem “Bayan Ko.” Why yes, the culturati would say, wasn’t his pen name Huseng Batute? Why, there’s a little theater at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) named after him? “Bet you didn’t know that!”
There is of course more, a lot more, about De Jesus, acclaimed as the “First King of Balagtasan,” a poetical joust popular during the early decades of the 20th century, during which two men debate in Tagalog (before it officially became Filipino), in florid language and stentorian style try to outdo each other in wit and eloquence, and convince the audience of the soundness of their arguments.
The balagtasan, named after Francisco “Balagtas” Baltazar, is revived from time to time and in recent years has been reinvented by the young as rap, using the in-your-face-language of today’s generation.
A recent award-winning example was the Cinemalaya film “Respeto,” which focused on rowdy rap competitions which sometimes turn violent.
The CCP is celebrating the 86th death anniversary of De Jesus with “Pagbabalik-Tanaw sa Unang Hari ng Balagtasan,” at Huseng Batute Theater, CCP, on May 26, starting at 1:30 p.m. (Call 5515959).
The event is open to the public. This was announced at a recent press conference at Hotel Jen, across the CCP, with poet Vim Nadera and Louise Lopez as hosts.
Performers included veteran actor Lou Veloso, two young sopranos from the Philippine Opera Company who sang “Ang Dalagang Filipina,” rap practitioners, and the trio known as The Makatas.
The main resource person was the new CCP president, Arsenio “Nick” Lizaso who, it turned out, is a nephew of De Jesus on his mother’s side.
Thousands of poems
“Batute wrote thousands of poems in his lifetime,” Lizaso said. “And at the end, as he lay dying, he requested that his heart be gouged out, placed in an urn and given to his mother.”
He then noted, “but this kind of dismemberment was against the law. However, because of Batute’s fame, you might say he was ‘the Nora Aunor of his time,’ the lawmakers granted his wishes upon his death.”
The highlight of the press launch was a duplo or balagtasan by The Makatas, with one member singing the praises of high technology and sneering at his colleague for being “old school,” that is, believing in books. The debate was lively, conducted in current slang with snatches of English. At the end, the “referee” asked the audience who was the debater they believed in.
And, of course, the louder applause went to the “old school” gentleman. After all, how can you quarrel with book learning?
“As you can see,” said Lizaso. “They have rhythm, rhyme. This is the new Balagtasan.” De Jesus, aka Batute, would have approved, as he was a progressive. —CONTRIBUTED