When he was young, Levi Celerio, National Artist for Music and Literature, never missed a public performance of the man they called “Hari ng Balagtasan,” Jose Corazon de Jesus. “Ang galing n’un (He was very good)!” he told Nick Lizaso, now president of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Celerio would’ve been among thousands of spectators watching De Jesus dominate the lyrical jousts that were popular public entertainment from the 1920s to ’30s.
This was part of Lizaso’s onstage introduction to the latest version of “Awit at Tula”—a retrospective on the songs and poems of De Jesus—at Casa San Francisco in Pulilan, Bulacan. The first production of the CCP outreach program since the pandemic began, “Awit at Tula” is highlighted in CCP’s “Sining Handog” online program launched in February, National Arts Month.
The show begins with the life of the man they called “Huseng Batute,” a poet laureate in Filipino who wrote over 4,000 poems for Tagalog newspapers and was the first and undisputed champion of the balagtasan until he died at age 37 in 1932.
We know De Jesus today through his lyrics: “Bayan Ko,” “Arimunding-munding,” “Pahimakas” and “Dalagang Filipina” are part of Filipino music’s bedrock and among the songs highlighted in the one-hour show.
Casa San Francisco, a bahay na bato turned museum and events place, was a magnificent backdrop; De Jesus (who grew up in nearby Sta. Maria) would have approved.
“Awit at Tula,” originally staged on Nov. 19, 2021, can now be viewed online.
Led by singer Lara Maigue, the show’s excellent ensemble turned out one masterful kundiman after another: One of the highlights was Hazel Maranan belting out “Arimunding-munding” from a real balcony. The songs were powerfully moving, the poetry even more so. Poems about nature and death, freedom and loss, labor and love—De Jesus used his genius to echo deep emotions and aspirations. “Bayan Ko,” his most famous song, is still sung in protest at various points in Philippine history.
The poet Benilda Santos describes him perfectly in her concluding piece: Huseng Batute was “makata ng puso at makata ng pakikibaka (poet of the heart and poet of our struggle).”
After all, as a young man, De Jesus changed his second name from “Cecilio” to “Corazon,” deeming the Spanish word for “heart” a better description of himself. He chose to be called by what moved him and through “Awit at Tula,” he continues to move us. —CONTRIBUTED INQ
“Awit at Tula” at Casa San Francisco can be viewed on the CCP Office of the President Facebook page.