I accepted the invitation to Memphis, Tennessee, because I had a friend there whose house I had wanted to visit for a long time. Elvis! His address is well known, Graceland. And now I was finally going to get there.
Elvis was certainly an incentive but not the real reason for going to Memphis. It was to be part of the delegation formed by Ambassador Jose Cuisia to represent the country at the annual Memphis in May festival whose honored country for 2012 is the Philippines.
Ambassador and Ms Cuisia led the Philippine delegation to Memphis in May. From the Philippines came Aurelio Montinola III, president of the Bank of Philippine Islands, who spoke to the Economic Club of Memphis; and Guillermo Luz, co-chair of the National Competitiveness Council (NCC) for the Philippine private sector, speaker to the business community at the Memphis Rotary Club.
Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez told Memphians how much fun it was in the Philippines. I was to speak to the Memphis American Institute of Architects.
Barbeque and ‘lechon’
Festival activities introduced all aspects of the Philippines to Memphians.
Performing in schools and in the city’s grand Orpheum Theater, the Bayanihan captivated young and old, receiving a standing ovation at their gala performance.
Claude Tayag served Philippine finger food during intermission at the Bayanihan performance. For the next few evenings, he cooked Philippine dinners at Chez Philippe, the fine-dining restaurant at the city’s dowager Peabody Hotel.
Marco Polo Hotel sent a team of lechoneros to cook a Cebu-style lechon as the Philippine entry to the Memphis World Barbecue Cooking Contest. And there we discovered shared similarities in Cebu lechon and Memphis barbecue: both dry-roasted, cooking flavor into the meat to allow natural juices to keep it moist, and, most importantly, without any need for marinade or additional sauce.
So good was Memphis barbecue that Gigi Montinola and I sneaked out for a fix in the middle of the afternoon, our only chance to get away between the lunch and dinner functions on our full schedule.
It was Southern hospitality all the way. After a presentation on “Discovering Philippine Culture through Its Architecture,” my host, the Memphis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, set out to show me what “stuff we’ve got.” The stuff they had in Memphis was unexpected.
We started discovering Memphis at the National Ornamental Metal Museum, the only one of its kind in the world. A small, precious museum housed in an elegant Victorian mansion on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, its collection included ornamental metal of all types from wrought-iron grillwork to finely enameled pieces and hand-crafted gold jewelry, each piece illustrating the alchemy of metalsmiths who can turn inert metals into objects of wonder and absolute beauty.
Built around the motel room where Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Civil Rights Museum brought back to life the heady tension of the 1960s civil-rights movement, but, more importantly, illustrating how those so committed to civil rights have succeeded in creating the equality of life that they could only dream of two generations ago.
Like many American cities, Memphis experienced an exodus to the suburbs from its city center which is now in the process of renewal. Back is the Memphis trolley that loops from the riverfront and back to the city center, passing through the old Main Street.
Experiencing a slow renaissance is South Main Street, already quite a lively area whose once-boarded-up shopfronts and heritage buildings are going through innovative architectural re-use to emerge as sidewalk cafés, restaurants, hip boutiques, galleries, NGO headquarters and commercial offices.
On the last Friday of each month, South Main Street explodes into action for Trolley Night, when shops and restaurants all stay open late for the weekly festival.
An Elvis festival was what we got at Graceland. Our delegation privately toured the house, not bigger-than-life as it is hyped up to be, but surprisingly a scaled-down suburban mansion.
His home tells much of his story. It is an American upper-middle-class home, furnished in the style of the ’60s, not as opulent and garish as my imagination thought it would have to be.
Impressive, though, are the hallways lined with gold records, concert videos, and displays of his costumes, which brought to me the realization to me of the global impact of the creativity that influenced the direction of music, still felt to this day.
Memphis is the birthplace of the blues, and rock-and-roll. In Memphis were the bands and singers who, along with Elvis, influenced the course of music forever.
Artists living and recording in Memphis were the legendary BB King, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, Carl Perkins, Otis Redding.
Beale Street is where it is supposed to have all started. In a Beale Street bar, the African-American composer WC Handy was said to have written the first commercially successful blues song, “St. Louis Blues.”
Beale Street is where it still happens these days. People pack the bars at night, having a good time, listening to blues music.
Blues music, Main Street, Memphis-style barbecue, and commitment to civil rights define Memphis. But what gives Memphis its soul is the down-home Southern hospitality that is the experience to take home from it.
Southern hospitality was what we received from the Philippine community in Memphis, which left no stone unturned for the festival.
We were determined to make the Philippine participation in this year’s Memphis in May memorable, and we succeeded. And what I learned was that there is so much more to Memphis than Elvis.