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Bayan Ko, My Country

The question in the minds of people who heard me perform was always the same because they took for granted—and I had to correct them that I’m not Filipino.  “Then why Filipino music?” Why not? The Kundiman spoke to me and for me.

The Filipino Kundiman entered my life when I was an eleven-year old boy fixated on the violin. The music was introduced to me by Remé Grefalda. I am Chinese American, Remé is Filipino.  She had to be my mother in another life (my kaima). Remé was a prominent fixture in my growing up years, and was a mentor for my Kundiman learning that continues even to this day.

In 1992, it surprised no one, least of all me, that she wrote a play, 30 December 1896 and invited me to do a musical prelude for the play proper. I was instructed to walk on the empty stage lit only by faintly blue lights playing a Filipino classical piece entitled Hating Gabi (pronounced Hah-ting- Guh-bee) while the fog machine in the wings spewed out a sea of mist, thus setting a visual tone.  I remember feeling as I reached the middle of the stage how dark and cold it felt. From my early training on the violin at the age of 3, I was always told to paint a picture, share a story through my playing of a piece.  Having the stage set in such a strong visual image transposed me to a different time and place as I continued playing Hating Gabi.

Stephen Shey
Photo by Paul Tañedo

Hating Gabi is a danza composed by Antonio Molina in the late 1940s. Its opening melody is recognized by most Filipinos of a certain age as a popular serenade. The words “hating gabi” means “midnight” or literally, I am told, “half[of the] night.”  Maestro Redentor Romero’s arrangement highlights the melody and harmony as the piece transitions into three parts. Picture a suitor asking permission to court his lady love, and imagine that lady, hearing the guitar strains, looks down from her window at a man begging her to please listen to his plea. I can picture all this now but at eleven, I hated the piece and was simply following directions half-hoping I was somewhere near what was demanded of me. At eleven, the music challenged me. There was no way I could have backed out. I stayed to learn the genre.

It was just around this time in my life too that I began to be aware of the things I could relate to and associate with. Things that would distinctly mean something to me, as in, car models that I fancied, any and all types of sports activities, and following in that priority was a fascination for the violin, then graduating into, of course, a growing awareness of romantic love and the opposite sex.  As silly as it may sound, the “last” became a motivation for me to learn and relate to the Kundiman. To this day I still do not know what my Kaima saw or heard in that first performance of Hating Gabi; but whatever it was, it was enough to keep me as an artist in residence in Qbd Ink Theater Group for the next six years.  Being part of Qbd allowed me to grow in so many different ways. (I should really say the ladies of Qbd really helped me relate to these Kundimans!)

Much later on, the Kundimans I was tackling expressed for me the music of unrequited love:  Hating Gabi, Lagi Kitang Naalaala, Matud Nila, Sarung Bangui, Salamisim, just to name a few. The question in the minds of people who heard me perform was always the same because they took for granted—and I had to correct them that I’m not Filipino.  “Then why Filipino music?” Why not? The Kundiman spoke to me and for me. I never stopped adding to my Chinese repertoire which included Spring Song, Bumper Harvest Celebration, Pastoral, Sunshine in Tashikuergan, and much later, even excerpts from The Butterfly Lovers Concerto. But at that particular time in my life, the Kundiman fulfilled a personal romantic quest.

Stephen Shey masterclass
Master class with Professor Sergio Esmilia at St. Paul's Quezon City.
Photo by Reme Gréfalda.

I was sixteen when I was assigned to tackle Bayan Ko as a prelude for a 911 play, Where Peace Begins by Yolanda Palis. When I saw the music for the first time, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. What exactly was the picture or the story?  The only thing I could relate to was to think of the piece in three parts; the first, a cadenza like a passage in the style of Kreisler with the opening in a similar style to that of Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G Minor—in short, “Nail it technically!”  The second part, played with conflicting emotions of sadness and hope, and the finale in a Kreisler-style passage.

“The only thing I could relate to was to think of the piece in three parts; the first, a cadenza like a passage in the style of Kreisler…”

This is the passage in Bayan Ko that reminds me of the Bruch Violin Concerto.

“The second part, played with conflicting emotions of sadness…"

"...and hope”

I had wondered why a country’s patriotic song would sound so heavy and somewhat sad.  It didn’t take long for me to get some answers.  A particular audience and a subsequent other performance changed and showed me why Bayan Ko was not just any Kundiman.

I was invited to the Philippines by St. Paul’s College in Quezon City to give a concert celebrating the centennial arrival in the country of the Order of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres. While there, I performed for various audiences: in a concert hall, in private homes, in school gyms, and even in an open area which served as the urban poor’s chapel. But one among those mini-concerts brought home to me a learning experience when I found myself playing at a home for retired and bedridden nuns.  As part of a short repertoire, the final number was Bayan Ko.

From where I was standing and performing, I could not see all the nuns, and the view of me to some was obstructed.  In previous performances back in the States, the reaction to the kundimans before the finale, Bayan Ko, were polite and pleasant. I was taken aback in this nursing home the moment I played the opening notes to Bayan Ko’s main melody. The atmosphere, the very aura of the room changed. I heard small catches of breathing, moans that changed into humming, with some singing the lyrics. The stirrings and cries came from the direction of beds and wheel chairs. I could not help but be caught up with the slow intensity rising in the room. I was stirring memories and nostalgic reasons for them to be teary-eyed. But what were the reasons for my own eyes brimming with tears? I had traveled to the Philippines as a visiting Chinese American, I ended my Manila tour and returned home – Filipino to the core.

Later that same year I had the opportunity to play at the Commemoration of the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. and to be part of the Philippine Embassy’s dedication ceremony for Filipino Veterans.  I was told I had only time to play one piece; and I had the option to choose the music.  Before I played, I thanked the Ambassador for inviting me on the occasion of honoring the Filipino Veterans.  As I looked around at their faces, the men who were being honored were getting on with age. They looked worn out, tired, and seemingly depressed; and this was to be a day celebrating them and their fallen comrades and the occasion was to thank them for their bravery and their youth which they sacrificed for their country… for their country.  And here they were: they were not home.  I knew then and there the piece I had to play.

Stephen Shey
Serenading WWII veterans. Photo by Reme Gréfalda.

I often close my eyes while playing so I can visualize the story from the music.  But I felt this time that I needed to see my audience’s reaction. (In Manila, I could not see the nuns but I could feel them.)  They listened with eyes widening at the sound of Bayan Ko’s familiar opening strains. A mix of anxiety and timid excitement was in the air. The release of yearnings was palpable. Once again, unashamed voices sang along with the melody. They sang in accompaniment to my playing: young and old, men and women, old timers in uniforms, diplomats, working people. They took over, even when I continued further into the piece. They were oblivious to the changes in the passage, the varying refrain; they all kept singing the main melody.  To be honest I don’t think they even knew I had moved to a different passage. They were of one voice. And I was carried away along with them.

I paraphrase here what a scholar once wrote about the Kundiman: the music must be approached with pure passion, complete humility and absolute integrity. It is how I discovered a people’s deep love of country and I learned the specialness of Bayan Ko.

© Stephen Y.S. Shey

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Interaction and Innovation: Studies, Preservation and Propagation of Chinese-Filipino History and Heritage
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Bayan Ko, My Country
by Stephen Y. S. Shey
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