9 Sep No Comments Geejay Essays, Issue 41: NVM Gonzalez

by Michael Gonzalez

Author’s note: the following is an excerpt from an ongoing manuscript entitled, Travels With My Father and revised for this special edition of Our Own Voice.

Over the years, I treasured the sound recording of that moment as a memento from our stay in Rome, complete with its nostalgic scratchy imperfections that come with a record player.

As in a Fellini movie, the tidy homes of Palo Alto and Menlo Park as seen from the Caltrain window seem peacefully silent, oblivious of the rhythmic ta-thud, ta-thud sounds of the train cab on the tracks on our way towards San Francisco. In my earphone buds, the plaintive melody of Nardini’s Larghetto plays, rendered by Italian violinist Ruggeri Ricci from the sound recording, Glory of Cremona, where he performs on fifteen rare violins made by the great Italian violin makers, Stradivarius and Guarneri. The melody plays sotto voce against the loud lumbering roll of the train wheels against the steel tracks. Sometimes, the trip transports me back to Rome. It reminds me of my father, of N.V.M.’s Italian violin, the Ferroni. He would coax that fine instrument to sound at his bidding, yielding its sweet Italian strains to his ear.

Over the years, I treasured the sound recording of that moment as a memento from our stay in Rome, complete with its nostalgic scratchy imperfections that come with a record player. Even after copying the tune from vinyl to cassette and, as the tape began to stretch and deteriorate after fifty years, into a CD so I could play this music on the road. Alas, in 2005, the vinyl record itself melted into oblivion.

After almost half-a-century of residence, our family home on the campus of the University of the Philippines caught fire. It was helped along by faulty wiring, made bare by hungry rats and termites. The fire engulfed my father’s Ferroni violin, a Lumanog and Yamaha guitar, and hundreds of sheets of music for both instruments as well as scores of vinyl and rare tape recordings. Gone too were countless books and unpublished manuscripts that he had amassed over a lifetime of teaching and writing.

* * *

My father’s unabated love for music in all its myriad aspects: composition, instrument-building, and performance has seeped into my being. I suspect that if he had not turned to fiction writing, he would have become a great musician, a violinist.

Hints of such aspiration are revealed by the teenage protagonist in one of his short stories, The Bread of Salt. In the story, the boy dreams of adulation from the audience, calling out his name, comparable to the Filipino violin masters . . .

Sometimes when practicing my scales in the early evening I wondered if the sea wind carrying the struggling notes across the pebbled river did not transform them into Schubert’s ¨Serenade.¨

At last, Mr. Custodio, who was in charge of our school orchestra, became aware of my progress. He moved me from second violin to first violin. During the Thanksgiving Day program he bade me render a number, complete with piccicato and harmonics.

¨Another Vallejo! Our own Albert Spalding!¨ I heard from the front row. (The Bread of Salt, 1958)


When our family went to Rome in the 1960s, courtesy of a writing fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, acquiring musical instruments had the same priority for my father as securing an apartment. For my older sister and my Mom, both of whom studied some piano, he got a small electric piano-organ. He also found a beautiful all-spruce guitar that all of us were allowed to play. Inspired by the rising popularity of the Beatles, the guitar easily became my instrument of choice. My father slowly introduced to me to note reading and within a short time, I achieved some level of proficiency. Of course, my father also took care of his main priority — that is, to acquire a decent Italian violin, which would complete this Italian sojourn and fulfill one of his dreams. In the course of his lifetime, three Italian violins would pass through his fingers, including some very expensive bows.

NVM’s “Minuet in G”

marching notebook
As an amateur violinist, N.V.M.’s repertoire was impressive, even if his fingers were not always so nimble. On a good day, he would start with the Fritz Kriesler’s Dvorak’s Humoresque or Schubert’s Serenade, then move on to an Alard etude or Bach’s Chaconne, depending on how his fingers felt at the moment. Sometimes, he would get quite involved with Bach and, in the middle of the piece, stopped as if he wanted to just listen to the music he had just played, hear it back in his mind’s ear. Then he would return to the piece in earnest.

He concluded his practice with Philippine tunes of which the folk tune, Leron-leron Sinta, was his favorite – a song about the quintessential quest of the Filipino for a better life, he would say, regaling the hapless visitor who might happen to stop by, with how the lyrics depict a metaphor of Filipino life:

Leron-leron sinta
Buto ng papaya
Dala dala’y buslo
Sisidlan ng sinta

Pagdating sa dulo
Nabali ang sanga
Kapos kapalaran
Humanap ng iba

Leron-leron, my dear
Seeds of the papaya
So heavy and full of fruit
That beckon with endearment

But when the top is within reach
And the branch breaks off
Fortune might be short-changed
Just go look for another tree
(Tagalog folk song)

Other times, on an occasional warm evening with less lofty aspirations, my father and I would hang out together and scrape a duet. His violin playing trained his skills at oido (playing by ear) which translated to his ability to notate music by ear. Not many musicians could do that.

NVM and Mike duet

NVM and Mike duet

Despite being unschooled in formal music, N.V.M. was a proficient violinist, but the guitar was his nemesis. For him, the guitar was both an intellectual and a physical challenge. Upon our return from Rome, it became important for him (and I, a willing supporter) that I further my guitar skills with a classic guitar teacher. My teacher (and later good friend) was Jose Ma. Pellicer, whose reputation among the local classic guitarists was legendary. I commenced my lessons with the same earnestness that I had pursued baseball and karate. In time, I developed enough skills to play for people and, of course, to impress the girls.

Our campus home became the guitar hub for aficionados nearby and we held frequent weekend soirees. N.V.M. relished the role of host, for it was a different universe from his writing and teaching. The Dayrits, Dean Bagiuo of U.P. Engineering, Agnes Narciso from La Vista, and Raul Manikan from Makati were frequent guests, to name a few. Maestro Pellicer, of course, was the center of attraction as he regaled us with his personal adventures as a musician as well as anecdotes about Rizal’s friend and classic guitarist Fernando Canon, who was his own teacher. Maestro Pellicer, once from a prominent Escolta mestizo family, told us of Rizal’s favorite tango, the one that Fernando Canon loved to play for him. Pellicer taught me the piece, by ear.

“Tango ni Rizal”

There was no score, so we dubbed it “Tango ni Rizal”. No one knows how true this story was, nor is there much written about Fernando Canon to check its veracity. But it was an intriguing piece, nonetheless. It turned out, after I did some research, that it was actually a habanera piece entitled Enriqueta, composed by a Cuban guitarist. Still, listening to it, one could imagine Rizal practicing his dance steps to it. Years later, to honor Rizal’s memory, my good friend, guitarist Theresa Calpotura, and I played this very same tango in San Francisco for the Philippine Consulate’s celebration of Rizal’s 150th anniversary.

The other piece that Maestro Pellicer passed on to me was an 1898 tune. I had to learn it by ear, as well, following maestro’s fingers as he played as there was no written notation for it. Unbeknownst to me, my father, having heard it being played so many times, actually notated the music.

Baliwag His notations not only survived the fire, it also became my most important memento from my father. Copies of the piece, aside from my having memorized it, went with me anywhere my guitar went.

From Maestro Pellicer’s telling, he learned this piece from Fernando Canon, Rizal’s friend. The tune itself was titled “Joselinang Baliwag.” It was apparently a popular ‘hymn’ among Bonifacio’s Katipunan men, who sang it at their campfires during the Revolution. It has come to be called the kundiman ng himagsikan or kundiman ng lahi in nationalist folklore.  N.V.M.’s transcription, of course, probably differs from published versions. Regardless of whether it truly was Rizal’s tango or Joselinang Baliwag’s, this musical piece seemed to seep into the Filipino cultural consciousness, and it was definitely fodder for N.V.M.’s imagination. It represented a cherished notion within his worldview that folklore and myth, in its absence of history, inspire a rich fount of creativity.


* * *

N.V.M. made and wrote stories. But he also made guitars. Early in his tenure as an English professor at Cal State Hayward, N.V.M. decided to make guitars, in part because, according to my mother, he was stressed out from the irony of teaching English to American students. However, I think his wanting to build guitars was his attempt to deconstruct a product of creation, be it a short story or a musical instrument. Fortunately, the guitar, in spite of its ancient instrumental history, did not have as complex an architecture as a violin with its arched top and back and precise “F” sound-hole construction.

It did not appear too difficult to make a guitar, and perhaps he was inspired by my own guitar studies at Cal State, where I began a major in Music. It also seemed like a welcome diversion while he waited for my mother, Narita, to join him from the Philippines, after I later decided to return to Manila.

As was typical of N.V.M., he believed in using the best tools for any creative endeavor and study, whether it was the best electric typewriter, fishing gear, or an expensive musical instrument. Shortly after I arrived from Manila to start my music studies at Cal State Hayward, he had a Marcelino Barbero guitar waiting for me. It was a beautifully made instrument with a sweet and loud sound. Unbeknownst to us, however, it had a shady provenance which I shall recount later. I performed a couple of recitals with the Barbero–a guitar and song duet with a Filipina soprano student, Belva Davis and a Carulli guitar duet with a fellow guitar student. Not too long after that, N.V.M. bought by mail order a Jose Ramirez guitar from the same importer of the Barbero, Sherry Brynner of Chicago. It was the very same model that Segovia played when we went to hear him at the San Francisco Opera. Segovia also played at the Foothill College that year. N.V.M. must have been so impressed by the Ramirez, not to mention the masterful playing of it by Segovia, that he presumed it would improve my playing.

With this precious instrument, I travelled to Marin every Sunday morning via Samtrans bus to traverse the Golden Gate bridge and take my lessons from the Cuban maestro, Rey de la Torre. Maestro de la Torre would pick me up from the Marin bus depot and bring me to his home. After the lessons and some tea talk, he would drop me back off at the bus station for my ride back to Hayward. These lessons were memorable for both the trip and the interaction with the great maestro. If I had stayed longer in California, I would have collected more stories to tell about him and his music; unfortunately, Maestro De la Torre passed away in the 80s and my life had already taken a different turn by then.

As for the Barbero, it became known that while Marcelo Barbero was a known luthier, there was no maker known as Marcelino, and presumably, it was his son, the diminutive of hijo de Marcelo. In what was apparently a common practice in those times, the importer had invented a label to give it a “made-in-Spain” aura. Had he known, N.V.M. would have enjoyed the birth of this particular myth and his role in propagating it. Be that as it may, myth or not, to this day, I continue to perform and play the Barbero and Ramirez, as they are beautiful works of wood, especially the Barbero with its added mystique.

NVM: guitar maker

NVM: guitar maker

When he returned to the Philippines for good in 1999, N.V.M. had already made three guitars in spite of less than optimal shop conditions.

Mom would complain of the unscheduled commandeering of the bath tub for soaking the wood in hot water to soften it for shaping; the clutter of varnish bottles in the kitchen; and the wood shavings and dust in the study room. Fortunately, nary a finger was lost nor the accidental ingestion of varnish, throughout this guitar-building spree.

Of these three guitars N.V.M. last made, the 2005 fire left one a charred carcass. Of the remaining two, one is with my sister, and the third is with me. The one I have, the last that he made, N.V.M. called “Twin Birds” and gifted it to me and my wife, Patricia, as a wedding present. Why “Twin Birds”? I can only guess it was so because he had pasted a bookplate label with a twin bird design onto the inside of the guitar where luthier’s normally brand their creation, perhaps to represent my wife’s and my common interests as a couple (we were both students of anthropology). Father did not have the time nor the skill to make a proper guitar label. If desktop publishing was available to him then no doubt he would have created one and I wouldn’t be surprised if it would have contained Hanunoo Mangyan calligraphy. In this case, the ready-made bookplate label made the guitar a vintage N.V.M. – making a guitar was not unlike writing a book. And like writing in the foreign tongue of English, N.V.M. understood the syntax and grammar of guitar construction. When he passed away in 1999, John Lesaca’s violin music and Raul Manikan’s guitar playing at the Philippine Cultural Center Memorial were a fitting tribute and farewell serenade to this creative life.

It seemed then, that this was the end of the guitar story.

Raul Manikan, CCP necrological rites 1999

Raul Manikan, CCP necrological rites 1999


The promise of the last guitar, a decade later (Raul’s story)

An email from Raul Manikan with exclamations in the subject line, pinged into my inbox. It told me that it had exciting news. Raul, a well regarded classic guitarist in Manila, had ventured into guitar making in the early 70s hoping to improve on the Lumanog guitar-making tradition with modern techniques. He scaled down mass production and was now focused on being a true luthier – a creator of fine instruments. As it turned out, when my father returned from the U.S., he brought back with him several pieces of guitar wood with the intention of making a fourth one. Soon after my father died, it made no sense to keep the wood around nor would I, as N.V.M. had, ever have the inclination to build one. So we decided to hand the wood pieces over to my friend, Raul. In hindsight, this was a propitious decision. The wood was saved from the 2005 fire. It had been stored in Raul’s shop until recently when he started to work on it.

The Winds of April

The Winds of April

In his email, Raul described the history of the wood. The head stock and arm, he observed, had been marked out. It had the outline marks of a Ramirez guitar head design, obviously patterned after the great guitar that Segovia had made famous, much like the one I currently own. The top, from spruce, was marked 1971, the year it was apparently purchased. Underneath the date, scribbled in pencil, was the name, “Ramirez”. This discovery gave me the shivers. I didn’t know how old the top was, nor my father’s intentions, until after Raul’s discovery. N.V.M. had actually marked onto the wood his most ambitious and ultimate guitar creation – a Ramirez copy! Raul could hardly contain his excitement.

The wood already dry and mature — luthier’s typically stack wood so as to age them before building. The older the wood, the sweeter the tone. That made this spruce top almost half-a-century old! A good sign, Raul noted. With equal excitement, Raul, who believed in honoring Filipino cultural icons like Lucio San Pedro, Botong Franscisco, and Kasilag, by naming his guitars after them, baptized this soon-to-be guitar “The Winds of April,” after one of N.V.M.’s earliest collection of stories about Mindoro. Typically, the decorative rosette around the sound hole is the place where a luthier can be elaborately florid. Instead, below the sound hole is a simple design borrowed from the syllabary of the Hanunoo Mangyan tribe who lived in the hills above the Gonzalez homestead in Mindoro. It is simple. It is evocative, like an N.V.M. short story.

It was dark beyond the grove but there was a light at the distance and we can hear voices as well as the sound of the pestle and mortar and the strains of a guitar (Winds of April, 1947)