Sunday Essay: The sounds of Gabii sa Kabilin

Sunday Essay Cartoon by John Gilbert Manantan

AS dusk began to draw its veil over Parian last Friday night, a harpist sat on the edge of a well and began to play. He began with a few classic Cebuano love songs—like “Usahay,” of course—but then shifted to faster tunes that made some of the costumed performers near him start dancing.

This was how Gabii sa Kabilin began for me. As two dancers with castanets began twirling on the Casa Gorordo lawn, I realized that the harpist had moved on to a boogie-woogie song that my parents used to dance to, but the title of which I didn’t know. I remembered only that my mother’s version of the lyrics included the line “Pagbuto sa bulkan, ang pahak nidagan.” (Which defies translation.) Each Heritage Night, the guests take in the sights, which amuse and inform. On that night, it was the sound that caught my attention.

One of the hosts started it when she said that according to local custom, if you greet someone “Maayong gabii (Good evening)” but the other person refuses to respond, that person may be an “ungo,” a monster or a witch. The crowd laughed but greeted her loudly, just to be clear.

There, too, was King Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, conversing with Magellan and Pigafetta in formal Cebuano. This was a good choice of language, otherwise most of us watching the show would been left in the dark, even if we watched beneath the capiz lamps strung between the large kalachuchi trees and the house’s terrace. Before Magellan began his voyage, he told the king, “Ang imong bandila magkayab-kayab didto (Your flag shall fly freely there).” I couldn’t help but admire his command of the language.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand why the show had to be in Cebuano and applaud the choice, but I also found it a little funny. It became a theme of sorts for my evening: we encounter history mostly in visuals, in the sepia photographs retrieved from some museum archive or rescued from old family albums. We often forget about the sound. On a recent evening in Bais City, a group of us entered a converted power plant (now a restaurant) where every available wall displayed photographs of the family’s milestones. It felt like stepping into the past. But it was quiet. I wonder if the experience would have been better with some period-correct music.

During an intermission in Casa Gorordo’s show, I walked around the corner to the Yap-Sandiego house and heard a young man singing “Kahit Maputi na ang Buhok Ko.” It soon became clear why so many girls were squealing: the singer looked like he had just stepped out of a telenovela. More of a Ricky Martin than one of the Backstreet Boys. (Go ask your parents if you don’t get the reference. It’s part of their heritage, too.)

When it became possible to squeeze my way through the crowd, I headed for Jesuit House. I saw families or groups of friends pore over their Gabii sa Kabilin maps and heard them discuss where they might catch the free bus to the rest of the 18 museums and heritage sites. I heard a child give her mother her review of one of the performers in the Museo Sugbo show a few blocks down the road. (“But Mommy, she sounded like a goat!”) I checked later and I think the child may have referred to an actor who played a shaman who, indeed, sounded like a goat. But a melodious goat.

Inside Jesuit House, though, the highlight of my evening awaited. In one of its rooms, a jukebox stood under a row of framed prints, near a case of old cameras. I read what songs it held and couldn’t help but laugh. I wasn’t expecting meditation music or something Jesuit, but the mere sight of some of the titles (“Boombastic” by Shaggy and “Eternal Flame”) was just so funny. I left the site smiling, my inner jukebox playing the Bangles. Later, I learned that the jukebox still worked! Something to look forward to, in next year’s Gabii sa Kabilin.


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