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SILONG Songs Issue 3: Bong Penera’s ‘Samba for Luisa’ & ‘Batucada sa Calesa’

SILONG Songs is a series examining Original Pilipino Music (OPM) from a young, diasporic Pinoy perspective

‘Samba for Luisa’ and ‘Batucada sa Calesa’ are two sides of Bong Penera’s Brazillian-indebted Filipino Jazz. The velvet intoxication of the former fuses Bossa Nova with the Filipino Kundiman, the sentimental form serenading the Pinoy spirit. The latter’s irresistible energy is channeled into an ode to the horsedrawn carriage, a symbol of both burden and resiliency. Both tease Filipino music history pre-OPM and Filipino history at large, offering different views of a deep struggle with and resounding triumph despite colonialism.

Filipino Jazz is just another fingerprint left on the country by colonization. The early 1900s peak of the American Jazz age coincided with American colonial rule of the Philippines. Buried in the shames of American history is a long-drawn struggle of the Philippine-American War (1899–1913), which followed the much quicker and more publicized Spanish-American War (1898).

The conflict left Filipinos bloodied, diseased, and brutalized. Meanwhile, the American government was giddy to bring Manifest Destiny across the Pacific. Just as with the American indigenous, the United States sought to “Americanize” Filipinos, especially via education and culture. As a result, the legacy of jazz in the Philippines is a microcosm of the high esteem and ambition many Filipinos today associate with America.

But Filipino Jazz is just as much about Filipino resilience. Some historians speculate the first Filipinos to indulge in jazz were diasporic communities in America. In 1587, the first Filipinos (and perhaps the first Asians) landed in the now-United States on the shores of California. This was an outcome of the Galleon trade that connected Manila to Spain’s American colonies.

In 1763, escapees of the Galleons would establish the first Filipino American settlement of St. Malo, Louisiana. Though a fishing community isolated on the banks of Lake Borgne, it’s possible the ‘Manilamen’ and their descendants took part in the rise of jazz in the late 1800s.

Filipinos are also credited with Jazz flourishing across Asia. In his review of Ritchie C. Quirino’s book Pinoy Jazz Traditions, Bangkok Post writer John Clewey surveys the ventures of Filipino jazz musicians beyond the Philippines. One quote by musician Nick Joaquin summarizes the wide scope of the Filipino influence on Asian Jazz¹:

“Filipino jazz bands … spread jazz to other capitals of Southeast Asia … It was our top bands and variety stars who brought jazz all over Asia (footnote) — Hong Kong, Shanghai, to Tokyo and Harbin, to Singapore and Surabaya. Even the liners that crossed the Pacific moved to the ragtime of Philippines jazz bands…”

The core importance of Filipino Jazz is the same as the OPM that succeeded it as the dominant music form: a medium for the Kundiman, a genre and general ethos of Filipino folk music that emerged at the tail end of the Spanish Colonial era.

Kundiman is foremost a longing love song and figures into the Pinoy romantic. The form centers on the chase of love, the pangs of hearts half-empty that colors Filipino culture as a whole. But Kundiman’s desire for fulfillment also represents a subversive longing for the Filipino nation. The song manifests a yearning for the people’s potential in the face of the tyranny of colonialism or authoritarianism in independence.

Bong Penera’s ‘Samba for Luisa’ and ‘Batucada sa Calesa’ are two sides of the coin of the Kundiman embodied in Filipino music: the sentimentality of romance and the pride of a people.

‘Samba for Luisa’ is both familiar and distinct. The tenderness of the song, its focus on love and affection, follows the tradition of the Kundiman. But the instrumentation is discernably foreign, even in the context of most American jazz. That, of course, is the eponymous ‘samba.’

‘Luisa’ showcases why Penera advocates for the Brazillian influence on Pinoy Jazz, as it stunningly complements the Kundiman. The song’s bossa nova is delicate, smooth as butter, highlighted by a pair of pairs: twangy bass and fingerstyle acoustic guitar, dancing piano and accenting synths. However, the instrumentation is never overt. It is merely a platform for the lustrous vocal performances of Penera and accompanying Mila Garcia for a Kundiman in tandem.

It’s notable that while Penera sings in Tagalog, as is tradition with the Kundiman, Garcia sings in English. Their verses slightly parallel in meaning but are not exactly one-to-one translations. For example, while Penera sings:

At bawat luha ko’y iyong nilunasan
Ngayong sumapit na ang pag-ibig
‘Di ko lubos masariling sinta
Ang iyong tinig sadyang kaakit-akit
Kay hirap nang magkunwari, giliw
‘Pag ‘di kita kapiling

And for all my tears
You are the remedy
Now that my love has arrived
I can’t keep your alluring voice
All to myself
How difficult it is to pretend, affection
Whenever you aren’t around

Garcia croons:

Erase my tears away
And brought the sunshine back into my life
How can I picture all the things you are
Your gaze I want
Your voice I love
It isn’t easy to just make believe
And stay away from you

Perhaps that difference lies in artistic preference. Maybe the contrast serves something grander, as English has a specific power and connotation in the Philippines. In the lens of the Kundiman, it could be a nod to a nation inseparable from Westernization. There is also the added dimension of the diaspora, distance fueling the yearning for reunity with love and country. In any case, the difference is enticing.

Ultimately, ‘Samba for Luisa’ is a nostalgic song for interlocking eyes and velvet swaying, whether in the past, present, or future.

‘Batucada sa Calesa’ could also be considered Kundiman, just not in the melodramatic sense. Batucada is another type of Brazillian Jazz, meaning percussion jam session. The subgenre is centered on the Bateria, a drum set influenced by the rhythms of indigenous Brazilians and West Africans. Batucada is distinct for its breadth of percussive elements and high tempo, especially relative to Bossa Nova.

What results is a song whose joy is more explicit, visceral, felt immediately. The instrumentation features hypnotically pacy percussion, Penera’s deft piano, spicy synths, and scintillating bass. With the vocals, the song creates an uninhibited, invigorating, and irresistible feeling.

The joy of the song is channeled into the ‘Calesa,’ the name for the horse carriage used most notably by elites in the Spanish colonial era. The usage of Tagalog and the context of the Batucada seems to indicate the song is from a working-class and folk perspective. While the ‘Calesa’ is a symbol of the burden and the classism that has plagued Filipino history, it can also be interpreted as one of Filipino resilience. The aesthetics of Jeepney, one of the main methods of public transportation, are based in the calesa. In fact, the artifact of American colonization was once known as the “auto calesa.” This verse especially celebrates the calesa’s legacy:

Batucada sa calesa
Pakinggan at magsayaw
Kalimutan ang lumbay
Umindak sabay-sabay
Sa batucada sa calesa

Batucada of the calesa
Listen and dance
Forget any sadness
Dance altogether
To the batucada of the calesa

Any attendee of a sizeable Filipino gathering can feel the importance of dance, sayaw, invited by the Batucada. The invitation of sabay-sabay emphasizes the spine of the Filipino spirit: togetherness, family, solidarity. The pride of a nation manifested in song, a celebratory kundiman.

Bong Penera’s ‘Samba for Luisa’ and ‘Batucada sa Calesa’ are two sides of the coin of the Kundiman embodied in Filipino music: the sentimentality of romance and the pride of a people.

I was recently given a copy of My American Kundiman, a poetry collection by Patrick Rosal, which is the first time I was made aware of Kundiman. And while I’ve made it especially explicit in this piece, the longing of the Kundiman, has become an idea informing my writing and perspective. Perhaps it has been all my life without me knowing.

Jazz has never been my strong suit, but it’s always been, especially recently, a genre I enjoy and want to explore more. I also know it’s a genre my father holds dear, occasionally playing smooth and acid jazz over the aux. Bong Penera, the Kundiman, Filipino music are just further examples that show how Filipinos across history, across the Pacific and diaspora, are all connected.

¹ There’s an interesting piece in Quartz India by Naresh Fernandes that intertwines the story of Indian and Filipino Jazz. The article enlists Ivan Evangelista as an avatar for the marriage, as the violinist from Pampanga darted across India with his Jazz band, eventually meeting his musical and life partner in Calcutta. Connecting a moniker historically attached to Goans, Fernandes includes 1922 quotes from the New York Times which declare, “where music is concerned, the Filipinos are known as the Italians of the East.”

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