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Protest songs still hit the spot

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By Elizabeth Lolarga

Photos by  Roger Evangelista

The Parliament of the Street came alive again through a night of song and poetry performed not atop a flatbed truck but on a traditional stage.

The Demetillos, a family of musicians made up of guitarist Lester, his sister Becky Abraham and her daughter Astarte, both vocalists, and some friends (Mario Andres, Lory Paredes and Karina Constantino-David) etched the contours of history and the current state of the nation at the University of the Philippines Abelardo Hall concert "Mga Awit Protesta."

Folk songs from the '60s and '70s popularized by Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary roused three generations of activists in the audience.

Edru Abraham was more than an emcee. He hectored, prompted and conducted some portions, keeping everyone's spirit up, the kind of spirit felt in People Power marches and rallies that peaked in the '80s.

Former UP President Francisco Nemenzo Jr. described the audience, endearingly, as "a reunion of aging activists." Farmers' rights advocate Edicio de la Torre said the concert was an example of "nostalgia niche marketing."

The night showcased siblings Becky Abraham and Lester Demetillo, the former for her vocal power that remains confidently strong in the lower register and sounds uncannily similar to her daughter's, the latter for his versatility as guitarist, composer and singer.

Demetillo  showed stamina, not leaving the stage in the two-part, no-intermission program. He was in all solo, duet and trio numbers.

Abraham, Becky's spouse, said the siblings were raised as Protestants with that church's tradition of hymns. They learned folk singing from older brother Darnay, the late painter-fine arts teacher, to whom the first part was dedicated.

Part One concentrated on songs reflecting American protesters' sentiments on the issues of racial discrimination, peace, anti-nuclear power, pro-environment and human rights that flared up during the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and the covert counter-insurgency operations of the US military.

In "Day is Done," Becky was a mother lamenting what a troubled world she and her child live in:  "Do you ask why I'm sighing, my son?/ You shall inherit what mankind has done./ In a world filled with sorrow and woe/ If you ask me why this is so, I really don't know."

In "One Tin Soldier," the futility of war was illustrated in the chorus: "Go ahead and hate your neighbor /go ahead and cheat a friend / Do it in the name of heaven / You could justify it in the end / There won't be any trumpets blowing / Come the judgment day / On the bloody morning after / One tin soldier rides away."

Abraham shared an interesting anecdote. Dylan wrote "When the Ship Comes In" in a fit of anger when he was disallowed from entering a hotel where he and Joan Baez were scheduled to sing because of his hippie getup. Demetillo imbued this song with the passion of the offended overturning the tables on the oppressor.

Andres, Paredes and Demetillo raised the nostalgia level higher with classic protest anthems "Blowin in the Wind," "There But for the Fortune," "If I Had a Hammer" and "If I Had My Way." Paredes said when she first heard "Times They Are A-Changin," she thought how sapul na sapul (spot on) it was for the '60s. As they rehearsed it again, she realized how relevant the lyrics still are.
The second half, offered to activist singer Susan Fernandez's memory, featured poems by Andres Bonifacio, Domingo Landicho, Edgardo Maranan, Constantino-David, Jane Po and Mon Ayco set to music (many by Demetillo) on the struggle against authoritarianism and the hopes of the masses.

The power of each song power doubled in impact because it was in Filipino. No one missed the feminist, near incendiary slant in "Babae." It invoked the names of Gabriela (Silang), Teresa (Magbanua), Lorena (Barros), Liliosa (Hilao) as women who didn't pin their hopes on men for a life of comfort but instead joined the national liberation struggle.

"Titser" mourns the plight of Filipino teachers who must supplement their salary by selling underwear and sausages, apart from being forced to cheat in elections.

Constantino-David, one half of the former tandem Inang Laya (the other being Ms. Abraham) went up the stage to loud cheers after an absence of 15 years to accompany on the guitar the singer's interpretation of her composition, "Macliing." This is a dirge for the murdered Kalinga chieftain who fought against the Chico River Dam that would have inundated his people's ancestral lands.

"Atsay ng Mundo," "Japayuki," "Batang Pulubi," "Anakpawis" all sadly stated how much drastic change has to be done for the country to become truly just and free. Landicho warned in "Paano Tutula" that poetry and song would flee a country that has lost all hope.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

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