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Pandemic project turns into albums, concert

IT BEGAN as a pandemic project meant to keep themselves entertained during the darkest moments of the lockdowns. But as performing artists with a deep desire to share their gifts, a request for a new arrangement of kundiman songs led to two albums and has now become a concert.

THE MEMBERS of Tribu came together during the pandemic.

Klasical, a musical show featuring classic Filipino music, is the Ephesus Teatron Group, Inc.’s first major production in three years. It also marks the return of Tribu to the stage. Led by coloratura soprano Sweet Samaniego-Buchanan, the singing group members include lyric soprano Marga Roco, tenor Terence Guillermo, baritone Onyl Torres, and tenor Nazer Salcedo. The scoring and arrangements for the concert were done by Pipo Cifra.

It began with a phone call, said Mr. Cifra. Ms. Buchanan reached out to him for a re-arrangement of kundiman songs — an update of the classics without sacrificing the identity of the music. He gladly took on the challenge and even asked his professor, conductor and composer Herminigildo Ranera, if it was okay to make the changes he had in mind.

“Sure, as long as you won’t ruin it!” was the supportive but mildly threatening reply. He took this to heart and made sure to do the classics justice. But given that he was working with seasoned performers, he found the audacity to create arrangements that would challenge all of them.

“I made a lot of transpositions and modulations because I was fearless kasi alam ko na kaya nila (because I knew they could do it),” he said. “I know that they can sing it.”

The result was Klasical: A Collection of Immortal Filipino Songs — an album of 14 songs featuring the likes of Nicanor Abelardo’s “Bituing Marikit,” Francisco Santiago’s “Pakiusap,” and Constancio De Guzman’s “Pamaypay ng Maynila” among others.

It was Ms. Buchanan’s dream project come true and she was able to perform it in New York in October last year. She brought with her copies of the album that, in the beginning, did not seem to catch the interest of the audience. Apparently, they assumed that she was selling CDs and many of them no longer had the equipment to play it. But upon opening the packaging, it was revealed that it contained a g-clef-shaped USB drive that could be played on any computer. Sales improved immediately, proving to her that kundiman will always have a market.

This was reinforced when they were undertaking the final mixing of the second album, Klasical Tribu, which contained more folksongs and kundimans but this time including the other members of Tribu. The person handling the mixing was a 23-year-old graduate of St. Benilde and, while listening to the music, he became curious about it.

Ms. Buchanan laughingly disclosed that he thought “Bahay Kubo” sounded familiar. And upon listening to the rest of the album, he was all praises for it.

“‘Ang ganda ng arrangement! Narinig ko na nga ang mga iyan!’ (The arrangement is so beautiful! I’ve heard this before!),” she said, sharing the young man’s reaction. “So na ca-catch namin iyung tenga nila sa ganitong klaseng arrangement. Hindi porque’t kundiman ay passé na (So we can catch their ear with this kind of arrangement. Just because it’s kundiman it doesn’t mean that it’s passé),” she said of appealing to the young.

“This new generation, they never grew up with Sylvia La Torre, Aawitan Kita. This is all brand new!” added Ms. Roco. “Even as is, they’re reaction is, ‘Oooh! What’s this?’ It is different. And we package it a little closer to what they know, there’s already an appreciation. Pinoy na Pinoy ang spirit. It’s there. We all recognize it. You can go to YouTube and you will see Americans singing kundiman. And they have no introduction at all! So this is our gift to the world!”

Indeed, the music is the gift that keeps on giving. And for these performers who were isolated from their audiences during the lockdown, the opportunity to learn, record, and eventually perform these songs was lifesaving for them too.

Mr. Guillermo was teaching at different schools during the lockdowns — a herculean effort that eventually took its toll on his creativity.

“Pag nagtuturo ka, ikaw iyung nawawalan ng boses (When you teach, you’re that one who ends up losing your voice),” he explained. “I’m very grateful to Sweet for giving me this opportunity to perform. Musical theater actors kaming lahat pero patay iyung theater during the pandemic. So wala. May boses pa ba ko? Hindi ko alam kung nag co-contribute pa ba ako. Pero itong Tribu, nailabas ko ulit. May identity pa pala iyung boses ko (We are all musical theater actors but theater was dead during the pandemic. There was nothing. Did I still have a voice? I didn’t know if I was still contributing. But here in Tribu, I was able to express myself. My voice still had an identity).”

Mr. Salcedo agreed. The last of the group to join Tribu, music was truly his solace.

“During the pandemic, I found comfort in singing, in music. When all the world was panicking, hindi nila alam kung ano ang mangyayari, I kept on singing, kahit sa kuwarto, kahit madaling araw. Sabi ko nga sa mga neighbors ko, magdusa kayo diyan kasi may singer dito. Hindi ako tumigil kumanta (they didn’t know what was going to happen, I kept on singing even just in my room, in the middle of the night. I told my neighbors, you just have to suffer through this because there’s a singer here. I didn’t stop singing)!” he laughingly shared.

But music came to hold a new meaning for Mr. Torres.

“Personally, I feel blessed to be a part of this show,” he said. “I have not been singing or performing for a long time. Then the pandemic hit and, on a personal level, grabe iyung impact sa akin (it had a huge impact on me). Tribu actually helped me recover from what I was going through because we were always messaging each other, and we would produce music during the time! Anong mangyayari sa atin (what will happen to us)? Now, when I sing a certain song, nag-iiba na iyung meaning niya (the meaning has changed). Empowering na siya for me (It’s empowering for me). After the pandemic, this concert is a celebration of life — a celebration of us surviving everything.”

Klasical will be performed on June 10, at the OnStage Theatre, Greenbelt 1, Makati at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, log on to

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