Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Treasures of Las Piñas: The Bamboo Organ, The Boys Choir, and a Filipino Christmas

The famous Bamboo Organ.

There it was. The Bamboo Organ. One of the more beautiful reminders of the colonial encounter - the meeting of Europe and Asia embodied in an instrument.  Engineering know-how and musicology from the West combined with the local craftsman's innate musicality and intimate knowledge of indigenous wood.  Oliver took me to a Christmas Concert held at the famous church in Las Piñas so we could marvel at two of the area's musical icons:  The Bamboo Organ and the Las Piñas Boys Choir.  European compositions were being played on the organ, and Christmas carols, even in German, were being sung by the adorable boys.  Foreign material as interpreted soulfully by the Filipino artist.  The concert we watched was entitled Silent Night and it was the type of concert that moves you to be still.

Posing with the Las Piñas Boys Choir. Little did I know
that I was carrying my own tiny boy in my belly.

This was Christmas last year. I was just suspecting I was pregnant. I bought a pregnancy test kit, and  was disappointed when the results came out negative. I really felt pregnant, I was sure. It wouldn't be until two weeks later, when I took a second test that my intuition would be  proven right. Sometimes, the heart, or the gut, knows ahead and with conviction, what science can only affirm later.  So there I was at the concert, with pregnancy's gift of heightened senses. I was seeing, hearing, and feeling everything - the church, the music, the lighting and the decor - and I saw connections and creations - of beauty and balance, history and harmony. I was in love. With my husband for bringing me here to Las Piñas, for knowing me well enough to anticipate that I would love a night like this. With my country for everything good it is capable of, past, present, and future. A night of revelation, in the old center of town.

The altar decorated with abaca lanterns.

I marveled at the Church's altar. At how finely crafted it was, brick on brick, in delicate layers, from the floor to the ceiling - ah, the ceiling, it was another awesome sight: supported by beautiful stone arches, and done in bamboo. How many hours must have gone into selecting only the best pieces of bamboo, to be perfectly positioned, side by side, to cover the entire length of the church.  I've seen many churches in my travels, and craned my neck upwards countless times to admire painted ceilings and domes - but never like this. I have never been awed by simplicity like this - how could one be made to stare so long, at one material, done in one color, with only one thing happening: it's just bamboo lined up - but how I marveled at it, at its grand expanse.

The church's bamboo ceiling.

Then there were the grand chandeliers made of capiz shells, and festooned with garlands made of abaca. The bamboo, the capiz, and the abaca, all gave me a strong sense of place. I am here. I am home. I am no longer a young graduate  student lost on a lonely Sunday in some European city, desperately seeking comfort in a cold old church, dreaming of home. Now, the situation is reversed. I am in a warm (nay! hot!) church in the tropics, but also no longer young, already wife and mother, reminiscing about my  days of freedom in cold Europe. Watching a concert, even a silent one, really makes the mind dance.

Capiz chandeliers.

The church on any normal day, is already a sight to behold, but at Christmas? Even more so! I loved the hanging abaca lanterns against a backdrop of centuries-old grills and stained glass.  I loved the elegant garlands and understated Christmas lights above the windows' deep stone frames.  

I loved the parols, also done in abaca. Floating silently from the ceilings. What gracious solemnity. I often associate Christmas with gaiety, and Filipino decorations with loud colors to the point of being garish and gaudy- but that night in Las Piñas church was a silent night, for the ears, and also for the eyes. And most importantly for the spirit. I wonder if the music of that night imprinted on my son, and helped create his calming demeanor.  My son has that kind of energy signature, his star shines like an abaca parol, big and grand, beautiful and glorious, but peculiarly quiet and subtle. Just there in the background, while being there at the center. It is part of my baby boy's appeal, his unobtrusive, gentle magnetism. 

The church after the concert.

I write about last year's concert now, because it is Christmas once again. From Christmas to Christmas, things change, sometimes for the worse - like when loved ones die - sometimes for the better - like when you welcome a precious baby boy into the family. This year, more than at any other Christmas in my life, do I feel the passing of generations. It's been quite a year of changes, of funerals and baptisms. And I thought of this old church built in solid stone, a building that houses an eternal Christmas, where carols from foreign lands will always sound strangely Filipino when played on a bamboo organ; where the same Silent Night will always be sung by choirboys to the ever-changing generations of churchgoers who people the pews beneath the hanging abaca stars. 

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