Story and photos by Elmer V. Recuerdo / Correspondent
CALBAYOG CITY, Samar— Matters of the arts and culture are serious business in this city—so serious that the city government is spending good money for its preservation, popularization and sustainability. No other local government in the country can match.
While other cities and towns in the country would only take time to notice culture and the arts during fiestas to attract and entertain visitors, cultural and artistic activities here go year-round albeit in less scale on ordinary days.
The city government has created a separate department for culture and the arts—the Calbayog City Arts and Culture Office (Caco)—perhaps, the only local government unit in the country to have such a department.
Artists, writers, musicians and other groups have also emerged outside of the government and are active on many activities in their respective art form. There are the Calbayog Arts Association; Calbayog City Visual Arts Association; Lamiraw Writers Organization; Calbayog Literary Arts Organization; choirs, like the Cecilian Cultural Group Kita Choir and Calbayog Concert Chorus; and theater group Samareno Teatro Makabugwas.
The younger generations can easily relate to young musicians of the school-based Christ the King College Youth Symphony Orchestra, the aspiring rappers group Calba Rhyme Music and Samarak, formed by different local bands and musicians to promote the rock-music scene of Samar.
“Strong culture and the arts make the city more vibrant,” said Calbayog City Mayor Ronaldo Aquino, a big supporter of cultural preservation like his predecessors, former mayors Reynaldo Uy and Mel Senen Sarmiento. “This also helps in promoting tourism not only for the city, but also for the whole region.”
Aquino said the money the city government spends on culture and the arts is a “worthy investment”, especially when the city is making a serious bid to become an important tourist destination.
The city has also earmarked a budget to improve facilities and access to its 11 natural waterfalls, pristine rivers and tourist come-ons, like the zipline that starts from a hill and crosses a sea down to an island.
Like in big cosmopolitan cities, there are nooks where artists converge to share their work and chat among themselves about their plans on ongoing projects. Artist groups are as diverse as the art forms there are. But this is Samar—not some highly urbanized cities in the country—where “normal” news stories that land on the national newspapers are on insurgency, killings and poverty.
As the center of the culture and the arts in Eastern Visayas, a lot of artists known in the country came from this city. Among the more popular include film director Chito Roño, who continues to support the local arts scene with money and in sharing his talent; actress Tessie Tomas; singer Nonoy Zuniga; visual artists Raul Isidro and Edwin Tuazon; sculptor Florence Cinco; poet Harold Mercurio; and many others.
Calbayog artists reckon over six decades have transpired when the first breakthrough of arts performances and creations was started by Jose Gomez, the famous “music man of Samar”, in 1948. Jonas Lim, department head of City Arts and Culture Office, credits Gomez for infusing many compositions that inspired other artistic creations after World War II. His musical output included church hymns, guerrilla marches, graduation marches and more than 5,000 songs.
Gomez’s composition “Calbayog Ko” remains well known even to the millennials and serves as the city’s “anthem”. It is sung before duties start at city hall.
Gomez organized the Cecilian Cultural Group, which, together with Rayhak Dance Group of former Bayanihan dancer Teresita Silayan, formed the pioneering cultural groups in the whole Samar island. The successful public appearances of the two groups gave birth to the so-called Waray Soul.
These two cultural groups were distinguished for concentrating solely on rich Waray musical and dances they created. Cecilian Choral Group’s rendition of Ahay, for example, captured the real anguish of a love forsaken. And when Rayhak Dance Troupe does the difficult steps of La Jota Ceciliana, each sway of the body, hands and feet, and the expression on the dancer’s faces are executed in a regale and noble movement that made this “Jota” the dance of the aristocracy in Calbayog for centuries.
The years that followed saw an enormous harvest of artistic creations in all genre—music, painting, dance, theater, mixed media and multimedia productions—making Calbayog the “talent bank capital” in Eastern Visayas.
The declaration of martial law in 1972 saw a number of local artists going underground that somehow widened more the artistic space as it also saw the rise of revolutionary poetry, songs and dances in Waray revolving around the theme of militarization, human-rights violations, peasant landlessness and the call for uprising. Above ground, cultural groups, like the Samareno Teatro Makabugwas, were touring communities and campuses in various parts of the country to educate people on social realities through songs and dances.
The Caco was formed in 1994 as a division under the office of then-City Mayor Mel Sarmiento, who later became the secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government during the administration of former President Benigno S. Aquino III. In 1996 the culture and the arts division was made into a separate division of the city government.
Lim, who heads the Caco, said the government is mandated by the Constitution to help cultural artists and workers. “What happens is artists create artworks during their prime, but are left to fend on their own when they become old and sickly,” he said.
“Our advocacy is from volunteerism, pwede naman pala ma-professionalize ang culture and the art para ang dating ng trabaho ng culture and the arts ay hindi raket-raket,” he said. “Kasi ang nangyayari raket-raket lang kaya nasa-sacrifice ang integrity ng artistic work.”
Lim said his office is doing “artreach programs”, like training teachers for free. They also provide technical assistance to barangays planning to mount cultural activities for different community celebrations.
To keep the sustainability of the culture and the arts for generations to come, Caco is giving scholarships to poor, but deserving college students.
“This is the only way to sustain all the gains that we reaped in culture and the arts all these years,” he said.
The scholars are left to decide on the course they want to pursue. Each scholar is entitled to free tuition, book allowance, a monthly stipend and P3,000 cash grant per semester courtesy of Rep. Edgar S. Sarmiento of Samar.
As part of the deal, a scholar has to report every day, including Saturday and Sunday, after their classes to train on arts or any art form—painting, poetry, music, theater, production, stage management and dance.
Since it started in 2001, the program has already sent 136 youth to finish a degree; all of them passed their respective professional board examinations.
With young blood ready to take the helm, culture and the arts in Calbayog is in very capable hands.
Image credits: Elmer V. Recuerdo