What’s in a Special?

Observer, Sunday Magazine of Times Journal 14 February 1982

The drumbeating that heralded Kuh Ledesma’s special Ako ay Pilipino was extraordinary. Press releases promised a musical docu on Philippine culture, to be aired at least once by every television network within a span of four consecutive weekdays, no less. The timing wasn’t bad either: right smack in the midst of the first Manila International Film Fest. The unprecedentedness of the entire affair was delightfully intriguing. It better be good, I thought.

Aside. Daily and weekly television shows, whether foreign or local, drama or comedy, variety or musical, tend to slip into unremarkable ruts. The tedium of producing one show after another, day after day or week after week, on limited budgets and inhumanly unvarying timetables cannot but affect the quality of the finished product.

A TV special, on the other hand, is always worth catching. Conceived on a grand scale, production funds allow for toprate talents, costumes, props, technical crew and equipment, unlimited film footage, travel and location-shooting expenses, etcetera. Seeking to impart a special message or, at the very least, to sell some superstar to faceless masses, the magic of television is invoked and placed in the hands of artists in film.

There is no excuse for slipshod work in the making of a TV special. Time to think, to plan, to research, to dream, to cover alternative angles, to re-shoot imperfect sequences, and to edit taped material into a creative and cohesive whole – all thisis given. End of aside.

Kudos to Kuh

As a musical, Ako ay Pilipino was special. Witch-woman Kuh Ledesma was an excellent performer. Interpreting Pilipino songs of love and pride and life and roots, her voice rang clear and true, never wavering though crooning now, belting anon, sighing, seducing, demanding, asserting, expressing. The lipsynching was so well done (9 on a 10-scale, I’d say), it was easy to pretend she was singing live.

Ledesma’s portrayal of a native Filipina departed from the extravagantly emotional and gestural. Clad in the exotic raiments of a brown goddess, the angular frame moved simply, sparingly, sometimes striking unlikely yet strangely dramatic stances with an aloof intensity. A mere wrinkle of dark brows over black sparkling eyes was all it took to convey a whole gamut of emotions and passions. Projecting powerfully, she sustained moods with enviable control and sensitivity.

Cameras captured her from every angle, zooming in, zooming out, encircling and embracing, caressing like a lover. It was a visual experience seeing the brown high-boned face close up, catching the play of light on its shadows, watching her change into maiden, princess, nymph, witch in the wink of an eye. Viewers were enthralled, not so much by the music, as by the audio-visual apparition of Ledesma at her craft.

Whither went Philppine culture?

The repertoire consisted of original Pilipino compositions by Canseco, Faustman, Labrador, Francia, Lumbera, Cayabyab and Pedero. Beautiful music, heart-gripping lyrics: some movie themes (like Dito Ba), some truly ethnic (theme from Mahal), some popular ones re-arranged to a slower beat (Kayganda ng Ating Musika) – all in all a get-away from the danceable and the commercial.

Edited into musical gaps were a series of film clips: one of a white anthropologist talking of the nose flute of mountain tribes; two of a humanities professor on the Filipino lowlander’s romantic temperament and music; two of another anthropologist on the social systems of the Palawan minorities; one of Lucrecia Kasilag showing off primitive courtship instruments; and one of a Tiboli anthropologist on the Tibolis.

That the film clips had interesting bits of cultural information to offer, and that Kasilag was a swinging surprise at the eight gongs are neither here nor there. What struck the viewer halfway through the hour was the apparent unrelatedness of the documentary to the musical portion.

What did Ledesma’s songs have to do with the Palawan minorities and the Tibolis? Which of the songs she sang epitomized the lowlander’s amorous style? There was simply no script to speak of, no attempt made to string the separate parts towards some semblance of a theme or message. It was like watching two different shows, one a musical and one a docu of sorts, that got edited into each other by mistake.

Yet, had the docu portion been handled well, Ako… might not have needed a script at all. Had the focus of documentation been the music of the cultural minorities rather than a hodge-podge of lifestyles and rituals, then a theme might have emerged, unbidden. Or, what if Ledesma had taken a more active role in the documenting task? She had ample chance to interview and jam with the natives in whose costumes she was garbed, on whose tribal grounds she treaded, but she held apart instead. As if her physical presence were sufficient and only for the sake of ambience anyway.

A pity. All that dazzle was for naught. Ako… left the viewer feeling empty and wasted. Nothing learned. Nothing gained.