By By Ramonfelipe A. Sarmiento
Marian Christmas, Part 2: Kagharong
posted 24-Dec-2009  ·  
2,412 views  ·   0 comments  ·  

I draw my first vivid impression of Christmas from my very early years, perhaps when I was only three. That was when my father brought me to see the Kagharong for the first time. He held me up on his shoulders so I had a good view of Tio Julian my uncle, garbed in a well-starched barong and framed by the wide and colorfully festooned window of Tang Kikoy Talan’s residence in Concepcion. He was gesticulating forcefully and his profound baritone booming through the early evening of Christmas Eve “Sisay kamong yaon diyan, na nag-apod sa dalan?”  From then on, I simply had to hum to myself that singular line from Kagharong music and all the images of Christmas come rushing to my mind.

In last week’s piece, I mentioned that Christmas in Virac is characteristically Marian and is defined by the Kagharong and the gozos. Here, I say that the former takes precedence over the latter.  That is because one is drawn first to the spectacle of the Kagharong before developing an appreciation for the fine aspects of gozos music. Kagharong is really kid stuff and its main allure is its compelling story. Every child, and the child in everyone, loves a good story, especially if told through costumed characters. And a horse.  As a young boy, what really attracted me to the Kagharong was the horse. But as I grew up, it dawned on me that the Kagharong drama centers on the Virgin Mary. When old folks talk about the Kagharong, their preoccupation is on the Mary character. Like, who’s going to do the role? Kisay man aki? Is she beautiful and virginal enough?

Basically then, the Kagharong is evaluated on the performance of Mary. Ay ong gayon, bagi talagang santa! Ay, kahalangkaw kang boses! It is really the Mary character, born up the horse’s back, that people care mostly about. They would look at her facial expression and watch for the slightest twitch, and their hearts would bleed at the merest hint of sadness. When Mary’s voice starts to suggest her pitiful predicament, the people are ready to shed tears with her. I have seen not a few womenfolk who cry while watching the Kagharong.

What about Joseph? Well, just like his obscurity in biblical accounts, the Joseph character is relegated to second fiddle in the Kagharong. He can be hardly seen as he just mixes with the rest of the crowd, and he goes merely “second voice” (ga segunda) to Mary’s “first voice” singing. Even when he is given a solo part, it is done in the minor key, which gives him an emotional rather than a rational tone, making him sound indecisive compared to Mary’s solidly assertive  singing discourse in the major key. Even if we analyze the lyrics, Mary is more strong-willed than her partner.  I even have the notion that those who do the Joseph part take effort to hide their identity, a far cry from how the Mary players bask with the social prestige that goes with the role. Just consider how the Josephs would cover their heads with a ton of wig and their faces with overly abundant beard, kulang na sana tabako, bagi nang tikbalang. Or, somebody straight from the planet of the apes? A virtual ET, yes. I remember, there was even an occasion where the Joseph actor, a real shy guy, wore a pair of shades!

Speaking of costume, the point of dressing up the Kagharong cast is not to achieve realism but to conform to traditional iconography (art of representing holy personages). Again, the center of attraction is Mary, her get-up replete with symbolism.  First are the colors of her dress: they must be white to represent purity, and blue to signify the heavens. She also wears a halo of stars, made of pasak ning kaha ning sigarilyo, in anticipation of her eventual glory as the Lady of the Apocalypse. Sometimes, aside from the veil, she is made to sport a wide-brim hat with a plume, which connotes travel. The hat is also a trademark of Mary as Dvina Pastora. As a child, I used to take a good look at Mary’s tummy to see if it was bulging. To my disappointment, it was always flat so I came to have the idea that Jesus-in-the-womb is spirit not flesh. But there was one Christmas where Mary got an unmistakable bulge. But I realized it was not ulunan but real flesh, although surely she was way past child-bearing age (the actress was an elderly lady who looked more like St. Elizabeth). St. Joseph for his part is always made to wear a green tunic with the signature yellow balabal. He also brings around a staff with the sprout of white lilies at the top (to signify chastity).  

But indispensable to the allure of the Kagharong are the legion of support players, those that populate the stop-over stations: what is Kagharong without the harong-harong? First stop-over is the padron (referring to the census list) where the couple fulfills the Roman Emperor’s mandate to have all subjects register their demographics. It features a lone character, the chief census enumerator. In my childhood, this role was always played by my Tio Julian (Tang Kuling to everybody else). The opening line of his aria is the signature phrase that gets repeated in variations throughout the harong-harong singing: “Sisay kamong yaon diyan, na nag-apod sa dalan?” It is arranged in an imposing slow march and must be rendered in solid baritone. When my uncle passed away, the role was inherited by his son Manoy Goyito, my cousin. The role must have been copyrighted to this particular line of Sarmientos, so that for the past several years Manoy Goyito’s son Atty. Greg, had  been doing the padron role, although he had been joined by up to two other singers who do segunda. One problem however is that Atty. Greg does not have a male heir. Tradition may have to take a different turn, as it always does.

  Then comes the “no room at the inn” part. In the Kagharong, it is not really so much of an inn-keeper that drives away the hapless couple but a homeowner, the Kagharong indeed. This must be because inns are not a part of Virac culture, as we here in this town of our passions do not have to check in for “short time.” We have other creative means. Anyway, there are about seven set variations of homeowner episodes which are recycled so that there can be up to fourteen stops-over around the poblacion to fill up the night before the Kagharong rounds up just before the Yuletide Mass. In practice, the master of the house does not do his job of making things difficult to Mary and Joseph alone but always as an entire chorus. Apparently, the amo has a multitude of guests. The genius of the composer of Kagharong music (this we have to establish; the CCHI has a pending research on this and other aspects) lies in the way the different harong is given a particular character and flavor.

Basically, the harong-harong variants provide the antagonist half of the story. The Kagharong works like a telenovela, and what is a good drama series without the kontrabida? And the Mary and Joseph tandem are such heavy weight protagonists (as principal agents of God’s master plan) they must be met by equally heavy resistance. And since no other character can be heavy enough aside from the devil himself, the trick is to come up with repetitive and drawn out forms of obstacles to the goal of the bida, as indeed the Kagharong, just like any telenovela, is a long journey replete with obstacles. All the harong-harong therefore must be territories of the bad, the ugly and the nasty. The Kagharong scenarist did a good job coming up with a whole variety of human viciousness, in different mixes of degrees and circumstances.         

My all-time favorite however is the variant used in Ilawod (biased ba?). It is the “mayayaman, maginuo” episode. The music is grandiosely crisp and the tone is deliciously mean and acidic. The effect is a cross between Bella Flores and Cherrie Gil. And yes, Ilawod seems to be particularly blessed with good singers. Mainstays include the Vargas sisters (Cathy and Liling, aw tabangan ning Diyos), the Tria sisters and Elvie Carlos (Nora Aunor of CNHS batch 77). The topnotch singing is also matched by acting to the max. The singers glare their eyes, smirk in contempt, and flay their arms about, making turo-turo to the humble and righteous but tearful couple below, while mockingly swaying to the beat. At wag isnabin ang get-up ng mga fashionistang Ilawodnon. Puro isputing ha! So therefore, early in the afternoon before show time, my dear teacher in Pilipino (grade six), Ms. Aida Toledo, would be melting under the hair dryer in some parlor downtown, while having her nails polished. Then, it would be time to put on the branded bestida (so carefully ta mauyag ang kopyur) and be burdened by the miles of pearl strands and kilos of dangling earrings. As Kagharong singer, one cannot over decorate one’s self.   

            Of course, the other variants must not be underestimated as they have their own merits. For example, there is the most benign group, otherwise pleasant but cannot simply accommodate Joseph and Mary, and of which they are apologetic: “Kaya tawad, na balakid!” There is also the partying group who shoos away the Holy Couple “ta kami, napupurisaw!” after which they would burst into a waltzing spree. The only time I joined the Kagharong, it was with this group. The males were in barong while the females in gowns. Finally, there is the comic group: “Sisay sa inyo’ng nagboot, maglakaw ang bados?” Then each of these decadent denizens would launch into a mock playing of imaginary music instruments: this a violin, that a saxophone, another a pair of cymbals, and still another a trombone, while making small ikin-ikin movements. Here, the audience would audibly squeak in delight.

             I do not finish this piece without commenting upon my original favorite, which is the horse. During my elementary years, one person we really feared was Tang Adot, a farmer tending to the rice lands near the Pilot school (according to our old folks, we were ga eskwela sa oma). He would chase us little brats away as we extract the ubod from the growing rice plants. But come Kagharong time, our opinion of him changes into admiration. Tang Adot was the tender of the Kagharong horse. He seemed to possess magical powers, cajoling the beast, talking to it not to do any funny trick that will harm anybody, especially Mama Mary. When Tang Adot passed away, being assured of a cooperative horse became a perennial problem of Kagharong organizers. On many occasions, the horse had become a truck or a tricycle. One time in the past, the Kagharong started out in Palnab but passing by the camposanto the horse went berserk, pigkawatan siguro ning pilyong kalag sa purgaturyo. Through the rest of the journey Mary rode a tricycle with Joseph ga sugnod sa driver. While on research field work in Antipolo with my sister Estrella (Dr. PLacides), we saw the most curious thing of all. The people of Antipolo came up with a smart solution to the horse problem by having a wooden animal carved and mounted on a kariton. But that was not what amazed us. It was the thing that jutted from between the hind legs of the horse: a phallus (read: male dara-dara) of gargantuan proportions. After a long roar of laughter, it sent me reflecting deeply on how the sacred and the profane flow easily into each other, on how the mixing of opposites makes this world go round. Life is a mystery, but not exactly. It is perfectly comprehensible, di ba?

On that note, Maogmang Navidad sa inyo gabos!

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