Filipinos are a very sentimental lot. This is the country where even until the wee hours of the morning, you can hear the power ballads of Air Supply, Journey and Heart ringing in the streets as people in different stages of inebriation sing their hearts out in karaoke bars (guilty). This is the country where almost everyone knows the words to Whitney’s, Celine’s and Mariah’s greatest hits. This is the country where people have been killed for singing “My Way” out of tune.
This is also the country where strapping young men would stand outside the windows of girls, guitar in hand, as they sing sweet melodies imploring these women to let them into their homes and be their girlfriends. Or at least it used to be. Nowadays, people’s familiarity with the harana is only limited to the hit song of Parokya ni Edgar and the various paintings and textbook illustrations that depict a distant, vaguely familiar past. It has now faded on into the realm of legends and folklore, a part of our cultural memory even though very few of us have experienced it firsthand and even less have actually done it.
It is the sense of nostalgia and curiosity brought about by the slow disappearance of the harana that drove musician Florante Aguilar and filmmaker Benito Bautista to search for the last remaining practitioners of this artform in order to preserve their music and consequently, their identities. More immediately, it was the death of Florante’s father that brought him back to the Philippines and ignited his interest in this music after spending more than a decade studying Western Classical Music in the United States. As a highly skilled guitarist, it is the romantic cadence of the harana that drew him to find and spread it before it too dies.
What follows is a journey to the outskirts of the Tagalog region as Florante looks for these masters. Liked the Pied Piper, Florante summons forth and gathers a disparate group of old men – a fisherman, a farmer and a tricycle driver – who sing in deep baritones with trembling vibratos and whose fingers smoothly glide over their guitars’ frets, evoking the romance of a bygone era. What’s more surprising is the fact that all of them are untrained and self-taught. Everywhere they played, villagers and townsfolk came out to witness them bring a piece of their history to life.
It is a mark of Florante’s sincerity that he doesn’t let himself be the subject of this documentary. Instead, he lets these musicians and their music be the foreground of the film. It was very easy to frame this documentary about a man’s quest to unearth his cultural roots. After all, this isn’t the first time Benito Bautista chronicled a Filipino’s homecoming to discover his heritage — his first movie entitled The Gift of Barong was about a Filipino surfer in the United States who yearned to connect with Filipino culture after receiving a barong tagalog. Part of why this movie works is Florante’s earnestness and humility in his approach to preservation.
The real heart of this documentary lies in the three haranistas‘ camaraderie as the last bastions of their serenades. They know that their art is becoming irrelevant thanks to the onslaught of modernity. They point to inventions such as the videoke machine and the cellphone as the primary elements that sapped the passion from today’s youths. Interestingly, they don’t say this with any hostility. They’ve accepted it as the way things are, that people and communities just inherently change over time. And that’s what makes it sad, that up until Florante’s appearance, they were willing to let it go. But through Bautista’s lens and Florante’s efforts to let the harana reach a wider audience, their songs and their culture is saved for posterity.
Unlike Bautista’s last film Boundary which was taut and precisely structured, Harana lyrically flows with the pathos of its stringed score. There are some really gorgeous shots of the Cavite countryside and the architecture of Old Manila that complements the beauty of the guitar melodies. I wanted a bit more insight from Florante — why was he so invested in the harana? what did it mean to him? — that was traded for the personal stories of the haranistas, which were in their own ways heartbreaking and inspiring. But all in all, Harana sheds some light on forgotten works of art and exposes the beauty hidden in these disappearing songs.