Ghost stories are a tradition in many cultures, and Florante Aguilar recalls that power outages throughout his childhood in the Philippines were common.
“It’s pretty amazing how we instantly revert to storytelling when there’s no electrical source for entertainment, probably much like the cavemen did,” he said. “We would light candles and tell ghost stories. You can imagine what that does to a 10-year-old boy. Fast forward 40 years later, I wanted those creatures to come alive to tell us their own take of those stories.”
These mythological creatures will come to life on the stage of the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Jan. 28, in “Aswang, Mga Kwentong Halimaw,” the world premiere of a dramatic, live concert inspired by ghost stories of the Philippines.
The Napa-based, husband-and-wife team of Florante Aguilar and Fides Enriquez created, wrote and produced the show, which was originally slated for a premiere at The Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. The wine country fires in October halted that show date, leaving the fate of the show in limbo.
“We were in the midst of production week when the fires happened,” Enriquez said. “Florante and I live in downtown Napa by the river and could see the fires. It was really out of our hands; there was nothing we could do. It was such a surreal time. We had been working on this project for months. This production actually has two components. There is the concert, and there is the film. This concert is the spine of the film. So there are many moving parts.”
Together, Aguilar and Enriquez, both natives of the Philippines, run New Art Media, which has explored Philippine culture through music and film. Along with Benito Bautista, they conceived, produced and made the film “HARANA—The Search for the Lost Art of Serenade,” which documented Aguilar’s journey to the Philippines in search of the waning Philippine tradition of serenade.
“It felt right to explore the other side of the coin of our culture,” Enriquez said, “As ‘Harana’ was about the music and romance of Philippine courtship, ‘Aswang’ would be the opposite. It would be about the monsters and ghosts and about story telling.”
“Aswang” is a live performance piece, which will eventually become New Art Media’s next film.
“The Napa concert is being filmed live and will be part of a film Fides and I are co-writing and co-directing,” Aguilar said. “We’re shooting that whole weekend in order to get the shots we can’t get during live show. We have a film crew coming down from L.A., plus a lot of local film production personnel.”
Themes of resilience, survival and persistence are told through the stories of Aswang. One of the monsters is known as Manananggal, a seemingly normal woman during the day who transforms into a hideous creature at nightfall that can sever her upper torso, fly and seek human flesh. Also featured are Tumao, a mysterious ape-like beast that roams the mountains of Mount Banahaw in the Quezon; Syokoy, a terrifying creature of the deep sea; Tikbalang, a horrifying trickster with a human body and the head of a horse, and the Lady in White, a tormented soul who wanders the streets of modern day Manila.
Aguilar and Enriquez made the artistic decision to allow each Aswang to tell their own story. While the characters sound a bit scary, the show is layered with a strong story and authenticity in the music, acting, costumes and lighting design.
“This show is like a musical, an opera and a song cycle, all in one,” Aguilar said. “We will not have any blood and guts on stage. Well, maybe just a tiny bit. We do deal with themes of death and rebirth. I would say it might be challenging and a little scary for kids who can’t read yet. I think it might be more suitable for older kids. But then again, maybe that doesn’t make a difference for some. Our daughter is 5 years old and she will be watching.”
The production team has gone to great lengths with multiple dimensions such as an all-acoustic band (classical guitar, flute, laud, double bass and percussion) featuring Latin music practitioners in the Bay Area.
“It is sung in what I call provincial Tagalog, an unadulterated form of the language that is no longer used as most Filipinos now speak in Tag-lish, myself included,” Aguilar explained. “But not to worry, we’ve taken pains to provide English supertitles for the show.”
The cast from the Bay Area, as well as Southern California, includes Giovanni Ortega (baritone) as the Host/Storyteller; Charmaine Clamor (alto) as Manananggal; Kristine Sinajon (mezzo) as Lady in White; Leon Palad (tenor) as Tikbalang and Kyle de Ocera (tenor) as Isagani/Syokoy.
Musicians for the production include Aguilar (classical guitar); Chus Alonso (flute and laud); Sage Baggott (percussion) and Greg Kehret (double bass). Aguilar composed the music and wrote the lyrics, while Enriquez is directing the show co-produced by Esperanza Catubig.
“I would say that the music is the result of my admiration of Stephen Sondheim and Led Zeppelin, plus traditional Filipino music with a dash of flamenco. I know that sounds almost comical but I think, in some way, that reflects the Filipinos’ cultural mix and affinity with Western music,” said Aguilar.
This past fall, the New Media team was deep in production when the fires hit the region. There was preparation for the concert, plus the pre-production for the film.
“On the concert side, we had been working on the script, the costumes, the lighting, the makeup, not to mention the work on the rehearsals and recordings of the songs,” Enriquez said. “Then on the film production side, there is the shot list, the film crew, all of the things that go into making a movie. Flights were booked for cast and crew coming from Los Angeles; everything was already set and in motion.”
“We are very fortunate because we were safe from the devastation,” she added. “Much worse things happened to a lot of people. But it still felt like the rug was pulled from under us. We took a substantial loss. This concert and film is self-produced. We don’t have outside funding. We now have to rely on ticket sales to help offset some of the cost of the show.”
“There are millions of Filipinos today living in California alone,” Aguilar said. “We bring with us our stories, our myths, our lore. ‘Aswang’ is my and Florante’s way of telling or retelling, depending on who is watching, the scary monster stories of our childhood. ‘Aswang’ is not so much about trying to terrify people; it is more about revealing the tragic and human side of how these monsters came to be.”
“It is about questioning history and assumptions. It is about the deep connection between people and the environment we come from. It is about the anger and rage of the displaced and persecuted, and the power of love and how it persists through time.”