Symphony in Samar

I was touched by this story about a special trip to Samar, a province in the Philippines, by Junfil Olarte. A former Aeronautical Engineering Technician in Singapore, Junfil’s passion for writing as an international travel writer began in early 2003. His interests are travel, culture, history, lifestyle, languages, food and wine. Junfil believes the spirit of international travel is one of the best medicines for the many pressures in life.

A Trip to Samar
by Junfil Olarte

A soft breezy sunrise rouses me as my ship nears the coast and moors at the docks of Maguino-o, off the city of Calbayog, Western Samar in the Central Philippines. I feel like a sixteenth-century explorer reincarnated. “There you are,” I whisper upon sighting the shores of Samar, believing I could reach the location only through history books. It is one of the very destinations I often read about and even longed to visit since I was seven or eight.

Maguino-o seaport really looks like an isolated place. You can hardly notice the houses nearby. The scene still brings you back to the early years (undeveloped in other words), with meagerly built homes yet pacific, having fresh air and unblemished environment. Perhaps, unlike many travel writers in the country, such a place catches my attention most. Especially, that it does not see even a glimpse of foreign visitors.

“Come, quickly,” Joel gives me a nod, “that bus will take us 30 minutes to Calbayog”. “Really feel like Ferdinand Magellan reincarnated”, I respond. He grins. And we both laugh, leaving the seaport of Maguino-o having done a few snapshots.

Father Rosales

Franciscan Father Marlowe Rosales receives us warmly when we get in at the Friary’s refectory, situated right beside the secondary school premises of Christ the King College (a popular OFM run school in Calbayog City). With us in the dining room is Father Marcelo Tubac, the school’s OIC President, whom I also ask for some information about the area, along with Father Rosales who has arranged my media visit in the city.

I say that this city in Samar is not touristy: narrow streets as we’ve meandered through it, having only one or two (yet tiny) department stores with small number of celebrated refreshment centres. Seeing foreign travellers roaming around here is sporadic. However, it does have something very important. The splendour of the city’s natural attractions, its colourful culture and arts, historical features and the ancient relics in its museum are simply remarkable, which interest me to even travel 22 hours by sea from my port of origin in Northwestern Mindanao Southern Philippines, with stopover in Cebu, sailing through the island straits of Leyte.

Samar Museum

“We do have natural spots here,” Father Marlowe tells me, “but still fairly developed”. These are beaches and waterfalls; a hot spring that provides therapeutic waters; and a number of caves in its forests (part of Samar Island’s vast labyrinth of caves) that hardly ever visited by domestic and foreign tourists. “I can assist you going to these attractions if you choose to stay long,” Father Marlowe convinces me. “But tomorrow,” he continues, “we’re going to drive eleven kilometres from this city for the orchestra concert.”

The following day finds us driving through a narrow road off the city to witness the said orchestra concert in Migara. This remote destination situates itself at the upper vicinity of Calbayog, about eleven kilometres away from the city proper. Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve learnt from this journey is how one colourful musical legacy (which goes back years before the Second World War) has been brought back by a Franciscan Priest to life after it ceases in 1975.

Jose Cinco Gomez, in fact, was the famous composer in Samar, who had his “Colegio de San Vicente de Paul Orchestra” organised in 1930 (renamed the “Cecilian Orchestra” two years later). The arrival of American Franciscans in 1951 had reopened Christ the King College (CKC), where Mr. Gomez became a member of the school’s personnel and set up the “King’s Royal Orchestra”. This became the “CKC Astro Notes” as dedicated to American space travellers who first landed on the moon in the late 1960s.

Jose Gomez’s organised orchestra five decades ago had enjoyed performing its original pieces in Calbayog and its neighbouring towns and even played classical symphony from European Legends as Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. However, Samar’s piece of music died right after the day Jose Gomez passed away in 1975. And no one since then has ever taken his place to revive such rare legacy he left.

“It really wasn’t easy at first when I first arrived here in September 2006,” recalls Father Rosales, sitting in front of the car whilst on our way to Migara. “School students had only bare knowledge on such musical instruments,” he explains, “and I needed much time to do a research-study on each of those instruments to teach them.”

Father Marlowe then embarked on a great task of reviving Calbayog’s symphony, which had been dormant for three decades, and bringing music to young students of Christ the King College. He obtained his “Bachelor of Music in Conducting” and “Bachelor of Music in Music Education” in the University of Santo Tomas Manila in 1998-2001, and began teaching students at CKC such orchestral instruments, including piano, and the reading of its musical notes which is the most difficult and crucial of all. “I say it’s tough, really,” explains the 38-year-old priest. “I even thought trumpet was just a mere instrument where you simply blow on it in order to create harmonic tunes,” Father Marlowe smiles. “In the case of strings,” he adds, “I’d had assistance from already learnt students to help others for fast learning.”

The Orchestra received considerable help and funding from natives of Calbayog who are already living in the United States. Other than that, Father Rosales would even attend meetings of CKC’s “Parents-Teachers Association”, requesting donations for the much required additional instruments, but received only a few responses. With this in mind, he did file a personal loan at the school in order to purchase some of those needed musical gadgets.

The long months of difficult endeavours had turned into one great honour when Father Marlowe Rosales set up the “CKC Jose Gomez Orchestra” in 2007, signifying the renaissance of the island’s long lost legacy. The symphony group then did its first performance at the Monastery of Saint Clare on March 9, 2008, followed by concerts at different venues in several towns of the province, and even spent successful performances at Philippine Capital sites as Manila’s Century Park Hotel, Mall of Asia, and Forbes Park.

CKC Jose Gomez Orchestra members are composed of high school learners as young as 13 to 16. Many tried, but not all were selected, to become participants of the Orchestra’s first chorale set. Persistent interest and discipline on the part of aspirants came to be the basis of the final selection. Carl Bordeos, CKC’s Public Relations who happens to be the band’s Concert Coordinator, says the Orchestra is filled initially with students from secondary level, but it has now had some college members: members who pursued their college studies at the same school and chose to remain in the Orchestra.

CKC Orchestra is the only orchestra existing in Samar provinces (or perhaps, in the entire Philippine Islands in terms of young school artists) that has successfully established itself and even obtained noteworthy publicity from famous Philippine media as ABS-CBN’s “Umagang Kay Ganda” and GMA’s “Mel & Joey” in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Because of this rare and great achievement (same as the Franciscan Father Cantius Kobak), the City Government Council passed an Official Resolution on October 11, 2010 declaring Father Marlowe Rosales (a native from Ozamiz City, Southern Philippines) as an “Adopted Son of Calbayog”.

As we arrive in Migara, Father Marlowe’s colourful story about the symphony revival reminds me of how the Franciscan Friars, from past to present, have bequeathed a wealth of priceless heritage to the people of Samar. “This concert is part of the school’s outreach program, so that less fortunate people, especially poor children, can watch the Orchestra at no cost,” he explains as we move toward the concert grounds.

CKC Jose Gomez Orchestra will perform concerts in the Philippine Capital on the following dates:

April 1, 2011-Camp Crame, Quezon City
April 2, 2011- Resorts World Manila
April 3, 2011 – Paco Park Manila

Junfil Olarte and two orchestra members

Christ the King College

Calbayog City website

Photos courtesy of : Joel F. Te Roa, SFO/Carl Bordeos, CKC PR

The article was originally published in its entirety on Dave’s Travel Corner.

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5 thoughts on “Symphony in Samar

  1. Grace

    So glad you featured this on your blog! I’ve never been to Samar myself and I am from the Philippines. I was not aware they had an orchestra.

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