Here We Come A-Caroling

These memoirs consists of two parts: the first covers the period 1963-1968 and the latter the early 1970s.

That’s because our family moved from our apartment at the corner of Barcelona and Pura Brillantes Streets in the pueblo (poblacion) to our own house at Moret Field, Baliwasan in 1968.

The Apartment along P. Brillantes and Barcelona St. where we lived from 1957-1968

The recuerdos for the  first period that are top of mind are the aguinaldo and cumbancheros, traditions that are alas mostly forgotten nowadays.

The aguinaldo or caroling by kids would usually start on December 16, at the same time as the Misa de 9-day Misa de Aguinaldo (Simbang Gabi)  starts.  During those days, the pastores (carolers) would mostly be kids and more often than not they would go through their rounds of the neighborhood carrying a farol (parol) lighted with a candle or by a battery powered bulb.

The Filipino caroling tradition is known as Aguinaldo in Zamboanga (Painting by Ryan Carreon Aragon @ all rights reserved)

The thing I miss most about the aguinaldo during those times were the villancicos or Christmas Carols sung in Spanish that was a tradition unique to Zamboanga City, and perhaps also to our compoblanos in Cavite City where the Chabacano language is still spoken.

“There was a time when the Yuletide celebration in the Philippines was not complete without the villancico,” wrote columnist Baby A. Gil in her column Sounds Familiar some years ago. “This is a form of music native to Spain, which was usually performed during important feast days of the Catholic Church. As time passed, the villancico came to be associated largely with Christmas festivities, like Christmas carols.” 

Among the favorite villancicos sung by the kids during our younger days were Alegria, Alegria (Esta Noche Nacel Niño); Niño Jesus, Niño BonitoNacio, Nacio Pastores (Villancico de Navidad) Venid Si Quereis GozarPastores A Belen, and Las Zagalas Y Pastores.

Listen to Nacio, Nacio Pastores (Villancico de Navidad) sung by the Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company from their album Christmas in the Philippines here.

Of course, kids being full of fun and mischief at their age, would somehow replace some of the lyrics with their choice pendejadas, much to the chagrin of the padres.

One of those I recall till now at their version of Pastores A Belen with goes Pastores a Belen, Dale Cincuenta Cen! (Please give us fifty centavos!)

I am forever indebted to my former colleague at the Ateneo de Zamboanga Christian Life Community, Lulung delos Reyes-Vasquez for gifting me with a CD of their Canciones de Pascua by their group The Stages where they sang all these favorite Villancicos.

Canciones de Pascua by The Stages (image courtesy of Totoy Vasquez)

It also introduced me to others which I am not so familiar with, such as Caminanse A Belen, Esta Noche Es Noche Buena, O Noche Feliz, Noche Sagraoand Yo Bajo del Monte.

The Cumbancheros, a local Filipino musical band, performed on DZAS. (FEBC International). The cumbancheros we saw were rather a  bit older than the boys in the picture.

Later in the evening towards midnight, our parents would wake us up to listen to those whom we called the cumbancheros. These were older folks, usually young men who did not sing, but played the familiar Christmas carols with their ensemble of instruments which often featured drums made up of big tin cans covered with stretched fabrics held in place by rubber  bands which passed for bongos, bamboo sticks struck together, and with the ubiquitous harmonica carrying the melody.

One time, we were even serenaded by entire brass band (not sure if it was the Ateneo de Zamboanga band) with brass, woodwinds, percussion and drums. Our little sala revibrated to the sound of villancicos that must  have carried to the whole neighborhood.

Zamboanga Remembered by Cesar Lee

These traditions even extended as far back as the 1930s and 1940s (and perhaps even earlier) as vividly described in the late Cesar Lee’s memoirs of his time in Zamboanga Remembered:

“The pastores, or carolers were out in the streets every night just a little after sundown, going from house to house and singing the joys of Christmas to make money. They didn’t go caroling for free or out of goodwill. They expected to be paid, and they were paid, anywhere from a few centavos for children to perhaps fifty centavos or a peso for grownups. The money collected was strictly theirs to keep, and at the end of the evening they divided the take amongst themselves.”

“Carolers ranged from as few as two small but enterprising children to a dozen or more adults. Some, from the outlying barrios, were very good. Others were just so-so, and many were downright terrible. Regardless of the quality of their singing, the only way to get rid of them was to pay them.”

“To go into business, the children only needed a lantern and jingles made from flattened bottle caps nailed to a piece of board. Each group sang virtually the same carols in Spanish or English over and over again, to the distress of the listeners. Adult carolers were well organized and sang beautifully, mostly in Spanish, to the accompaniment of a small band. But they also expected to be rewarded amply. If the payment was deemed inadequate, they would demand more, and usually an argument would ensue, because the house owners, already fed up with an overabundance of pastores, refused to pay more. Our parents, especially Father, absolutely forbade us to go caroling. He said the practice was nothing more than begging.”

During the second chapter of my Recuerdos de Pascua, we had already moved to our house in Moret Field, Baliwasan where the aguinaldo by roving kids was much more frequent. We lived in the second floor of our apartment in the pueblo so the carolers often played downstairs or in the staircase, but now here we could see them better from the picture window in our sala through the fence nearby.

At this time most of us kids were already in our teens but the mischief level rather than fade away was ramped up to new heights. I have no idea where they came from, but we used to have a lot of the old one centavo coins known in Bisaya as the dako because of its relatively big size.

Though already demonetized at that time, their relatively bigger diameter compared to contemporary coins of higher value of the late 60s and early  70s made it hard for carolers to check them out in the dark or by the light of their farol.

My younger brother Edgar and I were the usual perpetrators of this mischief and we were in stiches as we  listened to the carolers comment with glee they had been given fifty centavos and would usually top this with an enthusiastic rendition of the Thank You song at our generosity to our utmost amusement and laughter.

During my college days at the Ateneo de Zamboanga during the middle to late 1970s, I learned some more villancicos such as  Chiquiriquitin, Campanas de Belen, Somos Pastores, and one of which I recall more vividly because of its title, Zapatos Rotos.

Ateneo de Zamboanga Brebeuf Gymnasium circa 1950 (Victory Studio)

This catchy tune was a perennial favorite among the competing academic fraternities during the traditional annual Christmas Carol Contest which was usually held at the old Brebeuf Ateneo gym.

Its fast paced tempo, snappy lyrics and shepherds’ theme made it not only a musical but also kinetic favorite which easily lent itself to frenetic (read: award winning) choreography by the singers.

However, when these villancicos started being posted in YouTube, I found out there were many regional variations of the favorite ditties I grew up with among the various Spanish communities worldwide such as Mexico, Spain, Argentina and others.

Listen to Los Pastores a Belen by David Archuleta with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on YouTube here.

What we were familiar with as Zapatos Rotos for instance, was called Los Pastores a Belen in other countries. Not only that, it also had different lyrics and in other versions, different melodies as well!

For a totally different version of Los Pastores a Belen click here and go to 39.45 of the link. It’s the 18th song in this collection Villancicos De Navidad Clásicos – Canciones De Navidad Populares Música Navideña En Español

But let not those differences detract from our enjoyment of this Christmas tradition. Hopefully, in time, our younger generations would once again enjoy singing and listening to our favorite villancicos, especially considering these are dedicated to the One whose Birth we celebrate each Yuletide season.

¡Vamos! Pastores ¡vamos!