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Legazpi’s blind musicians hold ‘pabasa’

LEGAZPI CITY – They cannot read with their eyes but this group of sightless musical performers based here is doing once again for this Holy Week the round-the-clock reading of the “pasyon” at the city’s public park.

Calling themselves the “VIVA” or the Visually Impaired Voices of Albay, the group will perform the solemn Filipino Lenten tradition on stage at the Peñaranda Park here starting 9 a.m. of Maundy Thursday through the next morning, that is of Good Friday.

This year will be the second time that the group will stage the act in the same venue sponsored by the city government as part of its activity for Lenten tourism and in an effort to enliven the religious tradition that is on the verge of fading, Antonio Reyes, the City Tourism Office (CTO) head, on Wednesday told the Philippines News Agency.

Locally called the “Pabasa”, the act is a time-honored religious tradition in which the participants melodiously read and chant the prayers or Biblical passages about the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is usually done before Good Friday for one day and one night straight, with the partakers taking turns in the recital.

Earlier, several old-timers in the city have expressed their worry that the tradition would soon fade away as the practice has been slowly dwindling for generations.

First performed by VIVA last year, the play proved successful, especially that it was staged by the group of at least 15 men and women using the Braille in the musically-tuned reading of the “pasyon” before the public, Reyes said.

“They can do it perfectly and in deep zeal, to the amazement of thousands of spectators—locals, tourists, vacationers and Lenten homecomers.

Group leader Jeff Cuela, himself a visually-impaired person who arranged the activity with the CTO, said they were not only reviving a long-standing custom as their important contribution to the Holy Week commemoration but also proving that reading the “pasyon” is no longer a monopoly of those who can read with their eyes.

Pabasa, he explained, is the reading of the “book of passion” -- a verse narrative about the life and suffering of Jesus Christ that has been a traditional religious practice in Bicol and across the Philippines wherein people gather around the readers to listen and reflect.

The verses are structured in five-line stanzas, with each line containing eight syllables and most Bicolano households hold the pabasa as a vow or “panata”.

Cuela said this would be the second time that the group was going to perform for the city using the Bicol dialect, based on the translation of the centuries-old religious narrative done by the National Library of the Philippines "using the fund we raised over years through donations by well-meaning sponsors."

Before the Bicol translation was made available, they used to do it in Tagalog based on the first version of the pasyon written by Gaspar Aquino de Belen in 1704 entitled Mahal na Pasyon ni JesuChristong Panginoon Natin na Tola (The poem of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ).

Belen's “pasyon” went through at least four revisions, with the fifth edition printed in 1760, historical accounts show.

Several versions of the pasyon began to circulate afterwards, written by anonymous authors but were branded heretical by Spanish friars.

In the early 19th century, a native priest named Mariano Pilapil compiled several of these texts and purged them of heresies and the resulting work is known as the Pasyong Pilapil or Pasyong Henares.

Another popular version of the pasyon is the Casaysayan nang Pasiong Mahal ni JesuCristong Panginoon Natin na Sucat Ipag-alab nang Puso nang Sinomang Babasa (The History of the Passion of Jesus Christ our Lord that will set afire the heart of whosoever reads it), which was published by an unknown writer in 1814.

Since then, many innovations in pasyon singing have been introduced, like the use of the guitar or rondalla for accompaniment and the use of the accordion by a traveling group of pasyon singers.

“From the Belen version, we initiated the translation in Bicol. We were able to produce 10 copies of the Bicol Braille version which are shared by our members in staging the public pabasa,” he added.

Reyes said the CTO, with the support of City Mayor Noel Rosal, sponsored the solemn activity with the hope of inspiring Catholic Bicolanos, especially the younger generation, on the importance of this socio-cultural-religious practice.

He said VIVA was originally organized as a band to showcase the musical talents of this physically handicapped group members who are mostly earning a living as masseurs and masseuses.

“We also associate this activity with our tourism programs, especially that the city is receiving an influx of tourists, pilgrims, homecomings and visitors during the Lenten season,” Reyes said.

While enjoying the beautiful sight of Mt. Mayon and savoring on the scenic sites, exciting activities, exotic food and world-class tourist facilities that the city offers, he said “it is best that we also showcase the rare talent of our visually-impaired persons in performing the traditional pabasa in Bicol before public audiences,” he added.

Historical accounts say that the tradition of chanting the pasyon is not rooted to the Spanish language that the songs were originally written in but is connected to the singing of epics during cultural celebrations among indigenous Filipinos.

The pasyon is usually chanted 'a capella' though occasionally the chanters may be accompanied by guitars or a rondalla band, representing the many innovations that have been introduced -- including the use of the accordion by a traveling group of pasyon singers.

It is usually performed in two basic group formations -- the first, two people or groups of people sing alternately, and each of the singers in the second take their turns in singing a stanza of text.

Reyes said the city government is making this pabasa by the VIVA as a yearly Holy Week activity “so we could blend with solemnity our tourism activities and offer our visitors a rare passionate and mesmerizing show they could only witness in our City of Fun and Adventure.” (by Danny Calleja, PNA)

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