The magic of Robert Caluya

It was one day when I decided to follow the example of Bruno Mars, the Filipino-American who performed “The Lazy Song” which goes, “Today I don’t feel like doing anything I just wanna lay in my bed…”

We spent weeks and months preparing for the September 1 launch of, and the days leading to the event had me deprived of sleep and the other pleasures I enjoy. At the La Tabacalera last Saturday, Sept. 1, when Governor Imee Marcos beamed a wide smile after her historic first to the website, and to a thunderous applause of an appreciative crowd composed of leaders from government, business, the academe, the media, and literary circles, I knew we have accomplished something. And I also knew I deserved to be completely lazy the next day.

I was in my bed comfortably doing Facebook yesterday, Sunday, trying to do nothing important, but while looking at pictures taken during the launch, a status update caught my interest and kept my mind working: Robert Caluya is writing a book. The musical genius who has led Ilocano students to international choral championships wants to pen a personal account of his twenty-five years as choral conductor. He has already written the first few pages.

I immediately “liked” his status update, but I felt it was not enough, so I also wrote a comment, “Superlike!”

Last February, I did a group interview with seven of Ilocandia’s most respected names in the performing arts, intrigued by the great power they wield as artists. The magnificent seven included Caluya, his protégé Sherberk Cabrales, who is now his co-conductor; Randy Leaño, a versatile performer and fashion designer now based in Hawaii; dance gurus Noli Joaquin and Christian Espiritu; and Ilocandia’s ‘grandma’ of the performing arts, Arsie Gallego. The interview held at Samtoy Bookstore was really fun and meaningful. Andami kong tawa at “aha” moments noong gabing ‘yun.

But seven months after, I am yet to write about the experience, and was reminded about it only when I read Sir Robert’s status update. Before I can even begin the article, one of my subjects has begun writing a book!

“A Choral Adventure,” his working title, seems very modest to me, but is apt for the kind of person the soon-to-be author is: humble and unassuming, but, yes, adventurous. With my own book launched last year and a couple more where I am co-author coming hopefully soon, I know how difficult the bookmaking process is, especially if you really want a meaningful work. Sir Robert, despite terrible cough and colds, has recently been pounding the keyboard until dawn while inspiration is high.

The choir master, whose over 5,000 Facebook friends reveal his celebrity status, has gladly shared with me his book’s first 331 words, rich in detail about his musically-oriented family. I really hope Sir Robert can get a good publisher who will help him get through. The alumni of the Ilocos Norte National High School, where he has taught since the 1989, will do well to support this endeavor. I wish he could get a good editor, too, who will help him make the text as fluid as Samiweng’s music.

The only downside, if it is really a downside, about the fortyish Sir Robert writing his own story is that he might be too coy to write about the magnitude of his achievements. There is also the danger of being unnecessarily one dimensional. An independent writer can look at the story from different perspectives, mostly from Sir Robert himself, but also from mentors and students, colleagues and friends, admirers and rivals in the field, and the audience. This holistic presentation could be some sort of an authorized midlife biography.

There are a couple of things I want to know, among them, how many of his former trainees have actually ventured to singing as a profession. While I don’t have the numbers, I know that no matter what fields they have gone to, they are actually playing good music, and in various ways. One of them is my dear cousin Erme Labayog, who belonged to the 1990 NAMCYA winning team where Sir Robert was then still assistant conductor. Kuya Erme is now a lawyer, and provincial assessor of Ilocos Norte. Before they won the national title, I did not even know Kuya Erme could sing.

But Sir Robert did. His eye for talent is unflinching, and whenever I meet the current Samiweng Singers, champion in the USA-held 2012 World Choir Games, no matter what they are wearing, all I see is gold. Sir Robert, a graduate of the Mariano Marcos State University College of Teacher Education, and now currently Master Teacher II and coordinator of choral activities at INNHS, makes us realize, without being preachy about it, what teaching is really about. It is not about molding people as if they are passive objects. It is about helping bring out the best that we fail to see. In this regard, it is fortunate that Sir Robert, who, sigh, is expected to migrate abroad anytime soon, has very supportive colleagues led by Madam Principal Isabel Sison-Sandi.

And yet, while I have always believed in Samiweng Singers’ talent, I had doubts, too, as one eminent local politican did, about who they sing for. I thought their music was elitist, and that only choir singers like them enjoy their shows. Last Saturday, however, when they performed (after waiting for three hours for their turn) at our web launch, all my doubts vanished. Everyone at La Tabacalera had their feet swept off by the group’s music. My mom, whose source of music nowadays, aside from Church services, is annoying Willie Revillame’s television show, cannot stop raving about how she enjoyed Samiweng’s performance. Manang Gloria, our house help, can’t wait to go home to their barrio in Dingras, to boast about her rare musical experience.

I now realize that Samiweng’s music cuts across age, gender, educational background, economic status, and religion. They are, no doubt, true artists of the people. Yes, they entertain us in no small measure, but the bigger magic is when they make a downtrodden people realize that life is good, that the world is beautiful, that there is interesting music waiting to be played—the type of music Robert Camaquin Caluya has generously shared with us in almost a quarter of a century, and which we look forward reading about this in his upcoming book.

This, dear karikna, is pure talent and passion.

This is magic without tricks.

Author: Herdy La. Yumul

A hesitant academic pimp, writer

2 thoughts on “The magic of Robert Caluya”

  1. Glad to know Erme is doing well in real life.

    As for NAMCYA 1990, we (INNHS Youth Choir) placed third with Maam Sonia as the lead conductor and Sir Robert as assistant conductor.

    The INNHS Youth Choir eventually claimed the national title a few years later.

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