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The harana—the serenade—is a beautiful and archaic Filipino custom, a nocturnal event of courtship. It flourished in the era before electricity and radio, when song and extemporaneous speaking was an esteemed cultural value. There was risk involved, the singer traditionally did not act alone, and he had a stalwart band of companions to share the adventure. This might be a scene of a typical harana.

A band of young men congregates below. One has a guitar, one has a superlative voice. The rest offer harmony and depth. The guitar is strummed, the singing begins.

Picture a night where the moon shines onto capiz windows. Acacia trees spread their arms and cast feathery shadows on the house. A band of young men congregates below. One has a guitar, one has a superlative voice. The rest offer harmony and depth. The guitar is strummed, the singing begins. A girl awaits upstairs, with the other women of the house, and most certainly her mother. If the boy’s song pleases her, she will open a window and beckon for the young men to come upstairs for something to eat and drink. The young men have done something brave, the girl responds by being gracious. With creativity and music, romantic affection is expressed, and if all goes well, a courtship commences. The song and ritual courtship is called harana.

The nocturnal serenade is a custom throughout the old Spanish empire. The Filipino harana rhythm comes from the 2/4 rhythm of the Cuban habanera, and also has influences from the Argentinian tango, according to harana scholar, Florante Aguilar.

The Harana Kings by Florante Aguilar movie trailer.

With the push of modern life, the harana has disappeared from the repertoire of Filipino courtship, although it has made a leap into folk music. At this moment, harana is making a comeback. There are two popular shows, Ang Bagong Harana (2012), and Harana (2008), jazz singer Charmaine Clamor has a beautiful album called, “My Harana” and Florante Aguilar has released his movie, The Harana Kings.  It’s a lovely thing and part of Filipino cultural heritage.

Harana is far from dead. We know the songs, and if we dig deeply into present memory, we can find a bridge of harana stories. What are yours? I have three.

The first is the account of the community harana in Pampanga described by my grandfather, Francisco G. Joaquin in his memoir. To raise money for a new schoolhouse, his community decided to organize a harana to sing for the rich people of their town. Their harana included a stringed orchestra (rondalla), singers, and poetic declamations.

Imagine Bacolor, Pampanga in 1914. The language of education had changed from Spanish to English. Yet, in this instance, the harana was a uniquely Filipino form that became the vehicle for both cultural preservation and fundraising. All the town’s wealthy families gave generously to the harana singers, and when they had serenaded all of Bacolor, they took their show to the neighboring towns. My grandfather said that many a romance flourished during that creative outpouring.

Right after World War II, my mother and her family moved for a year to Gasan, Marinduque, where my grandmother was born. My mother was around sixteen and was honored with a harana. She said it was because she was new in town and it was something for the young men to do. Nevertheless, she has never forgotten the simple romance of the gesture, nor the names of the young men who sang for her.

And when I was a girl of fourteen, a group of college singers from University of Santo Tomas, came to sing at our family beach place in La Union. It was Holy Week, and the beach was swarming with people from Manila. I had a bunch of classmates visiting. The college boys sang us a love song. It was the only harana of my youth, but I have never forgotten how the guitar, the voices, the beach and the song made me feel prettier and older than I was.

Anything with that kind of power deserves to be remembered and preserved, don’t you think?

© Kathleen Joaquin Burkhalter

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