In 1999, American guitarist Ry Cooder released the groundbreaking film “The Buena Vista Social Club,” directed by Wim Wenders. The movie follows Cooder as he attempts to bring together forgotten masters of Cuban music and record their artistry for posterity. In “Harana: The Search for the Lost Art of Serenade,” Florante Aguilar, a Bay Area-based classical guitarist sets out on a parallel mission to assemble some of the last practitioners of the Filipino musical form known as harana, or serenade.
Known traditionally in old Philippines as a form of courtship music, the main instruments used in harana are voice and guitar set off by habanera-style rhythms and melancholic themes of love’s forlorn pleadings. The film brings back the spirit of old school romance through this amazing journey that begins with Aguilar’s own personal calling back to the Philippines upon receiving word of his father’s death.
Having left the Philippines in 1986, after the overthrow of the Marcos regime, Aguilar’s visit after more than a decade, soon becomes a serendipitous trip that takes him far into the bucolic regions of the Philippines where he finds some of the masters of this vanishing art form of musical courtship. Replete with amazing views of the Philippines, “Harana” captures a little-known musical style that reveals the soul of a complex and multifaceted country—one that innocently encapsulates the nostalgia of a time when harana—not texting—was the way to woo someone in a simple, yet, intensely meaningful way.
“Harana is universal. Serenading is universal,” Aguilar explained in a 2007 interview with AsianWeek. “It’s essentially a declaration of love. In a lot of ways we do haranas in our own way. We all have a harana in our soul and I think the best way to express this is through a song—especially Filipino harana.”
The film’s poeticism truly unfolds with conversations Aguilar has with the three manongs (elders) who represent the truest practitioners of this evanescent custom. Between 40 and 50 years ago, they were active participants of this once-popular Filipino courtship tradition. Their services were so highly sought-after that 15 serenades in a single night was a common affair in their respective provinces.
Felipe Alonzo, learned many of the songs performing in zarzuelas, live comic operettas performed in the town plaza; Celestino Aniel’s style was reminiscent of crooners such as Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, a style that was adopted into harana during American occupation in the 1940’s; and Romeo Bergunio, a first-place harana singing contestant in a competition for seniors in his hometown of Cavite, learned from his father and grandfather many olden songs not often heard on the radio, thus preserving the songs completely through oral tradition.
“I vividly remember those days that to this day is very much alive in my thoughts the songs bestowed upon me by harana,” said Bergunio in the film, “Those are the only ways we expressed our secret love—through glances, song, and conduct.”
As a result of Aguilar’s long search for master haranistas they collectively emerged as “The Harana Kings” which lead to major performances at such places as the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and Busan South Korea. Unfortunately, Aniel passed away last year and did not have the opportunity to see the completed film. Directed by Benito Bautista, founder of Wanderlustproject Films and an independent San Francisco filmmaker, “Harana” induces many teary-eyed moments with a storyline that is sure to quantum leap viewers to simpler times.
“Harana: The Search for the Lost Art of Serenade” screens at this year’s CAAMFest on Saturday, March 16 at the Pacific Film Archive Theatre, 2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley and Sunday, March 17 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post Street, San Francisco. For more information visit www.caamedia.org. The CD “Introducing the Harana Kings” is available at www.florante.org/discography.