Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fr. Diego Cera, the Las Piñas Bamboo Organ and the “Hanging” Historic Pipe Organs of Bohol

Note:  A slightly different version of this story appeared in the 07-13 March 2014 issue of the FilAm Star, a biweekly published in San Francisco.  This writer is the Special News/Photo Correspondent Philippines of the paper.

For Pinoys like me who seldom wander any farther than Baclaran on the bay side of Metro Manila, my first visit to St. Joseph’s Church in Las Piñas for the 39th International Bamboo Organ Festival was a learning experience in commuting geography.

I got to know two ways of getting there.  The first route involved a fast leg, the light railway travel end-to-end from Muñoz, Quezon City to Baclaran, where I took the Zapote-bound jeepney that crawled through heavy traffic on Parañaque’s artery road, which links up with P. Diego Cera Avenue of Las Pinas.  I was cautioned to be wary of signboards because the one with a Coastal Road tag goes straight to Cavite and does not pass through Las Pinas “bayan”

Another route I took during the festival week was from Alabang in Muntinlupa City, this time on board a Zapote-Baclaran jeepney, where I had to keep my cool by engaging the driver in cheerful banter as he wrangled with slow heavy traffic until we hit P. Diego Cera Avenue.  

Who is P. Diego Cera?  If commuters do not know that the “P” is Padre, I am not surprised if they think of him as one politician or distinguished citizen whose memory a past city council resolved to perpetuate by naming a street after him.

Fr. Diego Cera de la Virgen del Carmen is associated with the church and Bamboo Organ of Las Pinas.  He was 28 years old when he came to the Philippines with the Mission XXV of 13 Recollect priests that left Cadiz, Spain in December 1790 and arrived in Manila in February 1792 after a one-year stay in Mexico.

Three years later in December 1795, according to the historical accounts, he was assigned to head the church of Las Piñas, newly separated from Parañaque by the Superior Decree of November 5, 1795.  It was already a civil town of the province of Tondo since 1762.  This means it already had a casa tribunal and town civil officials, but it was not yet a parish, it had no church, and remained tied to the religious jurisdiction of Paranaque.

The good priest would build the stone church during the period 1797-1819, when the population was around 2,000 and the tribute collection amounted to 455, according to the census of 1818. In 1879, when the young Fr. Exequiel Moreno del Rosario was the cura parroco, the town had grown to 4,700 with a capacity to pay more than a thousand tributes.  It was in his honor that the plaza fronting the St. Joseph’s Church across the P. Diego Cera Avenue was named after his canonization.

Obviously a musical man, the untiring Fr. Cera built for his church the now world-wide famous Bamboo Organ in 1816-1824 using 1,031 pipes, almost all made of bamboo (902) and the rest of tin (127).  He made a solid windchest that could have been hewn from a narra tree trunk of 3 to more than 5 meters circumference.

He built two actually, the other one he sent to the Queen of Spain.  In the American Chamber of Commerce of Manila Journal of December 1927, a report averred that “Father Cera did not build the organs with his own hands, but retained the services of a Filipino craftsman of the parish. The skill was fortunately perpetuated in the family, and when, a few years ago, it was decided to repair the organ at Las Pinas, a descendant of the original craftsman was found who was able to effect the repairs.”   That craftsman could have been an expert in wood works.  Quite a number of helpers could have helped in the bamboo works, in the collection, cutting and curing of the bamboo pipes. 

In 1973, the entire bamboo organ was shipped to the Klais organ factory in Bonn, Germany for complete restoration.  Except for a small damaged part of the windchest, nothing was replaced in this extraordinary work.  The same bamboo pipes that Fr. Cera tuned almost two hundred years ago still produce those majestic musical sounds one hears during church services or during the annual International Bamboo Organ Festival.

The first festival came after the return of Fr. Cera’s pipe organ to its niche in the stone church in 1974.   

This year’s musical event held recently was the 39th, which, like the past festivals, featured local and foreign musical artists:  American Colin Andrews, Austrian Johann Trummer and Filipino Armando  Salarza (organists); Germany’s Carsten Linck (guitarist); Musika Sophia (recorders); Villancico Vocal Ensemble, L as Piñas Boys Choir, and Tiples de Santo Domingo (voices); Eudenice Palaruan, Carl Paolo Hernandez, and Eugene de los Santos (conductors).

Three evenings were allotted for the El Siglo de Oro (Spain’s Golden Age from the 16th to the 18th century) program, which highlighted late renaissance music, sacred and secular villancicos, and baroque compositions from Spain and Germany.  In another evening, Colin Andrews treated concert goers to Spanish compositions he played on the bamboo organ and to J.S. Bach on the auditorium organ.  The night billed as Dos Coros de Tiples (the boys choirs of Las Pinas and Santo Domingo) was highlighted by the world premiere of the choral compositions Tago-Tago by Jed Balsamo and Duo Seraphim by Joy Nilo, conducted by Carl Paolo Hernandez and Eugene de los Santos, respectively, and accompanied in the organ by  Armando Salarza.

Contemporary music  was provided by Jed Madela and the World Championships of the Performing Arts (WCOPA) artists in an evening concert under the trees in the church courtyard.

The latest bamboo organ concert affirmed that the Fr. Diego Cera musical legacy is very much alive.  After all, the pipes have not come down again for repairs during the past 39 years.  It is diligently maintained by a company that bears his name, the Diego Cera Organbuilders, Inc., whose avowed mission is to continue the pipe organ making in Las Piñas started by the builder of the Bamboo  Organ thereby helping bring back pipe organ music to Philippine churches.  

The company was founded in 1994 when two young men, Cealwyn Tagle and Edgar Montiano (he passed away in 2002), returned from Europe where they learned every aspect of the craft from master organ builder Helmut Allgaeuer in Gruenbach, Austria, and from Johannes Klais Orgelbau in Bonn, Germany.  They came home in time to install what Tagle calls their “thesis”: the St. Joseph auditorium organ they designed and crafted in the Allgaeuer workshop.

Tagle started singing with the boys choir when he was in Grade 3, and was its prefect during his senior year in high school.  Upon graduation in 1988, he was selected to go to Europe on scholarship to become an organ builder.  Montiano followed two years later.

Aside from taking care of the Bamboo Organ, the Diego Cera Organbuilders have built new tracker organs and restored historic pipe organs including that of the Manila Cathedral and the San Agustin Church.  They have also exported pipe organs to America and Europe.

When I visited their shop, the new Vladivostok organ is being constructed.  I saw the newly restored parts of the Palo, Leyte church organ, which was ready for installation when typhoon Yolanda struck.

Tagle said they have to import mirante wood from Malaysia since they can not use the local almaciga, which is best suited for wood pipes, because there is no supply in the market due to the logging ban. For the metal pipes, they have to import tin and lead alloy for the metal pipes.  The organ craft is also labor intensive because of the precision work involved.  Nevertheless, Tagle and company strive to make pipe organs more affordable to churches and individuals.

The Diego Cera Organbuilders were involved in the restoration of the historic organs in Bohol before the intense earthquake hit the province and wreaked the antique churches.

Tagle is very concerned with the surviving pipe organs, those “hanging” on the remaining walls that withstood the strong tremors in the Baclayon, Loay and Loboc churches.  He strongly feels that they must be rescued soonest to prevent them from getting lost forever. 

Tagle’s company restored the Loay organ in 1998.  Five years later in 2003, they fully restored the pipe organ of Loboc.  With the support of the Ayala Foundation, they did the Baclayon organ in 2008.

“It is safe to play the Baclayon and Loay organs,” Tagle said, “even at their present state.”  He is very concerned with the Loboc instrument because the wall may collapse anytime.  “But the walls have to be reinforced first,” he emphasized, “to ensure the safety of workers who will disassemble the organ on site.”  

It’s a sad fate for the Loon and Maribojoc pipe organs that went down with the churches.  Loon was the biggest outside Metro Manila after San Agustin in Intramuros, and was already scheduled for restoration before the earthquake.  The Maribojoc had complete parts but they are all now buried in the rubble of the church.

Tagle thinks that the Baclayon was constructed under the direction of Fr. Diego Cera because he found the design and manner of woodworks similar to those of the Las Piñas Bamboo Organ.  He was prior of that town in 1815 and 1821, Bohol being under the Recollect province. 
The good priest’s legacy could also be of personal significance to organ builder Cealwyn Tagle.  Both of us think he may belong to the genealogical line of the original craftsman who helped Fr. Cera build the Bamboo Organ and that descendant who repaired it in the early 1900s. That’s because he had heard from his mother and her relatives that their great-great-grandparents of the Lara family were furniture makers when Fr. Cera was in Las Pinas, and they could have helped build the iconic Bamboo Organ.  

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