Review: The lost kings of serenade in 'Harana'

By Francis Joseph Cruz

Posted at Aug 12 2012 06:10 PM | Updated as of Aug 13 2012 06:35 PM

Review: The lost kings of serenade in 'Harana' 1
Florante Aguilar with master haranista Celestino Ariel perform live in Vigan, Ilocos Sur in a scene from “Harana.” Photo by Lourdes Figueroa from the official “Harana” webite.

Nothing is ever truly obsolete. When something loses its supposed relevance because its functions have been taken over with more efficiency by another thing, it gains a different use altogether, as a product for nostalgia, a beacon for the past that is an unstable depositary of memories.

Nothing is ever truly obsolete, unless forgotten. Memory, being a product of human thought, is needed to be urged to exist. Remembrance is not automatic. It requires an impetus, a switch to initiate the rollercoaster ride down experiences and emotions guarded by used time.

The harana, a traditional means of courtship where the boy would recruit a troupe consisting of a guitarist and a crooner to join him to the house of his beloved who is about to be serenaded to romantic submission, is on the verge of obsolescence. In an age past emotion-laden mixtapes, an age that is obsessed with speed, love has no more use for rustic rituals and ceremonies that enunciate what nowadays is perceived to be a dethroned and antiquated sense of romance.

Filmmaker Benito Bautista and renowned guitarist Florante Aguilar, in their documentary that proudly bears the name of the courtship that is embattled by the natural course of time, intend to redeem the tradition from being completely forgotten.

Aguilar, motivated by a diaspora-charged obsession to preserve his native culture, decides to go back to the Philippines from the comforts of the United States to look for the last true remaining practitioners of the harana.

He would at times play timeless melodies with his guitar to unlikely crowds in unlikely places, gaining further motivation for his search and hope that there remains an audience for whatever he is trying to find based on the resounding reactions he would garner from the most unadorned and unsophisticated of audiences.

Bautista dutifully follows Aguilar in his seemingly quixotic quest to revive the musical tradition by picking whatever remnants he can find.

The film starts questionably, making it more a profile of Aguilar than anything. Thankfully, the film progresses away from Aguilar’s persona and further into his mission. Aguilar generously disappears into the background, and allows himself to play backup literally and figuratively to the long-lost troubadours he found and assembled into a charming troupe.

The old men that Aguilar deemed fit to represent the dying tradition have stories worth telling. Bautista carefully allows them their own narrative threads, emphasizing the intriguing possibility of their noble talents converging with their humble livelihoods and living conditions. It seems the sincerity that the music offers is a product of very modest circumstances, of timid gentlemen with nothing but their voices and their hearts to craft melodies from.

They are unsung heroes passionately singing to save their songs’ fragile relevance. Harana marvellously allows their timeless voices to get heard and enjoyed along with memories of romances that persist or could have been had they not been rendered obsolete by the unstoppable passage of time.

The best parts of the documentary are when ageless serenades are allowed to drown cinematic and narrative conceits. It is most moving when it graduates from the search and the struggle and becomes an unabashedly hopeful celebration of music.

Francis Joseph Cruz is a lawyer and critic. You can follow his blog "Lessons from the School of Inattention." (