Pabasa: the Lenten Season Chant of the Passion of Christ
by E. P. Patanñe
The Lenten season in the Philippines actually begins some five weeks before the Holy Week, which generally falls on the second week of April. On the first Sunday of Lent and every Sunday thence until Good Friday, groups of old women and a scattering of men and younger people gather in the visita, or chapel, of the barrio to sing the life story of Jesus Christ. The altars are makeshift or elaborate, built in the city’s side streets or in private homes.
The devout among the participants in this melodic vernacular chanting are there to fulfill a vow. This vow is to offer the prayers couched in the pasión for the quick recovery of a sick or ailing relative or as thanksgiving for such recovery. The less orthodox, especially the young, are there simply to join in the singing, partake of the snacks prepared for the occasion and more often than not meet members of the opposite sex. Because of the socializing going on, it is sometimes difficult to tell where solemnity begins and where it ends.
In some parts of Bulacan—and in Manila itself—the singing of the pasión has assumed the nature of a contest, with not a few homes hiring out a public-address system to amplify the “reading.” It was not unusual in the old days for veteran singers to be sought out and invited to some particular home. Their presence in this domicile was supposed to lend prestige to the resident family.
The singing of the pasión is a daily ritual. It goes on until midnight, the marathon singing demanding so much from the active participants that a piece of ginger is tucked away in the mouth—“to keep the voice.” A break in the singing late in the night occasions salabat, a hot ginger brew believed to soothe the throat and restore the voice.
In the traditional fashion the singing-chanting is done without musical accompaniment. The singers sit on mats or on the bare floor, holding copies of the pasión book and getting into a chorus as soon as the lead singer has struck off on a melodic pattern. The “tune” in the rural areas appears to follow the pattern of church singing, with variations from one Philippine region to another, apparently influenced by local folk styles or melodic snatches. The style of singing is called melismatic. Mrs. Ruby K. Mangahas in an article, Early Christian Church Music, remarks that “this type of singing, which is still used in the Roman Catholic Church today, is characterized by highly florid passages in which the original melody is spun out into embellishments.”
The last syllable “a” of the alleluia is spun out or dragged into some length. The singing of the pasiónin the Philippines, stylewise, no doubt has been influenced earlier by the singing of psalms. At times, listening to pasión singing, one can almost hear the repetitive notes, as in a muezzin’s call to prayer. At other times one can note the strains of a popular folk melody. Among the Tagalog the pasión singing styles vary from the “very plaintive” (tagulalay) to the mournful (dalit) to the more popular tres caídas (after the three falls of Christ carrying the cross).
The postwar years have interjected a further variation in the old traditional styles of singing the pasión. Where the younger people have joined in, it is not unusual to find a guitar strummed in accompaniment to the singing. In some private homes or neighborhoods entire combos—electric guitars and drums have been involved. The result, perhaps due to the new ecumenical spirit and the shift in the Catholic Church from Gregorian to modern, not excluding jazz, is that the singing of the pasión has taken a popular western-music pattern. The lead singer in the pabasa dictates the tune and among the younger elements the tune may turn into swing, cha-cha-cha or rock—of course never deviating from the lyrics as printed in the book.
Pasión in Paperback
The book is called in Tagalog Pasióng Mahal (Holy or Sacred Passion), carrying the full title, Kasaysayan ng Pasióng Mahal ni Hesukristong Panginoon Natin, or The Story of the Holy Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is usually printed as a cheap paperback in newsprint and sold in almost all the side stores near a big church. The Quiapo Church in Manila carries a number of editions of the pasión, depending on the regional dialect. The title page of the Tagalog pasión book says that the Catholic religious had a hand in its editing, with the Church giving it an imprimatur.
The book opens with a prayer to God, moving on to the prayer of the Virgin Mary and then the story of Genesis. Then follow the stanzas devoted to the birth of the Virgin Mary, the visitation of the Archangel San Gabriel to the Holy Mother, the visit of the Virgin to St. Isabel, and the birth of Jesus Christ. The narrative then follows the story of Christ.
The pasión book is some 240 pages long, the narrative itself ending with the visit of the Empress Elena to Calvary. The final chapter is a prayer dedicated to the Virgin Mary. There are lessons, advice, prayers, catechetical pointers and finally a calendar indicating the start of Lent. Some sources attribute to Gaspar Aquino de Belén, a Filipino printer, the first passion book, which came out in 1760.
The singing of the pasión, however, is paced so that the entire book is read out by Holy Friday. The churches then take over with the grandiloquent rendering of the Seven Last Words.
The finale to the pasión “reading” is the occasion for the grand festivity. The hermana mayor or the hermano mayor, the sponsor of the “pabasa,” may serve more that the usual snacks to those who have participated in the ritual and brought in the blessing of the Lord.
Source: Filipino Heritage: the Making of a Nation, Volume 5 (Lahing Pilipino Publishing Inc., 1978)