Filipino Birthdays

There’s a tradition in the Philippines (maybe it should be called a habit) regarding birthdays. When somebody has a birthday all the family gathers. ALL the family—that goes for uncles & cousins right through to the fourth generation, if applicable. And they eat. There is some kind of secret Filipino control placed on these mammoth gatherings or they’d be happening three or four times a week, per family … so there’s a system. I don’t know what it is although I’m thankful it exists.

I don’t go to the Birthday Parties. Why? Because it would be impossible for me to eat the food which is always outside on tables. It’s the flies. Maybe 40 different dishes to feed this mob and about 18-20 flies per dish which is replenished when it’s empty (about every 12 minutes) … well over 2000 flies. In shifts. And only a stone’s throw from the nearest pig-pens. In addition to the fly-dung, the flies carry, on their “feet” a lot of pig dung, pig sweat and maybe a billion tiny molecular sized organisms, several if not all, capable of giving a person some awful tropical disease. (Think about where these organisms come from.) So I don’t eat, in fact I eat NOTHING that is not prepared by my wife.

Our home is fly-proof. Screen doors and well away from pigs. The Filipinos are resistant after hundreds of years living side by side with billions of flies.

┬áBut there is more. Karaoke. As I have said many times in the past: Karaoke is the revenge the Japanese enacted upon the Western powers for kicking hell out of them in World War Two. More than any other country, Karaoke is at it’s most popular in the Philippines, even more so than in Japan where the Japanese after years of performing Karaoke learned that the Asian wind-pipe was not formed in such a way that it became suitable for singing; only a few chosen countrymen can sing. That being the case, the Japanese, who are inventive people have, within the last 10 years, come up with a form of music they call J-pop. And it spawned Canto-pop (Chinese) and Filo-pop (Filipino)… all are exactly the same, just with different names. Don’t misread me here… I mean all the same SONG.

It is baffling that these Asian people have been able to make hit parades and pop charts, entertain in stage shows and perform in Night Clubs in three different countries…all with just one song. But Karaoke is not J-pop or it’s clones. Karaoke in the Philippines — especially in the smallish rural areas such as the place where my wife and I live — is sung at Birthday Parties. There are a couple of Karaoke rental outfits nearby. Their owners live in big mansions with a lot of roofs (a sign of wealth in the Philippines is how many roofs a family has on their house.) These owners make a killing because their beat-up equipment is in high demand.

The equipment consists of an amplifier, a three foot TV screen which features a crawl line displaying the words of the song that is playing, and two speakers each the size of a large refrigerator. The amplifier is capable of cranking out 1000 watts per channel and it is always turned to full volume. This dusty rig is set up in the outside area of the person’s home, usually under a tree where it is cooler. It is delivered around noon and is rentable for either one or two days. Being as there is a huge mob consisting of people of all ages at these functions, the Karaoke equipment is in constant use from the time of delivery ’till the time of pick-up 24 or 48 hours later, with the exception of … say… 2 AM to 6 AM. At these Birthday Parties, all the men over 19 are drunk from about mid afternoon until they pass out early in the morning.

The women spend most of the time preparing the food and cleaning up the dishes afterwards. The rest of the neighborhood hears. That’s what the rest of the neighborhood who have no connection to the Birthday family do. They hear. Everybody within a one mile radius hears. The songs are almost universally well-known hit songs from the West and the words crawling across the television screen are in English. Quite a few Filipinos can speak the language, most of them badly. But that has no bearing on their imagined prowess with a microphone. They constantly sing off key and they manage to entirely mangle the English lyrics.

It is mostly men and boys singing although young girls sing too. Most of the young people sing beginning around six in the morning until the older men get drunk and demand their time to perform … or as they see it, entertain. They have favorites. And these favorites come up on the average of once every couple of hours. They include “My Way”, “Because”, “You Light Up My Life” and “I will Always Love You”. All these tunes demand a lot of lung-power, ending with high, sustained notes. Not only that, they are mostly songs that have had so much exposure that a little goes a long way. (And in the case of “My Way”, only one version is even remotely acceptable)

However today, as I was working in the garden and trying my best not to “hear” I became aware, for the first time that a new song had been added. One that had the composer been able to foresee the future would have realized that his ballad was to become a great Karaoke favorite amongst drunken Filipino men. “MacArthur Park” The song is difficult to sing. It calls for the vocalist to cover great range. The original version was sung by the British Motion Picture actor who possessed something of a golden throat—-Richard Harris who sang the Jimmy Webb-penned classic as one would expect to hear it sung by an opera star. A Baritone.

Webb, I am sure did not have untrained Filipino Karaoke singers in mind when he wrote it. But if he were here he might well recognize the background music provided by the sound system. He might also recognize the lyrics passing before his eyes on the three foot screen. But upon hearing the off-key squawl that emanated from the cracked, over-amped, piercing speakers at a shrill wattage, he would have wished for nothing more than to have, in his hand, loaded, a 45 caliber automatic hand gun. With extra clips.

Outdoor eating and outdoor Karaoke. Happy Birthday.

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One Response to “Filipino Birthdays”

  1. adoborepublic Says:

    ha ha ha! that is so freakin’ hilarious! i have not seen a karaoke set up as you pictured in this article. and flies on the food? damn, i never noticed them whenever in a fiesta or birthday party back home. that’s probably why my stomach has higher tolerance for bad food than most of my family. thanks for all your stories. i’ll keep coming back to read more.

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