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As soon as the “ber” months set in and Christmas lanterns begin to adorn houses, a Filipino Christmas song also starts playing on the radio, on television, and on the streets: “Ang Pasko ay sumapit, tayo ay mangagsi-awit!”
Like simbang gabi and Noche Buena, “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” is one of the many things that define Pinoy Christmas. The classic song is characterized by its joyful melody and meaningful lyrics. For many Filipinos, hearing it automatically signifies the start of the Yuletide season.
Last week on “Kapuso Mo, Jessica Soho,” the program set out to find the man behind this Christmas carol: composer and musical director Josefino Cenizal.
Meet the composer
Born on September 14, 1919, Josefino Cenizal, or “Pepe” to his friends, grew up admiring bands that played in fiestas. Not long after, he acquired his own banjo so that he could play music like the musicians he loved to watch and listen to.
“Minsan, nanghihiram ako ng instrumento, tinutugtog ko rin. Mahilig ako talaga sa music,” Lolo Pepe fondly recalls. In fact, he can play all sorts of instruments like the banjo, the violin, and the piano, which is his favorite.
When Lolo Pepe turned 17, he began studying at the University of the Philippines Conservatory of Music. Around the same time, he also became the bandleader of the Army Navy Club, where he was in charge of musical arrangements. But his real break came when he began to work as a musical director for local film outfits.
“Nagkaroon ng opening ang Parlatone Pictures. Nag-produce sila ng pelikulang ‘Nasaan Ka Irog’ na ang theme ay ‘yung music ni [Nicanor Abelardo],” Mopet Cenizal-Gonzales, Lolo Pepe’s only daughter, narrates. “Naghanap sila ngayon ng musical director kasi malapit na matapos ‘yung film. Nalimutan nila, wala pala tayong musical director. So nag-place sila ng ad. Nakita ni Papa, so nag-apply siya.”
Because he was just 17 at that time, Lolo Pepe was not taken seriously during his job application. “Nung nag-apply siya sa studio, minamata siya ng executives, ang bata-bata nito. ‘Go ahead,’ para bang hinu-humor pa siya. ‘Sige nga parinig!’ So tinawag ni Papa yung banda niya,” says Mopet. “Tumugtog siya, lahat nung tao doon nagsilabasan kasi ang ganda-ganda ng tunog. ‘Okay! hired ka na!’"
Because of his talent, Lolo Pepe began working as the musical director for almost all of the films produced by Parlatone-Hispano Films, making him the youngest musical director in the Philippine movie industry during his time. One of his most notable works is “Hindi Kita Malimot,” the theme song used in a Sampaguita Pictures film that starred Leopoldo Salcedo and Carmen Rosales.
Aside from working with music, Lolo Pepe also dabbled into acting. For instance, he served as both the musical director and the lead actor for the movie “Rosa Birhen.”
“Iyon ‘yung first movie sa Philippine cinema history na isang tao ang musical director saka siya rin ‘yung movie star,” Mopet says. “Hindi ako makapaniwala. Sabi ko, ‘Paano ninyo ginawa yun?’”
The story behind “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit”
“Ang Pasko ay Sumapit” is one of Lolo Pepe’s most memorable compositions but did you know that it originally was not a Christmas song? The melody was actually composed for “Pugad ng Agila,” a 1938 war movie.
“Pinagawa ako ng music para sa kanila. Background at saka theme song. Nangyari naging Christmas song gawa nang ang nagletra ay si Levi Celerio.”
Lolo Pepe reveals that the National Artist for Music was his close friend. “Hindi naman ako sinisingil ng pagleletra. Siya pa ang nagprisinta. [Sabi niya,] ‘lahat nang gagawin mo, ako ang magleletra.’”
The songs “Noche Buena,” “Ipagdiwang ang Araw ng Pasko,” and “Paskong Walang Ikaw” are also Lolo Pepe’s compositions. These too were originally background themes used in movies.
“Kasi malimit, may mga kanta siya na ginawa niya for a movie, tapos dadating si Tito Levi, ‘Padre! Lagyan kaya natin ng ganitong lyrics,’ kaya nagiging Christmas songs,” explains Mopet.
Christmas at the Cenizals
Christmas in the Cenizal household is always filled with music. Mopet shares that her father would often be at the piano while her mother, late Filipina actress Olivia Cenizal, would sing songs.
“Ang mga Christmas, New Year's Eve namin, si Mama nag-iimbita ng mga kaibigan na malayo sa pamilya. Iyong mga gabing ‘yun, isang musical night,” says Mopet. “Lahat sila kumakanta. Kaya laging naalala ko, musical evenings, musical days. Bihira iyang mga radyo kasi laging nandun si Papa eh.”
These days, Lolo Pepe cannot remember some of his compositions anymore due to his old age. He is now 98 years-old. However, Mopet still makes it a point to play her father’s songs.
“Kasi minsan nilalabas ko yung kaniyang mga lumang piyesa, ‘yung mga naka-publish tapos tinutugtog ko,” she shares. “Sabihin [ko] ‘Pa, naalala ninyo ito?’ ‘Hindi,’ ‘Papa, kanta ninyo ito,’ ‘Ganun ba? O sige tugtugin mo.’"
Despite having forgotten some of his compositions, Lolo Pepe still remembers that he was the one who wrote the music for “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit.” It is his favorite song.
Lolo Pepe admits that he is still pleasantly surprised whenever carollers go to their house and sing his composition. “Natutuwa naman ako at kinakanta nila ‘yun pero hindi nila alam na ang kinakanta nila eh ako ang may gawa.”
These days, not everyone knows the real story behind “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit.” Even so, the song remains as one of the favorite Christmas songs of Pinoys. And for Lolo Pepe, that is all that matters.— Lara Gonzales/BMS/ARP