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From Madison to Manila: A ’20s Filipino music icon rediscovered

I never met my maternal grandfather. He died before I was born, an ocean away. I have seen pictures of him, though, like the one above. Apparently Grandpa wasn’t camera shy. More on Grandpa later; first, some backstory.

My dad was stationed at Clark Air Base outside Manila during World War II. After the war ended, he returned as a member of the Civil Service, to help with the cleanup efffort at Clark Field. He met and married Mom there and brought her to White Salmon in 1950.

She has been a citizen of the U.S. for more than six decades, but when her native Philippines was under attack last year from deadly Typhoon Haiyan, she couldn’t help but take notice. She watched the coverage on CNN intently, as figures came out estimating thousands of casualties, millions of people affected, and nearly a billion dollars in losses to homes and property.

This account is from Wikipedia:

Fritz Schenker is a doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His extensive research included eight months in Manila last year, and the images provided here are from his collection.

Schenker’s online research led him to Google ‘Borromeo Lou’ shortly after my mother had written a letter to the editor which ran in the Nov. 20 issue of the Hood River News. He then used ‘whitepages.com’ to find an address and wrote her a letter. After communicating back and forth by phone and letter, Schenker decided it would be worth a trip to White Salmon to personally interview the daughter of the renowned Borromeo Lou.

Schenker lives in Madison, Wis., with his wife, Grace.

Typhoon Haiyan was a powerful tropical cyclone that devastated portions of Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, on November 8, 2013. It is the deadliest Philippine typhoon on record, killing at least 6,201 people in that country alone. Haiyan is also the strongest storm recorded at landfall, and unofficially the strongest typhoon ever recorded in terms of wind speed. As of January 2014, bodies were still being found. Typhoon Haiyan has impacted the lives of over 25 million people. The Category 5 super storm harbored winds exceeding 200 mph along with torrential rain, causing massive destruction (over a million homes were destroyed) and loss of life.

The U.S. military conducted Operation Damayan from Nov. 10-Dec. 1, 2013, in response to the request for assistance from the government of the Philippines at a cost of $86.7 million. They delivered and/or transported humanitarian supplies, international military forces and international non-governmental organizations. They transported more than 4 million pounds of relief supplies to affected areas, including remote sites, evacuated over 21,000 people, including citizens of the Philippines, the United States, and many other foreign nationals. Over 1,300 flights were completed in support of the relief efforts for Operation Damayan, delivering aid to approximately 450 sites.

When Mom saw this outpouring of compassion and support, she was compelled to speak out on behalf of her home land. She wrote a letter to the editor, and it was published in the Nov. 20 issue of the Hood River News. Here is the text of that missive:

Safe and sound

"Thank you America," for all your help with the typhoon that hit Tacloban, Leyte, in the Philippine Islands. You have always been there, to help with disaster relief anywhere in the world! You liberated the Philippines during World War II, Manila and Leyte.

My father, Louis Borromeo, a music composer (Borromeo Lou was his stage name), studied music in the United States for several years and brought back to the Philippines jaz and vaudeville in the 1920s.

In 1941, when I was 10 years old, I shook hands with Gen. Douglas McArthur when he visited our home (he knew my father).

On a personal note, thank you friends who called or stopped me on the street, concerned about the typhoon. I checked with my cousin in Florida, Dr. Azael Borromeo, who said our relatives would be in Cebu, out of harm's way. Love you guys.

Alice Marvin

White Salmon, Wash.

When Fritz Schenker, researching my grandad, came across a mention of Borromeo Lou on our website, he sent mom a letter introducing himself and asked if she would be willing to talk to him about her dad. She of course said yes.

Thus began a series of back-and-forth correspondence between the two. Mom brought the letter to my work and insisted that I show it to Kirby, the editor. She was understandably excited.

Her eyes lit up when another letter led to a phone conversation, and that led to Schenker asking to come meet with her in person. That meeting took place on Feb. 26, when the three of us sat down in the conference room here at the newspaper.

The Madison connection

I find it interesting that people in this century are still looking into the life’s work of my grandpa, including a man named Peter Keppy in the Netherlands and Fritz Schenker in Madison, Wis. Schenker told us his research shows that Borromeo Lou came through Madison while touring with the famed Orpheum Theatre circuit. His travels in the U.S. would include cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and even Portland ... all Orpheum cities.

My own research turned up this nugget:

Luis Borromeo began his musical training at an early age in the central Philippine region of Leyte. He caught the performing bug and traveled to San Francisco to see the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition. Recognized by fellow Filipinos, he was asked to perform at the Dutch Pavilion, where he was discovered. He signed a three-year contract to perform on the Orpheum Circuit, a large chain of vaudeville and motion-picture theaters. Borromeo saw the United States from the inside of those venues, while scores of other musical acts entertained at the Circuit Chautauqua. Fans urged Borromeo to write about his home; he gave them “My Beautiful Philippines.” After Borromeo returned from a large overseas tour, his revue became legendary at ballrooms, cabarets and dance halls. Luis Borromeo called these performances vod-a-vil, while his audiences re-dubbed it bodabil.

— Excerpted from “The Day the Dancers Stayed,” a book by Theodore S. Gonsalves, Temple University Press. Buy the ebook online at the Google Play store, or check it out at your local library.

Mom and Fritz each shared from the wealth of their knowledge in regards to Borromeo Lou, information gathered through research for Schenker, or pulled from memory, in the case of my mom. As I watched the two of them talk back-and-forth, I saw Mom come alive, her eyes sparkling in a way I hadn’t seen in years. She spoke of how much her father had loved the U.S., and I have heard from her own mouth dozens of times how she loves her adopted country. “America, love it or leave it!” she would say, often rebuking the people on the TV screen that had besmirched her beloved U.S.A.

She recalled a memory of her dad and his American friend, a Mr. Henricksen. “My dad would play ‘God Bless America’ on the piano and the two of them would sing the words as loud as they could. They had to be careful, though. [In those days of World War II, the early ’40s, the Philippines was occupied by Imperial Japan.] They made sure there was a lookout posted to warn them of Japanese soldiers in the area.”

I asked Schenker why he had been researching my grandad, and he replied, “My focus has been on 1920s Southeast Asian music, and he was an important figure in the music of the day. Besides, he was possibly the easiest one to find information about.”

He showed us dozens of scans from his own research, and I made copies for him of the few things Mom and I had found that he did not already have. It was an exchange that definitely benefitted Mom, as she now has much more to connect her with her dad, such as the images that are found on this page.

As I said earlier, I had never met my grandpa, but I have seen his photograph, and heard 45 rpm records of his music, and heard stories of his travels in the U.S., but I had no idea he was so important to the Manila music scene.

A little online research came up with this bio:

Louis F. Borromeo of Cebu, came back after hitting it big in the American entertainment circuit, and introduced jazz music to the Philippines by way of his song-dance-circus-magic revues that livened up the Carnivals circa 1922. Luis Borromeo, originally from Cebu, was one of the first Filipino entertainers who made it big in the jazz music halls of America and Canada in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1920, Luis Borromeo returned to the Philippines, renamed himself Borromeo Lou, and put up a band that popularized classical-jazz music. This music genre found favor in the local entertainment circuit, which integrated such performances in the variety shows, which Borromeo later dubbed as “vod-a-vil” or “bodabil,” Filipinized from the French “vaudeville.”
The enterprising pianist-impresario went beyond spreading his jazz music by establishing his own repertory of artists known as the “Borromeo Lou & Co. Ltd.,” which had magicians, dancers, acrobats, comedians, singers and musicians in its roster of performers. Soon, Borromeo Lou was being invited to grace important events and high society functions.
In 1922, Borromeo and his group was tapped by the Manila Carnival Association to provide entertainment for the 1922 Manila Carnival. He was thus introduced to the Carnival audience as “the originator and recognized King of Orientalized and ‘classic’ jazz, a pianist of rare skill and ability, and champion of all round mirth provoker of the Far East.”
Borromeo Lou and his group’s appearance as the star feature of the 1922 Carnival was made possible through a “royal appointment by her Gracious Majesty, the Queen of the 1922 Manila Carnival,” as hyped up in ads promoting the show. The cast was headed by Borromeo Lou himself (“The Human Dynamo, Director and Classic-Jazz Pianist”).

— Alex R. Castro, www.manilacarnivals.blogspot.com; used by permission

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