Bayani Mendoza de Leon, born on November 24, 1942, was a versatile and multi-faceted artist, who distinguished himself as a composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist, poet, writer, ethnomusicologist, folklorist, cultural scholar, and community leader.
A musical prodigy, Bayani grew up in a home filled with music. His grandfather Ladislao Bonus was the first composer of a one-act opera in the Philippines. His father, National Artist of the Philippines Felipe Padilla De Leon, was the first composer of a grand opera in the Philippines. And his mother, Iluminada Mendoza was a concert pianist.
In a musical career that began in the 1960s, Bayani composed works ranging from operas, symphonies, musicals, and art songs to avant-garde pieces scored in the most unconventional formats. At the age of nine, he became the youngest member of Banda Peñaranda, a brass band directed by his father. He played the trumpet which he considered his first musical instrument.
At 14, he wrote his first zarzuela called “Hibik sa Karimlan,” which attracted large audiences from several high schools in Manila. As a high school junior, his composition "Handog sa Diyos" earned him the "Musician of the Year" and Student Composer of the Year" awards.
By 1971, Bayani was a distinguished member of the League of Filipino Composers. He was catapulted into the national scene in 1968 with his first major symphonic work, "The Legend of Sarimanok", a full-length ballet. After an impressive premiere at Rizal Theater with the Manila Symphony Orchestra, it was selected by the Malacañang Cultural Committee to showcase Philippine artistry in music and dance during the gala concert of the famous Bolshoi Ballet Company.
The influence of Bayani spread throughout the Philippine-American community as a culture bearer of Philippine music and arts in the US. In 2008, the Pamana ng Pilipino Presidential Award was conferred on him by then Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In conferring the Pamana ng Pilipino Award, the President "recognizes his genius and artistry for being a distinguished composer, musician, and educator who has tremendous influence in raising awareness and appreciation of traditional and contemporary Philippine music in the US".
He was the first Filipino-American composer to write a full-scale symphonic poem, “Batong-Buhay” for rondalla, a native Philippine string ensemble. He won an international prize in the Fourth World Music Rostrum in 1976 for his work “Bantay-Bata” that combined Philippine indigenous instruments with the Western harp and clarinet.
He joined the faculty of the University of the Philippines, while also conducting field-work in Southern and Northern regions of the Philippines where he documented the music and dance of various ethno-linguistic tribes. In 1979, he came to the US as a Fulbright-Hays scholar in music. He studied avant-garde music composition at the University of California, San Diego, where he received his Master of Arts in 1982. He taught Asian Music Studies at University of California, San Diego while also serving as music director for many rondalla ensembles in Southern California, including PASACAT and SAMAHAN.
He later composed “Pagkamulat,” symphonic poem for orchestra; and “Atlantis” and “Anting-Anting,” both contemporary ballets. OKIR, an avant-garde musical tapestry for flute, harp & contrabass (1980) is one of his major works. Okir, in Philippine language, literally means "design" or configuration." It also signifies the hidden force that shapes events and brings people's lives together.
According to Filipino natives, Okir is the spirit that lives in the legendary serpent-bird called Sarimanok. This spirit enters and dominates the essential ornamental character of Philippine architecture, crafts, costumes, implements, and other aspects of the national life.
Having evolved from the above concept, Okir passes into musical expression as a complex interweaving texture of interdependent elements in a tapestry-like setting. Exploiting the timbral riches of the octaves and the unisons, and marked by microtonal subtleties, the piece integrates rhythmic and melodic fragments from Southern Philippine music and extended instrumental techniques of the west.
BINHING DUNONG (Wisdom Seed) was an essay for flute and piano (1972). It was an early exploration of the contemporary idiom, a creative path the composer pursued since 1969, after having established himself following successful major works in the traditional vein. Among these were Vertigo, concertino for clarinet and orchestra; Beyond Forgetting, tone poem for voices and movements; and Sisa, Los Penitentes, and Alamat ng Lupa, all national award-winning choral dramas.
KROKIS (Rough Sketch) consisted of configurations for Bb clarinet, Bb trumpet, and bass trombone (1990). Krokis, which means to sketch or to draw, is a word commonly used in the Philippines when requesting for a map or a pictorial direction to a place. In the richly textured Krokis, the composer invites artists to a musical journey using the score as the blueprint. As an added diversion, the notes, which make up the score, are enclosed in various geometric forms.
The directions are simple: the musicians must begin at the same place and end at the same place. The performers, however, may freely choose any path that leads to the final destination. Because there are conceivably innumerable routes to take, the musical labyrinth becomes endless, making every rendition of Krokis a surprise.
While parts of Krokis are derived from the cadence of Filipino poetry, its uniqueness lies in its capacity to change its musical shape with each new interpretation.
SISA was a piece for the female choir which won first prize in the 1968 National Songfest Competition in Manila. It relates the tragic life of the madwoman Sisa, a character in the immortal novel, "Noli Me Tangere" by the Philippine national hero, Dr. Jose P. Rizal.
He also shared with the Philippine-American community some of his original works, which include among others, “Villa Mariquita,” a zarzuela; “Silay-Parnaso,” a rhapsody for violin and orchestra; and “Mga Sugatang Perlas,” a music-dance play.
Outside of his musical career, Bayani earned recognition as both writer and editor. He had worked at the National Media Production Center where he was the vernacular section chief, and news editor of Pag-asa, a government-published magazine. In 1965 he was the recipient of the Palanca Award, the Philippines' highest award for literature, for his short story, "Mga Luha Ni Lela.” He ended his 25-year career in tthe publishing giant Simon & Schuster / Prentice Hall Publishing as Managing Editor, Higher Division, of Pearson Education Publishing in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
Bayani, who was also a master martial artist and teacher, was a Kriya yoga initiate and taught both yoga and tai chi for many years, and generously shared his expertise in the healing arts. The American composer John Cage, with whom he shared both musical and philosophical ideas, once said of Bayani, “If you have a question on any topic of a spiritual nature, this man can answer it.”
In 1975, he founded the first Gurdjieff society in the Philippines. He served as mentor to many aspiring musicians and artists from different disciplines, sharing the spiritual content of what he taught, always instilling this most important internal aspect in his students.
EXPONENT OF NATIVE ENSEMBLES
Bayani asks the audience to sing "Ang Bayan Ko" with his group consisting of the U.P. Alumni & Friends Rondalla and the Reflections Choir at a concert at Somerset County Vo-Tech Theater, Bridgewater, New Jersey on Sept. 28, 1998.
As music director and ethnomusicologist, Bayani developed the rondallas (Philippine native string band), the choirs, and the kulintang and gangsa ensembles (Philippine indigenous gong-type musical groups) of two big dance companies based in San Diego, California—the PASACAT Performing Arts Company and the SAMAHAN Philippine Dance Company—both of which he was the music director. He also composed original dances based on Philippine epics and legends for them.
His mission to preserve and promote the rondalla extended to the East Coast where he became music director of the University of the Philippines Alumni & Friends Rondalla, the Paaralang Pilipino Foundation Rondalla, the Philippine Chamber Rondalla of New Jersey, and the Foundation for Filipino Artists Rondalla spanning the period from 1992 to 2003. Through local performances, performing tours, and recordings, he sought to lift the rondalla from its strictly traditional folksy role to a more mainstream concert personality. He was the first Filipino-American composer to write a full-scale symphonic poem, Batong-Buhay (Livingstone), for rondalla, woodwinds, and string orchestra. He won an international prize in 1976 in the Fourth World Music Rostrum in 1976 for his work, Bahay-Bata (Mother's Womb), that combined the bandurria, laud (rondalla instruments) with kulintang, agung, and dabakan (indigenous instruments), and the Western harp and clarinet. His rondalla arrangements, numbering around 500, range from Philippine folk songs and dances to broadway and operatic airs, and standard classics.
Bayani successfully initiated mainstream audiences into works that reflect his Philippine Asian heritage. His “Okir,” (1979), an avant-garde chamber work for flute, harp and contrabass, which utilizes Maranao and Magindanao motifs in a complex interweaving texture of various musical elements, enjoyed prestigious performances at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego on January 21, 1981 and at Schoenberg Hall, Los Angeles, on May 22, 1981. His “Eliksiya,” for voices and movements, was premiered at the California Institute of Arts on February 5, 1982.
His zarzuela, “Villa Mariquita,” drew standing ovations during its two-day run at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles on September 7 and 8, 1985. In the East Coast, he premiered his “Silay-Parnaso,” a rhapsody for violin and orchestra, performed by the Children’s Orchestra Society under the baton of Michael Dadap at Merkin Hall, New York, on December 5, 1989, and his “Mga Sugatang Perlas,” a music-dance theater staged on April 2 and 3, 1992 in Broadway’s Town Hall in Manhattan.
Bayani holding plaque for Filipino-American Achiever award, May 3, 2008.
COMPOSER FOR THE CLASSICAL GUITAR
He has also gained considerable following as a composer for the classical solo guitar. His original guitar works, incorporating Philippine folk and indigenous motifs, have been widely performed in the U.S., the Philippines, and other parts of the world.
His “Kapilas na Giting,” the first serious work for guitar composed by a Filipino composer, was premiered as an international master class exhibition piece at the Espla Conservatory of Music in Alicante, Spain in 1976. It has been included in a number of CDs by German guitarist Hucky Eichelmann.
Bayani rehearses with the Paaralang Pilipino Rondalla in preparation for a concert on October 16, 1993.
His later works, arrangements, and transcriptions are available in a CD titled "Kanta Filipina," performed by Yale graduate classical guitarist Theresa Calpotura, who teaches guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Among his other guitar works are "Kudyawit," "Kundimang Walang Titik," "Batang Laro (Child Play) Suite of 7 pieces--all commissioned by Angelito Agcaoili--"Batikusan," "Talagad," "Parang Kahapon Lamang"--all commissioned by Theresa Calpotura--"Ritwal" for Guitar Quartet, commissioned by the UST Guitar Alumni Society, and "Amihan" for Guitar Orchestra, which was especially composed for the 2010 UST International Guitar Festival.
Bayani showing his book on Baybayin, A Concise Manual on the Philippine Ancient Script, during his lecture on the topic, Culture & Identity at the JFK Cultural Center, New Jersey. Taken January 16, 1994.
As a cultural scholar, he contributed effectively to a better understanding and appreciation of Philippine culture through his many lectures and workshops in both East and West Coast. In October, 1993, he gave a series of lectures on Philippine Indigenous Arts, History and Culture in Los Angeles under the auspices of the World Kulintang Institute and Research Studies Center, Inc., with funding from the National Endowment for the Folk Arts.
The Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York sponsored his lecture-concert on Philippine Identity in Music on April 2, 2000. A more in-depth lecture-concert on Traditional Philippine Folk Music was given by him under the auspices of the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission of New Jersey on April 15, 2000.
He was the main consultant and resource person for the Pilipino Cultural Resource of San Diego with funding from the National Endowment for the Folks Arts in Washington. In such capacity, he developed an extensive program of workshops and courses on various aspects of Philippine culture. This involvement also gave him the opportunity to interact with many young Philippine-Americans searching for their identity and who benefited positively from his rich insights into this issue.
LITERARY AND ACADEMIC WRITER
Bayani, as a writer, furthered his cultural mission through the written word with equal sagacity. Below are a few of his articles that saw publication:
“Asian Musical Identity and the West,” Pilipinas, A Journal of Philippine Studies, No. 15, Fall 1990
“The Soul of Art: A Composer Speaks,” UNESCO Symposium Papers, Music Conference, Manila, 1977
“Pasyon and Philippine Music,” Brochure, Folk Music Program, Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission, April 2000
“Folk Elements in Philippine Composed Music: Towards the Evolution of National Consciousness,” 3rd National Folklore Congress, Manila, 1976
He also authored the following books:
“Baybayin, Ancient Script of the Philippines: A Concise Manual,” published by Bycynthium Treasures 1992
“Beginner Etudes for the Rondalla Instrumentalist,” 1985
“This Joining Can Blossom Thankfully from the Mouth of the Beast,” A collection of original English poems and original Tagalog poems with English translations also by the author, published by Menagerie Arts, 2008
• Office of the President of the Philippines, Commission on Filipinos Overseas (2008 Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas).
• "Talaang Ginto," 1966
• Samson, Helen F. Contemporary Filipino Composers. Quezon City: Manlapaz Publishing Company, 1976.
- Obituary: Bayani M. de Leon (1942-2013) by L.M. Wiesel