Friday, July 3, 2009

Susan Fernandez, Our Nightingale

SHE was the nightingale of the protest movement, a folk singer with the inspiring voice, powerful, yet soothingly gentle, a committed artist-activist who dedicated her life to helping the many who are weak and powerless in our country.

My friend, Susan Fernandez, died this week at 52. Many of my generation and others will miss her, her beautiful voice, her gentle soul.

During rallies or at political events at the University of the Philippines or other venues in the 1980s, I was always happy to know that she would be one of the cultural performers. And recently, she was the one I also thought to ask to perform to help my book events less boring. She was a gifted and courageous activist who embraced the struggles of her generation, whether it’s for the rights of women, or against tyranny and dictatorship.

On a personal level, she was a generous friend, who felt happiest when her music touched other people’s lives. Three years ago, she readily said yes to an invitation from Joy Jopson Kintanar to perform at the launch of “UG An Undergound Tale,” my book about the late activist Edgar Jopson, known as Edjop.

I was not able to attend the launch, though my sister Nymia emceed the event. And Susan later recalled what happened in an e-mail.

She first sang “Kundiman ni Abdon,” the classic kundiman that inspired “Kay Taas ng Pader,” a popular song among political detainees during the Marcos years.

“I took a bow right after this first song when Nymia signaled to me to do another one,” Susan later told me. On the spot, she said, she thought of “Madaling Araw,” one of her favorite kundiman songs by Francisco Santiago.

It turned out to be a fortuitous choice.

“You know what,” she continued in her e-mail, “during the cocktails, Edjop’s sister approached me. This song pala was their favorite nung bata sila (when they were younger)! She felt so nostalgic and all the more missing her brother. Kaya lalo akong natuwa sa coincidence ng napili kong awitin (So I was glad that I chose to sing it).”

“Haay, it's really wonderful to touch lives this way,” Susan said.

To be sure, Susan touched many lives. She impressed many of the leading activist-intellectuals of her time, including the late Lean Alejandro.

“Did you ever have one of those opportunities where you meet someone who is not only good in the arts, but incredibly smart?” academic and former student leader Jojo Abinales said. “That's Susan.”

“Everyone was, of course, enthralled by her voice. Lean used to be mesmerized by her jazz songs and confessed to me that he would never sing in front of Susan. Of course, noong nalasing na hala kanta na ng kanta ng (when they got drunk they sang and sang) Paul Williams, to Susan's amusement.”

Abinales quickly added, “But I was amazed at her intelligence.”

For while Susan was best known as a performer, she also made her own contributions to the academic world. While working for her master’s degree at UP, she decided to take on what was then an unusual, and tough, thesis subject: Child prostitution in Manila.

“I was surprised about this when she told me because no one expected her to do such a thing—being one of the few ‘pretty bourgeoisies’ (Lean's term) of the activist generation of my time,” Jojo recalled.

“So Susan would spend long nights hanging out with the kids in Ermita and getting their stories. She would visit us at Diliman at the end of the week and I would listen to her stories about her encounters. … Then she sat down and wrote this incredible MA thesis which I think is one of the earliest works on child prostitution during the Marcos period.”

“She would have become a fine academic. UP or Ateneo would have benefited immensely from her ideas,” Jojo added.

Susan eventually did turn to teaching, but music always was at the center of her life.

And there was music when she passed on.

She was surrounded by friends and family right before she died Thursday afternoon. Musician and her friend, Lester Demetillo, was playing her favorite song, “Both Sides Now,” when she passed away.

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