Unknown man behind PH immortal yuletide music ‘Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit’ is 98
When “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit (Christimas Is Here)”—that exuberant tune so expressive of the spirit of Christmas that is as familiar to Filipinos as the national anthem—begins to be heard over the radio in September, you know that the long Christmas season for which the Philippines is known has begun.
But only very few Filipinos today are as familiar with the name Josefino “Pepe” Cenizal, who scored an untold number of Filipino movies from the 1930s to the 1960s, and wrote the music for this beloved Christmas carol as well, with his good friend, National Artist Levi Celerio, providing the immortal lyrics.
The 98-year-old Cenizal, who was a popular actor and director in his youth, still plays the piano almost every day in the Quezon City home that he shares with his only child, Moppet, and her family.
This morning habit has helped keep his memory sharp. Though advanced age has left him hard of hearing and needing a wheelchair to move about, Cenizal can still play his compositions, including his most popular work from 1940, “Hindi Kita Malimot (I Can’t Forget You),” without the aid of a music sheet.
He is “elated” that Filipinos are still playing and singing his songs, especially “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit,” said Cenizal, who studied music and law at the University of the Philippines.
In an interview, Cenizal said “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit” was actually a reinterpretation of a score he composed in 1937 as background music for the movie “Pugad ng Aguila (Eagle’s Aerie)” by Parlatone Productions. It was reincarnated as a Christmas carol with the help of the late Celerio.
“Levi is my best friend, that is why he writes the lyrics for me. Usually, I write the melody first, then he puts in the lyrics. I would call him and tell him, ‘Can you write some lyrics for this?’ He is very good with lyrics,” Cenizal said.
“I’m so happy that even children still sing the song, especially on Christmas,” he said.
The tandem of Cenizal and Celerio produced other carols like “Araw ng Pasko (Christmas Day),” again originally a theme for a movie that was remade into a Christmas song by the Mabuhay Singers in the late 1960s, and “Paskong Walang Ikaw (Christmas Without You),” a plaintive Christmas song written in the 1980s, interpreted by Diomedes Maturan and arranged by Emy Munji.
According to Cenizal, writing melodies was “second nature” to him. He would sit at the piano for hours, experimenting with different combinations of notes and chords until he came up with the right progressions to fit the theme of the movies where the music would be used.
Cenizal, who is originally from Tanza town, Cavite province, grew up surrounded by music. His mother, who was his first music teacher, played the violin and he soon added to the music in the family home, with the banjo as his first instrument.
“The guitar was not yet popular then. I was very good at the banjo,” said Cenizal, smiling his trademark bedimpled smile that made him a popular actor before World War II.
“But eventually, I trained in piano. My mother wanted me to be a classical pianist but I liked jazz. If you played jazz then, you were popular with people but not with my mom,” he added.
His training in classical music and his inclination for jazz and big band music from America combined to make him a much sought-after scorer, as well as actor, director and musical director, in the years just before and after World War II.
Among his earliest works was the 1937 piece “Agam-Agam (Suspicions),” a tango piece with lyrics provided by Salvador R. Barros for the movie “Susi ng Kalangitan (Key to the Heavens).” The movie was produced by Parlatone Hispano Filipino Inc., with an ensemble cast including Gerardo de Leon, Librada Constantino, Rosita Rivera and Cenizal.
He also shared top billing in 1938 with Rogelio de la Rosa and Fleur de Lis in the movie “Bahay Kubo (Nipa Hut).” He wrote the movie’s theme entitled “Bakit Mo Nilimot (Why Did You Forget),” with Angel Esmeralda as lyricist.
But Cenizal’s greatest work remains “Hindi Kita Malimot,” which was produced by San Francisco del Monte Pictures in 1940.
He said he had no idea when he wrote “Hindi Kita Malimot,” which was inspired by an old love, that it would become his greatest contribution to the Filipino songbook.
“I didn’t think it would become popular,” he said.
That it continues to enjoy radio play 74 years after it was written can be attributed to Filipinos’ romantic nature. Cenizal is well suited to appeal to that nature, being a hopeless romantic himself. Many of his songs are light hearted, with romance as the central theme.
Cenizal wrote music for movies produced by the major movie production outfits at the time, including Luis F. Nolasco Pictures, Nolasco Bros. Pictures, LVN Pictures and Zamboanga Pictures.
He wrote the words and the music for the song used in the movie “Rosa Birhen (Virgin Rose),” where he was both director and lead actor, beside Lirio Lakindanum, Domingo Principe and Raymunda Guidote.
According to Cenizal, he ended up wearing different hats for that project because he was the type of person who gamely accepted jobs offered him. It was not in his nature to complain or to decline.
“In the old days, you just agreed to do whatever you were asked. You don’t even ask how much it paid. Nobody talked about the price,” Cenizal said, adding that “Rosa Birhen” was perhaps the first movie in history where one person was the director, musical arranger, composer and even actor.
Cenizal cowrote songs with his wife, the former Gloria Maigue, who took on the screen name Olivia Cenizal when she entered the movies. By then, Cenizal had retreated from the limelight and stayed in the background of the movie industry.
He said that he had “a hard time” courting his wife, who was also from Tanza. He said he first met her when he was driving around town in his top-down convertible with his friends and saw her walking home, carrying her books.
When he saw her, he immediately stopped the car, got down and approached her.
“She was so pretty,” said Cenizal, who courted the lovely Gloria through music, serenading her at her home, the preferred mode of courtship at the time.
Music remained a strong bond between Cenizal and his wife, who passed away in 2008.
Together, they composed “Moonbeams” in the 1960s and “I’m Proud to be a Rotarian” in the 1970s. Cenizal also composed “Wala Kang Kapantay (There’s No One Like You)” in the 1960s for the movie of the same title, which starred his wife and Nestor de Villa.
Never stops composing
Cenizal’s career waned after the 1960s, as he began focusing his energies on other pursuits, including an auto parts business and the management of Capitol Hills Golf and Country Club.
He never stopped composing music, however, even if many have never been published. Just last year, he wrote a novelty song entitled “Ayoko Na Sa ’Yo (I Don’t Like You Anymore)” that he sings with his daughter, often to help him get through his occasional visits to the hospital.
Cenizal does not lack for recognition for his work, but perhaps not as much as he should, considering his contribution to the music and movie industries. Among the honors he has received is a lifetime achievement award from the Filipino Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
But for Cenizal, he already feels fulfilled, knowing that his songs are still loved by the people.
They may not know him, but at least they know his music.