A Passion for Pasyon


During the Japanese occupation, they held pabasa in hushed voices by the river to avoid being caught by the Japanese soldiers. Come war or high water, as far as Aling Alegre remembers, her family reads the Pasyon every Lenten season.

As far as Alegre Diones remembers, her family had been holding a pabasa every 19th of March every year. She said it signals the start of the Lenten season, much like how Christmas songs start the holidays. You know Lenten is here when pabasa is in the air.

The pabasa (literally “reading”) is the singing of Pasyon or the narrative text about the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a Filipino Lenten tradition which started during Spanish occupation. The Spanish friars modified the teaching of the Bible and made use of the indigenous oral tradition of telling stories.

Aling Alegre, 68, a retired employee from Tanauan, Batangas, is one of those who try to keep the tradition alive. She and her two other sisters held three separate pabasas this year.

In the Diones family, everybody knows how to read the Pasyon, from those who are in their 70s down to the five-year-old children. The family is now based in flood-prone Navotas, but the high water level does not stop the annual holding of pabasa.

Nakagisnan ko na ‘yan noon pang giyera. Tinatanong ko sa Lola ko saan galling.Sagot niya, sa lolo niya rin,” (We have held pabasa since I was a child. I ask my grandmother where it came from. She replied that it came from her grandfather.) said Aling Alegre. The Pabasa is always on March 19, the birthday of a great, great grandfather named Jose who was born on the feast of St. Joseph.

During World War II, Aling Alegre recalled how they held their Pabasa even when they lived in Taguan (hiding place) by the river to avoid being noticed by Japanese troops.

“Kinakanta namin nang mahinang-mahina, marahang-marahan,” (We sing very silently and slowly.) Aling Alegre recalled. They had salabat (ginger ale) with camote as Lenten fare.

After the war, her community returned to the barrio, and there they again read Pasyon, this time loudly and fearlessly.

To the tune of Asin

There is a certain way of singing the Pasyon which is divided into stanzas consisting of five lines each. Each line has eight syllables. The melodies vary depending on the language. Aling Alegre said that she could sing pasyon in Tagalog and Bicolano. Her late mother, Josefa Carandang, knew the Pasyon by heart and sang it even without looking at the book.

Professional pasyon singers, called cantoras make the rounds of pabasas during Holy Week. The host of the pabasa feeds the cantoras who do not accept payment.

In Aling Alegre’s household, the pasyon is sung only by her family members and neighbors who know how to read pasyon. They do not approve of the way some sing the Pasyon to the tune of current pop hits.

She said that once, her son sent home some of his friends because they tried to sing Pasyon to the tune of a folk song by the band Asin (Filipino word for salt).

The family maintains an atmosphere of sobriety and seriousness during the pabasa.

Kapag nagpapabasa, hindi kami masaya, hindi nagbibiruan, hindi ‘yung parang piyesta. Paano mo mapi-feel kung niloloko mo?” (During the pabasa, we are serious, we don’t joke around, there’s no fiesta. How could you feel what you’re reading if you make fun of it?) said Aling Alegre.

Aling Alegre said that one or her sons had suggested that they use a sound system so the whole neighborhood can hear the pabasa. She disapproved because she said it reduces the solemnity of the activity.

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