Was "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit" Stolen From Two Cebuano Musicians?
Over the Christmas season, we published a story on Levi Celerio, National Artist for Music and lyricist for the beloved Tagalog Christmas song, "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit".
A few readers were quick to point out that the famous holiday hymn may have a different origin—the original, they say, was written by two Cebuanos from Mambaling, Cebu City: composer Vicente Daclan Rubi, with Bisaya lyrics by Mariano Vestil.
Every now and then, during Christmas time, coverage of this topic is wrong. The last time, it was Inquirer, this time @EsquirePH. None of them seem to bother to issue an erratum. https://t.co/iu5bXitoKE— Chai Fonacier (@rrrabidcat) December 26, 2017
Were we wrong to credit Levi Celerio and Pepe Cenizal for the carol? We looked into it, and saw that there are a couple of versions to the story. One says that Rubi and Vestil were asked to write a song for a carol competition in Cebu.
The most widely believed version, however, says that Rubi and Vestil created the catchy song for a Cebuano play by Rafael Policarpio. First staged in Opon (now Lapu-Lapu City), the play had a scene where carolers visited the house of a wealthy family to sing Yuletide songs in the traditional Filipino manner—using instruments made out of tansan, of course—including the song “Kasadya Ning Takna-a”.
Here's a modern take on the song:
If this YouTube upload is anywhere near the original, it would be undeniable that the melody is exactly the same, give or take a few notes. The title translates to "How Joyous is the Season", and both sets of lyrics are about the joy of celebrating Christmas (but then again, what Christmas carol isn't).
“Kasadya Ning Takna-a” was copyrighted, and likely also written in, 1933. At that time, stage shows were all the rage in Cebu. In fact, people from neighboring provinces like Negros and Bohol would even go to Cebu just to watch the plays. And when people heard "Kasadya," it was said to be in instant hit.
Pepe Cenizal, Music Prodigy
Now fast forward to several years later, when 17-year-old University of the Philippines student Josefino “Pepe” Cenizal from Tanza, Cavite, found out that there was an opening for a major production house, Parlatone Hispano-Filipino. The law student, who later studied music, was also the bandleader at the opulent and exclusive Army Navy Club.
Parlatone Pictures was looking for a musical director for their upcoming film, Nasaan Ka Irog (1937), which used the music of Nicanor Abelardo. The producers almost did not take Cenizal’s application seriously due to his young age, but they nevertheless gave him a shot and were surprised when Cenizal brought an entire band. They played beautifully, and Cenizal was hired on the spot.
In 1937, they required him to create a marching song for the movie Pugad ng Agila (1938). The movie was about folk hero Teodoro Asedillo, a Robin Hood figure from Quezon, Laguna, and Batangas, starring Darmo von Fraser Acosta and Lucita Goyena. Cenizal came up with the melody that he would eventually use for "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit."
In Cenizal’s interview with GMA in 2014, he recalled how he asked the help of his close friend Levi Celerio to pen the lyrics for his music. He said that Celerio even said that he was willing to write for all his compositions. The song was a hit, and Parlatone also grew steadily to become one of the country’s biggest production companies. Cenizal continued to compose for Parlatone’s movies, as well as for other production houses, including San Francisco Del Monte Pictures, for which he wrote the iconic “Hindi Kita Malilimot” in 1940.
While Parlatone’s office and studio, along with all their equipment, were destroyed during the war, Cenizal continued to compose music. He wrote the melodies that would eventually become “Noche Buena,” “Ipagdiwang ang Araw ng Pasko,” and “Paskong Walang Ikaw,” which were originally used as background music for movies. It was only when Celerio volunteered to write lyrics for them that they became about Christmas.
Vicente Rubi's Fight for Royalties
In the meantime, Rubi sold his song to the Manila-based Mareco Recording Company in 1950. They gave him fifty pesos as an advance, and promised him three centavos for every record sold. Mareco’s books stated that Rubi sold 62,812 records from 1966 to 1975. However, Rubi only received P110.25 in royalties in 1967, when he should have gotten P1,994.63.
Rubi’s daughter Ludivina Rubi Najarro recalled that their family did not receive any more royalties after that. It was only in ’76 that Rubi filed a suit against Mareco in a Quezon City court. The case was dismissed because Rubi couldn’t afford to travel to Manila. Later, Rubi's lawyer, Ramon Ceniza, said that while Mareco had checks ready for Rubi, the company did not bother to locate him after they have moved residence twice.
The same year, Rubi petitioned the National Library to grant him copyright, but was told that the song had already become public domain, since it was already made accessible to the public before his petition, as per Article II, Section 10 of Presidential Decree 49 (Decree on the Protection of Intellectual Property.
Ceniza did not give up. In 1979, he filed another case before the Cebu court. Rubi was exempt from paying litigation fees since he couldn’t afford it. The case was resolved nearly two decades later, in 1998, when the court ruled that Mareco owed Rubi P1,884.34, the balance of his full payment from 1966 to 1975. Sadly, Rubi had already died eight years prior, having lost his battle with prostate cancer. Ludivina said that her father never stopped composing, and that on his death bed, he requested her to pursue the case in court.
The Question of Right
After his death, Rubi garnered posthumous awards for his contribution in music, and fellow Bisaya never stopped spreading the story of how Rubi was robbed of both merit and money for the melody of this popular Christmas carol. One of these advocates is Ivar Tulfo Gica, the founder-trustee of the Kultura Bisaya Foundation, Inc. In 2014, he wrote a letter to Ricky Lee about “setting the record straight” on the real composer of the favorite holiday song. Lee posted the letter in its entirety in his column in the Philippine Star, repeating what other sources already claim, with a few differences.
For one, the letter stated that it was Villar Records who “bought its rights, recorded, and credited the entire work” to the two Cebuanos in 1950. The letter went on to state that the song was used as a background music in “the film that starred Darmo von Frazier Acosta”, though it did not mention the date—perhaps implying that the film was made after 1950, when in fact it was shown in 1938.
The letter further says: “Cenizal claimed he composed it, inspired by the strains from carolers on the Bantayan shorelines while he was passing through in a banca in Cebu where he evacuated during the war (1942), about a decade after it was copyrighted by Rubi and Vestil.” Even if Cenizal did go to Cebu in 1942, he would have already composed the music by then since the movie came out in 1938. Was there any other chance that Cenizal could have heard or known the melody since the time of its inception in 1933 until he created it for the movie? That’s the question Gica and other claimants should have asked to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Despite these claims from Gica, Cenizal and his descendants remain adamant in their interviews that "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit" is Cenizal’s original composition. In a Kapuso Mo Jessica Soho Christmas special in 2014, Cenizal’s daughter said that she wasn’t aware of "Kasadya" and that it was a Christmas song.
In the meantime, Celerio was a National Artist laureate, passing the strict—if sometimes flawed—selection process. Was he a plagiarist? Even the Wikipedia entry for "Kasadya Ning Taknaa" contains a dig at Celerio for the lack of acknowledgment to Rubi and Vestil, though the translation of the lyrics show that Celerio's simplified carol is not similar to Vestil's grand lyrics.
For songs that are supposed to be about generosity and unity during the most festive time of the year, they have ironically become divisive and reflective of our centuries-long rivalries between regions. The Bisayas will always claim that they had the song first and that Imperial Manila had taken advantage of something that was theirs and bastardized it, as go some conversations in social media. The melodies are indeed eerily similar but is this enough evidence that it was plagiarized? Or is this a coincidence?
A similar, more recent case that you may recall involves pop stars Katy Perry and Sara Bareilles. In 2013, Perry released "Roar" as a single, and was accused of ripping off parts of Bareilles's "Brave." Fans even spliced clips from both songs together to demonstrate how similar they were. However, both singers have avoided commenting on the matter.
When it comes to Rubi and Cenizal, the real composer or composers of the song should still be given their due credit—but in the absence of the possibility of certainty, how about we celebrate both, and be happy that we got two incredible, timeless Christmas songs instead of just one?