Thursday, November 18, 2010

From Payatas dumpsite blooms a musical genius

As a TV reporter, I have encountered thousands of people over the years. However, some people stand out in my memory, like the little girl Cecilia, a sampaguita vendor from the Payatas dumpsite in Quezon City.

The Payatas dumpsite has been one of Metro Manila’s main waste disposal facilities for the past 30 years.

Payatas accommodates a portion of the 1,200 tons of garbage collected daily from homes and business establishments in Quezon City.

Payatas circa 2001. An old photo taken of the Payatas dumpsite during the filming of Cesar Apolinario's "Promise Land" documentary.

For Cecilia and around 200,000 other persons, Payatas is “home." They live right at the dumpsite, which comprises about five percent of Quezon City’s 16,112.25-hectare land area.

Payatas dwellers like Cecilia make up less than 10 pecent of the city’s 2,487,078 residents (as of 2006).

Ironically, amidst foul-smelling garbage, Cecilia and her family weave sweet-smelling sampaguita leis which they peddle in the streets, mainly in the areas near the House of Representatives along Batasan Road in Quezon City.

On my way to work at GMA Network along EDSA in Quezon City, I have encountered Cecilia several times.

As I drive from home to work every morning, I see Cecilia selling sampaguita leis, unmindful of the rain, heat, and pollution, risking life and limb just to earn a few pesos to help feed her family.

I occasionally stop to buy two or three sampaguita leis and briefly chat with Cecilia. I learned that she is the eldest of five children.

Their parents are waste scavengers in Payatas. They wade through tons of garbage in Payatas in search of items they can profit from, such as empty plastic bottles which they sell at junkyards.

Gift of music

Moved by Cecilia’s story, I often wonder what happens later in life to children like her. Do they remain trapped in their poverty for the rest of their lives? Or do some of them get the chance to transform their lives even though they grew up under such circumstances?

Most of the children at Payatas will probably find it difficult to rise from their poverty. However, there is a boy there who seems to have a great chance at turning his life around.

I met Nathaniel on October 13 this year. I was assigned to do a story about him for the “24 Oras" newscast because this boy was blessed with extraordinary musical talent.

Only 11 years old, Nathaniel plays the piano immaculately. Despite his family’s poverty, Nathaniel learned to play the piano at the Payatas C Elementary School. He uses the piano donated to the school by a Japanese national.

Driven by his passion for music, Nathaniel practices playing the piano at school before and after classes.

Nathaniel is a musical genius. He can play songs within minutes of hearing them for the first time.

To hear how talented he is, I asked him to play the song “Faithfully" by the band Journey. Together, Nathaniel and I listened to the song on my Ipod for about 30 minutes.

After that, Nathaniel played the song on the piano while I sang the lyrics.

I was floored by Nathaniel’s amazing talent.

He plays gospel music at the church in Payatas. It seems that he inherited his musical ability from his father who also serves at the church by playing musical instruments.

‘Wish Ko Lang’

On November 2 of this year, All Souls’ Day, I received a call from the executive producer of GMA’s public affairs program Wish ko Lang (My Only Wish), a weekly program hosted by Vicky Morales.

The show grants the special wishes of people who are struggling in life.

According to the show, they needed someone to wish for something for Nathaniel. I was chosen as the “wisher" after having produced a story about him.

I wondered, what would a boy like Nathaniel wish for? Certainly, what a musical genius like Nathaniel probably longs for is a piano!

Just four days later, the show was ready to grant Nathaniel’s “wish." On November 6, the show invited Nathaniel to the RCBC Building in Makati. The producers told him that someone wanted to hear him play the piano.

Nathaniel plays "Faithfully" on his new piano.

The Wish Ko Lang staff asked me to stay backstage while the show’s host, Vicky Morales, asked him to play my favorite song “Faithfully."

Tears fell from my eyes as I heard Nathaniel play the song. Then I heard Vicky tell him, “Nathaniel, this piano is yours."

I could not contain myself. My hero was getting a piano!

Then Vicky revealed Nathaniel’s wisher by asking me to come forward.

Wish Ko Lang host Vicky Morales reveals Nathaniel's wisher.

I saw joy in Nathaniel’s eyes. He didn’t cry but I did. I was thinking of how a talented boy from Payatas would benefit from having his own piano.

I told Nathaniel to use the piano to reach for his dreams. He may have grown up in a world of poverty but he now has the chance to make life better for him and his family.

I revealed another surprise for Nathaniel: I will personally direct his music video!

For the video, I asked the help of my friend, composer Robert More, the artist behind Joey Albert’s hit song “Million Miles Away."

Robert reaches out to less fortunate children through the “Time to Share" foundation that helps hone the kids’ talents.

The author with gifted pianist Nathaniel.

We featured the gospel song arranged by Robert, “Pag-ibig ang Susi" (Love Is the Key) in Nathaniel’s music video.

Nathaniel played the piano while the group La Diva – composed of Mariciris Garcia, Aicelle Santos and Jonalyn Viray – sang the song.

We recorded the video at Lupang Pangako (Promised Land), Barangay Payatas, Nathaniel’s home.

Growing up poor

Nathaniel’s story reminded me of my own life story. Growing up poor, I worked as a lead vocalist for a band to send myself through school.

I was only a high school student then and apart from studying my lessons, I had to learn the lyrics of songs that were popular at the time, the 80s, such as those of the band Guns and Roses.

Images of my childhood filled my mind as I listened to Nathaniel play gospel music on the piano. When I was young, I used to wake up every day to the loud gospel music played in our neighbor’s house.

That eventually led me to have a love for music in general. For me, gospel music became one of the most wonderful sounds I have ever heard. Music became my way of escaping from my daily hardships.

From our neighbor’s stereo, I heard songs like “Awit Ko Para sa Kanya" (My Song for Him), composed by Robert More.

An excerpt from the song that goes “Panaginip lamang ang mga hangarin kong kay taas, na dulot ay kasing sama ng aking buhay, awit ng pag-ibig ang awit ko’t handog, sa paglikha mo sa akin o Diyos."

I use to play the guitar. I used to think that my hands were created to make music for others. However, as the years passed, these hands instead wove stories, screenplays, news reports, documentaries, essays, among others.

I might have failed in my dream of becoming a musician but perhaps I can help another human being, Nathaniel, reach for his.

Payatas tragedy

I hope that Nathaniel will be one of many residents of Payatas who will have a chance at a better life.

To me, Payatas holds a special meaning. As a neophyte TV reporter, I covered the Payatas tragedy on July 10, 2000.

More than 300 people were buried alive when a mountain of garbage collapsed in Payatas on that day. A decade has passed but no one has been made responsible and punished for what happened.

At first, I was uneasy about covering the tragedy having been with the GMA News and Public Affairs for only four months.

I produced a 20-minute documentary: “Payatas, The Promised Land." It chronicled the grief and anxiety of the informal settlers in Payatas.

The documentary was included in the Zanzivar Film Festival in South Africa. I received emails from people sympathizing with the plight of the Payatas victims.

Later, at the Hawaii International Film Festival (November 2001), it became one of the top 15 finalists from over 800 entries worldwide.

I went to Hawaii to represent GMA Network and to speak about the documentary. The theater was packed with people of different nationalities - Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Americans and Filipino-Americans.

Some shed tears as they saw dead children being extricated from the landslide. Others raised disturbing questions. What is happening to the Philippines? Why do children live in such a filthy environment? Why must they suffer this fate?

I spoke about poverty, lack of government services, and natural calamities. After my talk, some Filipino-Americans promised to help the Payatas victims.

Four months later, 20 balikbayan boxes full of clothes, canned goods, and toys were delivered to the GMA compound for the Payatas residents.

Living in a dumpsite is certainly not easy. It is my hope that people like Nathaniel and Cecilia can rise from poverty and live the life that they deserve.


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