She took off strong and soared above our heads, above the nearby trees, above the church steeple. It was the most beautiful kite in the sky.
Kites always fascinate me, thanks to Manong Bansiong, nephew of Basang my auntie-yaya. He made the most beautiful and the biggest kite in town. Remote and small a town San Vicente is, we had the reputation in the neighboring towns for our best kites, best pieces of furniture and wooden saints.
Manong Bansiong made different kites: sinang gola, agila, kayyang, – in the likes of bull, bird with outstretched wings, maiden in colorful, flowing dress, and many other designs. His kites were known for their strength, stability, beauty, and agility. In competitions he always brought home the bacon, so to speak. And we kids regarded him our hero. That’s why he was the most popular person in town come kite flying season when the grains in the field turn golden in the sun and the cold wind from the north start blowing. It’s now “burr…,” we would jokingly refer to the “ber” months, starting in Septemburr.
“Can you make me a La Golondrina?” I found myself asking Manong Bansiong one afternoon.
La Golondrina or the swallow has slender streamlined body, and long pointed wings, which allow great maneuverability and endurance, as well as easy gliding. Her body shape allows efficient flight. Her wings have nine primary feathers each, while the tail has twelve feathers and may be deeply forked, somewhat indented. A long tail increases maneuverability, and serves as adornment.
As a child, I love to watch swallows in flight. And there is something special about them because I discovered their nesting ground in Caniao, a vast watershed on the Western Cordillera range that feeds the wells and springs, ponds and streams, and makes waterfalls tumble into the Banaoang River. I saw the birds comb the waters for flying insects along this meandering river flowing like a huge serpent into the vast China Sea.
But Caniao had a more practical meaning to us residents; it was the source of free flowing water from the faucet, even with the distance of some thirty kilometers way from the reservoir. So abundant was water that our gardens and backyards were always green. Our wells never dried up. Even in summer it was not hard to draw water by hand or by a lever made of bamboo, we called babatwagan, to draw water easier and faster. In the rainy season our wells practically reached the ground, and if you are living near a stream, some fish are lured get trapped in the well. Where did the bulan-bulan come from? It is a fish that grew to a meter long, how it reflected in the depth of the well when there is moonlight. That’s how got its name. And old folks said the water is keep clean and sweet by the bulan-bulan. I learned later in college this is true because the fish feed on morsels and insects falling in the well, and checked overgrowth of algae and plankton.
The swallows roost on big trees and one particular bird came close and posed to us picnickers. She seemed unafraid and even sang a beautiful melody. I was reminded on my first musical piece in violin, La Golondrina. It’s a plaintive musical piece which if you close your eyes while playing it, the birds come in a flock, each one presenting itself in a unique way, circling, swaying, rising and falling as if defying gravity, creating prisms against the sun. I like to hear their calls in the language of their own, never shrieking, never sonorous or coarse.
I stalked to have a good look at the singer as one would like to get close to the stage, but on sensing my closeness, she took off into the sky and soared like a kite in the wind.
How swift, how graceful and agile she flew as if she commanded the wind, and not the wind pulling her to its will.
I thought of many designs of kites: the dragon just looks too fierce and slow; the eagle is too common to most of us kids. A castle kite is not supposed to move around. The more it is fixed in the sky, the better it is appreciated. But there are sudden gusts of wind and it could just fall down like a castle under siege. A lady kite finds it difficult to dance gracefully in strong wind, and she would tumble down when the wind momentarily stops. A clown kite looks dumb; it can’t make tricks, and can’t change expressions as a real clown does.
But my La Golondrina is versatile; she could soar up and down like a jet plane with the least effort, then turns sideward in any direction and returns, repeats the same as if she were on a stage. When one behaves this way you might think she is trying to escape from her bondage. To me it’s not. She is not struggling to free herself; rather she is courting the viewer to train his sight to a place only she could tell. Too far, too high, I supposed.
Actually La Golondrina is a difficult design of a kite to make. But Manang Basiong was a real expert. He won’t back out at any kind of kite especially if it is for a contest. He always wanted his kite to win.
“When will be the contest?” He asked in our dialect.
With that statement and a kindly smile I knew Manong Bansiong would make my La Golondrina. “Yehay!” I could not help keep it a secret and soon everyone knew it and anticipated the big event.
The day of the contest came. There were many kites from our town and nearby towns. Vigan, the capital of the province had the most entries and the biggest kites at that. There were designs of airplanes, eagles and dragons, huge and colorful; they dominated the sky. But my confidence did not sag.
Then our turn came. La Golondrina appeared unique. She was not really very big. All eyes were on her. I asked my brother Eugene to help me carry her across the field while Manong Bansiong held the string at the other end.
“Farther … some more,” he signaled. “Stop!” He paused and whistled a few notes. It is a technique in kite flying. Release the kite at the moment a strong breeze comes. We waited for the precious wind.
Then it came. It was a gust of wind that came all the way from the North. It is the wind of Amihan, the season we harvest our rice crop, when farmers build haystacks (mandala) that look like giant mushrooms dotting the landscape. Mandala and kite with golden fields at the background makes a favorite subject in painting landscapes. Rural landscape is the favorite subject of our own national artist, Fernando Amorsolo. I had his Harvestime, framed as a school project. Many stages have painted backdrops of such rustic scene where zarzuelas were presented during town fiestas. To us kids, kite flying is the happiest time of the year. It was also a season of catching dalag, hito, ar-aro trapped in receding ponds and basins of ricefields where we played kites.
“Steady now,” Manong Bansiong shouted, and Eugene and I raised La Golondrina and waited for the signal. “Now!”
She took off strong and soared above our heads, above the nearby trees, above the church steeple. Our town mates and my classmates rallied. They followed her ascent, and clapped, coaching to the top of their voices. “Up, up. Go up some more! More! More!” She mingled with the other kites, bowing here and there, sometimes flying close to the dragon or eagle, and to the airplane kites in some kind of greeting. So I thought.
Manong Bansiong let the string glide on his hand, making a crispy whistling sound as our kite continued to rise. Now it was higher than any other kite. It appeared as if it were the smallest of them all, and one won’t recognize her if he did not see her first on the ground. Beyond the blue Cordillera the home of this beautiful bird watched and waited . I could estimate where Caniao lay; it was right straight to where the wind blows.
La Golondrina hovered steadily like a duchess in the blue sky. I wondered at how she looked at us down below. I just imagined we were also just specks on the ground, and if my T-shirt were not red, she would not be able to distinguish me from the spectators.
Then the unexpected happened. The string broke! La Golondrina was adrift. She was flying free, and she was not coming down. Instead, she went farther up, riding on updraft that joins the wing blowing from the sea. to the mountains. Everyone was silent. All eyes were focused on the ill-fated kite. Soon it was but a dot in the sky. No one could tell what was going to happen.
Manong Bansiong rolled the remaining string back into its cage. “She didn’t get much string.” He muttered. My first impulse was to run to where she would most likely land. “No,” he said, catching me on the shoulder. I was left alone. All the kids had joined the chase.
I remained dumbfounded, agape at the wide, wide sky. Time stood still. There was a deafening silence. Nothing seemed to move. Not even the remaining kites.
La Golondrina was swallowed up by a dark cloud and the cloud was heading for the mountains, as it often does, momentarily becoming part of its top like a veil or a blanket. During Amihan the cloud is high and thin, the characteristic of stratus and cirrus clouds - thin and high because the wind is cool and dry. It is the wind on which ride migrating birds in the North go down South, and return only in the dry season, many months after. This is what my father told me whenever I pointed at migrating birds in the sky. But for birds of La Golondrina’s kind, he said, it is time just time to nest in their home ground.
With that thought, I said, “She’s going home.” Manong Bansiong nodded in submission to the fate of his masterpiece craft. Eugene had just come back panting, brushing away weeds and dusts, soothing scratches and minor cuts. He had given up the chase together with our gang mates, and those who knew something about kite flying. Everyone talked about how they crossed the fields, climbed over fences, forge streams and even climbed trees to get better view of the route of the lost kite.
But no one knew where La Golondrina had landed.
We soon forgot all about the contest as we sadly prepared to go home. The plaza was empty now. It was already dark.
Kite flying, detail of mural by AVR
That night I dreamt I found La Golondrina in Caniao, hanging on a dry branch of a tree where I once saw her as a bird. It was the only tree left in the place. There she swayed, this time she wanted to escape; she was restless even if she was exhausted. How different she was from the once beautiful and dainty kite La Golondrina. But at least she had reached home at last, so I thought. I remembered father, a balikbayan in the thirties say, “Homing instinct brings one back from across the shore to die in his place of birth.” I took a breath of relief.
But the spring where my companions and I had picnic before had dried up. The stream has shrunk into a rivulet, painfully skirting the rocks and levees. The stones are no longer living, because they were no longer green with algae and moss.
The mountain is no longer green and blue at the distance. The view below spread out clear and empty, they are no longer part of the forest. They are now farms, and huts are visibly dotting the landscape, smoke rising from new clearings. The horizon bears the color of sunset although it was still morning. I waited for the plaintive song of gitgitgit…I once heard. It did not come. In the stillness of the afternoon came the occasional the sweep of the wind rustling on the cogon grass making an eerie sound. The sound of death.
Manong Bansiong did not make kites anymore since then. But because of him I became a kite maker, too.
But time has changed. Kite flying has become an endangered art. Kids are more interested with other playthings. They have remote controlled toys and other electronic gadgets. They would rather stay indoors in front of the TV and the Computer. And they seem to be more serious in their studies than we were then. They seldom go out to the fields. Rivers and forests are full of danger. No, their parents won’t allow them to go to these places. Many of them have moved to the city, and flying kites in open spaces is very dangerous.
It consoles me to see a kite flying around, whether it is made of simple T-frame or plastic. Or one made in China, best known for kites. How different kites are today from the kites we had before.
When I reached the age Manong Bansiong was as kite maker, I also found joy in making kites for children. I am not as good as my mentor though. When Leo Carlo, my youngest son, took part in kite flying at the University of Santo Tomas, he came to me and asked, “Can you help me make a kite, papa?”
I remember my kite flying days. I helped him re-create La Golondrina. It was turning back the hands of time. He carried the kite we made across the football field with Marlo, his brother, and I, at the other end, held the string. We waited for the old friendly wind.
Then it came, it came all the way from the North, and La Golondrina rode on it, flew above our heads, above the trees, above the grandstand and the chapel and the tall buildings, and up into the blue sky.
I saw Caniao at the back of my mind, its water full and flowing. Below is the meandering Banaoang River, and in the distance is the blue Cordillera. There is a familiar tree, on its branch sat a beautiful bird singing the song of La Golondrina.
Song also known as 'The Mexican 'Home Sweet Home'.Serradel: Mexican composer (1843-1910) born in Veracruz. His name appears variously as 'Narciso Serradell', 'Narciso Serradel' or 'Narciso Serradel Sevilla', the form used, for example, at the Veracruz page at Enciclopedia de los Municipios de México.
The Spanish lyrics of La Golondrina (The Swallow) use the image of a migrating swallow to evoke sentiments of longing for one's homeland. The song has been recorded by numerous artists over the years, either as an instrumental or with various lyrics.
The Swallow (La Golondrina)
To far off lands, the swallow now is speeding
For warmer climes and sun-drenched foreign shores
While cooler breezes tell of summer fading
My heart with you, into the heavens will soar.
Oh graceful swallow bear a message of love
For on your journey, lies the land of my heart
As down you sweep, shed my blessings upon them
That tell of love which in my heart still burns
Among those shores are all that I care or live for
My home, my loved ones, waiting for my return
Then glide downwards as you see from above
A sea swept isle from which we had to part
Each winter long console me in my dreaming
And you fond swallow on your gleaming wings
Will speed as I would wish I could go speeding
Straight to their hearts, and with you my love bring
Oh graceful swallow . . .
(repeat last line)
Recorded by Brendan Bowyer & The Royal Showband
Lyrics submitted by Liam O'Reilly
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The following is transcribed from the sheet music at Indiana University Sheet Music Collections:
LA GOLONDRINA (THE SWALLOW)
Words, Walter Hirsch. Music, Narciso Serradell.
New York: Robbins Music Corp., 1923.
1. High in the sky
At break of dawn I see
The swallow fly
Above the world
Among the drifting clouds he flashes by
Beneath the caves his little mate is waiting
Beneath the leaves where all his treasures lie.
2. Ah, would that I were a swallow that flies through the sky,
On the wing, rejoicing, where all care flutters by,
So light and free, above the voice of the throng,
High up in the sky, where all the world's a song!
Whither so swiftly flies the timid swallow,
What distant bourne seeks her untiring wing?
To reach it safe, what needle does she follow,
When darkness wraps the poor, wee storm-tossed thing?
To build her nest near to my couch, I'll call her;
Why go so far bright and warm skies to keep!
Safe would she be; no evil should befall her,
For I am an exile sad, too sad to weep;
My fatherland is dear, but I too left it;
Far am I from the spot where I was born;
Cheerless is life, fierce storms of joy bereft it;
Made me an exile lifelong and forlorn.
Come then to me, sweet feathered pilgrim stranger;
Oh! Let me clasp thee to my loving breast,
And list thy warbling low, secure from danger,
Unwonted tears bringing relief and rest.
In his lyrics, Serradel assumes the persona of Aben Hamid, a Moor of Granada, who was forced to leave his beloved home when Isabella and Ferdinand expelled the Moors and Jews from Spain in the 1490's; they were never to see their homeland, where they had lived for centuries, again.
Information from Sibelius Music: Score page 1 and notes ailroad, which entered Texas at Laredo and crossed to the Gulf.
• Mexican composer Narciso Serradel Seville (1843-1910) born in Veracruz. His name also appears as Narciso Serradel(l)