Casa San Miguel, the artists’ home, has a new ped­a­gogy

Hav­ing long been the breed­ing ground of mu­si­cians, painters, and their hope­ful prodi­gies, Casa San Miguel now probes into how art is not only for art’s sake


There are chil­dren play­ing in the at­tic at nine in the morn­ing. De­pend­ing on which point of view, it feels like a Sun­day af­ter mass, or the set of an eerie Tim Bur­ton film when the wooden house res­onates with strung vi­o­lins and tiny voices prac­tic­ing solfeg­gios.

The daily com­mo­tion brew­ing in far­away Manila feels al­most non-ex­is­tent here—or at least, in­con­se­quen­tial. Gate re­cep­tion­ist Vir­gie So­te­rio leads the way, show­ing us framed pic­tures of this old Zam­bales ter­ri­tory be­fore it was called the now-fa­mous Casa San Miguel. “I know this house from way back,” she says, re­fer­ring to a pic­ture. “This is where we used to play [as kids]. It burned down dur­ing the 1980s.”

Built by Ra­mon Cor­pus in 1924, the old house was aban­doned af­ter the war broke out, save for a few sum­mers when it housed a new gen­er­a­tion of Boli­pata chil­dren pranc­ing and play­ing on its grounds, the same kids who grew up to be­come es­tab­lished artists in their own right. One of them is highly ac­claimed con­cert vi­o­lin­ist Al­fonso “Coke” Boli­pata who now pre­sides over this house-turned-school, en­list­ing chil­dren to pick their in­stru­ment for the first time and learn how to play.

“The first batch in 1996 was just— nakak­abingi nga eh,” Boli­pata says with a laugh. “I used to stand up­stairs, close my eyes, and say, ‘ Oh my god.’” Of course, when Casa San Miguel opened its mu­si­cal gates to the all-toore­luc­tant pub­lic, even much more press­ing than the stu­dents’ lack of train­ing was the gen­eral com­mu­nity’s lack of sup­port for what the es­tab­lish­ment had stood for. “The big­gest [ques­tion] for us the first year was ‘ Why arts?’ Peo­ple were like, ‘ It’s post-Pi­natubo. We need jobs.’” That was in the early ’ 90s, the con­clud­ing years of a vol­cano erup­tion when Zam­bales went from third class prov­ince to ghost town. The base had closed, and while the peo­ple needed a source of liveli­hood, a way to make money, this rel­a­tively alien es­tab­lish­ment was urg­ing them to make some mu­sic.

Play­ing for am­bas­sadors, diplo­matic corps, and the rest of the elite ma­jor­ity only added to the in­tim­i­da­tion. It took seven years and sev­eral at­tempts to court the lo­cals be­fore Casa San Miguel fi­nally found its steady fol­low­ing. “With free con­certs, we re­ally pulled them in. We forced them to come,” quips Boli­pata.

Over the course of two decades, with dif­fer­ent shows and pub­li­ca­tions record­ing the Casa’s rise, the house be­came known for what it was ini­tially chided for: a foun­da­tion where the arts, in its purest ar­dor, take cen­ter stage. In ad­di­tion to the school, the old house has made room for bed and break­fast ac­com­mo­da­tions, a back­stage café, a pasi­lyo where Plet Boli­pata-Bor­lon­gan’s mo­saic sculp­tures stand like wel­com­ing fig­ures from a Lewis Car­rol novel, and men­tor­ship-res­i­dency pro­grams that have housed the likes of Elmer Bor­lon­gan, Manny Garibay, Leeroy New, and the late Don Salubayba.

“I don’t know how to ex­plain it, but there’s some­thing about the place that pulls you in. You wake up, eat, and cre­ate art,” says vis­ual artist Carlo Gabuco who’s been Casa San Miguel’s res­i­dent artist for more than a decade now. He wasn’t work­ing on any art­work when he started, and has since ex­hib­ited in Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore, and this Oc­to­ber, at the Fi­nale Art File. Thank the many muses, maybe, that seem to have been ser­e­naded by all the vi­o­lin­ists’ weep­ing strings.

As the vis­ual artists’ works fill Casa’s spa­ces like tes­ta­ments of the cre­ations that this haven has bred, the younger breeds of Zam­baleños take men­tor­ship from the mae­stros. Reg­u­lar Sun­day mu­sic lessons take place as well as sum­mer camps where even Manila’s young en­thu­si­asts come hun­gry for their share of Casa’s cul­ture. Boli­pata per­son­ally con­ducts the screen­ings and those who pass the tal­ent test can avail of the schol­ar­ship. Those who un­dergo reg­u­lar en­roll­ment can bor­row in­stru­ments from Casa. A far cry from the clumsy play­ing in the early ’ 90s, th­ese stu­dent per­for­mances have now be­come a rec­og­nized act. “They are in com­pe­ti­tions, and we are now known in the con­ser­va­tory cir­cuits,” says Boli­pata. A num­ber of them are even bent on launch­ing mu­si­cal ca­reers.

Cover photo by Geric Cruz

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