The format may seem familiar, but Benito Bautista’s “Serenade” is an infectiously winning example of the “Buena Vista Social Club”-style docu, involving a fading musical form and a group of older men who are its last practitioners. Harana is a type of serenade native to the Philippines, and classical guitarist Florante Aguilar goes searching for remaining “haranistas,” men in rural areas who were hired to sing to young ladies from beneath their windows. Lovely music, the bittersweet melancholy of a dying tradition, and an irresistible romanticism make this a fest charmer.
Bay Area resident Aguilar reconnected to his Filipino musical heritage after his father’s death, when he returned to his native country and began exploring the dwindling tradition of the haranistas. With the dying of courtship rituals, the concept of having one’s beloved serenaded from outside her home in the middle of the night has also petered out, yet the custom gave rise to a wealth of songs, most of which were never recorded.
Aguilar began his search for elderly practitioners north of Manila, traveling to small villages with his guitar in hopes of convincing remaining haranistas to play for the camera. The men he finds — a farmer, a fishermen, a tricycle driver — are in their late 60s and 70s, the repositories of a rich lyrical heritage about to die out. Eventually, Aguilar got them to a studio, and their album, “Introducing the Harana Kings,” as well as a worldwide tour including the Hollywood Bowl, have become unexpected successes.
Bautista should have included a section on the music’s origins, especially as one man makes the highly unlikely claim that the style predates the Spanish conquest (the songs are intimately linked to Spanish habaneras). Fortunately, the lyrics are all subtitled, allowing international auds to relish the poetry of lines like “Listen to my song / open your window / even the stars appear to be waiting.” In the age of “Call Me Maybe,” it’s nice to be reminded that yearning lyricism was once the realm of all young would-be lovers.
Visuals capture the lush greenery, sandy beaches and colonial towns of the northern Philippines in an attractive, straightforward way. Best of all, though, is the music, honest and open-hearted, the kind that leaves behind the glow of romance.