By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Here’s a question. What do you get when you take 13 teenagers growing up in the Philippines, add a mix of faith traditions, toss in poverty, the stress of daily life in an area fraught with tension caused by conflict between Muslims, Christians and native faiths including animism, and challenge them to learn to play native musical instruments and perform in a concert for peace? You get them to rise up and dream.
The Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, a lay Catholic organization that works to create a community of compassion and service for people of all faiths in 21 countries, has worked in the Philippines for some years. CFCA workers know the children, youth and elderly who are sponsored by individuals and families, mostly in America. “Behind each of us, there is an everyday person sponsoring and caring about us,” said Filipino native Ryan Sumicad, who was sponsored until he finished college through CFCA.
After accepting the challenge from CFCA leaders, the kids dug deep inside themselves and found the confidence to learn the instruments and put on a concert for the entire community. They also found the drive to pursue their educations, find jobs and work to help lift their families out of poverty.
The kids, the concert and their success were made into a documentary, “Rise and Dream,” which premiered in 2012 and continues to be screened around the world.
Ryan, now 26, was one of the teenagers challenged to learn a native instrument and perform in concert. He was in Kansas City in early September visiting CFCA headquarters, learning about the city and speaking to students at Notre Dame de Sion and Rockhurst high schools as well as at Rockhurst University.
CFCA was founded in 1981 by five Kansas City Catholic lay people, three siblings and two friends. In the decades since, it has grown into a movement of more than 265,000 sponsors who support more than 300,000 children, youth and elderly around the world, with $30 monthly donations.
Since 1998, Paul Pearce, CFCA’s director of global strategy, has visited the Philippines every year. While there, he has observed the strengths, talents and perseverance of the poorest of the poor, which has had a tremendous impact on him. The idea for the concert and the documentary project grew out of his observations.
In turn, he tapped Kansas City musician and composer Barclay Martin to serve as guest music director for the concert. Martin worked with the teenagers and native musicians. He wrote the music for the documentary, using many of the instruments and traditional rhythms to create the score. He also wrote 11 songs, some of which were used in the film, and introduced listeners to the confluence of cultures that helps to define the region.
Pearce and Martin, with the blessing of co-founder Bob Hentzen and senior CFCA staff, met with native musicians and instrument crafters living and working in or near Zamboanga City, on the island of Mindanao, in the southern region of the Philippine archipelago. After a number of conversations, the men invited more than 150 sponsored local teenagers to attend a week-long music workshop, to learn about and discuss music, traditional and “new” musical instruments with the musicians and craftsmen. Many of the young people were CFCA Scholars, working hard in school to be able to go to college.
“We were excited to go to the workshop,” Ryan recalled. “Music is in our bloodstreams. We are either listening to it, or hearing it in our heads. We keep time to the music, dancing around during lunch periods at school or work. It helps relieve stress.”
At week’s end, Pearce and Martin challenged the students: Who wanted to learn to play a traditional native instrument and play it well, then perform in a concert?
Thirteen hands flew up.
For the next year, the scholars were introduced to, familiarized themselves with and learned to love traditional Filipino instruments such as gongs and drums —the kulintangan, the kubing and the agung. They rehearsed throughout the year for the concert planned for Jan. 30, 2008, in Zamboanga
Ryan learned to play the kulintangan, which Martin said was similar to a gong-based xylophone — played with mallets while kneeling on the floor. Ryan was familiar with playing an instrument, although the electric guitar his father had taught him to play was a bit different from the eight-gong kulintangan.
Ryan wasn’t sure he’d enjoy playing the kulintangan at first. “The native instruments were not popular with us,” he said. “We liked modern instruments, like the electric guitar. We thought the traditional music, like the instruments, was boring! But we all learned that the native instruments were still very good, especially for playing traditional music.”
All 13 young people were students in 2007-2008. “We got together after school to practice for 4 hours,” Ryan said. “We became dedicated to practice. Our teachers were good teachers. Mario Lim, Christine Lim and Popong Landero — they taught us the technology behind the music we learned to play on the instruments. We learned a lot and had a really great time!”
He recalled the teachers encouraging them to really look at the instruments and touch them, “to feel what they looked like. It was really good to remember the essence of the instruments, to remember the past. These were the instruments played by our ancestors. I also learned to fuse traditional music with the music I play on the guitar.”
Ryan smiled and fell silent. Barclay Martin picked up the conversation. “I made five separate trips to Zamboanga, going every couple of months. Over time I saw the evolution of their playing. I was surprised how well the kids retained their learning from the last time I visited. I watched them learn the sacred traditions honoring traditional music and respecting the instruments they played. It was a beautiful outcome.”
Martin said the Philippines were deliberately chosen for the project. “Zamboanga has a very diverse faith background — it’s a confluence of Islam, Catholic and animism. CFCA says to all peoples, ‘we want to work with you.’ It’s a beautiful collaboration. We all came together to celebrate community and culture. I felt so privileged to be there!”
The concert was planned, a date set and the logistics figured out. It was immediately obvious that the concert could not be promoted due to the religious and political upheaval in the region — they had to rely on a person to person network through CFCA.
An open field was selected at the edge of the jungle, and the families of the young musicians began work clearing the area of rocks, large sticks, trash and cobras. They built a stage from scratch and installed lights and generators. “It was an incredible effort of the families to make it happen,” Martin said. “We were nervous because the field was vulnerable to attacks and, since we hoped for a big crowd, they would be vulnerable too.”
Ten thousand people showed up.
“It was a real testimony to the Zamboangan community,” Martin said. “It was a day-long festival with food and vendors. The concert was free, but the food had to be purchased and, to attend, people would have to take off work. A day not working could mean a day not eating. Money would have to be saved for weeks to be able to attend the concert.”
Ryan said his community was happy the concert took place and happy to attend it. “It was a free concert. They all just really loved it. People were really happy and proud to see me and the others as stars,” he added, grinning widely. “Especially my family and my friends. They took many pictures.”
And the concert for peace was peaceful.
Ryan said that after the concert, he felt more self-confident. “We were appreciated for what we did. People were saying, ‘that child really has talent.’ It made all of us have more confidence in ourselves and we could apply that confidence in school and at work.”
He earned a degree in forestry and now works on a contract basis for the Philippine Department of Environmental and Natural Resources, verifying that land is either forest land, owned by the government, or disposable land, which can be purchased. He looks forward to being hired full-time by the agency so he can help his family more.
Ryan enjoyed learning about life in America, especially the food. He was introduced to tomato soup and corn chips at CFCA headquarters and went back for seconds. From Kansas City, Ryan was to travel to New York for several Rise and Dream screenings and talks with students and local residents.
Recalling growing up in Zamboanga City, one of the oldest regions of religious conflict and political upheaval in the world, with attendant violence and poverty, Ryan said, “Growing up in the Philippines is difficult, very difficult. It takes a lot of hard work to make the money to buy food to eat three times a day to survive. I experienced that. I could not have gotten where I am without CFCA and my sponsor.”
Most of the film’s producers were first timers at a project of this scope, and included Director Judy-Anne Goldman; Executive Producer Paul Pearce; Producer Loretta Shea-Kline; Composer Barclay Martin; Editor Bernadine Colish, who has edited a number of award winning documentaries; and Associate Editor Michele Batliner.
“Rise and Dream” has won several awards. Shortly after the Feb. 11, 2012, world premiere in Denton, Texas, the documentary won the Euline and Horace Brock Audience Choice Award at the Thin Line Film Festival. The Chagrin Documentary Film Festival in Chagrin, Ohio, named it an Honorable Mention in the Human Spirit category in Oct. 2012 and it took the Reel Rose Best Documentary Film Award at the John Paul II International Film Festival the next month. The Catholic Academy for Communication Arts Professionals named it a Gabriel Award winner in May 2013.
If you’d like to meet Ryan Sumicad, Aimee Lim, Annaliza Espartero, Christian Lianes, Christian Mandi, Harold Banguis, Lori Ann Gidacan, Mark Tillah, Miguel Perez, Rex Caspe, Ryan (“Ouch”) Ballon, Wengie Magallon, Xarina Fae Acuna and their families, visit www.riseanddream.com or www.hopeforafamily.org.