The MAESTROWritten by Fr. Rudy Villanueva
Inocentes “inuz” Vergara, one of the more recent sons of Dalaguete to find distinction for self and hometown, is widely known to have played a special role in the development of Cebuano popular music – a role which we in Cebu have had the pride and pleasure of recognizing and appreciating during our own time.
According to his close friends and associates, it was by falling under the influence of a teacher like the renowned orchestra leader in pre-WWII Cebu, Candido Celerio, that Inuz became more than ready to fulfill his role when the time finally came. And that role was to create musical arrangements for the orchestra’s own use, which were extremely rare and quite costly in those days, and to wield the baton for Cebu’s most distinguished multi-purpose band, the Mutya Band (although “orchestra” was considered the correct term to use then). Not unlike its conductor, the band had gone through quite an interesting set of circumstances itself.
Among the many artists with a rightful claim to being Cebu’s musical pride and joy was a group called the Swing Masters. It was the foremost dance band in the area, and deservingly remained so until tragedy struck.
The band had just finished a dazzling series of performances in Manila and its distinguished leader, the bachelor Bernardo “Narding” Cabase, was triumphantly coming home to finalize matters of the heart. But the MV Corregidor struck a mine a few miles off Manila Bay and Narding perished along with one of the band’s sax players, Ignacio Abella. Soon after, the Swing Masters disbanded, apprehensive about retaining the band’s name. But from its membership another group would later be formed under the name of Mutya-the Cebuano word for pearl.
Part of the pain resulted form recalling Narding Cabase’s short but fruitful career. Well able to pick his way around both idioms of the harana and the “new” sound, he was a fascinating figure. A prolific composer, he had penned such songs as Pasayloa ug hikalimti, Sayri Ako, Why must I leave you? And Lilongon Ko Lang ang Akong Pagbati.
For its part, the birth of Mutya came about because of the need for a group to supply original and incidental music for the products of Mutya Pictures Production, Inc., a film company managed by Natalio “Talyux” Bacalso and financed by Don Rafael Ramos and Don Jose Hernaez, assisted by Augusto Santos, a name still quite prominent in the business world of Cebu today. But for its actual formation and the impetus to function, the signal honor of founding-fatherhood can only be claimed by “Maestro” Candido Celerio, who paved the way for Inuz to assume the baton, and to Cesar Laspiñas, Sr. who looked to the innumerable finer details that often determine the ultimate fate of any group, however small. And Mutya was (and is) a sizeable group, more so after incorporating a string section, several keyboards, and a large number of vocalists.
Inspite of the extra tonnage, the fate of Mutya appeared doubly enhanced down the years. The band has always been musically literate, the Laspiñas management insisting on maintaining musical standards. It also picked the best band leader the group could have-“Maestro Inuz” Vergara, who continued to hone his group’s abilities before and after a gap of several years, until his death in early 1996.
It is inevitable to think of Inuz Vergara, the lyrical workaholic, as very special indeed. The seemingly natural and effortless way he mastered a difficult art encourages the view of his role in Cebuano music as a catchment point for new advances in musical technique. With all his knowledge of music theory, orchestration and arrangement, he resisted the urge to become a composer. Instead, he wholeheartedly addressed the need to teach and encourage Cebu’s instrumentalists in their training and actual practice.
The Maestro grew up in the small town of Dalaguete, where most homes had an instrument or two, and were lips were bruised from practicing. The young Inuz Vergara became a boy-wonder who could, if he felt like it, pick up any instrument and play it on the spot. Mastering the drum set got him a job at a night club. Next, he mastered the piano-jazz piano, to be precise. He did it by simply and closely observing the club virtuoso. He learned the styles of George Shearing and Bill Evans, Errol Garner and Chic Corea through the cifra method: learning each laborious note by repeatedly listening to a recording. Manila’s night clubs lured him, as it did the best musical talents from the provinces. He took on jobs all over Southeast Asia, staying the longest in Hongkong, whose loss became Cebu’s gain when he suddenly retired from that ratrace-to join Cebu’s cockroach competition “circuit.” It was a deadly game after all, only closer to home.
Mutya performed at the 14th Cebu Popular Music Festival in 1996 under the Maestro’s direction. It was to be their last project together. The night after, Inuz led the group again at the concert version of the “14th Pop” at the Royal Concourse, a huge watering hole along Gorordo Avenue, where he had played cocktail music innumerable times before. And it was there, a couple of afternoons later, that he suffered a stroke.
Witness accounts have it as he lay completely comatose in the intensive-care ward, the Maestro slowly raised his arms as though conducting an orchestra. His moving fingers depressed invisible keys when, next, he went solo on keyboard. Occasionally, one hand rested while the other beat time without ceasing. With the music constantly playing in his mind, the Maestro kept up this “performance” until the very end.
It was his way of saying how difficult it all was-how there is almost no way one can say goodbye to one’s music.