IT'S BEGINNING to look a little bit like Hogwarts in the Tropics around here — old architecture and tall tree branches covering the school grounds; sculptures of mythical creatures; an enigmatic door that opens to a dark chamber; stairs that lead to nowhere; students waving wands.
Welcome to CASA San Miguel, where a family of artists have converted their ancestral home and its grounds into the province's cultural and artistic center. CASA, short for Creative Alternatives for Social Action, is tucked away in a picturesque mango orchard sandwiched between mountains and the sea. The small sprawl in the town of San Antonio, Zambales, includes the private homes of husband-and-wife artists Elmer Borlongan and Plet Bolipata, as well as the private retreat of writer Rica Bolipata Santos and her family.
The gated compound's centerpiece is a three-storey concert hall and school where young aspiring musicians, such as 11-year-old Simon Tabon, wield violin bows for hours on end, rehearsing chamber music. Simon, who lives in town, has been dead-set on becoming a violinist ever since he caught a performance at CASA, where his mom used to work, almost five years ago.
Simon is gifted with a sharp sense of hearing; he can pick up songs from the radio, such as Green Day's "21 Guns", just by listening. His music skills haven't gone unnoticed and have earned him a minor local celebrity status — the neighborhood kids look up to him, and he's often requested to perform at school graduations and town fiestas.
But more than the recognition, Simon cherishes his time in CASA, where everyone is a kindred spirit in music. "Everyone makes me feel special here."
CASA's artistic pursuits are not confined to music. Since 1993, its brick theater has hosted creative writing, film, music, theater and visual arts workshops for local students aspiring to attend specialty schools, conservatories, colleges, or even just to prepare for performances and exhibits.
Founded by Alfonso "Coke" Bolipata, a world-renowned violinist and alumnus of The Juilliard School, CASA lists an impressive line of mentors that includes world music artists Joey Ayala and Grace Nono; dance luminaries Denisa Reyes and Myra Beltran; visual artists Brenda Fajardo and Elmer Borlongan; the late National Artist for Literature N.V.M. Gonzales; the flamboyant cellist Matthew Barley; and pianist Cecile Licad. During its early years, teachers from The Juilliard School, Indiana University and Oberlin Conservatory would visit CASA to conduct workshops.
"Around the early 1990s I was coming home a lot to do concerts," says Coke, who was part of Columbia Artists
doing a rural residency program in the US. He was shuttling from New York to Kansas, immersing himself in rural places including Dodge City. "I asked myself, what does classical music have to do with the land of Wyatt Earp? I thought if I could do it here, I could do it in our farm."
Coke asked his father to help him build a community center on their ancestral farm. The idea was to have a place where deserving artists could hone their crafts under scholarship grants. Since then, the 70-seater Ramon Corpus Concert Hall, a pleasant cavernous surprise behind the black door on the second floor, decorated with old paintings and fading sepia photographs — including that of a young president-to-be Ramon Magsaysay, a relative and fellow Zambales local — had been a veritable venue for chamber orchestra concerts, plays, operettas and ballets.
Named after his grandfather, who completed a soloist violin course at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1919, the concert hall has always been CASA's showpiece. This may change with the opening of the Museum of Community Heritage this month.
Located on the third level, the new museum will house a wide range of exhibits, including photographer Nico Sepe's prints of life among local fishermen, a mobile telling Zambales' folktales, a photo and video compilation featuring the anthropological works of William Reed and, the runaway piece de resistance, a 600-gallon coral reef tank showcasing the vulnerable ecosystem of the West Philippine Sea.
The museum is part of the foundation's revitalized program that's been given the tagline of "Learn, Discover, and Celebrate", and is one of CASA's potential revenue sources. The first were the five detached deluxe rooms, opened three years ago, that guests may rent for short or long-term stays. There is also Backstage Café, where they started serving a house special paella, tuyo (dried and salted sardines) pasta and delicious brick-oven-cooked pizzas early this year.
"Unlike most business organizations, CASA San Miguel's corporate social responsibility program came first, and now it's time for us to become self-sufficient," Coke says, admitting to several near-closures due to finance trouble.
While he and the rest of the Bolipata family will always be thankful to Starbucks, one of its longest and staunchest corporate sponsors, Coke sees the need to enrich the defining CASA experience beyond the 15-hectare artists' enclave — from the Anita Gallery, Leeroy New's perplexing plastic sculptures, to its 700-seater amphitheater — all the way to its neighboring communities.
"There's so much to explore around here, so we started offering banca tours to outlying islands with good beaches, places like Camara, Capones, Anawangin." Coke says most of the fishermen who now run the tours used to practice dynamite fishing. But while this dramatic turn has been beneficial, Coke warns that community leaders should step in and gear up for sustainability.
Heart for art
Local child musician Julian Duque, the new toast of Philippine violin scene, was discovered here. Back in 2008 Coke recalls how eight-year-old Julian breezed through five years of lessons in just four months, impressing all of his mentors, including a representative from Juilliard.
"He is truly a golden boy. Every thing he touches just works," Coke says. Julian starred in Boses, an independent film that CASA San Miguel co-produced for Cinemalaya 2009, as a mute child battered by his drunkard father. He eventually won two awards for his performance — one at the 6th Golden Screen Awards and another at the 25th Philippine Movie Press Club Star Awards.
Awards are nothing new to the alumni here, but they still don't carry as much weight as the inclination to spread the love around, especially to those with little means to go after their dreams or hone their talent.
To date, CASA has reached out to around 3,500 scholars. "CASA San Miguel's doors will always be open to anyone with heart," Coke says. "And it just happens that our self-expression of choice here is art."
A short drive from Clark, Walter C. Villa wanders onto a community that has transformed from a sleepy fishing village to a thriving music and arts colony, where anyone with a heart for art is most welcome