The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Natatanging Gawad Urian kay Levi Celerio

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LEVI Celerio is a class all by himself. He has written well over 4,000 song lyrics in Tagalog, some of them adapted or translated from foreign songs, folk tunes or other vernacular songs, but most of them original works. For something like five decades now, many of these songs have been used in dozens and dozens of Filipino movies, enhancing the popularity of these movies, making the songs an integral part of the films and also adding life ana poetry to them as a whole. A few of these lyrics he has set to melodies which he himself composed. Sometimes, the tunes and the lyrics have become more memorable than the movies that have used them.

Celerio is an artist who has collaborated with many of the country's finest musicians—from Constancio de Guzman and Lucio San Pedro, to such outstanding film scorers as Tito Arevalo and Antonio Maiquez - - to create classic tunes that are still sung today by many. He acknowledges the works of these composers, and also those of Santiago Suarez, Ernani Cuenco and Josefino Cenizal, as strong influences, but he doffs his hat to Huseng Batute a.lca. Jose Corazon de Jesus as his greatest influence as a lyricist On April 24, 1993, he receives from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Filipino (MPP) the film critics group's highest honor, the Natatanging Gawad Urian, given every year to an individual or artist who has done something to improve the quality of Filipino movies. Levi Celerio is eminently qualified for the honor, having written songs that often redeemed inferior movies and enhanced the virtues of superior ones. He has, in short, made movies better.

This is something no other Filipino artist - - that is, writer of song (whether composer or simply a lyricist) — has done. Celerio has created a prodigious body of works, noteworthy not only for their quantity but more importantly, for their quality, and it is evident in all the films.

The titles of many of his songs have often been used as the titles of the movies, though even more have graced a number of movie soundtracks either as theme songs or incidental music. Among his most popular songs used in the movies: "Pandora" and "Ikaw ang Mahal Ko" both for Premiere Productions' Pandora, Sapagka't Kami ay Tao Lamang, Kapantay ay Langit, Diligin Mo ng Hamog ang Uhaw na Lupa, Kahit KontingPagtingin, Pitong Gatang, Hanggang Doon Kay Bathala,Babaeng Uliran, Eva at Adan, (starring Edna Luna), Caprichosa, Malvarosa, Ang Dalagang Taga-bukid, Alabok na Ginto and Ang DaigdigKo'y Ikaw. One of the most often-sung songs now, Lucio San Pedro's haunting "Sa Ugoy ng Duyan," last sung by Nora Aunor in the movie Pacita M.

The movies were produced by virtually all movie companies in the Philippines then and now, from Sampaguita, Premiere, LVN, Balatbat, Everlasting and Lebran, to Sotang Bastos, Viva, Regal and Seiko.

Among moviemakers' favorite songs then had the lyrics which Celerio wrote to replace original foreign texts. Luneta, the Nida Blanca-Nestor de Villa comedy, was taken from "Valencia. "Sayang na Pag-ibig" and "Makapangyarihan," sung by Ruben Tagalog, was from "Un Momento' and "La Ultima Copa” respectively. And "Kubang Cochero" was from "Cum-banchero" Before Kahit Konting Pagtingin became a Sharon Cuneta megahit, Celerio admits, it was a hit tune sung by Ric Segreto, but the melody was from a Julio Iglesias song.

The local movies never seem to tire, or run out, of a song co-written by Celerio, the latest being the yet-to-be-released Richard Gomez-Dawn Zulueta starrer for Reyna Films, Gaano Kita Kamahal Celerio has written several original lyrics for actress and TV-movie producer Armida Siguion-Reyna.

He has also composed the scores for several local movies, including Nana Maria (a Tita Duran starrer) for Larry Santiago, Julio Esteban, Anguita, Magdalena, Sino Ka? (starring Bern Bautista) and Mr. Humble Boy. In Noche Azul for Everlasting Pictures, Celerio was musical director, actor and lyricist (the song "Bigay-Hilig").

He is most proud of "Pandangguhan," popularized in the early '60s by the winner in an amateur singing contest, the late Rufina Esperencilla, and sung in a movie of that era. Another favorite work of his, the Christmas tune "Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit," was published in London and adapted into English by John Morrison.

As regards the theme from the vintage Rosa del Rosario-Leopoldo Salcedo movie Ang Dalagang Taga-bukid, however, Celerio wrote the melody, with a collaborator on the lyric, Alejandro Valderrama of Bustos, Bulacan.

In the '50s and '60s, he has also appeared in several movies as a character actor, among these pictures being Batangueña, Babaeng Sputnik, Taongraniki, My Serenade, Medalyong Perlas, Casa Grande, Sa Paanan ng Nazareno, Luha at Musika, Talusaling, Malvarosa and the recent Andrew E movie, Mahirap ang Maging Pogi. His roles have ranged from prying beggar, rapist, liquor thief and pickpocket, to palm-reader (in Malvarosa), janitor and characters with disability. In the color omnibus Casa Grande for LVN, made in 1958, and directed by Manuel Conde, Gregorio Fernandez and Feliciano H. Constantino, his character is the link to every episode.

Levi Celerio was born — a premature baby - - on April 30, 1910 in Tondo, Manila to a woman who taught the harp, Juliana Celerio. He learned he had a father only when he was in high school, and the man, Cornelio Cruz, who was in the house-and-lot and jewelry businesses, had another family. His mother never married. With his father's other family, Levi learned he had three half-sisters and five half-brothers, one of them the late singer-comedienne Veronica Palileo. Of his father's children, only Levi and the youngest of the brood, the director and actor Tony Cruz, also called the local "Mambo King," have survived.

Celerio has 12 children who he describes as inclined toward music and the arts, especially painting, which he reveals was his first love. One of his children, Enrico, a Juilliard graduate and a New York resident, is a musician who plays the piano and guitar with a group called the Impromptu.

Celerio was bestowed the humanities doctorate honoris causa by the University of the Philippines, where decades ago, he studied violin at the UP Conservatory under the Russian violinist Michael Wexler. "When I had no more money to pay for tuition," he recalls, "I was made a scholar by Alexander Lipay, a German conductor who was at the helm of the conservatory." He says he couldn't then afford the exorbitant peacetime tuition fee of P220 a month.

Apart from the violin, Celerio plays the piano ("But not professionally," he says). Still, he has gained international renown for a musical novelty: He uses a leaf as a musical instrument, which he blows to create various tones and pitches that produce exciting melodies. This talent he discovered only in the early '70s, in New York, and he was invited to show this talent in the American TV show "It's Incredible."
He has performed abroad, and among the foreign places he has visited are London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Bangkok (where he resided for six months), Taipeh (another six months), Guam and New York (two years, as a violinist for a small orchestra at the United Nations). He has also spread the gospel of his art all over the Philippines, from the North to the Visayas and Mindanao.

For the past several years, Celerio's contribution to Philippine music and culture has been recognized by different institutions, the latest of which is the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. The Gawad Urian bestowed by the MPP, however, is essentially for Celerio's contribution to Pilipino film, which he helped shape into a unique art that is poetic, wholesome ("My songs are never vulgar and suggestive," he says), memorable and truly Filipino.

Like the old films that played his songs, the lyrics evoke an era that was happy, carefree, innocent and pure. Like a typical artist, he is not concerned with material wealth. He says that though he is not wealthy, he is happy, knowing how his songs have made life happier for many people and that even when he dies, his music and works will continue to entertain future generations.