A summer obsession set off what would become Bessie Badilla’s lifelong passion for all things Brazilian.
"I was twelve when I stayed in my grandparents' house for the summer and by the time summer was over, I had phonetically memorized and could sing the songs "Voce Abusou," "O Pato," "Mais Que Nada," "Berimbao," "Pais Tropical," and "A Ra (The Frog)," Bessie tells Positively Filipino from her home in Connecticut.
"I had no idea what language I was singing. I just liked the rhythm and the beat, which I would later learn was Samba and Bossa Nova. Now that I can speak some Portuguese, I can understand the lyrics I used to sing as a child. "O Pato," which I thought was a happy, up-tempo love song is actually about ‘the duck dancing samba on the lake with the goose and the swan!’"
Several decades after her initiation to Brazilian music, Bessie's infectious enthusiasm was charming key Brazilian carnival organizers during a visit to Sao Paulo, where she was invited to star in the carnaval parades of three Brazilian samba schools (the first Filipina to do so). This once-on-a-lifetime opportunity is the subject of "Dance of My Life," a documentary about Bessie and her Brazilian carnaval experiences that has been shown to popular acclaim in New York, Chicago, Honolulu, Singapore, Thessaloniki (Greece) and at the 2012 Cine Malaya Independent Film Festival held at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (www.queenbessie.com).
Now Bessie is hard at work on "Brinoy Dois" the second album of her series melding Brazilian music and Pinoy lyrics. "After my second year with the carnaval, I decided to learn how to play the pandeiro," adds Bessie. "I found Ze Mauricio on the Internet. His website is very flamboyant, very carnaval, and his body of work is very impressive." During her pandeiro classes with Ze, they talked about her passion for Brazilian music.
"I told him I sang ‘Mais Que Nada’ when I was twelve and how the Filipinos embraced Bossa Nova like it was their own. We had this brilliant idea of me writing songs in Tagalog using original Brazilian pieces. I wrote our first song, "Balikbayan" using legendary Brazilian musician Rossa Pasos' original song, ‘Dunas.’ When Ze brought the song to her attention, Rossa was so happy to hear her song in Tagalog she gave her permission and became the madrinha (godmother) of ‘Brinoy Music’ (now available on iTunes and Amazon).”
Here’s a sample of Bessie singing her Brinoy composition called “Gaysha”:
Bessie's interests also include photography, and after a family visit to Ilocos, she decided to post her pictures on Facebook. A friend had shown her an interview with the Philippines' Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez, Jr. encouraging Filipinos to believe in the beauty of their country. Bessie immediately responded by posting her photos of Paoay Church, Pagudpud and Vigan and with the help of friends Alex Baguio and Francois Medina they launched "Come Visit My Philippines (CVMP)."
Within 24 hours, the website had garnered 3,500 friends enthusiastically posting their own favorite photos of Philippine scenes. Today, CVMP has over 40,000 members and has won an award from the Rotary Club of Manila for Online Tourism, invitations to DOT's It's More Fun in the Philippines events in Memphis and the Philippine Independence Day Parade in New York. It continues to attract members from all over the world. The group will soon publish its fourth coffee table book of exquisite photographs, and Bessie continues to interact with fellow members on CVMP's site.
Bessie claims she has no secret success formula. "No secrets here. I just stick to what I know and make sure I enjoy whatever it is I am doing," she says. The list of her endeavors is exhausting and includes her involvement in indie films.
"After my first collaboration with writer/director Ralston Jover (producing the multi-award winning "Bakal Boys") we are now working on our second project, "Da Dog Show," which was invited to this year's Cannes Film Festival l'Atelier and the Torino Film Lab." Her front-row perspective at the film festivals she attends bolsters Bessie’s keen support of Filipino independent filmmakers. She happily observes a growing appreciation for Filipino independent films among foreign audiences.
"Unfortunately, our kababayans have yet to learn to appreciate indie films instead of just settling for the commercial-artless movies they have been accustomed to," Bessie notes. “ But Indie filmmakers are resilient, we will forge on.”
Bessie's "passion sense" has made her grow from that curious 12-year old obsessed with learning songs from an aunt's Brazilian record collection, to becoming many things--a Balenciaga model in Paris when "Asiatiques" were rarely seen in the fashion capital, the first Philippine Carnaval Queen in Brazil, "Come Visit My Philippines" visionary, and an independent film maven. Knowing Bessie, the list will definitely go on and on.
Lyca Benitez-Brown lives part of the year in the Philippines and part of the year in Stamford, CT with her husband Nick. She worked in TV in the Philippines, Africa and the U.S.A. where her most recent project was "Dance of My Life" about Bessie Badilla.