Published in Eastern Visayas Journal on January 22, 2021
I spent my childhood in the mid-70s when life was simpler. The internet and smartphones were unheard of and we had limited choices of shows to watch on television. Instead, I spent a lot of time helping out at our parents’ printing company or with friends playing games like moro-moro, latik-latik, and Chinese garter. At the end of the day, my siblings and I eagerly finished dinner to get ready for bed and settle down for the best time of the evening: listening to susumaton.
Susumaton means to tell, from the Waray verb sumat, and refers to a broad classification of oral folk tales. Hart and Hart in their 1966 research Cinderella in the Eastern Bisayas: With a Summary of the Philippine Folktale broke these stories down into four major susumaton categories in Leyte and Samar. The locals listened to fabula or fables, bida or legends, macatatawa/pinosong or comedy, and maglao-ay or obscene tales.
The susumaton we heard were about encounters with fantastical beings, local legends, supernatural traditions, Aesop-like fables, and comical experiences of ordinary people. We listened to susumaton from just about any adult: our parents, grandmother, aunts, and visitors. Our first question to new members of the household staff was whether or not they knew some susumaton. Brownouts in the city and candles in the house were perfect backdrops for scary stories. Our imagination ran wild with vivid descriptions of flying half-bodied aswangs (witches) and night-colored cigar-smoking kapres (tree demons). As we grew older, we took turns adapting stories and telling them in the most dramatic way possible.
Telling susumaton is an art form. One needs to remember these stories which are often long and elaborate, experiment with voices for different characters, act out different scenes, and deliver the comedic punchlines. The earliest record of susumaton in the region was a book of 89 fabulas published in 1890 by Father Juan Navarette, the parish priest of Borongan from 1840 to 1854. Susumaton gained widespread popularity in the 70s through the late radio announcer Rene Pilande’s Johnny Pusong on the DYVL station.
Today, Waray susumaton as a whole is in decline because of the digital focus on printed literature and the current preference for visual media. We can look at what other countries have done to preserve this aspect of their cultural identity. The United States, China, India, Ghana, and Ecuador are just five of the nine countries in four continents that are using online archiving of audio and video recordings to preserve endangered oral literature. This project is funded by The World Oral Literature Project established at University of Cambridge in 2009 and co-hosted by Yale University since 2011 with the mission to collect, protect and connect oral traditions around the world.
The initiative to preserve Waray susumaton can follow this template. Academic scholars, government agencies, or private groups can work together to use the social media platform to crowd source and find these susumatons to be submitted online. We can leverage technology to transform these into audio books for millennials to enjoy and for a society to preserve its culture through literature. It’s a lot of work but it can be done.