Many who have heard the word “mabuhay” know it as a traditional Filipino form of greetings.
It means “long live”, “welcome”, or “cheers”, depending on the situation.
So when Winnipeg theatre company Rainbow Stage announced a new show titled Ma-Buhay! Filipinos Singing For Their Lives, it wasn’t surprising that the word mabuhay was understood in its usual sense.
But why was the word broken and not written in the traditional way?
When sought for the story behind this, Ma-Buhay! creator Joseph Sevillo provides a heartwarming explanation.
“I pay homage to my late mother, Teresita Dizon Sevillo, who loved me and my family unconditionally, and always supported my dreams to sing, dance and act for a living,” Sevillo says in a written interview.
Essentially, he explains, “ma” stands for ‘mother’ or short for “mama”, and “buhay” is the Filipino word for “life”.
“She gave me mine,” Sevillo says of his mother, who passed away last year.
There’s also another special person that the Winnipeg-born and –raised musical theatre artist wants to honour with his creation, which represents Manitoba’s first all-Filipino musical.
“Ma-Buhay! is a love letter to my parents who always believed and supported my love for the arts,” Sevillo says.
His parents immigrated from the Philippines and settled in Winnipeg in 1981.
“My dad was a pastor, and my mother was a teacher, but she had to redo her education in Canada and became an elementary and high school teacher for 25 plus years,” Sevillo relates.
His father passed away in 2015.
“I am the fifth child out of six kids,” Sevillo notes.
Ma-Buhay! creates lane for Filipinx artists
In November this year, Rainbow Stage announced that it is celebrating its 70th anniversary with two new shows in 2024: the Canadian premiere of Ma-Buhay! and a classical musical, Mary Poppins.
“With 27 years in the business of musical theatre and more than 30 professional contracts under my belt, l have never seen a musical in Winnipeg that featured Filipinx artists playing Filipinx,” Sevillo says, “and with Winnipeg having the highest population of Filipinx per capita, it was time to create a lane for our local talents. It’s a gift for my community.”
According to a Statistics Canada report based on the 2021 census, a total of 257,620 people, or 19.7 percent of Manitoba’s population, were immigrants.
Moreover, the agency stated that the top three places of birth among immigrants living in Manitoba in 2021 were the Philippines, India, and the United Kingdom. And among recent immigrants (those who came between 2016 and 2021), the top three countries of origin were India, Philippines, and Nigeria.
In the same report, Statistics Canada noted that at 68,115, Filipino immigrants comprise 37.4 percent, or the biggest group, among visible minorities in the province.
A report last year by CityNews Winnipeg in time for the celebration of Filipino Heritage Month across Canada recalled that the first wave of Filipino migrants—mainly nurses and doctors—came to Manitoba in the 1950s.
A decade later, the news agency noted, a surge of Filipino settlers arrived to work at garment companies when Winnipeg had a thriving clothing manufacturing industry.
More Filipinos came during the 1990s, the report stated, when the province introduced a nominee program that allowed residents to sponsor relatives.
Teen grand champion of Tuklas Talino
Ma-Buhay! tells the story of young Filipinos competing in a singing competition, a scene that Sevillo is very familiar with. Sevillo wrote the book and lyrics. Some songs were co-written with Joshua Caldo.
“I grew up in a Filipinx singing competition culture, notably in a yearly local Filipinx singing contest called Tuklas Talino [translation: discover talents] here in Winnipeg, where the Pantages Playhouse would be sold out as our community came together to watch the best of the best vocalists battle it out,” Sevillo recalls.
“I was most inspired by my community watching the abundance of vocal talents compete for the grand prize of $2,000, dreaming that one day, I would win that grand prize,” he says.
That happened when he was 17 years old as he was crowned the teen grand champion of Tuklas Talino in 2000.
“I found myself, before the days of YouTube, constantly watching old VHS tapes of past contestants from these competitions and thinking, ‘How wonderful it is that the Filipinx culture in Manitoba is unified in its love for singing?’ ”
Living out of a suitcase
Sevillo also relates that he became an actor, singer, dancer, and choreographer by chance.
“I was lucky enough to discover performing arts at Grant Park High School by accident, when a friend of mine tricked me into going to an extra curricular dance class. I feel like this industry chose me because after that one class, it was enough to change the trajectory of my life forever.”
The Winnipeg native reveals that as an artist, he resided in Toronto for nine years, lived out of a suitcase for 13 years touring across Canada, from Vancouver to Newfoundland, and finally settled back in his home city in 2015.
Sevillo says that he used to think that the best day of his life was when he got to dance next to Britney Spears many years ago in Winnipeg at her sold-out Femme Fatale concert.
Ma-Buhay! gives him an alternative perspective.
“Being on this journey of creating something like Ma-Buhay! for my community , for my family, for my parents, has truly been an amalgamation of many best days.”
Rainbow Stage will present Ma-Buhay! Filipinos Singing For Their Lives from June 27 to July 14, 2024. Tickets are available on the theatre company’s website. Sevillo developed the show with the support of Rainbow Stage and Prairie Theatre Exchange; original production orchestrations are by Joseph Aragon and Dane Bjornson. Follow Carlito Pablo on Twitter @carlitopablo and Joseph Sevillo on Instagram @jsevillo. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.