Carlo Magno: Making Melodies for the Filipino Catholic

His songs are among the most loved by Filipino Catholics, especially the young. A musician who professes to have received little formal training, Rev. Fr. Carlo Magno Marcelo Santos has composed more than 42 different Catholic religious songs. He has won a quadruple platinum award for his album “Jubileum: In the Fullness of Time” (from Star Records), a double platinum award for “Mother of All” (Viva Records), and a platinum award for “Only Selfless Love” (Universal Records).

His most popular songs–“The Jubilee Song,” “Only Selfless Love,” “Awit sa Ina ng Santo Rosaryo”– have won Awit Awards. He is currently the musical director of the San Carlos Seminary Optimi Choir, and is currently the director of the Theology Department of the San Carlos Seminary. Totus Tuus, Maria (TTM) had a chance to have a brief chat with this Filipino Catholic musician.

TTM: What motivates you to compose music for the Church?
FR. CARLO: My goal as a pastoral liturgical musician is to help today’s young generation appreciate old, classical Church music, such as Latin music. The Gregorian Chants, for example, are very much a treasure. They are a heritage that the younger generation should appreciate. Popular church music is transient. It is temporary. What is popular now will be forgotten after a few years because most of it really is pop music, music that is in tune for today, but today only. It’s unlike old Church classical music, like the Gregorian Chant, that will always be lasting. My goal, though, is to present old music in a fresh perspective, in a musical style that–in a way–fuses the old classical style with a new approach that the youth can appreciate. The young find it hard to adapt to old music, but I have found that it is easy for old music to adapt to the current form appreciated by the young.

TTM: How do you go about composing a song?
FR. CARLO: First of all, composing songs is not my hobby. I consider it really more as a mission. I was not trained to be a musician–I do not have much formal training in music. My break came when one time, during the summer of my second year in high school, the Immaculate Conception Parish in Pasig needed an organist and offered ten free lessons to those who would volunteer. I volunteered, primarily because of the free lessons. From initially ten boys who joined the lessons, only two of us finished (the course)–myself, and my best friend who is now a doctor and still plays in churches in the United States. I began playing for the church in my third year of high school.

TTM: What kind of musical exposure did you receive in the seminary? FR. CARLO: In the seminary we have liturgical music courses. I was also a member of the seminary choir on my fourth year of college. We were taught to appreciate the choral classics, the traditional old Church music. I always challenge the seminarians now not to lose touch with traditional Church music, because nowadays, it seems that many seminaries are losing this; Latin music is nowadays very, very rare.

TTM: How about formal training in musical composition? FR. CARLO: I studied composition during summers in the seminary, but mostly I still learned through coaching and personal effort. I would consider myself still lacking in the discipline of music–I do not fully know all the sets of musical rules, despite some of the training I have already received. In a way though, it is also advantageous since I create unconventional melodies and harmonies that are really unique, which learned musicians would not normally even consider.

TTM: How would you describe your style of music?
FR. CARLO: I’ve been really exposed to the two Italian musical groups of the Focolore movement, of which I am a member. The style of those two groups is avant-garde, modern, and very broad–I would call it “world music” since they try out so many kinds of music from different countries, like African music. That’s why I lean towards world music and different musical approaches. I also like opera that is presented in a modern way. That’s why a lot of my music may sound non-conservative, avant-garde and modern. I like to experiment. I like to challenge my audience. I like my songs to sound different. If given a free hand, most of my music is for the young. I like my music to be adventurous and interesting.

TTM: Do you work alone when you compose your songs, or do you receive help from others?
FR. CARLO: Lately, I’ve grown somewhat lazy. I work closely with an arranger who happens to be my friend as well. Almost all of my songs now are arranged by my friend. He requests that I sing it for him a capella (without accompaniment), which I record then email to him. Then he arranges it, putting all the difficult choral progressions. The sound is beautiful because, as much as possible, he does not want to repeat chords. The problem with this is that I can’t play the song because I neither played it nor developed the chords myself. But that’s all right, since I also have a lot of work.

TTM: You’ve handled numerous choirs in your musical career. How would you describe your style in handling choirs?
FR. CARLO: I am really more patient when it comes to training choirs and other people because I know I do not know much. I don’t shout at and scold choir members since I know that I have nothing to brag about in the first place.

TTM: What was your first “musical hit”? FR. CARLO: The “Jubilee Song” which I composed for the Jubilee Year was really the song that, in a way, gave me a name. After that, I never stopped composing. Most of my songs are actually commissioned by the Church–the Church, or certain groups, request me to write a specific song for a specific occasion. As I’ve mentioned, music for me is work, a mission, and not a hobby. So, if am lonely I do not write music. If I am happy, I do not write music. (laughs)

TTM: How do you go about composing a song you have been commissioned to write?
FR. CARLO: Every time I am commissioned I wait for the inspiration. But I do my homework. I sit down with the people who are requesting the song. I talk to them and try to understand their objectives. I ask for reading materials. I research. For example, if the song will be based on a document of the Holy Father, I read it first. After doing my preparation, I wait for the inspiration because sometimes when I force myself to sit down and compose, the music that comes out is a result of my own personal effort, which could either be too simple or too complicated. The current version of the “Jubilee Song,” for example, is not the “Jubilee Song” that I first wrote.

TTM: Tell us more about the “Jubilee Song.”
FR. CARLO: The first song that was supposed to be the “Jubilee Song” was a bit complicated because it was based on the document Tertio Millennio Adveniente and I wanted to put so many different elements. The night after I submitted the first version, I got the inspiration for the “Jubilee Song.” Before going to bed, there was this melody that kept repeating itself in my head, and in 45 minutes I was able to write down the song in its current form. So that’s how the “Jubilee Song” came to be. Since then, I’ve been very busy coming up with commissioned works. It’s very rare for me to come up with an inspirational work–a work that I was not commissioned to do–except for “Awit sa Ina ng Santo Rosaryo.” It was made as the theme song of the Year of the Rosary.

TTM: Tell us more about “Awit sa Ina ng Santo Rosaryo.”
FR. CARLO: Before “Awit sa Ina ng Santo Rosaryo,” I have never written a song about Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary. I wanted to write a song about Our Lady of the Rosary–I wasn’t commissioned to do that–so the song is very personal for me. So far it is my favorite. I think it is the best song I have ever written. The song speaks of our life in terms of living the mysteries of the rosary. My favorite line is the very last line of the song: “Ihatid mo kami sa langit ng Amang mapagmahal.” (“Bring us to the Heaven of the most loving God.”)

TTM: One of the common issues that choirs encounter in the parish is the struggle between the call for community singing, and the call for beautiful, choral music. Sometimes, we tend to equate community singing with singing very simple songs, and not songs with elaborate yet beautiful choral arrangements.
FR. CARLO: When some priests give the prescription that everybody should be singing during the mass as prescribed by liturgy, sometimes they fail to communicate with their constituents the theology behind the liturgy. There are really instances in the mass when the people cannot sing and so they should not sing because they cannot sing.

TTM: What are those instances?
FR. CARLO: Communion for example. They cannot sing because they are receiving Jesus and they have to talk to Jesus. There are also parts that would require silence, which is a liturgical gesture. Sometimes we equate community participation with just singing, which is not the case. You also have to give the people moments of silence during the mass for them to talk to the Lord and meditate. We must invite the people to actively participate, but participation does not mean by singing only. It can also mean a silent prayer; it can also mean meaningful gestures. The important thing is a deep, personal connection with the Lord. That’s why even a 30-minute daily mass, even without singing, can be so meaningful.

TTM: How would you evaluate the current state of Church music in the Philippines today?
FR. CARLO: We’re producing a lot of good music for the liturgy. But I think the most urgent need now is to provide choirs with good spiritual training and formation. We have to help them understand the teachings of the Church on liturgy because they are leaders, ministers. They are supposed to lead the people in singing, in prayer–they greatly influence the liturgical celebration. If a choir is out of tune, the congregation is greatly affected. Likewise, if the choir puts on a concert during mass, it also affects the congregation because of the lack of participation. It’s not enough that you know the notes. If you don’t feel the music, especially the spiritual aspect of it, then people will hear the music’s technique but they will not recognize the music’s soul. The problem is that many choirs receive little support in terms of funding and spiritual formation from their own parish. But they are very important ministers! Can you imagine a Sunday mass without a choir? It’s terrible.

TTM: Any suggestions to musicians, especially those who actively serve the Church?
FR. CARLO: A strong communion with the Lord is the prerequisite of any minister, of any liturgical musician. Music is the expression of one’s soul. It is your duty as a minister to nurture a strong communion with God. If you are a choir member or church organist, it is your commitment to God and to the people that you should nurture a strong relationship with God. The music that they hear from you should come from your soul connected deeply with God.

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