Coming home one afternoon, the Bee Gees’ “Words” warmly greeted my arrival. The gentle notes, the simple lyrics, reminded me of a time several weeks back where I spent an afternoon amidst rolling hills in Virginia in very amiable company, one in particular whose memory I will hold dear forever. I am saddened to say that I have only met Tito Rico Ortanez once. I met him a month ago, on a sunny Saturday afternoon at the residence of Mr. and Mrs. Enderes. We were there to get to know one another, families that will be soon be united forever by the union of their loved one, coming together at last. There I met him and his beautiful wife Badette. Happiness bounced off the walls of the house as we shared stories, joined in karaoke, did a little cha-cha, and tickled the ivories of a grand instrument, the music wafting through the air like a cool, welcoming breeze on a hot, summery day. I remember asking him if he played. He remarked, ” a little”.
Despite having recorded many albums and performed all over, Tito Rico never allowed for boastfulness to seep in and taint his soul. After lingering in the background, watching my feeble attempts at the piano, he sat down and played. I had heard of his talents before I met him, but to watch him play and be in the presence of so beautiful a music, I was profoundly mesmerized and deeply touched. Emotion and passion flowed through his fingers to capture the notes of the piano and gently breathed life into them – the stories to be told by the notes are infinite. That day, Tito Rico told the story of life and its struggles and how we should try to overcome them. I wish I knew Tagalog so I can grasp a deeper understanding of his musical poetry, but the little that I know, the short moment that I shared with him, left an indelible impression of a man whose passion and love emanates not only from his masterpieces but from his being. He walked a path of togetherness, of unity.
At a time when conditions in the world strive hard to separate us, to sever any semblance of relationships we might have or can have, Tito Rico strove in the opposite direction: he strove for unity. He greeted his soon-to-be nephew-in-law, Adrian, with Bahasa Indonesia. He passionately discussed the issues of the world with his soon-to-be nephew, not for argument’s sake, but for understanding. Through his music and activism, he sought to bring together the cultures and faiths he grew to love: Filipino, American, Jewish, Christian, Islamic. A song on his new album, “In the Name of Religion”*, provokes us to question what faith really means for us and what kind of path will our faith lead us to. He was born a Catholic but moved on to the next world as a man of all faiths. He was able to find enlightenment in all of them, commonalities that should bring us together as we continue on our paths in this world.
Life is not an eternal matter, we are only here for a moment. What I have learned from Tito Rico is the importance of how we make of the moments we are so blessed to have here. When I met him, Tito Rico was already diagnosed with terminal cancer. He never let his ailment prevent him from enjoying the precious moments we all tend to take for granted and because of that, to me, he did not appear to be sickly at all. Instead, he presented an image of strength, of endurance, of vitality. He strummed the guitar like he always did. He sang his heart out during “Country Road” and “Words”.
Our paths here all intertwine, we do not journey alone, we all have stories to share that can enrich our visions and empower our dreams. If we create barriers against one another, on the basis of ethnicity, of religion, of culture: Indonesian, Muslim, Christian, Filipino, Padang, Jawa, Chinese, Jewish, American then we have severely limited our experiences, severely stinted our own growth. If God had wanted all of us to be the same, He would have done so.
Thank you, Tito Rico, for reminding all of us of the importance of unity and compassion. May you finally rest in peace.
Inna Lillahi Wa Inna Ilaihi Rajiun
To Allah we belong and to Him we shall return.
Please accept our deepest condolences and may God give strength to his family and friends who love him so dearly.