Edmonton, Alberta

 “It’s not in what he accomplished himself but in what he was able to make other people accomplish..”

By Ida Beltran-Lucila

Philippine Arts Council

One of the regular collaborators of Philippine Arts Council is the Koro Filipino, a long standing choral group in Edmonton. The Koro Filipino was formed out of a love for karaoke and parties, and has since evolved to a church and show choir. Pivotal to this evolution, is the work and influence of one Emilio Villareal, also known as Maestro Mil.

Intrigued with the story of a prolific artist in the Philippines migrating to Canada, I was fortunate to have spent some time with three of his children in my research for the upcoming documentary Paglalayag: the Philippines to Canada Journey. I was privileged to glean a picture of this man both as an artist and as a father. Emilio Villareal (1920-2011) from Cebu, is one many consider a musical genius. His musical career spanned several roles and decades. He was a prolific songwriter, whose compositions are classics of Cebuano music. He was also a musical director, arranger and an orchestra conductor. 

Born to a family of musicians, his father was his very first tutor, teaching him classical pieces and notations. Eventually, they came up with their very first original song, Alaut, with lyrics by his father Mariano, and music by Mil. At age 11, he was invited to be the organist in the Basilica del Sto Niño. After high school and with the onset of the war, he wrote his very first love song, Lusapon Beach, invoking the memories of a distant home. He also became the school Band Director of the University of San Carlos (1946-48). On the verge of pursuing medical studies, he was presented a generous offer by dyRC (radio station) to be the musical director and staff pianist. He was the musical director for the Cebu Broadcasting Company for over 40 years, and it was this role that cemented his career status from a local to a national one. With the advent of television, he assumed the role of musical director for Channel 7’s “Sali Kami”. He was also the band leader of the Aristocrats Orchestra and dyRC Orchestra.

A prolific writer who himself has lost count of the number of his compositions, he wrote theme songs for radio drama, the most popular of which was Bisan sa Damgo Lang sung by singing sensation Pilita Corrales. Other favourites were: Langit Ug Yuta, Veronica, Usa Ka Higayon, Nahadlok Ako, or Kahibulongan, to name a few.

In 1990, Mil and wife Enriqueta moved to Edmonton to be with their children and grandchildren. Faced with the common adjustments any immigrant deals with, he once again found solace and purpose with his music by working with the Philippine Choral, now Koro Filipino, from 1991-2000, and the VisMin (Visayas/Mindanao Association) Choir, from 1991-2010. For both groups, he shared his expertise by acting as musical director, mentoring and providing musical assistance, and at times composing songs for various events. He led the Philippine Choral in their landmark concert at the Winspear. 

He eventually had to give up working with the local choral groups due to health reasons. He, however, continued to play in churches and during Mass, a commitment made since he started playing for the church at age 11, and an acknowledgment that the Lord had given him a special gift with which he, in turn, would use to serve God and His people. Even in his later years, he continued to write songs, this time of a religious nature. In 2011, he penned his last composition, “Awit ni Dodong”, a final legacy to Cebuano culture and the arts.

A career of almost 80 years, Mil has received numerous recognition: by the United States Information Service and the Clarion Magazine as Most Outstanding Piano (Jazz) Player (1958); Cebu Pop Music Festival Winner (1980); Most Outstanding Visayan Song Composer, awarded by the City Government of Cebu (1986); Most Outstanding Musical Arranger, awarded by the City Government of Cebu (1987); Outstanding Contribution to the Development of Radio Broadcasting in Cebu, awarded by the World Broadcasting Corporation (1995); Recognition in Pioneer Radio Entertainment, awarded by the Cebu Organization of Media Entertainers (1996); VisMin Awit Presidential Award (1998); Hiyas (Gem) Awards by Karilagan Dance Society (2001); 2010 Halad Honoree. And posthumously, the Garbo sa Sugbo Lifetime Award, and the Mabuhi Ka Sugbuanon, from the Province of Cebu (2012).

Emilio Villareal passed away in 2011, and left behind his wife of 60 years, Enriqueta Orcullo Villareal, nine children, 21 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. He is greatly remembered by family, colleagues and mentees, as a man of kindness, generosity and humility. The extraordinary singer Dulce credits him for her phenomenal rise in the music industry. Mil is a man of great legacy, both in his character and musical prodigy. Artie Atienza, one of the founders of Koro Filipino, stated in his eulogy, “Mil’s greatness, as far as I’m concerned, was not in what he accomplished himself but in what he was able to make other people accomplish. He inspired people. He encouraged people. He gave them all the support that they would need to do great things.” And as said by Schubert, another prolific composer, “Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same.” Such was the life of one Emilio Villareal, from Cebu.

* This article was published in the September 2020 issue of the Alberta Filipino Journal.

** To read more about other stories in the Paglalayag series, click here. To submit a story of migration, use the Story Submission online form.

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