The Late, Surprising 21st Century Success of ‘Rosas Pandan’

There are other Filipino songs that are far better known on the international scene. There is “Dahil sa Iyo” or “Paru-Parung Bukid,” or even Sylvia la Torre’s signature “Sa Kabukiran.” In the last two decades, however, a new, lesser known song has attracted and gained an unprecedented international following, especially among choirs, glee clubs and choral groups. And that is “Rosas Pandan” (RP).
The Philippine Madrigal Singers, one of many choirs around the world that have added  Rosas Pandan  to their repertory.

The Philippine Madrigal Singers, one of many choirs around the world that have added Rosas Pandan to their repertory.

RP is supposedly a (Visayan/Cebuano) “folk song.” However, the creation of Cebuano composer Domingo “Minggoy” Lopez with(Tagalog) lyrics by Levi Celerio.  Unlike “folk songs” whose provenance are unknown and thus in the public domain, RP was composed, is registered and thus protected by copyright. 

First off, let’s get a few rudimentary items out of the way.

What is pandan really?  Pandan is a herbaceous tropical plant that grows in Southeast-Asia.  In Chinese, it is known as “fragrant plant” because of its unique, sweet aroma; but it has no relation to the panda or to pan de sal. The cultivated plant features upright bright green leaves, and it's the leaves that are desired for cooking quite a few Southeast-Asian dishes. 

Pandan leaves are used to lend a unique taste and aroma to some savory dishes (such as chicken and sticky rice), but mainly it is used to flavor desserts and even some drinks. The leaves impart an aromatic note and also give the dishes some visual appeal. 


The song in question, on the other hand, tells the simple story of a pretty lass called Rosas Pandan who comes down from the mountains to participate in the local fiesta, thereby catching everyone’s eye.  (No truth to the rumor that she had a brother named Buko, but there is a Dodong who appears as a suitor in the song.) 

It appears that Rosas Pandan was originally written by Lopez as the theme for a zarzuela (in Visayan) with a libretto by Piux Kabajar, called “Rosas Pandan.”  The zarzuela never saw the light of day, but the song caught the attention of the Manila recording world in 1973.  Strangely, however, the first known exposure of the song is the Tagalog version by Pilita Corrales, which was quite odd since Corrales was originally a Cebuana.  But then, to honor her Visayan roots, a Visayan version of the song eventually came out later. 

Cover of album of Pilita Corrales, Asia’s Queen of Song, who first popularized the song.

Cover of album of Pilita Corrales, Asia’s Queen of Song, who first popularized the song.

I tried to reach out to composer Lopez’s daughter who had provided some backstory in a Philippine Star story dated January 2015 to clear up the seeming oddity, but I never got a reply back.  Is it possible that those were Lopez’s original Visayan lyrics for his zarzuela?  Very likely. 

Here are the lyrics of the song in five different iterations:


In 1992, the Tagalog lyricist Levi Celerio was declared a National Artist of the Philippines.  Celerio’s another claim to fame was landing in the Guinness Book of World Records, recognized as the first “leaf-musician” in recorded history; instead of using a comb with paper as is sometimes done, Celerio used a leaf to produce music.  However, it is not known if he used pandan leaves for his special talent. 

Levi Celerio showing off his unique leaf-playing talent. From:

Levi Celerio showing off his unique leaf-playing talent. From:

Following are over twenty versions of Rosas Pandan, sung in at least four continents (including a Russian boys choir.  I have noted the number of singers where relevant.)  These are all presently viewable on YouTube):

1.       The original Tagalog version by Pilita Corrales: (there is no visual to this video.)  

2.       The Spanish:

3.       The original Bisayan (solo vocals; singer uncredited):

4.       2002 – Cultural Cup Competition, China -

5.       Dec 5, 2004 – Philippine Madrigal Singers (@ a concert in Seoul, So. Korea)

6.       July 2008 – Lala Vocal Ensemble (Austrian quartet @ the 5th World Choir Games in Graz, Austria)   -

7.       2009 – New Mexico High School All-state Mixed Choir

8.       Dec 12, 2009 – Spanish choir, Los Corrales de Buelna (40 voices, soloist: Loli Rojo.  Sung in Tagalog; performed at Villava, Navarre, Spain)     

9.       Feb 2010 – Moscow Boys’ Choir (45 voices)

10.    May 20, 2010 – Dawson High School Choir (Pearland, Texas; about 100 voices)  -

11.    Dec 2011 – Jeju National University Choir (So. Korea; 32 voices) ) -

12.    Feb 2012 – Univ. of British Columbia, Canada (48 voices) -

13.    August 2012 – Brazilian choir: Associação Canto Coral Porto Alegre (Porto Alegre, Brasil, 16 voices)

14.    Dec 2012 – Univ. of North Texas College of Music (Denton, Texas) :

15.    Dec 2012 – a not-to-be-believed rendition of RP w/ Pilita Corrales and some horsing around with Elizabeth Ramsey:

16.    Feb 2013 –  MMEA Central District Choir, Worcester, MA (nearly 175 voices)  -

17.    January 2014 – Pacific Ridge School Choir (Carlsbad, CA) -

18.    March 2014 – Brown University Choir (76 voices) -

19.    Sept 2014 – San Diego (CA) Mandolin Orchestra (25 musicians) -

20.    March 18, 2015 - Aloha High School Choir, Aloha, Oregon (42 voices) 

21.    Nov 2015 – Macleans College Choir  (Auckland, New Zealand) -

22.    July 9, 2016 –Ensambal Vocal de Medellin at the XV Festival Coral de Medellín, Columbia  (26 voices)

Much of the belated success of Rosas Pandan as an international choral favorite goes to the intricate vocal arrangements by George Gemora Hernandez, a fixture in the San Francisco Bay Area choral and classical music scene.  Hernandez is a graduate of the University of the Philippines School of Music in Piano, Composition and Choral Conducting, 1981; he holds another degree in Vocal Performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where he is  also on the faculty.  In addition to the SF Conservatory job, Hernandez also teaches at his own George Hernandez Academy of Music in Walnut Creek, California and is also the music director of the Saringhimig Singers choir of the Bay Area.   

How did the Rosas Pandan’s popularity come about?  Hernandez recalled that in 1995, he was at the Festival Internacional de Cant Coral Catalunya Center, an international choral festival at Puig-Reig, a small town north of Barcelona.  Somehow, he was hurriedly asked if he could put together an easy song, preferably, a new original piece for all the choirs gathered together, comprising more than 1,000 voices, to sing at the close as a celebration of joy and music.  He acceded, and using Rosas Pandan came to him as an inspiration. Thus was born this now world-famous arrangement of the rather “newish” Filipino choral favorite.

Musical director George Gemora Hernandez (Source: facebook)

Musical director George Gemora Hernandez (Source: facebook)

The extraordinary success the song has enjoyed in the world’s choral community can be attributed to the dynamics of the arranged material itself.  Hernandez’s arrangements have made the piece very flashy and buoyant.  They allow for vocal fireworks for all the sections of the choir to contrast, complement with and counterpoint each other.  Choir directors love that maelstrom and so does Hernandez, who enjoys the royalties for his dynamic arrangements of the song.

If you listen to some of the above selections, you’ll note that the non-Filipino singers have captured the perfect or almost-perfect enunciation and pronunciation of the lyrics.  How was this achieved?  The song charts come with a universal phonetic guide, which eases the task.  The Malay languages (to which Tagalog/Pilipino and Bisayan belong) use mostly short vowel sounds and the singers perform from a preset text; hence (most of) the foreign singers can easily pick up the proper pronunciations and intonations of the otherwise foreign lyrics of the song. 

Hernandez’s choir, the Saringhimig Singers, is always looking for new voices.  If you live in the Bay Area and are interested in joining, please contact George Hernandez at (415) 608-1226, to arrange an audition time.   

Myles A. Garcia

Myles A. Garcia

Myles A. Garcia is a Correspondent and regular contributor to His newest book, “Of Adobe, Apple Pie, and Schnitzel With Noodles – An Anthology of Essays on the Filipino-American Experience and Some. . .”, features the best and brightest of the articles Myles has written thus far for this publication.  The book is presently available on (Australia, USA, Canada, Europe, and the UK).  

Myles’ two other books are:  Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies (latest edition, 2016); and Thirty Years Later. . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes published last year, also available from  

Myles is also a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) for whose Journal he has had two articles published; a third one on the story of the Rio 2016 cauldrons, will appear in this month’s issue -- not available on amazon.    

Finally, Myles has also completed his first full-length stage play, “23 Renoirs, 12 Picassos, . . . one Domenica”, which was given its first successful fully Staged Reading by the Playwright Center of San Francisco. The play is now available for professional production, and hopefully, a world premiere on the SF Bay Area stages.  

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