March - April 2008
Himig Pinoy

Soundtrack of a nation

Based on an interview with Noel Cabangon by Jaileen F. Jimeno

DO WE have anything we can rightfully call Filipino music these days? Right now, anything written by a Filipino, whether in English or Filipino or Bisaya or other dialects, is labeled as such. But the quality of our music now pales in comparison to what we used to churn out in the past.

Like everything else in our planet, Filipino music evolves. It moves with the times, adapts to changes, is influenced by its environment. Filipino music, you see, is about what we feel as a nation, what we are going through, and what we hope will happen. Culture is about how you live; you cannot separate a writer from his environment.

But there are three things that remain constant: angry rock music, emotional love songs, and the recording companies’ raison d’etre: profit. To explain the first two is this fact: The young is the core market, whatever your product.

No matter what society is going through, we have always been dominated mostly by a young generation. The youth form the bulk of our population, and so we always have a powerful young market. That is why love songs, be they silly or tragic, form part of every generation. Teenagers are either falling in or out of love, going through the identity crisis phase, dealing with raging hormones. If you were a teenager in the ‘50s, you probably sang “Ang Tangi Kong Pag-ibig (My Only Love)” a thousand times during those harana nights. Those who hit their teens in the ‘80s probably will remember songs by Odette Quesada and singers like Jam Morales, Joey Albert, and Regine Velasquez. Those who were teenagers in the ‘90s grew up to edgier love songs by the Eraserheads and other bands, but there were also “boy band” music and more of Regine Velasquez.

SINGER/songwriter Noel Cabangon. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

Conversely, we have a lot of young writers right now. That’s why today’s radio is dominated mostly by music by the young, for the young. Surveys show that most radio stations now play more Filipino than foreign music. This is helped mainly by the revival of old songs. New bands are singing songs by the Apo Hiking Society, almost three decades after these first hit the airwaves.

My only disappointment is that the airwaves are also littered with some songs that can be considered trash. There are songs that are mediocre, that do not merit being produced and listened to. The writing is faulty, the lines are weak. Some songs have melodies that can be improved. Good music involves poetry, lyrical metaphors, words that create images in the mind without much effort. There should be no room for trite lines. Good writing, good music, involves profound thought.

The current social condition has caused the creation of “noontime show” music as well. This does nothing but excite viewers while a TV contest is going on. Other than that, it has no meaning, serves no other purpose, and contains no value. To me, it’s music for people who have no jobs, who are attracted to the concept of winning fast cash, which is a reflection of poverty in our country. It also serves as our babysitting tool, mesmerizing our children for hours.

What concerns me is that this type of music, while it does not dominate the charts, has strong influence. This music that our next generation is growing up to inculcates no good moral values, does not show how one should conduct himself, how to live right, how to think critically. And to me, that is the essence of music: To make people see things differently, to create images, see the world from a new perspective.

MUSIC AND lyrics are often about a person’s personal experience, what society was like during one’s formative years. I guess that’s why my music often talks about social issues because my thinking was shaped in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I was a choir member in high school. That’s also when I got my first crack at songwriting. I won first place and P30 in a competition. The money was good enough by those days’ standards, but looking back, my love song was not. After that I became active in the anti-Marcos movement, and that is where I draw my inspiration when I write now.

I joined the music industry in 1982, playing folk songs — original and borrowed, foreign and local — like I still do now. Of course, my music is not as lucrative as other types of music. It doesn’t even get enough attention from radio stations. I am just glad I was able to cross over to the mainstream music industry, after “Kanlungan (Cradle)” was used in a commercial.

Anyway, when I turned professional, the fame and fortune of popular Pinoy rock bands that had their heyday in the ‘70s were already winding down. What followed were girlie joints and their music. Then the “minus one” tapes came along, and that had everyone singing at home and every street corner. To those who were born after the Edsa revolution, that is the precursor of the “videoke,” which now keeps whole neighborhoods awake when there are occasions worthy of late-night carousing — and in our culture, there are many, indeed.

The mid to late ‘80s gave rise to alternative music — alternative in the sense that it was like rock music, an alternative to pop music as sung by the likes of Martin Nievera, Dingdong Avanzado, Gary Valenciano, and some boy bands. Their kind of songs dominated the playlists then. We also had new wave and punk rock, as that was what was popular in the West then. Then the ‘90s saw the bands reappearing, led by the Eraserheads and rock music became stronger. It must have been caused by changes in the market, a change in the taste of the young people who were listening to the radio, watching the videos.

The trend always changes. We opened this century with acoustic music taking over bars, with Paolo Santos and MYMP. What they offered was different from the acoustic music of the ‘60s and ‘70s. For this decade, it’s pop music rendered through acoustic, folk tradition.

THE secret to Bayan Ko’s longevity, Cabangon thinks, is the purity and universality of its message. Its melody is so Filipino. It embodies the laments of a people longing to be free, of love of country. [photo by Jaileen Jimeno]

TO ME, the golden era of Filipino music was the ‘70s, at the height of the Marcos dictatorship. While the media were stifled, unable to report fully and freely, Filipino music was in flight. This decade marked the birth of the “Manila sound.” This was the era of the likes of Hotdogs, Boyfriends, and Cinderella, plus Apo. Their music remains with us, a staple during those videoke nights. This was also the decade of Pinoy rock, when we had bands like Maria Cafra, and not to forget, Juan de la Cruz, which was composed of now rock legends Joey ‘Pepe’ Smith, Mike Hanopol, and Wally Gonzales.

But what also set the music of the ‘70s apart was that it was heavy with social commentary. This was, after all, the era of the Vietnam War, and with music from the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. With the stifling local environment, songs spoke of freedom, peace, and social justice. Our composers responded with music that provided contexts of our own, through folk music that talked about civil liberties, the lives of people, about peace, in a manner that was so poetic. In times of despair, artists often come out with their best works. When there are no major upheavals, societies relax and artists look for other sources of creativity.

So sure, the ‘70s had the usual love songs, but these spoke of love with passion with deep angst and emotion. Who could forget, for instance, love songs like George Canseco’s “Kapantay ay Langit (As High as Heaven),” “Kailangan Kita (I Need You),” “Kung Ako’y Iiwan Mo (If You Leave Me),” “Kastilyong Buhangin (Sand Castle),” or “Ngayon at Kailanman (Now and Forever)?” Other love songs contained social commentaries, like Asin’s “Himig ng Pag-ibig (Love’s Hymn).” These talked about love, but they made people think, they made people reflect, not just about how they felt, but also about events that were happening around them.

This continued up to the days of Edsa 1. While the ‘80s music was heavily pop, there was an alternative music scene that was being held up by the likes of Joey Ayala, Inang Laya, Asin, Paul Galang, and yes, even Apo with its socio-political songs.

There was “Karaniwang Tao (Ordinary People)” and “Tayo’y Mga Pinoy (We Are Pinoys),” which talked about nationalism. While these were sung by an older generation, the lyrics speak of a sentiment that remains true to this day. Asin also came out with “Masdan Mo ang Kapaligiran (Gaze All Around You),” decades before global warming became a buzzword.

If there was one good thing the Marcoses did, it was probably the Metro Manila Popular Music Festival or Metropop, which started in the late 1970s. This contest enabled writers and composers to be heard, to have a venue. It was a forum that celebrated the talents of the likes of Ryan Cayabyab, George Canseco, Freddie Aguilar, Nonong Pedero, Willy Cruz, Nonoy Gallardo, Jose Mari Chan, Louie Ocampo, Gary Granada, and a lot more.

The first Metropop even produced “Anak (Child)” by Freddie Aguilar — the biggest hit to come out of the ‘70s. It didn’t win first prize, by the way, but it became a monster hit worldwide. To some it may sound Celtic, to some, Japanese. But if you listen to its melodic pattern or structure, it is a bit Western.

It really has everything to make people listen to it. The vocals, the lyrics, the language, the melancholy it evokes, once combined, were what made it a universal hit. It is still being played around the world, in various languages and genre, although I doubt if they all know it is Filipino music, that it was written and sung by a Filipino.

WHICH BRINGS me to one of my points: there is nothing today to distinguish our music as singularly Filipino. Our colonial past has made us vulnerable to Western influence, and its imprint will remain with us. We are also a very young nation, and this makes us vulnerable to the influx of other, more modern culture.

For example, the ‘60s produced instrumental bands like RJ and the Riots and the Hi-jacks, but their music and style were mostly influenced by the Beatles, the Ventures, and other similar foreign bands. By that time, too, some bands were beginning to hone their skills in Olongapo, providing entertainment for U.S. servicemen. They began by singing American songs, but later, original Filipino music emerged from Olongapo, and bands also catered to local audience. Freddie Aguilar is one of the artists who began his career there.

The music of our forefathers, if sung, often means a chorale rendition for the culturati, at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Which is sad, in a way. Our indigenous music, our old songs, which are part of our culture, are not promoted the way we do current music. In countries like Indonesia, you will sense the way they continue to hold on to their traditional music. The composers blend it with their modern music.

Should we blame record companies for this? Well, they invest in any music that sells, and that’s that. Culture and social values — those aren’t part of their consciousness. They’re not there to push an agenda like nation-building or promoting Filipino culture. They are there to sell more records and improve their bottom line. They value music based on its commercial appeal, and not much else. That is why you hear a cacophony of sounds that are alien to many listeners. We continue to borrow, re-arrange, and modify music from other countries, whatever will sell.

Still, one of the few songs that have survived the changing of the times (and a fickle market) is “Bayan Ko,” which was composed in 1928, during the continuing struggle against the Americans. It was revived in the late ‘70s and sung all the way up to Edsa 1; today I hear it being sung again. The secret to its longevity I think is the purity and universality of its message. Its melody is so Filipino. It embodies the laments of a people longing to be free, of love of country. It has proven to be more versatile than other songs of its kind, even those written after the first Edsa revolution.

Some of our artists are fighting to keep our old music alive, or at least the “Filipino-ness” of our music, by fusing Western music with our local and indigenous music. Credit here should go to Grace Nono, Bob Aves, Edru Abraham, Joey Ayala.

Then again, some music styles are not eternal. What man would tell a girl these days, “Mamahalin kita maging hanggang sa dulo ng walang hanggan (I’ll love you until the end of endless time)?” You’d think twice before using that as a pick-up line, and most probably you’d soon drop the idea. That is also one reason why the kundiman (traditional love songs) has been relegated to chorale groups and cultural presentations. They are past their time, music has evolved, and will continue to evolve. Even our traditional Filipino clothes are gone, and resurface only during events that call for Filipino “costumes.”

MAYBE THE present scarcity in good music is rooted in the fact that the current generation, having grown up with personal computers and computer games, is more individualistic. These young people are less social, less focused on social issues. But I expect more from the next one, those who are teenagers today, who are growing up and being shaped by the political instability around them. This is a good thing because they see rallies and know that life isn’t just about going to malls. They will raise children, the next generation, with the values they are learning today.

It is up to writers, composers, and singers to advocate change or help mold the character of the young through their music. It will also help if there are organizations that will nurture our young talents, who will put forward Filipino culture through music. After all, music, or culture, should not just be for those who are in love.

I can’t do that anymore, speak to the young. I can still set up the audio box and tie my shoelaces, thank you, but the generational gap is getting wider. I would sound preachy. The existing and emerging writers will have to do that — speak to, and for, their generation. The message has to be delivered by someone from this generation, by someone who talks and dresses like them. Young people want to listen to young people, whose taste appeals to them. I do appear in schools and reach out to young people sometimes, but that happens only whenever a school has a theme about nationalism, patriotism, the environment.

I think composers who write socially relevant songs should struggle to be in the mainstream. This is the arena where majority of Filipinos are. We should not be content to be just in the sidelines, in the tributaries. The condition may not be as friendly as we want it to be, but what’s the use of preaching to the converted? If you want to fight the status quo, then music with meaning must be heard.

We do have good bands and songwriters. Rico Blanco, Ely Buendia, and Bamboo Mañalac are just some of the better songwriters. My son, who is 15, listens to Bamboo (the band and the singer/composer). I like the fact that the band tried to stir pride in our race through its song “Pinoy Ako.” It also has an original sound. Bamboo has done a cover of my former band’s song, “Tatsulok (Triangle),” which calls for a reversal of the country’s existing social order. But I wonder sometimes if the young understand that song and its message, and what it means.

As of now we are polarized as a nation. I’m expecting something good to come out of this. In terms of music, at least.