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|Sweet sweet music... an American reflection on Filipino music|
The Filipino people are deservedly famous for the quality of their music and musicians. The superiority of Filipino performers is reflected in their continued deployment as part of the international diaspora. Whether you're talking about a folkie duo singing Simon and Garfunkel in Singapore, a string quartet performing Mozart on the balcony of an elegant Sydney five-star, a jazz combo grooving in Shanghai, or a show band rocking a bistro in Tokyo, the rhythm is solid and the execution flawless. (See Leavin' on a Jetplane for a commentary on the plight of Filipinos working around the globe.)
As an American drawn to Filipino culture, not to mention a wannabe musicologist (they say you can know just enough about anything to be dangerous), I have long been fascinated by the relationship between American and Filipino popular music. As always, anything involving interaction between our two nations is a "special relationship" that operates at many levels.
The Philippines, of course, has a diverse musical tradition blending Eastern and Western influences. Traditional Philippine music integrated the indigenous music of pre-Hispanic times (think gongs and bamboo nose flutes) with music derived from the Spanish era. Both religious and secular Spanish influences are evident in the kundiman of the Tagalogs, the balitaw of the Visayans, and the dal'lot of the Ilocanos. What they share in common is a certain naïve sentimentality and melodious guitar accompaniments.
The coming of the Americans changed the musical landscape in the Philippines as it did everything else. Whatever its sins, one contribution of the American colonial era was the institutionalization of music as part of the educational curriculum. Filipino students in public schools learned vocal and instrumental performance, harmony, counterpoint, and composition - skills they used to create an independent Filipino musical tradition.
They used those same skills to (at first) imitate Western music and to (before long) create local versions of entire genres. Filipinos have sometimes been called "the Italians of Asia," reflective of their deep love of music of all types. When an Italian restaurant opened in Makati a few years ago featuring waltzing waiters singing musical comedy and light arias, about 200 people auditioned. And when open curtain calls were held for the local production of Miss Saigon, the first to be mounted in the developing world, 1,500 erstwhile singers showed up. Imelda's Cultural Center of the Philippines is the venue, and tickets are selling like hotcakes.
Speaking of Miss Saigon, when Cameron Macintosh was first casting the original London show, he traveled all around Southeast Asia looking for talent. However, he discovered that even established stars in Vietnam and other logical countries couldn't quite cut the mustard. It was only when he came to Manila that he hit the jackpot in the form of the inimitable Ms. Lea Salonga. (Later, stateside, Macintosh fought a battle with the American Actors' Union; they wanted to prevent her being in the Broadway show. He ended up issuing an ultimatum to the effect of "no Lea Salonga, no show." The opposition folded given the major league advance bookings. He has been more than vindicated both artistically and business-wise).
In fact, the Filipino people have so thoroughly adapted American music to suit Filipino ears and dancing feet that it's now hard to figure out where the red, white, and blue influence ends and the Filipino begins. Among the significant influences brought by Uncle Sam were the American dance hall, vaudeville, jazz, the Broadway musical, AM radio, juke boxes, and vinyl records. When my mother-in-law was growing up in Negros on a sugar plantation, she listened to Achilles Montinola and other local songsters singing Spanish love songs like "Sobre Las Olas" and "Sorrento". When the family moved to Manila after the War, the Spanish tradition followed, but accompanied by jukeboxes well-stocked with the likes of Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, and Tony Bennett. No wonder the favored older generation soundtrack in our Fil-Am household revolves around Old Blue Eyes and Julio Iglesias. In this nation of incurable romantics, pop ballads will always reign supreme (although the verdict is still out on the MTV generation given globalization and the sheer different-ness of modern pop music).
Filipinos assimilated American popular music not just by avidly listening to it, but by performing it. To cite just one example,1960's bands such as the Moonstrucks, Hijacks, and Electromaniacs popularized an eclectic blend drawing on American rock, with its own complex blend of influences (blues, gospel, boogies, country, and western).
Scene 1: In 1969, a Chicago-born rhythm and blues belter named Laverne Baker was touring with a USO show in Nam. Her somewhat faded glory was based on mid-fifties hits like Jim Dandy, Tweedle Dee, and I Cried a Tear. Like many American black artists of that era, her hits were consistently ripped off via pale imitations by white artists; her sales and popularity suffered significantly as a consequence.
Unfortunately, Ms. Baker contracted malaria, leading to an emergency medevac to Subic Bay. After recovery, she was asked to sing at the Officers' Club, something she liked so much she ended up hanging around for a couple of decades. She managed the club and entertained on weekends, although as far as records show she never ventured off base to perform in local venues. She also worked hard in the community and adopted numerous Amerasian kids. Later in life, Baker lost her legs to diabetes, but that didn't stop her from performing in stateside clubs at the age of 70, knocking 'em dead despite her thick Coke-bottle glasses and wheelchair-bound status.
Free Association (spurred by the mention of the white covers of Laverne Baker's hits): Not long after Ms. Baker landed in the Subic Bay Naval Station hospital, I found myself in military electronics school in lovely Biloxi, Mississippi, the primary appeal of which was that the Big Easy was just 90 miles down the highway. Most weekends I headed for New Orleans, snagging a cheap room at the 'Y' and hanging around with topless waitresses and longhairs knocking down Dixie longnecks at a horseshoe bar, grooving to da blues, and scarfing down oysters on the half shell and catfish po' boy sandwiches.
After years of listening to the Stones, Cream, Paul Butterfield and the like I finally realized that a lot of what I had thought were rock and roll songs were actually white boy ripoff versions of black blues. Before my Big Easy days I had thought "Love in Vain" was a Stones song and had no idea who Robert Johnson was.
I was shocked to learn that the Stones had swiped songs like Mannish Boy from Muddy Waters and Little Red Rooster from Howlin' Wolf. I started reading books on the blues by Samuel B. Charters and Paul Oliver, learning enough about Mississippi Delta Blues to guide me as I dug around the blues record shops in N'awleans, always in the blackest parts of town.
On the other hand, some of the Brits did give something back. Keith Richard played background guitar for Howlin' Wolf when he was way past his prime. Sonny Boy Williamson traveled to London about 1967, and recorded with the Yardbirds and the Animals; the former was a much better album, not surprisingly given the obvious contrast between Eric Burden on the one hand and "Slowhand" Eric Clapton on the other. Anyway, all the early "British Invasion" bands had listened to the blues, and learned a lot of their guitar techniques from those old '78s they had lugged around London in their youth.
Scene 2: I refer here to some rather blurry memories of a chaotic R&R (Rest and Recuperation) in early '70s Bangkok. Actually, it was more popularly referred to by GI's as I&I ("Intercourse and Intoxication"). The club was either the Pink Panther or Lucky Strike, with the mental imprint being that of a driving Motown beat of a high quality Filipino band playing songs by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Temptations (I believe this same flashback may have flared up in Eva from Cebu, but that's the way it goes).
Most Saigon bars at the time also featured Filipino bands, with the two most popular tunes being "We Gotta Get Outa This Place" and "Proud Mary". Genres varied, with some bands specializing in Beatles or Stones (close your eyes and you were listening to the four moptops or Mick), others deep and harmonious soul (close your eyes and there's Otis Redding), and others honky tonk (close your eyes and there's Buck Owens). Regardless of genre, the music was always high quality and greatly appreciated by the homesick American grunts.
Scene 3: Manila, Hobbit House, 1982. The first time I visited Manila, I found myself at the Hobbit House one Saturday night. I was promptly blown away by the featured entertainer, a hip looking fellow with a long pony tail who delivered a series of dead-on versions of the classic Dylan repertoire that sounded more like Bob than Zimmerman himself (Bob's original name being Zimmerman). I assume it was Freddie Aguilar, but plead cultural ignorance at the time for not having verified that fact.
In the interim, I have learned a bit more about Filipino music. One thing I find particularly interesting is the influence of folk artists like Peter, Paul, and Mary and Dylan on Filipino folk idioms. At that same gig, the Dylanesque singer performed a number of folk ballads in Tagalog (which I did not understand at the time) conveying nationalist themes, aversion to authority in general and the Marcos regime in particular, and a ringing endorsement of traditional Filipino values. Your basic protest song.
Since bringing my family to Manila a couple of years ago, I have spent most of my time working my tail off to build my business - it ain't easy being an entrepreneur in this town. But I have found time for the occasional musical foray, and the most amazing thing I have discovered is the Manila blues scene. The Hobbit House in Ermita again plays a key role, as any music fan who's been down there on Saturday night over the last four years can attest.
The first time I heard Binky Lampano and his band Lampano Alley, I closed my eyes and envisioned an Asian version of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Robert Johnson rolled into one. Here was this skinny Filipino guy who looked like he'd just stepped off a jeepney, but singing the blues with a deep dark baritone that brought about images of hellhounds on the trail. And with a name like "Binky"? Put it in the "only in the Philippines" category.
Binky's deeply blues-infused baritone is now legendary, at least in certain circles. Lampano Alley has blossomed into perhaps the best blues band in Southeast Asia, featuring not just covers of American blues but many truly authentic Pinoy blues delights. The harp player, Tom Colvin, took early retirement from the Asian Development Bank to play the blues with these guys, and he has never regretted the decision.
According to Manila blues expert Hoagy Pardo (host of the blues radio show Crossroads - Where Blues & Rock Meet), blues had its first heyday in the Philippines during the big band era before and after WWII. Later, the 1970's saw a "blues invasion," spearheaded and publicized by Pardo's own Manila Music Machine radio program.
However, the blues as a distinct genre didn't really take strong root until more recently, specifically with the emergence of Binky Lampano and his NIC (Newly Industrialized Combo). Other talented blues bands such as the Blue Rats soon followed (the band's name is a rather obvious allusion to the Tagalog slang word burats, meaning "erect penis"). Blues aficionados in Manila can now choose from blues-focused bands like Mr. Crayon, Huka, and the Blue Jean Junkies. The Hobbit House continues to regularly feature blues, as do clubs such as Heckle and Jeckle, Mayric's, 70's Bistro, and Oracafe. (Interestingly, Binky has spread his wings in recent months, and has been performing weekly as a jazz singer with a backup jazz quartet and putting in occasional guest appearances singing old crooner songs with divas on local television).
According to reliable grapevine sources, Lampano will be heading back stateside soon to take care of some family business, and blues harpist extraordinaire Tom Colvin will be in the states at the same time. Lampano Alley has been hard at work on their debut album, which will be in the can by the time the band takes its well-deserved hiatus (they have been paying solid many-gigs-a-week dues for the last four years). Binky and Tom will be appearing at blues festivals in South Carolina and Mexico, and working on an international distribution deal - the first-ever all-original blues album from the Philippines.
Watch for it.
In closing this somewhat random commentary, I should note the obvious: this is not intended to be comprehensive with regard to the rich body of Philippine musical genres, nor do I have any particular claim to expertise. Just think of it as a random stroll down musical memory lane and an American's appreciation of Filipino musical talent and creativity.
Note: The blues scene is rapidly evolving, both in the Philippines and around the region (see www.bluesasia.com for general coverage of the region's blues scene, and Tom Colvin's article on the Manila blues scene in the current issue of Blues Access, accessible on-line at www.bluesaccess.com).
|...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas|
|Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines|
|Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo.||
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|See also Clarence Henderson's Philippines Capsule and Prospect Reviews at Asia Market Research dot Com|
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