Saturday, November 17, 2007

Manila Music

Filipinos are possibly the most musically talented people on the planet. This is witnessed daily on the wide continent of Asia where Filipino bands dominate the scene - from the hotspots of Bangkok and Singapore to the hotel bars in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. What explains this is not entirely clear - and I don’t know of any serious studies on the topic - but one can speculate. The Philippines is the only predominantly Catholic country in Asia; it's been a colony both to Spain and the United States. Its culture seems to embody the joie de vivre of Latin and the Pacific islands. One cannot find a more cheerful people.

Recently, on a particular Thursday night, I ventured into an excellent pub restaurant called Chef & Brewer in Pasig, one of Metro Manila’s central cities. The place was packed and getting increasingly crowded as the evening proceeded. It was an adult crowd but one in a party mode. I started with a meal and some decent Chilean red wine. The cuisine was Western, of high quality but unremarkable. Although people do eat there, food is not the main attraction. It is definitely the music that people come to hear and experience.

That evening's band was called Yours Truly. It consisted of three lead singers and a four-piece backup with two guitars, bass and drums. The obvious leader and MC of the group was a tall rock star looking man dressed in a turquoise shirt; his perm hair fell on his shoulders and he wore shades throughout the night. He also shared the frontline with two other middle-aged singers, one of each gender.

The band focused on music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. The three vocalists sang in complex, yet perfect, three-part harmonies, utilizing (intentionally, I hope) rather silly choreographs. Each of the singers was as good or better as anybody you’d hear on contemporary records. The female lead had the voice and style of Diana Ross, and the longhaired charmer was a top-notch rocker.

The third singer, an accountant-looking man with a receding hairline, had this deep soulful voice and an amazing register. In the middle of his interpretation of Unchained Melody, the audience broke into a spontaneous applause as he was displaying his impressive voice and skills. After a warm-up period with some beautiful Tagalog pop songs and slow Western classics, such as a superb rendition of You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling, the band moved onto rock ’n’ roll classics à la Shake, Rattle and Roll. The band operated like clockwork and in perfect period style.

Soon the music evolved into ‘80s disco, which kept increasing the number of people on the tiny dance floor in front of the bandstand. Most of this segment of the music was played in lengthy effortless potpourris during which the band changed gears and rhythm as required. One of the guitarists used a guitar synthesizer to create horn and string accents in places where they had been originally effective a couple of decades earlier. The bassist also had evolved from the staccato plucking of early pop to thumbing his strings in Louis Johnson style.

The crowd started going wild. The band picked up two women from the dance floor, possibly friends, but I couldn’t be sure. They readily grabbed microphones and started singing. One of the ladies, in a tiny miniskirt and moves fit for the legendary Tokyo disco, Juliana’s (it used to be the hottest dance spot this side of the dateline during Japan’s financial bubble), belted out I Will Survive with a power and flair that eludes most contemporary singers.

The band was superb and the audience fully acknowledged it. For a dance band, the proof of the pudding is in audience dancing and this audience did dance - and sing.

On the following day, a Friday night, I caught the last set of the band Human Race in Galleria Holiday Inn’s bar, also in Pasig City. I arrived after dinner, having visited the excellent San Mig pub in Ortiga’s El Pueblo. The Human Race focuses on the music of the ‘80s. Why, I asked myself, would anyone focus on the decade that was arguably the dullest in the history of pop music.

The first part of the set confirmed my doubts: forgettable melodies, mechanic beats, silly choreography (unintentionally, I fear). Small bright spots included Venus (the Bananarama version) in which the drummer managed to display some complicated and accurate pyrotechnics. Otherwise, the long first part of the set was only lit up by Wake Me Up Before You Go Go. This band, too, had a three singer frontline (the Philippines has the advantage over places like New York because it can afford to stack up the bands with adequate numbers of players): this time two women and a man. The natural leader was a woman with crew cut bleached hair. The band wore aerobics-inspired outfits and behaved accordingly. The male singer's effeminate voice made it hard to tell who was leading the song at any given time.

At first the drummer, a kid sporting spiked hair with blond highlights, puzzled me. He played amazingly well but still sounded like he was pounding on old suitcases. Then I realized he was playing with no amplification whatsoever, beating the heck out of his basic drum set: a 22” bass drum, two toms, a thick wooden snare and two simple cymbals.

Suddenly the Human Race improved considerably. They started playing a set of songs by the likes of Chic, Kool and the Gang, and Lionel Richie. The soul music suited Human Race on and off stage. The guitar player even managed to sound like Nile Rogers with his funky rhythms. The keyboardist brought out some excellent Hammond and Rhodes sounds from his Roland. Soon the dance floor was crowded. Although this was a bar affiliated with a hotel, the audience consisted almost exclusively of locals. A happy British looking young man with short hair and a potbelly beneath his V-necked T-shirt actively tried to encourage everyone (especially pretty girls) to join him on the dance floor. There were a few jaded Westerners, presumably patrons of the hotel, staring dully at the spectacle.

In many ways, the highlight of the evening was a spirited YMCA. The band, including the male singer, managed to sound as macho as the Village People in their heyday. At closing time, the crowd squeezed another five songs out of the band, including good Earth, Wind and Fire stuff. I was content with the night on the town. The bands in Manila hotspots may not be the most original in the world, but when you’re looking for a good time, a spirited cover version of an old hit sure beats a bad original.

[Published also on on July 10, 2006.]

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