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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, February 26, 2005

entry arrow12:32 AM | The Luce Sometimes Rises

I like the songs of Lito Camo and his ilk. Unlike the very vocal minority of people who have somehow missed out on the whole spirit of irony and the humorous rewards of pun, double entendre, and other poetic ka-ek-ekan, I can appreciate the subtle and sometimes in-your-face implications of these songs.

"Bulaklak," at once familiar and playful, never fails to tickle our fancy, despite the sometime public protestations about "pornographic message." But when you hear the recent radio hit "Basketball" these days, it strikes you: no matter the skimpy get-up of the singers, the songs are nonetheless hummable, often unforgettable.

Novelty songs have their place in the pop cultural banquet and, like the music of Yoyoy Villame, Camo's music may, in time, gain a kind of respectability -- perhaps even be dissected by cultural pundits for its sometime impact on what Rolando Tolentino has called the Filipino's "sexualized culture."

In the long run, however, one seeks ultimately for meatier music. Something that transcends the banal, and makes us see that message matters even more than the instant gratification of pop favorites.

That is why it is always refreshing when you get to hear Joey Ayala perform live. His rhythm, his distinctive sound -- at once tribal and postmodern -- gets you going, and then, by the end of the performance, you are surprised to know that you have learned something substantial about life, too.

It is exactly that kind of musing that keeps you grounded even after the last notes have been played in Ayala's one-night concert, the aptly titled Kwentuhan, Kantahan, Kalikasan, Atbp., at the Luce Auditorium last February 19.

Heart is key to the concert's success, and more so the tidbits of surprising trivia and what-not you gain from hearing the musician rack his head and comb over his years of experience, to give us something to think about.

We learn, for example, showbiz tsismis, about Lea Salonga and Aga Muhlach in Sana Maulit Muli. Or about biodiversity. Or about the fandanggo set to rock music. Or about Chinese pirates in the Philippines early in the last century. Or how the Assumptionista colegiala accent really originated from the Visayan twang of yayas transplanted in rich households in Manila. Or about the sights and taste of Camiguin Island, or how eagles sound when they are mating. Or about power relations. Or about dialectic materialism, "Whatever that means," Ayala intoned.

Eric Caruncho has written of Ayala as a true music revolutionary, having incorporated into his sound indigenous elements, especially in the use of folk instruments, like the T'boli lute hegalong, and the Maranao kulintang. He is somebody who "creates music that plumbs the depths of the Filipino spirit, radiating a rare authenticity and making such epithets as 'ethnic,' 'alternative,' and even 'folk'."

But what I like most about Joey Ayala are the stories that he tells in giving us his repertoire. In an age where a typical song has no meaning anymore, it is refreshing to listen to music that talks about us, and our world. It is gentle didacticism, with heart -- and, on the side, sliced green mango dipped in spicy vinegar and oyap.

There were his signature songs, including "Walang Hanggang Paalam" and the iconic "Karaniwang Tao," as well as the crowd-pleasing "Maglakad" and "Tabi Po." In "Agila," he talks about the environment through the metaphor of the Philippine eagle. "When we no longer see eagles flying, that means there are no more forests to sustain them," Ayala informs us, before he segues to the song.

"Organik" is a kind of novelty song, rendered in colegiala speak, this one focusing on our identities, on "sari-saring buhay," on biodiversity. In "Batangbakal," his first Manila song, a man in the middle of traffic finds laughter and sadness in the lives of the batang bakal. Here, he talks about street children and the effect of the environment on the artist, and plays around with his main metaphor, which at once presents us with rich ambiguities of meaning -- the image of metal coins, or the street children themselves toughened by life. This is punctuated with a knowing estimation of the country's plight, as indicated by the refrain, "Ang kapal naman ng trapik na ito."

"Classroom 101," a song written in anger, has its roots from Ayala's visit to Marawi, and from his conversation with a teacher from that place who teaches in a classroom with bulletproof doors. In "Mindanao," he turns hopeful, and makes a kind of invitation to visit the beleaguered island. "If I sing about peace often enough," he said, "maybe it will come true." In "Little Brown Man," he tells us it is no joke to live in America, as most of us dream of doing. "She doesn't like our kind," he sings.

In "Kung Kaya Mong Isipin," Ayala hits his stride, and gives us perhaps the very theme of his life of music. He sings, and we learn: "Kung kaya mong isipin / kaya mong gawin / Isa-isang hakbang lang, ikaw'y mararating / Tulad ng puno na galing sa binhi / Ang mga dakilang gawa'y mula sa guniguni."

For the supposed Cultural Center of the South, the Luce Auditorium -- once the premier venue for top, no-nonsense, and groundbreaking cultural acts from around the country, and even from around the world -- Joey Ayala's concert may be the sign of better things still coming for a city growing alarmingly accustomed to ho-hum cultural fares, reined in by a disastrously conservative (nay, quasi-religious, like the Taliban's) climate. True artistry, especially one that has something significant to say about the way we live now, will prevail. And that gives us much hope, at least culturally.

On March 3, the British actress Linda Marlowe, courtesy of the generous and far-seeing souls in Silliman University's Cultural Affairs Committee and the good folks over at the British Council, comes to town with the latest of her acting showcases, this time in No Fear.

Here, Marlowe portrays a 100-year old circus artist looking back at her many careers, while performing a high-wire act on a trapeze.

Now that is definitely something to see.

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