At noontime on Valentines Day, at the tail-end of the prejudging phase we were doing for the set of entries to the 2019 Valentine Songwriting Competition, I found myself suddenly reversing the expectations I had been harboring since I was requested by the organizers of the annual music tilt if I could serve on the board of judges one more time. My initial expectations were low—was I fit to be arbiter for something I was not looking forward to?
I didn’t want to judge, to be honest: I’ve judged the competition so many times before, and while I’ve enjoyed the songs as well as the company of fellow judges, I felt that I was hearing the same melodic lines year in and year out, and my heart remained unpierced: where was the commanding song that really embodied the quintessence of a Valentine song? This proved elusive so far. There were those years when most of the entries had reggae in their DNA, and there were those years when acoustic forlornness defined overwhelmingly the sound of all the entries. They were, of course, compositions culled from the musical trends of their years; what could you expect of these young composers, except to churn out exactly the music they were currently listening to? And they were very good—but there I was, looking for something else I could not exactly define.
My hesitation proved porous, and I found myself soon in the company of composer Odoni Pestelos, composer and music therapist Danielle Elise Zamar, performance artist Lorenzo Mendoza, and journalist Glynda Descuatan—our chairperson—that Valentine lunchtime, fed by cafeteria food while we listened and deliberated on each of the ten entries, first via their raw and original vocals, and then a rendition of their songs in their new arrangements.
By the fifth entry, I found myself gagging with excitement.
“This is it!” I said. “This is the VSC song I have been looking for, for years!”
The other judges quickly agreed with me.
The song was “Led Us Here,” composed by Francis Enrico Cuenca and Gianna Aguilar—and their raw vocals, in a rare duet, promised all the subterfuges of loving and being loved, with a melody that felt like a sweet, sweet throwback to the best of 1990s romantic ballads.
“This is something I can imagine James Ingram sing,” said Lorenzo.
“Yes!” I replied. “And even better: in my head, this is Regine Velasquez and Janno Gibbs singing!”
That fifth song was the clincher that opened the competition to an avalanche of other great songs—and to be honest, the 2019 edition of the Valentine Songwriting Competition has the best lineup I have ever heard in years, and VSC is now in its 29th year. When we came to the end of that phase in the judging, I made my reversal: “I expect to enjoy tonight’s show, and I think we have a gold mine of songs,” I told the others.
It’s not an easy task to judge a composition contest, and as the VSC handles it, judging allows many levels of consideration.
First, there are the lyrics and the melodic line, gleaned for the most part from the original vocals—often haphazard affairs featuring broken voices, broken instrumentation, inferior recording environment, and once in a while, the interruptions of cocks crowing in the background. [That happened in two entries.] As a writer, at this stage of judging I look for the “story” in the lyrics and, when I can, I look for acceptable intelligibility of its metaphors. I’m all for creative imagery, but what does a lyricist exactly mean when he writes, “The dust and blues in your velvet eyes is a million dollar” [sic]?
Second, there is the arrangement, which has the potential to either elevate or devastate a song. This is gleaned from the second recording of the entry, this time sung with the final instrumentation in place. This is the pinnacle of collaboration between composer and arranger, and demands that the latter must somehow get the song, must somehow render it in the style most appropriate for it. Sometimes a song that is quite forgettable in its original iteration suddenly finds wings in its new version. But sometimes a song we loved in its original form would get butchered by arrangement so inappropriate. I remember the year Andrew Alvarez won. His original take of a song plucked out of a ukulele was so charming—only to have the arrangement drown out what was so charming about it. The judges actually thought of asking the organizers to jettison the arrangement and let Andrew sing the song in the way he had conceptualized it. We restrained ourselves, of course—but thank heavens Andrew still won. He won because the charm of the song was sufficiently carried over by the third and last consideration: the performance, the interpretation.
During Finals Night, the interpreters take the last hurdle—and their voices as well as their command of the stage largely shape the reception of the songs. Most of the time, the composers themselves decide to perform their own songs—often an unfortunate thing, because composition and singing are two very different talents. A magnificently written song can simply fade from serious consideration by the strained vocal efforts of its composer/interpreter, who should have known better. But the opposite can also happen: a lackluster composition with middle-of-the-road sensibilities suddenly finds a new urgency with a performer who knows how to command the stage with both presence and voice. They become the song, and their singing demand that we pay close attention.
All three things intertwine in the long arc of judging considerations.
This year, we found ourselves having to weight all considerations and choose from at least six—SIX—great songs out of the ten entries, all of which could have easily won in a less competitive year.
“Beyond the White Light,” composed by Lara Jemima Afdo and arranged by Henrix Paul Tubil, offered the most beguiling story of the lot—that of loving someone who has passed on, and knowing that it is in remembrance that this love could prove to be immortal. Afdo’s performance of her own song was moving as well, which made this song a favorite. There is also a story in Rine Christelle Anfone’s “XXY,” the sole Bisaya song in the competition, but it limns a little too much on the darker side of loving, a consideration of infidelity done with a small measure of bisdak wit—but not enough to elevate its theme.
“Sa Ilalim ng Buwan,” composed by Bridgette Apple Shanne Villasis, is the only Tagalog song of the lot and as sung by Villasis, becomes easy comparison to OPM favorites. She begins her interpretation in magnificent, and well-applauded, a capella, which soon climbs up the emotional scales—but gets undone by quirks in the arrangement that felt like strange choices for the narrative. Because if you want a song to make us think of love under the moonlight, such serenity of imagined space have no place for the drums and cymbals threatening to overwhelm it. Let us have violins! That arrangement quirk also proved to be what marred the sheer beauty of Cuenca and Aguilar’s “Led Us Here,” admittedly the emotional favorite of all the judges—but it didn’t find a place at all even in the top three. Here was a ballad of sheer and gorgeous emotionality—but what’s that very long guitar solo amping for a rock and roll feel doing in the middle of it? This was the sayang of all sayang. It’s exact opposite is the song “Exquisite,” an overwritten piece saved by the gorgeous and well-produced arrangement by Johann Beira, who rightfully won the Best Arranger award. Beira did so much for that song, elevating it to impressive heights.
“Feels Like Home,” composed by Jesza Belle Hope Lirazan and arranged by Diego Joshua Lipura, actually garnered second place, buoyed by the sheer magnetism of its interpretation also done by Lirazan. This was a song with an embracing folksy vibe reminiscent of Florence and the Machine that had the judges taking to calling it “that road trip song,” because it seemed to invite the listener to an instant adventure aboard a top-down convertible. In third place was Zephaniah Aethelbard Buenavista’s “For Emma,” arranged by Lee Albertino Añiga, which was to be honest not really memorable in the prejudging—but surprised us by soaring to great heights because of the singular performance of its composer and interpreter, whose voice and whose presence, bathed by the spotlight, demanded attention to the forlornness in his voice. Seeing him sing felt like watching heartbreak manifest itself in all its totality.
But the night belonged to Samuel Akinbode. Even from the prejudging, there was no denying the song “Backwards” the ultimate prize. This is a clear winner through sheer confluence of time, talent, and circumstance. It was just Akinbode’s time, after two previous efforts at joining the VSC that led only to almost-ran placements. (Last year, he actually tied for the championship—but the judges opted to give “Pagya” the prize.)
He almost didn’t win because he almost didn’t join. From his Facebook post, he admitted: “I withdrew my entry minutes after I passed it. I was scared to lose for the third time. I almost let my pride get in the way, and I forgot why I first joined, which [was] simply [because] I just love to write [songs] and sing. I guess the fact that it’s a competition kinda gets to you, [because] personally I felt like I wasn’t good at anything else, and if I couldn’t excel in what I think I’m good at then, [then] I am of no use.
“[But] I decided to swallow my pride and rejoin the contest. And all I wanted to do was to put on a decent show for the audience one last time and I’d be happy regardless of the outcome. I didn’t really let people know about it, [and] I only told my [mother two] days [before the] show time [because] I didn’t feel like [my family] should be there. I was just going there to sing, and not for the contest [because] frankly the competition [was] over for me.”
But he won. He created an earworm of a song—I’m still singing its refrain “How to love you backwards...”—that felt like it was culled from a full experience of knowing what made something memorable and hummable. Rojan Max’s arrangement, too, felt like it understood the undercurrents of the song, understood that it needed its moments of silence, and understood that its biggest drama could actually be highlighted by restraint.
And there was that magnificent performance, also by Akinbode. Where was that shy Nigerian boy we all first saw three years ago, whose tallness seemed to belie the demeanor of a wallflower? On the Luce stage that Valentines night, Akinbode unleashed all that he has learned being on the stage—this boy has been performing in local spoken word competitions and in musicals, too, the past few years—and distilled everything to a singular presence: he began his song tinkling the grand piano, then taking to the spotlight to unleash the sheer emotional rawness of its middle, and then finally going back to the piano for the last stretch, which folds into the precarious stillness of the song’s end. That was sheer performance.
This was the first time I’ve gotten out of the Luce Auditorium where I wanted a CD of all the entries. The winning song might be titled “Backwards,” but on the 29th year of the Valentine Songwriting Competition, the longest-running contest of its kind in the country, everything suddenly feels like a momentum pushing forwards.
Congratulations to everyone who made this VSC truly memorable.