One sweltering, but nonetheless laidback, afternoon in September last year, hundreds of revelers camped out on a sprawling farm in San Miguel, a municipality roughly an hour’s drive away from Tacloban City in Leyte province.
They lounged around in huddles, chatting in between chugs of lukewarm beer in plastic cups, as wayward dragonflies whizzed over their heads. Some wandered about the lush expanse, checking out the attractions dotting the area’s perimeter: quaint booths where traditional weaving workshops, pottery lessons and live painting sessions were held; as well as stalls selling shirts, bags and other local fare.
The trees were laced with streamers and pennants. There was a basketball ring, an obstacle course, a trampoline, a viewing tower, and a wooden deck by the stream crowded with sleepy folks going for a quick snooze.
In the middle of it all was a concert stage—small, barebones, but sufficient—where the husband-wife duo of Alan and Melissa Montilla had just opened the recent Ginsiyaman Music and Arts Festival, a Woodstock-inspired outdoor affair that assembled a lineup of seasoned and budding indie acts from Manila and around the province.
These days, the mention of Tacloban does not conjure up images of festivities such as this one, but of the destruction Supertyphoon Yolanda wreaked on the city in November 2013.
Two years after the disaster brought the city to its knees, Tacloban is slowly, and mightily, getting back on its feet. And organizers of the Ginsiyaman festival felt that it’s about time to change—if not totally erase—the grim impression many have of Tacloban, and show the rest of the country that “there’s more to their hometown than Yolanda.”
“We wish we’re on the map for a different reason,” Trixie Palami, who spearheaded the mounting of the festival with her brother Jacques, said in an interview. “It’s nice to give first-time visitors in Tacloban a different experience. We want to show them that it can be fun here, too; that we can celebrate life through music.”
But more than a showcase of Tacloban’s burgeoning music scene, the Ginsiyaman festival was put up also as a means of thanking the many volunteers who flew in from different countries. The event, in fact, was initially meant as a simple send-off party for the foreign workers who would soon be leaving.
“We’ve met so many amazing people from all over the world—many of whom have been staying here for more than a year now. But we’re getting to the point where some of them are starting to return home, so we planned to hold a despedida for them. But somehow, it just blew up. And now we have a full-blown music festival,” Jacques said.
Born and raised in this coastal town, the Palami siblings pursued their studies in Manila, where they also worked for various non-governmental organizations. After Yolanda, however, Trixie and Jacques returned home, and subsequently opened the Yellow Doors Hostel, which inadvertently turned into a creative hub of sorts for the volunteers.
The place, they related, hosted intimate live arts and music events—a breath of fresh air, especially for the foreigners whose idea of Filipino music is the nightly, drunken howling coming from humble watering holes.
“The reception was good. A lot of them were surprised that was actually a thriving arts scene here. We wanted to replicate that on a bigger scale,” Trixie said, adding that they made a conscious effort showcase the talent of Leyteño artists by including them in the show roster.
True enough, a considerable portion of the crowd was composed of volunteers, majority of whom were part of the United States-based non-governmental organization All Hands, which has been conducting rehabilitation projects and disaster risk prevention programs here and in Hernani in Eastern Samar province.
“They usually work six days a week,” Jacques said. “We figured that it would be nice to give them a chance to unwind, especially since a lot of them had been confronted by death and tragedy.”
As the sun began to set, smoke began wafting from a bonfire and the nearby stalls selling grilled meat and innards. At the concert grounds, a pathway leading to the stage—flanked by a row of poles laced with lights—was bathed in a dull glow. And then, in small droves, people emerged from the tents pitched in a woody area of the farm, and gathered in front of the stage to soak in the music and dance the night away.
The acoustic artist Rice Lucido was now onstage, performing whimsical indie-folk covers of such songs as “Toxic” and “Santong Kabayo.” She was followed by the local band Lady Suzette, whose lead singer, Marie Gardiando, reminded us of Paramore’s Hayley Williams with the way she attacked “Mama, Help Me” and “Ayoko Na,” an original song.
The country rock group The Strangeness and pop band Ang Bandang Shirley dished out jaunty, rollicking sets of ditties. The Skymarines enveloped the space with soft backbeats and atmospheric electronic music, while the similarly wired The Ringmaster packed in an alternative-rock punch. Pulso, on the other hand, delivered a dose of zinging post-rock instrumentals quite reminiscent of Acoustic Alchemy’s.
The crowd was at its loudest during the following Leyteño acts’ spirited sets: Aimee Delgado, whose tone was distinctly ‘90s rock, lent her muscular vocals to “Valerie,” which had everyone singing along; the tribal band Kulahig announced its presence with thumping beats that melded contemporary and folk influences; the guitar-wielding Bullet Dumas, now a fixture in the Manila indie music scene, dabbled with syncopated beats and rhythms, as he bellowed soul-stirring, socially relevant tunes like “Ninuno.”
After the languid, romantic set of the trip-hop group Yolanda Moon, the festival’s main act, the pop-electronica band Up Dharma Down took the stage. Under the moon and with the silhouette of the mountains in the horizon as her backdrop, the vocalist Armi Millare held court.
Never mind that she was feeling under the weather. Functioning on her last battery pack of vocals, Armi filled the balmy air with her sultry, deceptively powerful voice, which went beautifully with the undulating sounds of the groups music— “Oo,” “Tadhana,” “Indak,” “Turn it Well” and more.
The Ginsiyaman fest was the first of its kind in the province, according to the siblings, and hopefully not the last.
“It would be great if this becomes an annual thing. It could possibly help boost tourism here. Music is universal so we think it’s a great tool,” said Jacques, adding that he and Trixie envision the event as a regular component of “See You, Leyte,” the province’s ongoing tourism campaign.
The event, therefore, wasn’t a mere farewell party, but also an invitation. “If we can give people a memorable experience, they will return—hopefully, with their friends and loved ones,” he said. “There are no goodbyes.”
[An edited version of this article was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, on November 27, 2015, with the head “Music fest shows there’s more to Tacloban than Yolanda”