Getting back on feet to the music’s beat

The very colorful welcome sign | Photos by Franco Amian

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.

A painting session made better with beer

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.

Rice Lucido

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.”

Bullet Dumas

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.

Armi Millare of Up Dharma Down

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

Minus One Direction

The boys of One Direction--minus Zayn Malik--perform onstage at the SM Mall of Asia Arena concert grounds on March 21 . | Jasper Lucena for MMI Live
One Direction–minus Zayn Malik–perform onstage at the SM Mall of Asia Arena concert grounds on March 21 . | Jasper Lucena for MMI Live

The rain was nothing but a niggling inconvenience, and later on, a mere afterthought, to the thousands of young fans who turned up at the SM Mall of Asia concert grounds on March 22, to see One Direction—the boy band of this generation—perform in the flesh.

If anything, the downpour prior and during the first few songs of the show only made the already thrilled audience crank up the decibels even higher. Nearby, a teenage girl wearing a red bandana and a black trash bag for a raincoat, was quick to point out the good in the bad. “We’ll see them perform wet,” she told her friend.

This was the last of the British-Irish band’s two-night concert in Manila. And though the crowd wasn’t as packed as it was in the first show, the energy, according to those crazy (and capable) enough to attend both, was more infectious.

Hordes of indefatigable young ladies and a number of boys—most of whom accompanied by their listless parents and chaperons—were relentless in their shrieking, which began way before the band emerged on the sprawling stage. And once four of the five members—Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan and Louis Tomlinson—finally did, the crazed fans refused to let up.

The boys opened the show with the anthemic “Clouds,” which instantly had the audience jumping and singing along. And it wasn’t just the fans at the venue. Outside, the streets around the grounds teemed with revelers toting umbrellas. They called themselves “Team Labas”; they didn’t have tickets, but were more than content listening and getting a feel of the hysteria swirling over the other side of the metal fences.

When they came out running around dressed ruggedly and looking disheveled, it was apparent that this boy band is not the kind many ’90s babies grew up with. No cutesy, synchronized choreography or the slightest compulsion to peddle a wholesome boy-next-door image. But they were petty boys, nonetheless, and the young girls watching made sure to profess their love for their respective favorites.

Styles was quite the livewire, punching the air as he pranced to and fro the main and the B-stage. More than two times he opened a bottle of water, and cheekily doused his crazed fans. It was all about his wavy locks, apparently, which he tousled every so often. “I can’t decide if I like his hair better down or in a ‘man bun,’” a woman beside us remarked.

The 21-year-old singer was also, arguably, the best vocalist among the four, with his rather husky timbre shining through such hit songs as “Little Things” and “Story of My Life.”

Payne was the de facto host of the group, usually taking lead in initiating audience participation, and making sure that people at the far end of the venue weren’t being left behind. Midway through the concert, he tried reading some of the fan banners—one of which said, “Liam, please say ‘nakakapagpabagabag.’” Laughter.

“We’ve fallen in love with Manila for the past two days because you’ve been amazing. Thank you all for standing in the rain…Screw the rain!” said Payne, who at one point, asked the crowd do the Mexican wave. He was also a competent singer; his falsetto was particularly impressive, especially when he followed it up with his trademark microphone flip for added flourish.

Horan looked unassuming, but was the only one seemingly confident enough to play a musical instrument, an electric guitar, which he lugged around the stage for the better part of the concert. Meanwhile, Tomlinson, who had his hair in a slick pompadour, has a a crumbly voice that would probably go well with slow, pop-punk ditties.

Much of the 20 or so songs One Direction sang were danceable tunes with a palpable rock flavor. Some of their standout performances were those of “Steal My Girl,” “Kiss You,” “Alive” and “Strong.” Tracks such as “Through the Dark” and “Night Changes” had country inflections, while the hit singles “What Makes You Beautiful” and “One Thing” easily elicited some of the night’s most resounding sing-along sessions.

The concert wasn’t short on fan service either, with the boys playing up their “bromance” to a hilt: Payne planting a smack on Horan’s cheek; and Payne and Styles sitting down and singing “Little Things,” arms draped over each other’s shoulders. And the girls, shrieking and jumping, lapped it all up.

For many “Directioners,” the band’s Manila stop was, in a way, a bittersweet experience. While excited about the prospect of finally getting up close to their music idols, not a few fans felt disappointed, cheated even, by the withdrawal of member Zayn Malik from the world tour titled “On the Road Again,” and subsequently, from the band itself.

A publicist for the band initially issued a statement, saying that Malik “had signed off with stress and is flying to the United Kingdom to recuperate.” Online reports, however, speculated that Malik returned home to appease his fiancée, Perrie Edwards, after being allegedly caught cheating on her.

The issue came on the heels of another one: The Philippine government, prior to One Direction’s arrival, imposed a $5,000 “weed bond” on both Malik and Tomlinson, because a video of them smoking marijuana leaked online last year.

Still, a handful of ardent fans hoped against hope, perhaps thinking that if they just screamed hard enough, Malik would somehow materialize before their eyes on the second night. “I wish Zayn would surprise us even for just one song. If he did, I swear I’ll jump over the barrier,” said a girl watching from the Diamond section of the venue.

Malik’s absence was a huge loss, especially since he’s often regarded as the best vocalist in the band; the one with the widest range and easy power. But going by the crowd’s undying enthusiasm, it seemed that his absence wasn’t as detrimental to the show in the grand scheme of things.

The show ended with spirited performance of “Best Song Ever,” punctuated by a fireworks display. “We love 1D! We love 1D!” the crowd chanted, as red heart-shaped figures burst in the sky.

And then they swooned and screamed and giggled some more.

[An edited version of this article was published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, on March 25, 2015, with the head “Relentless swooning, shrieking for 1D boys]

He wears his sunglasses at night

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Photos by Christine Palattao, for the Philippine Educational Theater Association

Ely Buendia emerges onstage to a mishmash of funk and blues.

He’s wearing a wrinkled, red dress shirt under a three-piece suit and and that air of smug nonchalance we all know too well. He pauses in the middle, scans the crowd of about 400, and then breaks into a wry smile that gets just about every lady inside the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (Peta) black box shrieking. The men, on the other hand, promptly raise their fists and roar, “Hayup!”

One will be hard pressed to find a local music artist these days that can rouse this kind of enthusiasm the way Ely can. And he has yet to sing a note or strum a chord.

Backed steadily by his band—Rommel Sanchez (guitar), Mayo Baluyut (bass), Wendell Garcia (drums); two singers; and a small string-brass ensemble—the seminal singer-songwriter kicks off “Ely Buendia Sings for Peta,” with “Higante,” a song from “In Love and War,” an album he recorded in collaboration with the late rapper Francis Magalona.

He slings an electric guitar across his shoulders, which, for not a few fans, is enough reason for them to scream their heads off. The strings springs to life, creating a breezy intro for “Alapaap.” The crowd promptly sings along from the first line, and doesn’t let up until the trippy coda—one that evokes that feeling of waking up one day feeling stupefied.

He performs a series of Eraserheads classics rendered in new arrangements and sweeping strings instrumentation, which gives the songs a touch of grandness. “It’s the Ely Buendia Orchestra!” the musician, who now fronts two bands, Pupil and The Oktaves, jests.

He’s not exactly the best of vocalists, as most of us already know, but he does well tonight, even taking liberties in changing and jazzing up some of his songs’ melodies.

Not that it actually matters. Because the driving force of much of Ely’s work—at least during his time with the Eraserheads—has always been the simple narratives, delivered in conversational lyrics, and set to driving melodies and catchy hooks.

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The intimate venue allows for some rollicking interaction between Ely and the crowd. When the fans aren’t singing along to such hits as “Maling Akala,” “Ligaya,” “Huwag Mo Nang Itanong,” “Maselang Bahaghari,” “Huwag Kang Matakot,” “Overdrive,” “Lightyears, ” they’re shouting out professions of love: “Ely, I love you!” “Ely, pa-kiss!”

In “Pare Ko,” Ely  stops singing every so often to let the audience take on the song’s oh so sweet line that goes something like, “’Di ba? Tang#@%!” “Galing niyo pala magmura,” Ely quips. He renders everyone in stitches when he tweaked a couple of lines of “Magasin”: “Medyo pangit ka pa nu’n…hanggang ngayon!”

While he rarely performs covers in his gigs, Ely makes an exception for Peta. Perched on a stool, he asks The Oktaves band mate and Hilera vocalist Chris Padilla to join him onstage, and together they fill the venue with the sound of their crisp guitar-playing in the ballads “With a Smile” and The Beatles’ “Something.”

Also in the set are “Santo” and “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” which ends with a showstopping drum solo from Garcia. The crowd clamors for an encore, and Ely promptly obliges with three more songs—“Walang Nagbago,” “Spoliarium,” “Torpedo.” Watching him go over the Eraserheads discography feels like being in one heck of a school bus ride back to the late 1990s.

As Ely is about to exit the stage, a staff member hands him a bouquet of flowers, and he doesn’t quite know what to do with it. The jacket and sunglasses are off; his collar unkempt. And for a split-second, Ely grins…just barely.

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