(stolen from a site i can't remember.)
2 AM. Manila.
The crowd is still thick. Many are mingling, bobbing their heads to the music, beer bottle in hand. Some find their way to little pockets of conversations happening between small groups of people. You catch the occasional flicker from cigarettes being lit up. It’s hard to hear anything else above the din so you just let your eyes wander to what people are wearing instead – the vintage shirt, a deconstructed pair of sneakers, an unusual accessory, a personalised bag. Stepping out for less noxious air leaves you with that distinctive ringing in your ears.
Rakenrol. Welcome to the local underground music scene.
Band logo, BoldstarMusicians, writers, photographers, and other artistically inclined people congregate in small, dimly lit venues to hear music. Live, original music. The vibe is warm and friendly. It’s easy enough to find yourself hanging out with a group of people even when you’re new. To the uninitiated, it feels exciting because you get to mingle with rock stars who have reached cult status. The lesser thrill (but a thrill nonetheless) would be meeting all these interesting people. And it helps that they’re nice too.
Much has been said about the Filipino’s penchant for music. Every neighbourhood in town has a self-confessed guitarist who gets called upon to play and sing during drinking sessions in front of a small sari-sari store (sundry shop). Restaurants in middle class districts have karaoke nights where its patrons can just sing the night away to Sinatra’s “My Way.” Many of our musicians and singers find their way in other countries’ hotels, clubs, bars, and even cruise ships. Truly, music is in our blood. And it is something we are good at. Bagging the title for the 2005 World Championships of the Performing Arts (WCOPA) is one such example. When Lea Salonga landed the role of Kim in the London and New York run of Miss Saigon, she affirmed that Filipino performing artists are “world-class.”
While this fondness for musical expression permeates all walks of life, what makes the underground, “indie” scene different is the pursuit of creative integrity in their work.
In a country where mainstream is king, making it big with one’s original composition can set a band for life. Or at least for the next five years. Songs that received heavy airplay ten years ago are still popular even now. Some have been remixed by electronica artists or revived by new bands. Even rock legends like Joey “Pepe” Smith of the Juan dela Cruz band, who at 59, is reaching out to younger generations by rocking it out with more contemporary bands.
Many of the indie artists have a strong following among the youth. Campus tours and pocket concerts around the country are well-attended and documented by various bloggers and scenesters on the Internet. It comes as no surprise that a lot of the audience are in bands themselves, doing the rounds at their school organisation’s event. Pretty much how the people they look up to now started out.
Getting the work out has also gotten easier, especially with the availability of digital formats and cheaper recording equipment. Nu107, a radio station that promotes rock and alternative music acts as a megaphone for anyone in the scene. Gigs become a hub for selling albums and other band paraphernalia such as t-shirts, pins and posters. iPods and other MP3 players become mobile music stations for listening to new yet unpublished materials. Online mailing lists become a veritable source of pretty much everything you need to know about the artist. Word of mouth and SMS are the tools of choice for spreading the word. It’s easy to be in touch and to find out where the next gig will be.
One’s network can stretch as far as other countries, where albums and materials are exchanged through the post with other musicians. This active conversation refreshes the scene with a vitality that has not been seen in recent years. Local bands were the “in” thing in the 90’s with acts like the Eraserheads being likened to the Fab Four. Their songs were quirky and presented a slice of life in an effervescent way. It was, distinctly Pinoy.
Though the Pinoy-ness in Original Pilipino Music (OPM) has always been there, there is, I believe, a more conscious attempt at infusing the work with a Filipino flavor, whether it’s using local instruments, writing songs in Tagalog (or some other dialect), or just singing about being Filipino.
We are also seeing more collaboration across genres and groups. The clash between “metal-heads” and “hip-hop” groups in the early 90’s often resulted in their disciples slugging it out in a popular mall in Pasig. The times have definitely changed. Hip-hop music in a rock act is enthusiastically anticipated by both fans and listeners alike. Electronica artists fuse multi-media and visual arts when they perform.
Ironically, the underground movement is permeating the mainstream surface.
Advertisers are now taking notice of the influence of these artists, signing them up to grace a campaign or pen out the sound track for TV or radio. Some have become endorsers. Even noontime programs have invited them as guests. Many have been on MTV. There’s nothing as mainstream as that. An ambitious project to bring together alternative and classical music gave birth to Rockestra, which had six of the major indie bands perform with the Manila Symphony Orchestra, the oldest symphony group in the Philippines.
Despite these developments, life is hard for those who choose to be a musician in the Philippines. Not much value is placed in the arts, unless you’re an artista (movie star). These artists do not get paid a lot even if they’re more popular than an upcoming starlet. Lucky if they receive a pittance at all. Free food and beer sometimes become the staple payment in low-cost productions.
Getting signed by a major label is an exciting prospect but also provide a source of unease because they tend to meddle with the creative process.
“Bakit pa? Eh kaya mo naman gawin mag-isa.” (Why go with them, when it’s easier to do it yourself?)
Artists are aware that they can get additional mileage from record labels but it’s no longer a compelling reason to go to one. Major labels have cut back on their budget and would rather put their money behind a safe and popular choice. No one’s willing to take the gamble. Those who do get signed give the master copy of their album. The attitude is simply, “take it, or leave it.” No retouching. Please.
These people perform because they love what they do. Fame and fortune are nice, but not on the account of being owned by someone else. The thought just makes them cringe.
The success of a gig is dependent more on whether it was fun rather than how much money was earned from it. No one wants to play to an unresponsive audience. “Sulit kung lahat masaya” (It’s all worth it when everyone’s having fun) is the quick reply.
An outsider might think that the starving-artist syndrome is typical of these indie artists. A quick reality check shows that they do have “day jobs” that help pay for their craft. Several years ago, all one did was to play in a band. But no one is exempt from paying the rent. No matter how seemingly uncompromising one is.
When night falls, one leaves all these concerns at the door. In this case, the door is at Sa Guijo, a two-storey house that accommodates a thrift shop, art gallery, and band performances.
There’s just something about playing in a more intimate environment that puts you in touch with yourself. Even for those who made it big. It calls you back to participate, listen, and discover. No posturing, no egos. You come as you are.
At the end of the day, it is still all about the music.
*Rakenrol is a derivative of “rock n’ roll” which has been loosely used to mean a lot of different things – from c’est la vie to “just wing it.” And it’s a nice way to start and end a conversation with someone.