As the Filipino musician got better, the pull of the outside world got stronger. Virtuoso pianist Bobby “Wildman” Enriquez, a native of Bacolod, was one such local genius, much sought-after by many jazz audiences and patrons around the world. Many years after his death, Enriquez is still the most popular name supplied by many musicians to describe the quintessential Filipino jazz artist. “Sobrang yabang lang,” recalls one musician respondent, who requested anonymity. “Pero ganu’n siguro talaga para mabuhay ka sa States, dapat sobrang yabang at confident ka.”
An interesting thesis was posited by Quirino about Filipinos making a contribution to the genesis of jazz in the U.S. A Filipino settlement called St. Malo, which was said to have existed in the 1880s in Louisiana, an important place in U.S. jazz history, practiced “Dancing the Shrimp,” in which workers popped sun-dried shrimp with their feet with “a weird shuffle…to the accompaniment of swaying hips…and a battered guitar.”
Perhaps it was the foreigner who copied the native first, after all.
“Filipino jazz, hmm, I am not sure if there exists such a thing,” says fellow keyboardist Abby Clutario. “I could tell you there is a jazz scene…revolving around musicians ‘covering’ jazz standards, or teaming up for a high-class ‘jazzy’ arrangement of a popular tune. I only know a handful of Filipino artists who create original material heavily influenced by jazz.” I agree with her. “Ang talino ng music mo” is a uniquely Filipino euphemism for surefire commercial unsuccess.
My complaint about modern jazz music being too “technical” or “cerebral” is often met by a smile and a shake of the head from a seasoned jazz musician. The best assuage came from drummer Mar Dizon, who told me about the blue note, a flatted note that was so not because it was cool but because some wind instrument was missing a hole, or a guitar was missing some string. The famous blue note was thus a workaround, a way out of a jam, a way from weakness into strength.
There is a lot about the Philippines to give anybody the blues. The economy is in a perpetual downturn; graft and corruption remain; the country is down to number 24 in the Happiness Index; arts and culture is not a priority in the Millennium Development Plan. Moreover, the cherished Filipino value of pakikisama is a prophylactic for the trailblazer. Had the überconfident Miles Davis been a Filipino artist, he would have received something much more severe than the beating he got from a cop at Birdland in 1959. He would have received a glassy stare of indifference from the herd.
But some people are like symptoms—they persist, and may soon even become doctors to some of our nation’s ills.
Saxophonist Alvin Cornista was enjoying the good life in Canada: signed to Universal Music in 2003, he was working with the likes of Paul Anka and Michael Bublé until he moved back here to the Philippines. “Now that I live here in Manila, we have not pursued any further albums,” he shares. “I actually declined further offers to pursue my dream of living here!” Cornista has been quietly releasing his music through underground and online networks and will have an album out by the end of the year. He plays his confident brand of electro-hard bop with Filipino jazz musicians in projects like Sekoya, Nyko Maca, and Manila-Paris Confidential, keeping the scene alive and kicking.
Another beacon in the jazz music scene is singer Sandra Lim-Viray, who has been organizing the Philippine International Jazz and Arts Festival with kindred spirits for six years now. She took the step with neither financial nor government backing. The first festival was held in 2006 at Harbor Square in Manila, headlined by Brazilian pianist Eumir Deodato and American singer Kevyn Lettau, and featured eighty Filipino bands. Of struggling artists, Viray has this to say: “To be a full-time artist living comfortably and happy with your art, you need to be seriously exceptionally good and at the top of your craft.”
A guiding force and enabler for many aspiring Filipino jazz musicians, guitarist and composer Johnny Alegre explains that many Filipino artists are on the rise. “The problem now is to create opportunities to [enable the continued growth] of these artists. That’s the challenge.”
Filipino jazz, as a sound, as a genre? I think I may have already heard it once, in a Bob Aves recording. He was learning the Maguindanaon scale and fusing it with jazz. He was using gongs and digging back into our own our indigenous musical traditions. I think if a DJ could do a remix, put a driving beat underneath all that superb guitar playing, it could be a potential monster hit with the masa, like “Dayang Dayang” was several years ago. But that’s my beef with fellow Filipinos in general: the glassy indifference, the kanya-kanya mentality. We are as divided as our own archipelago.
Music producer Nieves Pascua-Bates, who set up Candid Records Philippines in 2004, was astounded by the amount of talent she found here. “They were educated in established music schools in the U.S. The Filipino talent was of high quality, and we’d hoped to develop it around the world.” At the moment, the record label is on sabbatical due to the harsh economic climate.
But jazz is here to stay. “It won’t die; the older the form, the more resilient it is,” explains singer and bandleader Myra Ruaro, who witnessed the formation of an exciting big band called AMP at her own bar some years ago. Gerry Grey, a musician and impresario from Bacolod, agrees. “A lot of Bacolod exports are keeping jazz alive outside—pianists Carolyn Carreon in Germany, Ranel Martir in Thailand, and trumpeter Nelson Demeren in Germany; the brood of pianist Eli Saison. And Moy Ortiz of The Company has to be commended for keeping up the jazz tradition in the vocal harmonies and selections of the group.” (The Company was the only Filipino act that made it to the Venetian Macau Jazz and Blues Festival this year.) Grey also notes that the current jazz scene in Negros is also growing, and gives special mention to the newly formed West Negros University Big Band, led by pianist Michael Tambasen.
Indeed, beneath the easy strains of pop media, the underbelly that houses all that is raw and exciting continues to growl in hunger and longing. Something hot and wicked this way comes, and jazz music—I daresay Filipino jazz—might be just it.
Songwriter-pianist Pearlsha “Isha” Abubakar has released two albums under Candid Records Philippines and has written songs for various local artists. Her independently-produced song, “North Avenue Station,” is featured on www.isonger.com, a website promoting and celebrating the original Filipino single. She is also a professional TV and film composer. Email her at email@example.com.
Photo of Humanfolk’s Abby Clutario, Johnny Alegre, and Cynthia Alexander by Jan Michael Dayoja. Image of Alvin Cornista playing with Sekoya by Raj Taneja (a.k.a. Urban Mixer). Both photographs taken from Flickr Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.