Killing the music: Manila’s cover band conundrum

It’s the second verse that kills my fledgling karaoke career. The first verse was bad, but my cheery disregard for melody had left the crowd too bewildered to complain. Unfortunately, this tactic could only carry me so far, especially when standing on stage belting out the world’s worst rendition of “Careless Whisper”.

Tension mounts as my voice smashes through notes previously un-encountered on the vocal scale, until finally the music keels over and gratefully dies. I hurry out of the spotlight, which is burning as brightly as my cheeks. A few sympathy claps serve only to accentuate the stunned silence. People in Manila live and breathe music, and I’d just bludgeoned a song insensible on stage. They weren’t happy.

I’m met at the bottom of the steps by Eddie, Club Red’s manager and the man responsible for inflicting me on his customers.

“That was terrible,” I say with a nervous laugh.

“Yes,” he agrees gravely, patting me on the shoulder. “It was.”

It’s Sunday evening in Manila. The sky is bloated with storm clouds and a light drizzle swirls in the humid air, distorting neon signs advertising the live music of the city’s bars and clubs. A few hours have passed since I weaponised karaoke, and I’m sat outside Café Havana, a sleek homage to Hemmingway’s Cuba that succeeds because it treats the period with the same loving contempt with which Disney treats castles.

Around me waitresses in berets saunter through cigar smoke, as guests admire each other over mojitos and write down song requests on slips of paper, which are piling up in front of the beleaguered band like a snowdrift.

I’ve been adopted by a man called Ru and his friends who rescued me from the karaoke fallout and are now tending my bruised ego with their own tales of musical misadventure.

The problem is that while these involve falling off stage or accidentally hitting members of the crowd with a microphone stand, none involve a lack of skill. The reason for this is that Filipinos are made of music. Cut one open and semiquavers fly out. Everybody plays an instrument, sings well or can dance – one person even describes the guitar as “the Filipino national costume”.

This unique relationship with music is most readily expressed through the army of cover bands eking out a living in Manila’s bars, often for just a few dollars per gig. Every genre is catered for, and finding a bad band is as likely as finding a pitchfork in a box of Cheerios.

“Every house is filled with music. Parents make their kids perform at parties, it’s just what people do here,” explains solo artist Lee Grane, a six-year veteran of the circuit, who’s playing the Limbo club, an intimate venue located in Manila’s neon-stained Fort Bonifacio area.

There are thousands of cover bands in the city and while the competition ensures quality, many of them would be far more comfortable explaining quantum physics in a haiku than crafting an original song.

“They [the audience] want to listen to music that they know,” says Lee. “If you don’t play covers then they’ll just go down the street to the next bar, and you won’t get hired again. That’s the problem here, if you want to play original music you have to play the popular stuff, then slide in your own songs occasionally. It’s hard.”

It’s also a shame. Lee has a wonderful voice, full of weight and texture, and though there’s probably a big future waiting for her, that doesn’t necessarily mean her job description will require any radical revision. Case in point Paolo Santos, a chart-topping folk singer with four critically acclaimed albums under his belt who takes requests every Monday night in the Off the Grill restaurant.

Unlike Lee, labouring for her big break, Paolo crashed Manila’s charts almost by accident when his cover of Moonlight over Paris rode a wave of tears all the way to number one, making him a household name.

“I had a corporate job; I wasn’t a musician, except in my own bedroom,” laughs Paolo during an interview between sets. “I was doing my masters in Geneva when I first heard Moonlight over Paris. I went back to my hotel room, picked up my guitar and played my own version. When I started playing music professionally that song covered all of my bills.”

Skinny and good natured, Paolo lolls over his chair like a marionette being worked by a puppeteer with tired wrists. He laughs often, but he can’t hide the weariness behind it.

“Filipinos love music, but aren’t familiar with many different types. I’m a big fan of Paul Weller, but there’s no market for Paul Weller here. Most people are left with the choice of making music they like, rather than music they love. I was in Australia and, there, if you play lots of covers they’re like ‘what’s he doing?’ I think we’re getting there in the Philippines but it’ll take time. I say 10 years but I’m an optimist.”

How does a country with so much raw talent produce so little original music? Legendary performer Freddie Aguilar, whose rendition of Filipino folk song Bayan Ko became the unofficial anthem of the People Power Revolution in 1986, believes it comes down to a lack of will.

“Above my door [to his club Ka Freddie’s] there’s a sign that says ‘please play original music’. Audiences want things and record companies want things. I spent my early career getting turned away for playing my own stuff. If you’re good, you’ll make it, if you want it.”

Of course there are plenty of great bands still crafting Original Philippine Music (OPM), but the Filipino charts currently belong to androgynous pop singers distinguishable only by the quality of their manufactured smiles. Local musicians talk wistfully of the two golden ages of OPM: the 1960s and 1970s, when jazz hounds were sharing the stage with Duke Ellington and Miles Davies, and the early 1990s when a cavalcade of rock bands including the Eraserheads and Rivermaya emerged to offer the industry a dropkick in drop D.

At the forefront of this early 1990s movement was rock icon Karl Roy, whose career was sadly stalled after he suffered two strokes. But he’s back and putting together a new band inspired by an untapped resource: the nation’s history.

“This country’s been through a lot,” he says. “That should be in the music, should be part of where we’re going. There was music here before the colonials, instruments only a few people are still playing; they’re powerful.”

He pauses and stares at me with eyes so full of something that I’m tempted to shuffle out of the way so he can see it better. Eventually, he points to a tattoo engulfing his forearm. It represents Bathala, the God of creation in Philippine mythology.

“I’mproud of this country. I’m going to use these instruments, make that connection to the past,” Karl concludes.

It’s a mission statement shared by Johnny Alegre, one of the few artists of recent years to successfully export his music to Europe and the US. He’s equally passionate about tying two strands of the country’s previously disparate musical narrative together.

“It’s time we started writing songs for our people; songs we take into the provinces. The music scene is Manila, but there’s a rich tradition of OPM played with bamboo and gongs, and if we don’t support that, it’s going to disappear,” he warns.

Thankfully, this is not true of Karl, Freddie and Johnny, who are totemic figures in the Filipino music industry, their shadows long and influence considerable. Dropping Karl’s name into conversation brings instant musical kudos, while Freddie’s club has become a proving ground for young artists.

Johnny regularly tours Manila’s underground venues to jam with the kids, ensuring that flagging spirits don’t destroy their desire to make original music. Make no mistake, when OPM next ignites in Manila these guys will be holding the matches.

***

The steps seem steeper this time; the spotlight fiercer; the crowd less jovial. I’m back in Club Red and ready to silence my karaoke demons. The club’s owner, Eddie, has convinced me to try again, blaming the song and my own nervousness for my abject performance first time around. He suggested I sing in my bathroom to get better, which is a bit like training brain surgeons with a head of cabbage and a pair of scissors .

Still the white slip of paper with my song request is travelling to the stage. I’ve chosen Eye of the Tiger by Survivor, figuring that if I’m going to die, the eulogy might as well be ironic.

The verses fly by, or at least fall with a certain amount of haphazard grace. It’s not a great performance; more stubborn than soaring, but when it’s over I almost dance off stage. In place of the post-Blitz silence that followed my first performance there’s glorious indifference. Drinks are drunk, conversations continued, and my presence roundly ignored. One or two faces turn in my direction, but I’m six-foot-two-inches and built like wet spaghetti. My body hints at imminent comedy, so their interest is only natural.

As I head for the bar, where Eddie is waiting for me, I feel curiously successful. I aspired to mediocre, and hit it with room to spare. For these few minutes I’m a karaoke king, and I’m abdicating with my head.

“Very brave, I didn’t think you’d do it,” smiles Eddie, shaking my hand warmly. He’s polite enough not to mention the fact that it’s still shaking.

“I don’t know why I did,” I say.

He smiles. “This is the Philippines.”

I wait for more, but Eddie’s spotted some friends and is already moving to greet them. I consider asking him to explain, but then think better of it. After all, it’s a brilliant answer. An entire people’s passion for karaoke and cover bands, OPM and giggling girl groups explainable in a simple sentence: “Manila made me do it”.

As I eye the stage and wonder whether Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” could withstand my vocal headbutt, I almost buy it, too. Almost

Killing the music: Manila’s cover band conundrum

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