Album review: Joey Ayala’s 16lovesongs (2004)

By far one of my favourite experiences as a music writer is listening to Joey Ayala’s 16lovesongs in 2003 and getting assigned to interview him. Or did I come up with the idea myself and suggest it to my editor? I don’t remember anymore. I do remember that this was for Press, a free in-house magazine for Music One, a local chain of music stores.

Joey Ayala is a famous name in the Philippine music scene—universally acknowledged as one of our finest composers/performers/poets, an impassioned social and environmental activist, and a progenitor of the alternative/neo-ethnic folk-pop genre. He first came to prominence in the 1980s with his work with his band Bagong Lumad (‘new native’). Since then he’s steadily and independently produced a stream of excellent and deeply original albums, always reflective of and intertwined with his  activism.

Joey Ayala and Bagong Lumad. Photo by Flickr user village_idiot.

To my mind he’s a kind of elder statesman of independent Filipino music—and one of my personal exemplars of creative professionalism, having doggedly persevered under and outside the mainstream music industry for nearly three decades (and still going strong). Interestingly enough, Joey is quite an established figure in cultural policy institutions: most recently, he chaired the National Committe on Music of the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) from 2008-2010. I don’t know to what extent Filipino independent artists share this paradoxical trait with their counterparts in other countries—institutional and critical recognition in spite (or because?) of their relative non-involvement in the commercial music industry.

Maybe this is a reflection of the high art/low art binary? I think Joey himself would eschew the opposition, particularly since his music has been embraced by the NGO/grassroots sector. Maybe the more relevant tension is between ‘educated’/’educational’ and ‘entertaining’—something that he tries consciously to dispel, as you’ll read in the article below.

On a more personal note, I don’t know if my article encouraged Music One buyers to get Joey’s album—I’m not even sure whether 16lovesongs was ever sold in major music stores! (That bit about Joey personally delivering albums to customers is true.) If it’s raised awareness or even a modicum of interest in this shamefully neglected album, though, I’d be very happy.

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My Funny Valentine
Joey Ayala plucks a different chord from our heartstrings in his latest work, 16lovesongs.

These days imagination isn’t a strong suit of most composers of the modern love song. It might not even be necessary—just make sure the L word (not libog (‘lust’), although that could work too) is in the chorus, and ‘baby’ and ‘please’ are liberally smattered throughout the song, and you’ve got yourself a passable radio hit. Meaning: there’s a formula, tried, tested and unquestioned, the way everyone assumes chocolates and flowers to be the only effective weaponry in the battle to woo and win hearts.

Then comes along Joey Ayala, he of the exceptional and consummately Filipino imagination. With twenty-odd years of technically groundbreaking and socially conscious music under his belt, the neo-ethnic troubadour seems incapable of making any wrong moves. But what are we to make of his cross-breeding of the cliché with the creative in an album composed entirely of love songs?

Love songs don’t get any simpler—and trickier—than they do in Ayala’s hands, and it will be interesting to see the reactions of new listeners more accustomed to love songs of the day-glo ditty variety. Who else could’ve made the durian an earnest lover’s object of desire? 16lovesongs opens by affectionately praising the strange and smelly fruit: ‘O durian/Nais kitang hawakan/Kahit na matinik/Ang palad ko./O durian, nais kitang buksan/Nang matikman ang naiibang tamis.’ (‘O durian/I wish to hold you/Even though I may be pierced./O durian, I wish to open you/And taste your strange sweetness’.*

Perhaps even long-time fans may find themselves scratching their heads. Where are the otherworldly trance chants, the intricate percussive tapestries, the rousing indigenous anthems? From 1982’s Panganay ng Umaga (Firstborn of the Morning) to 1998’s Lupa’t Langit (Earth and Sky), Ayala has consistently delivered unforgettable anthems of socio-political and environmental awareness. But after 16lovesongs, independently released in September 2003, has Joey Ayala finally turned senti (i.e. ‘sentimental’)?

‘I didn’t start out writing a love song album,’ clarifies Ayala in an email. ‘I just realized that was what I had accomplished after the fact.’ The fact was a collection of sixteen  story-songs, covering a vast landscape of subjects and musical genres: from lullabies to lectures, blues licks to kundiman strummings, Gat Jose Rizal to the Joes of American hegemony.  ‘It’s such a diverse bunch of songs—this album,’ he says, ‘and after I had recorded everything and listened to the collection I couldn’t think of any unifying title or theme. The only thread is love…’

Finding the love element in depressing social issues like poverty and sexual exploitation may sound like a long shot, yet Ayala does succeed in breathing vivid life into these topics. His lyrics deftly construct personal encounters between the listener and the issue at hand, transforming the ‘them-us’ transactions of money and power into a face-to-face dialogue—the tension of love between the poles of ‘you’ and ‘I.’

In ‘Batangbakal,’ for instance, a driver trapped in an infernal traffic jam realizes it is the streetkids laughing and running outside his car who are truly free: ‘Impiyernong trapik/Ngunit may kaligtasan sa ngiti at tawanan ng mga bata/Ang kapal ng trapik na ito/Ngunit may anghel sa tabi ng kotse ko’ (‘Hellish traffic/But salvation in the children’s smiles and laughter/Terrible traffic/But there’s an angel beside my car’).

Meanwhile, ‘Japayuki Lady’ casts a tender, searching gaze on the prostituted Filipinas in Japan: “Japayuki lady/Far away from home/Saving up the money/Calling on the phone/How you miss your children/Family and friends/Instant noodle exile/Balikbayan yen.’ And the blistering ‘No-Tell Joe’ is a cynical come-on for Uncle Sam: ‘Hey Joe, don’t go/You my bro’ you my hero/You immune to radiation/Drop bombs in my bay/A little toxin every day/Won’t hurt if we stay/in a no-tell room’.

Another form of love that the album presents us is love for the motherland. Ayala so successfully melds the anthem with the love song that sometimes they’re interchangeable: his reinterpretation of Jose Rizal’s ‘Mi Ultimo Adios’ brims over with the bittersweetness of one leaving his beloved country, while the sublime ‘Walang Hanggang Paalam’ (‘Infinite Leavetaking’**) might well compel listeners to stand up straight and place their hand on their chest.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmbPB8szaA0]

Ayala’s songs are unique in that they aim to stir the conscience just as deeply as the ears or heart. ‘All songs are educational in a way—maybe mine are just more consciously so,’ Ayala muses. ‘But please don’t be misled,’ he adds hastily. ‘This album is just as entertaining as it is “educational”. The problem with using this “educational” word is that most people associate education with boredom and psychological torture!’

Listeners burdened with classroom traumas needn’t worry: Ayala’s glib humour makes us laugh as well as think, too. Two clever songs stand out in this respect: in ‘Organik’ he sings in a campy Taglish twang to promote a love that is fashionably all-natural. And the comical ‘Sabi Ko Na Nga Ba’ (‘I Knew It’) echoes the old folks’ complaints about the follies of young love.

There are songs here revolving around the conventional topic of romantic love, yet even they seem to move in orbits that are slightly off-kilter: ‘Habang Natutulog’ (‘While Asleep’),  infinitely gentle, paints a moonlit picture of a man watching over his beloved sleeping. The hopeful ‘Glad You Are Here’ ponders on the constancy of love amidst the uncertainties of living in a broken world. ‘Nakita Kita’ (‘I Saw You’) and ‘Pusong Bulalakaw’ (‘Meteor Heart’) evoke the regrettably endangered harana.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7GYCr_9fBI]

The content of Ayala’s songs forms an integral part of his work, and reading over the layers of meanings and images in each song is enough material for a separate article altogether. But an equally important chunk of the listener’s attention must be devoted to the nuances of the music itself. In 16lovesongs, Ayala keeps to an intimate soundscape of guitars and percussion for the most part.

Despite the current demand for ‘acoustic’ music, he explains it’s nothing new to him: ‘I’ve always been primarily “acoustic”—meaning I’ve always used acoustic guitars and wood and skin.’ When asked about how he thinks his album will figure in the music trend, he pragmatically replies, ‘The current craze I think is primarily economic in nature. It’s cheaper to get a singer who can self-accompany.’ Long before this economic crunch Ayala practiced self-sufficiency in the production of his albums, and 16lovesongs is no different: he does most of the work himself—from composition and arrangement to answering email requests for his albums and delivering them to his happy clients.

Still, even within this increasingly common pared-down arrangement, an admirably wide range of emotional textures is apparent: there is the magical nimbleness of ‘Durian’, the dreamy tranquility of ‘Tunay’ and ‘Kundiman sa Ulap’, the driving, bone-dry riffs of ‘Batangbakal’, and the laidback blues shuffle of ‘Bigayan’. His ingenuity in guitar-playing isn’t found in flashy solos nor simplistic hooks but in the subtle mastery of his songwriting and the evocations of his unique roots in indigenous music.

Because of this musicality Ayala’s love songs seem to glimmer with a mysterious sense of vastness and freedom, of a nearness to great spirits and wide open spaces. And contrary to popular belief, one doesn’t have to be a university professor or an ethnomusicologist to enjoy the music. Stuck in traffic on my way home, 16lovesongs was being played on the car stereo. After a couple of tracks the driver suddenly piped up: ‘Ang ganda naman nito. Para kang nasa tabing-dagat!’ (‘This is beautiful. Makes you feel like you’re by the beach!”)

How, in the end, is 16lovesongs different from and similar to the Joey Ayala of old? ‘It’s different in the sense of new songs, motifs, arrangement styles…the same in the sense of attention to balance between form and content—lyrics and music.’ Ayala pulls it off remarkably in this new album, especially in ‘Japayuki Lady’, which masterfully weaves together koto and hegalong instrumentation and includes snippets of a conversation in Nihonggo between the japayuki and her client.

There is also the inspired ‘Bagong Hinirang’, set to the tune of Irish drinking song ‘To Anarceon’—known to the rest of the world as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Rendered in Ayala’s new Tagalog text, and sung in his rich baritone, the melody is transformed into a stirring anthem for the many Filipinos who now have to pledge allegiance to a new homeland.

The peculiar brilliance of 16lovesongs fuses form and content, East and West, personal and political, mind and soul, to create new love songs for the universal heart. This is music to make love to, yes—and above all, music to live and love by.

*All Filipino-English translations are by me. I searched online for Eric Gamalinda’s terrific translations of Joey Ayala’s lyrics, unfortunately in vain. Any faults of imprecision are solely mine.

** ‘Infinite Leavetaking’ is Eric Gamalinda’s translation—couldn’t find the original link, so I got it here.

3 comments

  1. matagal ko ng gusto marinig album ni joey ayala n company…..from WADAB…..

  2. […] a blogpost of a 2004 article on 16lovesongs (still a brilliant album, ages nicely) gets me a lot of Joey […]

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