Muni-muni: Philippine jazz, a slept-on awakening?

There’s something to be said about the kinds of results you get from a Google Alert, especially when they function like weathervanes of broader currents. I’ve got a Google Alert for “filipino music” to keep track of what’s new and promising for current or future research. Most of the stuff that’s come out in the last two weeks are isolated media releases and reviews for the OPM Pinoy Music Festival at the Ayala Triangle today (how was it?), activities of (e)migrant Filipino performers and communities in different countries and cities abroad (Calgary, Hong Kong), and an album release of some mainstream OPM pop star (I pay very little attention to that corner of Philippine music—not because I don’t want to but because there are too many names to keep track of and they all sound alike to me right now. Though Zia Quizon is a lovely exception).

Google Alert pinged two different pieces on “filipino music” within two days of each other, both describing a burgeoning Philippine jazz scene: Aya Lowe has an essay on Narrative  focusing on how on young Filipino jazz musicians—Alvin Cornista, Jireh Calo, and the Brat Pack—and new jazz-centric performance venues (Tago Jazz Café in Cubao, and the Roadhouse in Makati) are helping “a jazz scene slowly emerge from autopilot.” A second write-up on Classicalite by Ian Holubiak references the Aya Lowe piece, and parallels an earlier period of distinctly Filipino ingenuity in jazz with the country’s nascent “[rediscovery of] its own section of jazz, featuring newcomers to genre and finding new places to claim the stage and set Philippine audiences on a path toward musical expression.”

Let me say first that any mention of Philippine music in local and international media is unequivocally encouraging (people are listening!), and I’m happy overall with the thoughtfulness of the two pieces. Both correctly underline the importance of high-quality, dedicated local venues: the lifeblood of jazz is interactive live performance, and that can only happen if there are proper stages where artists can thrive in their natural element. Lowe and Holubiak are also right to note that broader trends in the global music industry—namely the decline in popularity of jazz and big band music since the 1960s, and the subsequent takeover of popular/mainstream music—have pushed Filipino jazz musicians to mainstream leisure venues to play (what they hint is) as unchallenging, watered-down versions of music they should really be playing.

While I agree with both conclusions (with some reservations that belong in another post), I feel uncomfortable with the deeper dissonance between the titles and premises of the articles, and what the articles are actually about. The articles extrapolate from the experience of a handful of new jazz acts and venues to make conclusions that are vaguely representative of the entire state of industry as “waking up” from a purported slumber. (There’s also the puzzling title of Holubiak’s piece: “Manila’s music scene sounds uniquely American but remains underground”—is it just me or does it sound like a backhanded compliment?)

I wonder if the two pieces would be better read as profiles of said acts and venues without resorting to “state of the scene” pronouncements. My hang-up with their basic argument is that it relies on the usual urban cultural regeneration narrative: two new venues = a “jazzing up” of a slumbering music scene. Lowe’s piece interestingly describes the Philippine jazz scene as operating on “autopilot” until recently. I wonder if the more accurate description would go like this: “the scene hasn’t been thriving, but it’s surviving with astonishing consistency given the status quo of little government support and weak public consumption.”

Where the articles slip is that they don’t accurately characterize the status quo of Philippine jazz: not that it’s been underground (that’s true of a great number of national jazz scenes), but that this underground has always been defined by a flourishing heterogeneity of styles and practices, mostly a result of interfaces with other music genres such as classicial, rock, and indigenous or “world” music, and Filipino jazz musicians’ (often good-natured) willingness to perform in the unlikeliest places, often for very little to no money, all to attract, entertain, and truly satisfy audiences. Surely this general attitude of flexibility in Philippine jazz deserves more serious acknowledgement.

Again, as I said, any media attention given to Philippine music is rare and welcome, and the articles themselves are good. Besides, it’s hard to frame an article (especially for an online publication) that doesn’t have a grabby, quippy, superlative title. The fastest-traveling information about anything nowadays is information about what is developing or trending. It’s always a bit of a letdown to realize that the Next Big Thing is actually a Next Ordinary-Sized Thing in a long progression of Past Ordinary-Sized Things, and the challenge is to frame this under-the-radar progression in a compelling way that will make you want to tune in more carefully to things as they happen in a much quieter and subtler way than initially assumed.

A caveat behind all these reactions: I’m neither the right nor the best person to talk about Philippine jazz, though I have been thinking a lot about the fate of professional Filipino musicians, jazz and otherwise, who choose the path of overseas work (i.e. full-time hotel and cruise ship performance). I’ve had little sustained experience with the current jazz scene whether as listener or performer, and limited opportunity to delve into the not-unconsiderable history of Philippine jazz in its 100+ years of existence.  For that, we currently have Richie Quirino’s books; and my friend Fritz Schenker at U of Wisconsin-Madison is doing some fascinating research on the jazz latitudes of traveling Filipino musicians in Asia in the 1920s-1930s.

Also, I’m admittedly speaking from my own outdated knowledge of a fraction of a fraction of what could potentially be a huge field of study; who knows what other jazz worlds exist outside the mega-urban Tagalog-centric confines of Metro Manila. This post itself could be accused of a one-sidedness because nearly all of the musicians cited here have some links to the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Music in Diliman (QC represent!)— a community I can claim some passing familiarity with.

But I do have a basic idea of the general contours of Philippine jazz, since it has always enabled the cultivation of close linkages with other vibrant music-worlds. This is probably because of the relative smallness of the formal conservatory system, and the tight market for live music in the form of raket, or one-off performances, for classical and jazz musicians—everyone gets by with wedding gigs, society events and corporate launches, and the occasional big network TV special. Thinking more optimistically, couldn’t this be indicative too of the basic propensity for creative flexibility that is the hallmark of the very best jazz musicians?

Also, there’s a good reason to propose UPCM as a starting point to trace the current peregrinations of Philippine jazz: I don’t know of any other music locale in in the Philippines that hosts such a diverse and concentrated artistic ecology of genres (jazz, classical, choral, popular, rock, and indigenous music) and levels (amateurs and professionals).

Anyway, off the top of my head, here’s a short, rough list of other artists/threads that ought to be at least acknowledged in any conversation of Philippine jazz in the last five years.  Additions and/or corrections welcome.


Big bands and jazz orchestras

There’s a centuries-old tradition of banda (parish- or barangay-sponsored brass bands) all throughout the Philippines, which makes big band and orchestral jazz natural choices for many exemplary Pinoy musicians, especially those from the Southern Luzon regions. Long after the heyday of big band music, the Asosasyon ng Musikong Pilipino (AMP) Big Band and Jazz Orchestra led by musical director extraordinaire Mel Villena keep this scene alive with semi-regular performances—up until 2013, they were staples at Skarlet’s Jazz Kitchen (where do they perform now? [ed. They perform Monday nights at Balete at Kamias]). Many AMP members are alumni of the late great Ugoy-Ugoy Band. Some of these gigs are themed cover performances (their all-Chicago sets are electrifying), but they do get to feature in new and interesting projects, such as Trina Belamide’s sassy “Bigtime,” her entry to the 2012 PhilPop Songwriting Competition. The number’s also fronted by stellar vocal trio Baihana, whom I’ll talk about more below.


Western Jazz/Philippine “ethnic” interface

There are few musicians in the Philippines who have followed an idiosyncratic artistic path as doggedly as Bob Aves—barring his wife Grace Nono, of course. It’s fairer to say that his path merges with Nono’s for the most part, diverging into solo explorations of the fertile middle ground between the jazz idiom and various Philippine indigenous music traditions. The most recent one is Out of Tradition (2013), which features the crystalline articulations of his trademark octavina. Aves also programmed gong arrangements too, as we can hear in the unexpectedly alluring “Gongs Can Swing:”


Though it’d be wrong to identify Johnny Alegre as an ethnic jazz artist, the guitar player’s 2012 experiment with electronica and ethnic stylings with Humanfolk is worth checking out. I love this playfully soulful take on the jazz-ethnic/”world” interface.


Vocal jazz

Vocal jazz has always been alive and well in Philippine jazz with a host of knockout solo performers (Lynn Sherman, Bituin Escalante, Mon David in the US), but what’s been slept on in various Philippine music scenes is the interface between jazz and pop through vocal and choral music. Vocal jazz stalwarts and top finalists at the 2012 Venetian Macao Jazz & Blues Fest The CompanY lend a brassy flair to masa-pleasing pop and novelty fare through tight, bright, rapid-fire harmonies. Baihana is a fresh, gutsy all-female vocal jazz trio with Krina Cayabyab doubling as the group’s resident arranger.


Rock/and jazz

The grittier, noisier iterations of Philippine jazz are usually to be found in serial indie rock productions rather than dedicated jazz bars. How can any article on the scene not give a shoutout to the ramshackle, madcap fury of bebop/rock pioneers the Radioactive Sago Project, who released a new album just this year?

Apart from working day jobs as two of the country’s leading session musicians, spouses Karel and Yosha Honasan are at the helm of formidable acid jazz/rock/soul group Yosha:



A final note about the whole project of defining “Philippine jazz.” I want to argue for an approach to definition that is as open-minded and inclusive as possible. It’s necessary, given the staggering diversity of approaches to jazz by Filipinos. Some artists are pursuing a formal-aesthetic reimagination of the jazz idiom by engaging pre-colonial “Filipino” sensibilities (Bob Aves), others draw from the OPM pop oeuvre as fodder for their interpretative explorations, and still others perform Filipino jazz (both the “jazzness” of Filipino musical practice and the “Filipinoness” of jazz) simply by being, well, themselves: Filipino jazz musicians playing in Filipino musical venues to predominantly Filipino audiences using local modes, quirks, and strategies of communication and virtuosity, on and offstage. Anyone who listens carefully enough to these soundings-in-progress can’t sum this all up as “uniquely American.”

Good, passionate, and brilliant Filipino musicians are embarking on new music explorations all over this country, all the time—just as they are in every country in the world. Whether or not they choose to be jazz musicians (and what kind) depends partly on the market, the schools, and the listening, buying, performance-attending public, which is why certain periods have been historically more conducive than others to certain practices of musical performance.

Regardless of who the face of this jazz reawakening might be—or when and where it might be happening—perhaps the point to be made is that this reawakening has been happening for much more subtly and persistently than we can detect at present. Maybe we ought to be listening and looking in more places, like schools and music venues that aren’t exclusively geared towards jazz audiences. Although, yes, it’s not insignificant that there’s been an increase in new jazz venues. The more crucial question is: will they last?  Will the demand be strong enough to really start something new and long-lasting? Impossible to predict now.

To be honest, I’m not fully convinced that one to two new jazz spots and music acts are solid enough proof of a renaissance, and I’m not sure yet why the sporadic but not-unprecedented assessment of this slice of Philippine music as reemerging should crop up at this particular time. Perhaps this is a sign of the continuing development of the Makati/Taguig area into the next financial, economic, and cultural nerve center of the country; in which case the interesting question becomes what effect the social construction of Philippine jazz as the musical medium of urban cosmopolitanism (“it sounds sosyal“) will have on current underground communities of performance.

Now, if the government suddenly decided to pour in more money to really beef up nationwide cultural and musical education program, and invent new and better initiatives to support the diversity of Philippine musicians, performers and songwriters alike; and if consumers started accepting that a healthy, inclusive music industry requires respect through responsible collective consumption—that would be a sea change.

Bottom line for now: any indication that a public is still interested—still willing to put in time and money to wake up to and get into these always-growing music-worlds—is good news.

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