Monday, June 18, 2007

Music Lesson #7

Francis Magalona was being interviewed about his early hiphop legacy in an NU 107 radio show. Francis M. never really put out any sort of gangsta persona and his songs were mostly cheesy imitations of whatever was in fashion in US hiphop radio at the time. Anyway, one question posed to him was, is there really a gangsta culture in the Philippines? He seemed miffed at the question, perhaps thinking the DJ was poking fun at him. He abruptly answered, of course not, everybody knows there isn't (wait, tell that to Mankillah and Glock 9), next question.
That got me thinking. Everyday I read in the tabloids about gangs and hardcore fraternities shivving each other in the ribs and bashing heads for territory or respect. Someone's always getting shot with an improvised pistol in Batasan Hills or Tondo. Guys with the same tats or ritual burn marks are arrested for peddling drugs. There is a thriving gang culture. It's the same game, same drugs, same bitches, only for the third world. Passenger tricycles and lowriding owner-type jeepneys instead of Impalas. But it's there nonetheless. There may not be a US gangsta culture in the Philippines, but there is a pinoy gangsta culture. And like their US counterparts, pinoy gangs and frats have their own strict code of conduct, the members tend to dress and talk the same way, there's always some level of criminality involved, and most importantly, conflicts are usually resolved through violence.
Later I heard an OPM song on the radio (on a defunct all-hiphop station) called "Valenzuela," basically a ripoff soundalike of Tupac's California Love that goes:
"Valenzuela, dating municipality
Ngayon ay city na, no doubt about it,
Valenzuela..."
Ain't that the dumbest fucking thing. And then I was driving along Caloocan one day to run an errand, through a street where the only shops were alternating funeral parlors and saw-sharpeners ("naghahasa ng lagari"). This song started writing itself in my head. The narrative is patterned after Warren G and Nate Dogg's "Regulate" and the imagery is, well, part movies and part experience (I won't tell which is which).
It starts with the chords B, A#, A, G then when it drops to E all hell breaks loose, like a film that opens to a bloody gangwar, ala Gangs of New York, only its Gangs of
CALOOCAN
Musmos palang ako iba na ako umarte
Siga sa iskwela dyan sa amin sa Zabarte
Monumento, Valenzuela dyan ako lumalagare
Tanungin mo'ng mga Krishna ako lang ang Hare-hare
Kung sexy ka na chick pumasok ka sa'king tanggapan
Kung gulo ang hanap mo ding-hindi ka uurungan
Tama ang narinig sa 'bubulung-bulungan
Ang sinumang humarang huhukayin sa kangkungan
(Chorus)
Sa Caloocan, sa Caloocan
'Yoko nang bumalik, huwag niyo 'kong ibalik
Sa Caloocan, sa Caloocan
Pagtapos ko ng high school palibhasa kumikita
Naparami ang inom naparami ang barkada
Nagkalat man ang gamit ay hindi ko tinitira
Negosyo lang sa akin para 'di ako masira
Saan man pumunta nakabuntot ang mga bata
Lahat kumakarga mapa-bote man o bala
Kung gusto mo ng away 'kaw narin ang bahala
Kami ay na Litex sa Select tayo magkita
(Chorus)
Pumutok ang warning shot at nagdatingan ang PDEA
Tumakbo ang mga Runner, naglaro and mga Playah
Sa ilalim ng tulay doon kami lahat nagtago
Bumili ng kwatro-kantos naginuman mga gago
May humarurot owner-type na lowrider
Tumatawa ang busina may disenyo sa kurtina
Bumaba ang may-ari baka di ka maniwala
Naka-bonnet at alahas, Ilokano gangbanger!
(Chorus)
Pagputok ng pillbox, kami ay kumaripas
Ako ay nadapa sumadsad ako sa burak
Akala ko buhangin puro bubog ang nakuha
Merong thumbtacks, merong pako ang mukha ay nangasugat
Nasan ang barkada? Wala man lang naiwan
Lumapit ang kalaban at ako ay inihian
Bumunot akong nuwebe tinutukan ko si loco
Makalipas 'lang minuto pinatawag na ang SOCO.
(Chorus)
Bridge:
Mahirap mang malayo sa bayang tinubuan
Gusto kong umalis, lumihis sa kalokohan
Kapwa mandurukot ay nagdurukutan
Kapwa mandudurog ay nagdudurugan
Kapwa manginginom ay nag-iinuman
Yoko nang bumalik sa Caloocan!
(Chorus)
Sa Caloocan (4x)

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Music Lesson #6

If you want to get your ideas out, you gotta take risks.

Murder is a touchy subject and I don't believe any Filipino songwriter, or poet for that matter, has ever written a murder ballad. Maybe it's because murder ballads aren't really part of the Filipino artistic tradition, unlike in England and in America. American folk music, for example, is rife with murder ballads. There's Stagger Lee, the Original Gangster who walked into a bar with a Colt 45 and a deck of cards and shot everyone dead. There's Neil Young's Down By the River where he shot his baby dead... deahhhhd. There's Jimi Hendrix's Hey Joe about a guy who kills his girlfriend for "running round town" and then flees to Mexico. Then there's the creepiest one for me, the Kingston Trio's Tom Dooley, a North Carolina folk song based on the murder of a girl by an impoverished civil war veteran named Tom Dula and the latter's subsequent hanging.

And then there's my own murder ballad "Patay na Babae sa Loob Ng Bahay."

The song is about a guy who parties all night, blacks out, then awakes in his house to the sight of a dead girl covered in gore. There's a bloody hammer on the side and knives stuck in the victim. He doesn't know how the corpse got there. Hilarious consequences ensue.

It's definitely a risky subject. I don't think it's going to please the women's groups. And I certainly don't want to offend any victims' rights advocacy groups. But the thing is grisly, mind-blowingly disgusting murders happen everyday. In a way, they make us examine the nature of good and evil inside of us. You don't have to read Shakespeare's Macbeth to know that murder is a legitimate subject of art.

In law school, by the way, you spend your freshman year with two criminal law subjects where you read, among others, piles of Supreme Court cases describing in detail crimes against persons so horrible you can't show them on CSI. There's the politician who had his enemy disemboweled and the guy's intestines wrapped around his neck while he was still breathing and his own testicles stuffed into his mouth. There's the the guy who sleep-hacked his wife to death. There's Manero who killed a priest and ate his brain. Lawyers are trained not to be shocked by the grisliness of the act so they can focus on the evidence and the procedure.

I guess you can say that med students are desensitized to dead bodies while law students are desensitized to murder. Or maybe not. Notably, Ted Bundy, one of the worst serial killers in United States history, was studying law when he was finally caught. He conducted his own defense with laughable results, straight to the gas chamber.

For those who don't read the news, Ador Mawanay was a guy who came out into the open years ago accusing a certain powerful politician of being a drug lord and a murderer. Later on, a guy by the name of Udong Mahusay surfaced accusing another powerful political personality of equally derogatory things. Both Mawanay and Mahusay, through their own acts in the public eye, have separately earned reputations as unreliable witnesses. That's how the song jokingly makes reference to them.


Patay na Babae sa Loob ng Bahay

Partied 'til the break of dawn sa bahay
Sa daming nainom nawalan ako ng malay
Paggising ko ng hapon may nakahandusay
Na patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Paggising ko ng hapon may nakahandusay
Na patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Kung pwedeng manag-inip ang panag-inip
Ito na marahil ang masisilip
Alin ang kathang-isip at alin ang tunay
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Alin ang kathang-isip at alin ang tunay
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Nakabaon pa ang mga kutsilyo
Nanginginig pa ang duguang martilyo
Dapa sa sahig, tumutulo pa ang laway
Ng patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Dapa sa sahig, tumutulo pa ang laway
Ng patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Tumawag akong pulis ako ay natakot
Pagdating nila ako ang hinakot
Laging natotrobol pero di parin masanay
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Laging natotrobol pero di parin masanay
Sa patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Ang magpaliwanag ay pangkaraniwan
Pero maniwala kang ako'y walang kasalanan
Ano lang naman ang iyong patunay?
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Ano lang naman ang iyong patunay?
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Abogado ko si Ador Mawanay
Star witness ko si Udong Mahusay
Hatol sa akin ng huwes ay bitay
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Ano lang naman ang iyong patunay?
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Minsan talaga ganyan ang buhay
Di puti di itim, paib-iba ng kulay
Merong nangyayaring di inaasahang bagay
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Patay na babae sa loob ng bahay
Merong nangyayaring di inaasahang bagay
May patay na babae sa loob ng bahay.

Awang-awa ako kay nanay at tatay
Hiyang-hiya ako sa kapitbahay
Sana nama'y huwag nang mahukay
Ang patay na babe sa ilalim ng bahay.

Patay na babae sa ilalim ng bahay
Patay na babae sa ilalim ng bahay
Sana nama'y huwag nang mahukay
Ang patay na babae sa ilalim ng bahay!

Yeah! Come on!
-----

So there. Chupacabraz plays this song quite regularly usually as the last one in the set. The Mag:Net service staff goes freaking crazy everytime they hear it. Khavn dela Cruz made a video (with English subtitles) for a short version of the song but it's too hot for TV so just check it out on Youtube.

Music Lesson #5

I spent May 5, 2007 at the Loyola Memorial Park in Marikina. A beautiful Saturday afternoon, sitting on a stone bench, listening to the wind shaking the trees. It sounded like the ocean. This is me at the most peaceful spot in all of Metro Manila, surrounded by the dead.

My dad died May 5 all of 21 years ago. Head on car collision along San Manuel, Pangasinan. I was in the car too. So were my mom, sister, uncle, aunt, and two cousins. It took around two months for each of us to recover from our injuries, enough to go home. By then, I'd been told my dad had to be flown to the States for emergency surgery. I did not know he'd been dead for two months already. I found out a few months later, when they finally brought me home where I would spend the good part of a year learning to walk again. For many years I had dreams of my dad walking home from San Manuel, naked except for his briefs. He'd ring the bell in the middle of the night but we'd all be too asleep to open the door for him. And then he walks right back to the scene of the accident. For many years I had trouble sleeping because of that recurring dream.

Years later, I wrote a poem about the experience. As usually happens in poetry workshops, subjective (i.e. actual) details from the source experience are whittled down until all that's left is a set of images that conveys an objective experience. The end result was okay, but I needed something that truly captured the trauma I'd felt from the accident, inTechnicolor, so to speak. I needed something that could convey my interpretation of being 8 years old with my face smashing into the side window of a car. I needed something that could capture the traumatic recurrence of that particular event, maybe the single most important and definitive moment of my life.

I wrote "Car Crash" because the poem couldn't cut it for me. My band Chupacabraz performs the song sometimes and I think the somber accompaniment that builds up and dies down again really captures how the song was intended to be.

Car Crash

Driving to the interior
Between trees I see you
Drawn to the fire

Candles litter the roadside
Lead to the place I
Left you that night

Chorus:
It's all in the give up
All in the let down
Trapped in a small town
Stay for a while

Fall like a rain of
Dismembered angels
Show me some dark clouds
Put on your veil

Put on your veil
Put on your veil
Put on your veil

II
Unread books on the backseat
Spell out your story
Right to the ending

I remember that evening
Strained it of meaning
Drained it to nothing

(Repeat Chorus)

III
I want to do it over
Brace myself for it
Make myself stronger

Sun shines down like a migraine
I'm ready for more pain
So long as I feel it

Chorus II:
So bring in the give up
Nuclear letdown
Foot on the pedal
Picking up speed

All of them children
Breaking to pieces
Strewn on the dashboard
Glow-in-the-dark saints

Glow-in-the-dark saints
Glow-in-the-dark saints
Glow-in-the-dark saints.

Music Lesson #4

This post is brought to you by my favorite pop chord progression: G-D-Em-C.

Lower register G sounds like youthful fun, jangly and up-tempo. Higher register D builds up the song's energy. You play with just four strings of the guitar and yet you can dance to it. And then there's the E minor. The E chord sounds like a stocky, sure-footed guy, with a booming voice, ready to fight. You take away that G# to turn it into an E minor and it sounds like the same guy only with a hole through his soul. He's dark and depressed now and he needs to be saved. And then we come around to that redeeming C chord, Do-Mi-Sol, pleasant like the sound of a slot machine vomiting tokens into your tumbler.

Learn those four chords and you can write a hit song, if you were so inclined. Even if you can't play worth a damn, if you know how to work those chords you can still do wonders.

I got my first guitar when I was ten years old -- a classical Yamaha guitar. My mom bought it from my uncle who'd spent many lonely nights with it as a civil engineer in Jeddah, singing his favorite Bread songs and probably, at other times, swinging it wildly to fend off Bread-hating ass-rapists at the construction camp.

The first songs I learned were Beatles songs. Back in grade school and early high school, I was friends with a guy named Rommel who was also a big Beatles fan. It was the early nineties yet our notebooks were full of pasted-on photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo from the 60s and early 70s. I learned guitar first and Rommel soon followed suit.

Nineteen years later, with LOTS of practice, I can still play only a few chords well. I can't climb up and down the scales or do Van Halen-esque two-handed tapping. Rommel, a few years after learning how to play guitar, became the legendary guitarist of possibly the most famous Pinoy death metal band in the country. He's now an eye doctor, I hear.

Let's go back to college. It's 1997, I'm in my Humanities 2 class at UP Diliman discussing musical instruments. I'd written a few songs but was mostly still into poetry. But I'd been playing guitar for many years now to believe that I was a very decent musician. The teacher, an attractive young woman, asks for volunteers who can play the guitar in front of the class, sort of a live demonstration just for fun. I immediately raised my hand. So did another guy from the back row, an unassuming Engineering student by the name of Lenin.

The next meeting I brought my guitar. Lenin asked to go first. To my amazement, he plays (if I remember right) Man in The Mirror, that Tuck Andress jazz piece they used to play at that Bob Garon show. He plays almost flawlessly and the class applauds enthusiastically at the end.

My turn. I don't know where to begin. I announce "This is a chord progression that the Eraserheads uses in some of their songs" (I now forget which songs and maybe I was wrong) and commence strumming the G-D-Em-C pattern, nervously and clumsily. The class looks on, unimpressed. The teacher saves me from further embarassment and tells me I'm excused. Almost a decade of guitar playing by then and all I could show for was G-goddamned-D-E minor-C.

Still I believed in those four chords. I kept hearing melodies in my head built around those chords. And later the words just sort of wrote themselves into the melodies.

That same year I wrote two songs using that chord pattern. There's Fran (see previous post) and Ambing, a song that has achieved some notoriety through the years. Just this afternoon outside the Mandaluyong courthouse, I passed a couple of tambay types singing Ambing while horsing around. If I'd stopped in my barong and briefcase to tell them I wrote (and sang) that song they wouldn't believe me. Or they'd punch me in the face and steal my wallet.

The old Yamaha sits beside my office desk. Like me, it's now battered, slightly out of tune, and world-weary. And like me, after all these years, it's earned the perfect right to sing the blues.

Music Lesson #3

Music is a fantastic way of perpetuating beautiful lies.

I wrote "Fran" in 1997 during the tail end of one of the more prominent writers workshops - sort of like summer camp for young and not so young writers and writer types. The song is about a guy who cannot let go of his girlfriend who has since dumped him for another guy. This, of course, presupposes that the speaking voice had been having some kind of meaningful romantic relationship with this "Fran" character.

The real life inspiration for "Fran" was actually a co-fellow at the workshop whose true identity I shall conceal under the name "Bhabes."

"Pieces of you broken on the floor
Now I'm standing right above your photograph
Remember how we took it on the dam, Fran."

-read: cinematic beginning. Guy stands above a framed picture of himself and his ex that he let fall to the floor in pieces. It's safe to assume his ex has since been avoiding his calls, as exes are wont to do, so the Fran he's talking to is all in his head. The word "dam" sounds like such a contrived rhyme for Fran, especially with the word "damn" from the next verse. But the idea of a weirdo who'd actually take his girlfriend on a date to Magat dam or something felt right for the song. Especially with the imagery from the chorus of falling from a bridge.

"Now I don't give a damn, at least I don't think so,
I don't think I care about that guy
I saw you you with inside the disco."

-read: When you're a nineteen year old poet, it's easy to get lovesick at girls in their early twenties who are also into poetry and art and are named "Bhabes." My friend Joel, who had been fancying himself (still does, actually) a "New Romantic" in the new wave music sense, kept feeding me at that time mind poison like The Care, Wild Swans, and Red House Painters and this only aggravated my, ehm, infatuation.

One of The Wild Swans' songs - Archangels, from Bringing Home The Ashes - goes something like this:

"You dwell with archangels,
I am as poor as any
You are invincible
I am in awe."

I listened to this song over and over in my bunkbed, night after night during the three-week workshop, until I was feverish with, well, actual fever. I'd never met a girl with such an effect on me (though now, in retrospect, I think the fever was brought on by the copious amounts of cheap canadian whiskey I'd been imbibing). I knew I had to ask her out, or I would die (again, because of the Seagrams. If you have the cash, go for Jameson or JB).

"Go, go, go
You said I should let go I never did
Now you are a solitary branch left to the wind.
My tired hands are hanging off a cliff
Where you said I should let go, I never did."

-read: I was thinking of Charlie Brown hanging off a root sticking out the side of a cliff, from those Peanuts comics, when I wrote that part.

So I did ask her out one night. I asked around what the best, most romantic seaside restaurant was in those parts and they pointed me to a place I still call Ghost Ship Restaurant, because of the ghostly ships stalking the horizon that beautiful, cloudy evening.

"Now I'm hanging with my friends right outside the 7-11
Smoke another cigarette, 'til I can get you off my breath
See I can't get you off my breath, Fran
I wish that you were dead, but then again,
My favorite CD's still in your apartment."

-read: "Fran," of course, was a hit with my workshop friends, especially for mutual writer acquaintances of myself and Bhabes who were amused by the reference to real people. Poets and fictionists are a gossipy lot. I remember everytime we'd find ourselves smoking in front of a 7-11 someone other than me would sing that first line. I liked the idea of a guy trying to drown his love sorrows in cigarets instead of the more conventional alcohol.

The real Bhabes, I have never wished dead. And she doesn't have any of my CDs.

"Go, go, go
I said that I'd let go I never did.
Now I've everything to end none to begin,
And tired hands left hanging off a bridge
Where I said that I'd let go I never did."

-read: So the ex tells the guy to buzz off and he says, if I let go of you I'll die. Can you get any more romantic than that?

"Late at night I'm up in bed
I can't get you off my head
I wish that I could call you home
But I don't even have a phone
How'd my walls get so cold
You're the only room I know"

-read: After that date with Bhabes, two things were exceedingly clear:

a. She was just as interesting and completely way out of my league as I had imagined; and
b. Nothing whatsoever was going to happen between us. Nada!

And that, as they say, is that. I never really saw her again, but I wrote this song anyway. A year before the workshop I was telling my friend Ed about wanting to incinerate all my old poems from high school, all that embarassing juvenalia garbage. He told me to hang on to them because they were snapshots of my progress as a poet, sort of an ongoing chronicle of my literary life.

I got rid of them anyway.

Well, this is one piece of juvenalia garbage that survives (and hopefully will survive me) and that my band Chupacabras still performs on a more or less regular basis. Bhabes, I believe now modifies toasters in Greenhills for a living and I'm still at the top of my game in the prosthetic elbow business. Everything has turned out well. Sometimes we bump into each other at writer gatherings and I still act like an idiot. Some things will never change.

"Pieces of you broken on the floor..."