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Siling Labuyo: Ryan Cayabyab’s powerful music

The Maestro himself, Ryan Cayabyab (RC), and the Ryan Cayabyab Singers (RCS) were in town just in time for the Fourth of July weekend. But instead of the red, white, and blue colors seen everywhere around this time of the year, Cayabyab’s dream team singers sported something authentic and truly Filipino colors. I never thought that a Barong Tagalog would look okay with a vest but the four guys wearing them on stage proved that Filipinos can do wonders when it put its mind to work. The choice of colors (purple, green, burgundy and some tinge of orange) and shapes reminded me of Muslim Mindanao. The nearly two-hours of high-octane performances at Sycuan Casino featured seven talented soloists who delivered a mixed array of Cayabyab’s own hit compositions and from other popular compositions. Mr. Cayabyab stayed mostly in the driver’s seat providing piano accompaniment to the group and occasionally interacted with the crowd in between songs. Among those in the RCS’s repertoire were popular songs from the 50’s such as “Waray-Waray,” “No Money No Honey,” and “Galawgaw.” The upbeat cha-cha tempos of these Filipino classics made the crowd alive and jiving on their seats. Remembering these songs from the past reminded me of a slower tempo (popularized by Sylvia la Torre) but to hear the seven sang them with their rather robust singing and movements was very entertaining. One of the good things that RC did was to provide context to the performances. He talked about the historic, old Calle Raon in Quiapo (now Gonzalo Puyat) being at the center of commerce and entertainment at the time and perhaps the birthplace of vaudeville music in the Philippines. The old commercial district of Quiapo prided itself with the largest cinemas in the country and being a magnet for Filipino talents. Such context brought everyone down memory lane. Vaudeville or bodabil has captured the imagination of many Filipinos who grew up listening to the songs of the 40’s up to the disco years and were familiar with cultural icons like Eddie Peregrina, Victor Wood, Yoyoy Villame, Nora Aunor, Vilma Santos, Apo Hiking Society, among others. Thus when the “Pong choyla” lyrics were sung, people recognized Yoyoy’s masterpiece right away, “Butse Kik” minus the hard twang and comedic delivery. It was sweetly sung as a medley with “Sweet 16,” “Mr. Lonely,” and “My Pledge of Love” by Edgar Mortiz – all popular in the 60’s. VST & Company’s “Awitin mo at Isasayaw ko” “Rock Baby Rock” opened the 70’s tribute followed by Boyfriend’s “Sumayaw, Sumunod” and Hagibis’ “Katawan” and “Legs.” This decade was one of my favorites because of the LP albums I’ve collected on them. Cayabyab called the 80’s as the decade of Original Pilipino Music (OPM) in English. The songs sounded awkward since it was OPM but delivered in the English language. They were great songs but did not get traction on me. It was the 90’s that appealed more to the emotions. Remembering a young singer named Francis Magalona who popularized rap in the Philippines with his hit song, “Mga Kababayan Ko,” reminds one of his untimely death at age 44 followed by a song from a group called Gloc-9 who composed “Sirena,” and the medley included a third song, “Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas.” All three songs are songs of passion of real people caught in the midst of our times. Master Rapper Magalona died in 2009 from severe sepsis due to a severe case of pneumonia. Nobody should die from pneumonia anymore because of more modern antibiotics. But Magalona had a bout with cancer and was waiting for a bone marrow transplant. His blockbuster rap song “Mga Kababayan Ko” was about taking pride in being a Filipino, giving respect to the family, and uplifting self through hard work and working together. Patriotism is a common thread in his songs. “Sirena” on the other hand is a story of a gay son who was ostracized growing up by his own father. But faith would have it that as his other siblings left home for lives of their own and away from their father, Sirena would emerge as the father’s caretaker when he got sick. The song is about the father’s life lessons admitting his follies for the way he treated his gay son and the much sought forgiveness for his years of cruelty to his son. Sirena or a mermaid is a fictional creature from the sea. In Philippine mythology, a mermaid is half-human - a woman with beautiful hair, fair complexion and sexy body but is half fish with a tail. Thus it is not surprising that many Filipinas have dreamed of becoming one or at least adopting the name Sirena to emulate a mythical character. Sirena being gay and going through his nightmarish childhood found refuge in his adopted albeit fictional name. The song talked of his pride, beauty and determination to live his life as Sirena regardless of what people or institutions say. “Sanay Walang Nang Wakas” is a somewhat tragic song that longs for a better ending. A sitcom with the same title portrayed the twist and turns of two lovers who had to confront reality about their pasts. Separated and unto the arms of other people they tried to love, the two found their lives at a crossroad once more when faith led them to it. But it is a continuing saga about true love and one had to die. Life imitating art, this drama reminds people about life’s uncertainties, about nature’s charm and weakness. I’ve not been to any Ryan Cayabyab concert but have learned to love his music and appreciate his love for the Philippine culture. His songs are about everything Filipinos – from the versatile Da Coconut Nut, to “Kay Ganda Ng Ating Musika,”it is taking stock in the beauty of the Filipino culture. The Maestro reminds me of another talent from Puerto Rico who wrote the acclaimed musical play “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda. Both uses humor and patriotism to spice their work. Cayabyab’s hit opera’s include Jose Rizal’s twin novels: Noli and Fili. Another is “Spoliarium” based on the tragic life of another Filipino great and internationally acclaimed artist Juan Luna. Anyway, to put an exclamation point to the evening was a musical stage adaptation of “Spoliarium” for the finale - very powerful and jolting performances by RC and his singers. The tragedy reminds of other Filipino greats who at the height of their stardom succumbed to their humanity. Beyond Luna’s greatness with his paintings, the tragic ending of his marriage was such a shocking revelation. The RC Singers’ selections last Saturday not only gave tribute to the Filipino talents, it was also a learning moment about the, and pride in, the Filipino culture. True, many of us have been in America for decades but hearing Freddie Aguilar’s “Ang Bayan Ko” arouses and awakens that Filipino soul. Ryan Cayabyab is indeed a national treasure worth preserving, admired, and revered for his legacy and undying love of country through music.

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