I don’t know how Wowie got his nickname. I can guess and I hope my memory serves me well: when he was small, he used to hang out with his uncle, Aton Nabua and (Manong) Pempe and some other friends. Along Bagumbayan, where his grandparents lived. It was not a simple gathering; it was always a drinking party. In one of those meetings, he learned to greet everyone with the raucous “Wow, Pare.” In other words, while little children were taught to memorize the sounds of animals, like cows and dogs, including lizards, Wowie, was taught to be cool. He was a dude at three or four years of age.
The next time, I saw him, he was running after me in the campus of Ateneo de Naga. He wanted to borrow some “unique” sound or music from me. He was not with a band then, but was already into music – unique, strange music. Wowie was referring to “Oxygene,” a music composed by Jean-Michel Jarre. I do not remember for what event he would be using the sound. The French composer pioneered ambient, new-age genre music. What I remember is how, at that age, Wowie wanted to be different.
For those who knew his family, Wowie had an interesting, solid musical background. His great-grandfather played the violin and his grandfather was a mean dance master.
In college, for some reason and, I believe, due to my own machination, I became part of a program that would showcase music of the past. In that program, I was asked to dance the Tango. I knew already the basic steps and was quite good for someone who was not born during the gilded age of ballroom music and passionate rhythm. I asked around and Aton, Wowie’s uncle, was one who know some fancy, over-the-top steps and style. While rehearsing, Aton was consulting his father.
Aton, the uncle, was also a good guitar player. There was a time when, except for my elder brother, Pempe, all of us three – Carlo, Lilibeth and I – were already based in Manila. On the day of my father’s birthday, the three of us travelled back to Naga but, instead of going to our house in Jacob, we went – and hid – in Carlo’s home. Aton came and the whole day we practiced an old Bikol song. That night, we serenaded Papa, and the music from Aton’s guitar soared above the old trees around our home.
We shared music – Wowie and I. We shared a lot of memories. Aton, who was my brother’s best friend, passed away just a few months ahead of our own Manong Pempe. Both died of cancer.
The other good friends of Manong from Bagumbayan had moved somewhere else. One stayed more in his farm; the others were with their families here and abroad.
Wowie, without him knowing it, was our only link to Bagumbayan – that wide street, which connected Ateneo Avenue (where we had our first home and where we have our school) to the bigger world outside.
Relocating to Naga when my mother was in her late 80s allowed me to stay longer and move around a place that had already grown outside any remembrances. From people, I had often heard about Wowie, the musician, the rock star. I was skeptical about the reputation preceding this young man I knew since he was a toddler. Then I saw him. I was shocked to see a shock of hair. Afro! Wowie seemed like a phantasm from the 70s. He was an avatar of a period, which was never his. Then he played. The rhythm was not the beat one was tired of hearing in pubs and bistros. He showed edge. He had history in his playing. He had guts and angst and soul in his singing.
We would frequent that place where he sang. Even when another young man got stabbed in that place where Wowie sang, Kristian Cordero and I mustered enough courage to be there again. We were testing the forces of the night and the darkness that crept into any human being without him being aware of it. It helped that Wowie was there to play and to remind us that reggae was not foreign, that it was almost the ancient sound of an older human group.
Last year, Japan Foundation had a wild idea: to experiment on having a Filipino assume for the first time the role of “Benshi.” This figure was a singular feature of Japanese silent film. The Benshi commented, annotated and provided the voice to all the characters appearing onscreen. When I accepted the offer, I knew I would be getting an orchestra or a band to accompany the film and my performance.
Immediately, I knew who to approach: Wowie. I explained to him the project and asked him to organize a band of not more than four musicians. Noel Volante, Director of Ateneo Center for Arts and Culture, a former student and a trusted theater actor when I was still directing plays, would be tasked of conducting and “mixing” the sound.
We rehearsed. They improvised. I improvised. They discovered the rhythm of the film and Wowie introduced new sound, new music. In the middle of the short film, Wowie directed the band to play a snippet of “Sarung Banggi.” It was a hit in the premiere in Naga. But the gala was in Manila.
In September, we were in Manila. Billeted in a hotel in Ortigas, we were all a bundle of nerves. We were already at the lobby but Wowie was nowhere. He came down late but properly costumed. He had a white shirt and a black jacket, a black Bermuda short, and boots. He had attitude! Or, how do they call that in Manila, angas?
The day before we had a short rehearsal. That day, at 6pm, we arrived in one of the biggest cinemas in Megamall. A huge crowd had lined up outside. We entered the moviehouse and the audience slowly filed in. The band was introduced one by one and the lights dimmed.
There were other bands playing that week. But our crowd looked pleased. Everyone applauded the exotic sounds of the Tanikala Band, the band organized by Wowie. In the crowd were the Japan Foundation Manila officials, cineastes and film critics like Nick De Ocampo and archivists like Teddy Co. Virginia Moreno, the poet, was there. Sylvia Mayuga, writer and my link to the forces of the Universe was there.
Days ago, when I was informed Wowie gone, I sent a message to Sylvia, asking her if she remembered Wowie. She responded: How can I forget, Sylvia said, he and his band made your performance funny and lyrical.
Ami Takagawa, who, with Roland Samson, thought of the Benshi project, was shocked to hear about Wowie’s passing. I shared with Ami a photo taken of the wake and she said she was pleased Red Horse was there beside Wowie, and that night, Ami promised she would drink Red Horse to his memory.
With his demise, I am hearing people talking about Wowie’s generosity.
I cannot thank Wowie enough. Maybe, I should not thank him. Knowing him was my own gratitude to the memories he brought back and shared.
And, Wowie, this essay is not about you. This is about the melodies you brought us. This is about the rhythm you played to tell us that any music begins first from feeling the sound of the heart and sharing that with anyone who cares to listen to joys and pains presently ordered, harmonized, and arranged.
I doubt if there is Red Horse in Heaven. But, wise men say, there is a Horse that awaits good musicians. That Horse will take you to where rhythm and soul began. Go there, dear Wowie, and teach the playing Angels new sound. Give my warmest regards to Aton and to my Manong Pempe, give him please the tightest hug.