BORACAY ISLAND -- Music usually brings people together. But not tonight.

It was a few minutes past 9 p.m. and Armand Tajanlangit was right outside Steve’s Cliff, a piano bar stationed on a hill at the northern tip of Boracay island. He was seated by the viewing deck, overlooking the moonlit beach, all lounged out by the bean bags on the floor.

He was set to perform a song he wrote for the island.

“Where are the tourists?” he asked.

His family owned the two-storey structure, designed to look like a backpacker’s nook -- replete with bohemian stylings and shabby chic aesthetics. The bar is on the ground floor, and upstairs are rooms for rent. The bar's interior was spacious. But the highlight of the room was a priceless amenity that came free: a breathtaking panoramic view of the island’s seascape.

Usually, the place would be teeming with customers.

But tonight, there was barely any. The beach itself was empty. As if the island, in the sweltering heat of the afternoon, had exhausted itself and called it a day.

“The tourists... they’re gone.”

Armand’s words echoed with a taint of dread. It was what the islanders had been dreading.

It was April 24. Two days before closure.

Boracay — a patch of blue and white paradise in Western Visayas and home to some 40,000 residents — would be shut down by the government to give way to an unhampered rehabilitation.

Last February, President Rodrigo Duterte described the island as a “cesspool” after seeing images of human waste being pumped into the island’s world-famous waters. Hundreds of business establishments, both big and small, built structures too close to the beach or into the streets.

By April, the government called for a six month-long shutdown. No tourists would be allowed to enter the island and establishments found to have violated environmental laws would be closed down. Simply put, the island needed to detox itself after years of excess.

In 2017, more than 2 million tourists visited the island to enjoy its Instagram-ready beaches and nightlife, generating about P56 billion in revenue.

Sentiment on the island’s closure were mixed — a cocktail of optimism and resignation, with a dash of confusion, and a sprinkling of anger, served cold.

Like Armand, most of the islanders fully supported the rehabilitation of Boracay. After all, they’d been calling on the government to solve their environmental woes for years. Finally, someone listened and answered – not in the way they expected, but at least an answer was there.

The tourism boom came, and sustainability woes followed. Even though there were environmental laws in place, implementation became a problem. The wide-stretch of open, powdery-white beach suddenly became a labyrinth of illegal structures. The government reported that 716 out of 834 residential and business properties on the island did not have discharge permits – exposed pipes were seen on the beach, draining waste water directly into the sea.

Yet many in Boracay could not help but sympathize with the 30,000 workers on the island who would suffer the brunt of the shutdown — including Armand’s tight community of musicians.

The island’s frenetic nightlife — filled with parties, performances and gigs — was all set to go on suspended animation. And a tourist-destination island without tourists is an island without any means of making a living.

“The first thing that enters my mind is disbelief. I didn’t think it was possible so I told myself I’m not going to invest too much emotions unless it’s really happening.”

“Right now, it’s gonna happen but it also seems like it’s not because it’s still unclear. Everybody’s still in the dark,” Armand said.

That night, the bar was already starting to feel the loss. A dimly lit facade with empty chairs and lonely tables. There was barely anyone there — save for the few friends that Armand had invited that night.

It was two days before shutdown.

Many of Boracay’s tourists — the usual patrons of Steve’s Cliff — had left the island. The bar had seen better nights. For years, it had been a mecca for backpackers and Lonely Planet-types seeking the best view of the sunset in Boracay, followed by a night of boisterous music and uninhibited drinking.

From outside, Armand stared stolidly through the doorway, and into the walnut-colored, wooden piano at the center of the bar. His friends — fellow musicians— had gathered around it to jam. They were wearing light-colored cotton shirts — a sort of de facto uniform for the island’s laid-back vibe.

One of them held his ukulele with care but strummed with vigor. Right next to him was the violinist, instrument clipped under his chin and stretched to his left shoulder, eyes closed as he drew the bow across the strings. Percussions punctuated and pulsated around the empty bar and drifted into the eerie silence of the beach.

They played Imago’s “Sundo,” a song about a longing for love and commitment – not exactly the upbeat, EDM-infused sounds that many had come to expect from Boracay’s nightlife. But they loved the music, somber as it was, as if it was its own intoxicant.

And for a moment, it felt like they were serenading the island itself.

Kay tagal kong sinusuyod, Ang buong mundo. Para hanapin… para hanapin ka.

No one was manning the piano. Armand was the pianist.

For rather than tinkling the ebony and ivory keys, he was thinking of the island.

****

Armand grew up in Boracay, raised by a musical family.

His father, Steve — for whom the piano bar was named — brought the first piano into the island during the '80s. The family had opened one of the first resorts on the island, Boracay Terraces, in 1986.

“He would organize jam sessions in the beach. That influenced me early on. Music has always been part of my blood and my family.”

Those jam sessions would gather pianists and saxophonists on the beach to fill the empty air with song. That, while a pig was being spit-roasted nearby. A tropical island life in all its postcard glory.

“He was a very amiable guy. He loved to take care of guests and entertain them with drinks and food. Always with ideas on how to promote the Philippine islands.”

On some nights, Armand would take walks on the beach, under the night sky, with his family. They would sing classic Disney songs or potent pop-pastiche numbers from Broadway musicals at the top of their lungs. It was their concert, drawing applause and adoration from each other. The island was their stage. And they were basking in its glory.

Those who settled on the island in the early '80s would give you a vastly different portrait of Boracay. Small nipa huts dotted the beach instead of massive hotels and resorts. There wasn’t a tsunami of tourists yet. The visitors to the island were mostly Europeans seeking sun and solitude. There was no electricity on the island just yet, only generators that can provide power for a few hours a day.

Every time islanders would describe the old Boracay, there’s always a sense of nostalgia and longing as if they were remembering their high school days. It was fun while it lasted but there’s no going back to it or doing it all over again.

“Back in the old days, it was still a backpacker’s paradise. Back then, it was just the locals and Westerners living together like it was a small community,” Armand said.

“Boracay for me... it’s a very special place where people come together. It’s not only paradise in a physical sense but paradise in the spiritual sense because I’ve met travellers who have a special place for Boracay in their hearts. Why is that? They’ve seen the whole world but Boracay is still there. They fall in love with the island and it stays with them.”

Over the years, that community grew. As backpackers settled, a new wave of adventurers discovered Boracay. Tourists discovered wind surfing and other water activities. The deluge of demand paved the way for development. The island was bulldozed to give way to the rise of resorts and hotels, of restaurants and stores.

By 2000, Boracay had become one of the country’s top tourist draws. Since 2006, the island saw the number of visitors quadruple to 2 million. The island became a getaway for the rest of the world. For the islanders, however, it became more and more difficult to get away from the world that had seemingly invaded Boracay.

“It’s changed really, really fast especially from the year 2000 onwards. It was so drastic that even when I go out of Boracay and then come back, I get surprised to see a new building, new restaurants, new clubs. The streets were changing,” Armand said.

Every time islanders would describe the old Boracay, there’s always a sense of nostalgia and longing as if they were remembering their high school days. It was fun while it lasted but there’s no going back to it or doing it all over again.

“Back in the old days, it was still a backpacker’s paradise. Back then, it was just the locals and Westerners living together like it was a small community,” Armand said.

“Boracay for me... it’s a very special place where people come together. It’s not only paradise in a physical sense but paradise in the spiritual sense because I’ve met travellers who have a special place for Boracay in their hearts. Why is that? They’ve seen the whole world but Boracay is still there. They fall in love with the island and it stays with them.”

Over the years, that community grew. As backpackers settled, a new wave of adventurers discovered Boracay. Tourists discovered wind surfing and other water activities. The deluge of demand paved the way for development. The island was bulldozed to give way to the rise of resorts and hotels, of restaurants and stores.

By 2000, Boracay had become one of the country’s top tourist draws. Since 2006, the island saw the number of visitors quadruple to 2 million. The island became a getaway for the rest of the world. For the islanders, however, it became more and more difficult to get away from the world that had seemingly invaded Boracay.

“It’s changed really, really fast especially from the year 2000 onwards. It was so drastic that even when I go out of Boracay and then come back, I get surprised to see a new building, new restaurants, new clubs. The streets were changing,” Armand said.

The music scene in the island also exploded. With a thriving tourism trade, nightlife entertainment became its own industry. Musicians suddenly had ways of pursuing their passion -- all while making a lucrative living from gigs by the beach.

The musicians would work on their craft in the morning, and then work for a living at night. At its peak, some musicians would earn up to P4,000 per gig. Some special events that were mounted on the island would pay up to P25,000.

But now, with the shutdown, they are singing a different tune. With hotels and resorts closing, and with no tourists to entertain, musicians on the island have no recourse but to turn somewhere else.

In the weeks before, the casualties of the closure in Armand’s community were slowly piling up.

“That’s the sad reality. Right now, there are Facebook groups of musicians talking to each other on how to support one another. You have musician-friends who are planning to move already, some have moved already.”

Armand isn’t quite sure what will happen to the music scene in the island with the six-month closure. But he would recall those nights when Boracay was still quiet and he would walk and sing with his father by the beach. It’s a comforting memory in a time of uncertainty.

His father died from cancer in 2011. His ashes were laid to rest by the cross on the cliff, right by the piano bar.

“Sometimes when it is quiet, and I just hear the waves, I feel the energy of the good old Boracay. I remember when I was little. The magic is still there, you just need to take a moment and breathe,” Armand said.

“When I look at his cross on on the cliff, where his ashes are, I wonder how he would have felt about the change coming to Boracay. I don’t really miss him because I feel his energy every night when I walk on the white beach looking up.”

“I know our time in this world is so short, and a reunion in paradise will happen someday. I feel that he trusts that we, who are still in Boracay, can do our own parts in helping the island... as he did when he was alive.”

On this night, Armand would play the piano, just like the good old days.

He would sing a song not just for the island, but also for his father.

Musician and producer Artstrong Clarion was one of the few souls who trooped to Steve’s Cliff, two nights before the shutdown.

Even from a distance, it was hard not to notice him. He didn’t have to make a sound. His look already made a statement: matted, leonine dreadlocks -- ropes of hair swinging loosely from his scalp, over his face. He wore a shirt with the Rasta colors of red, green, and gold. A vibe so quiet and humble but still read as regal and prophetic. Boracay’s own Bob Marley.

Artstrong was there to jam with the musical troop. In a way, his own goodbye to the island where he had lived for more than a decade.

A scion of a celebrated entertainer, Artstrong is the son of Dinky Doo, Sr. who was half of a popular jazz and stand-up duo in the '60s. Yet he made a name of his own on the local music scene. He was a former member of the reggae band Tropical Depression. On his own, he produced music for artists like Kulay, Kyla, and Keith Martin. His 2004 debut solo album garnered numerous industry awards. He performed alongside famous singers in mainstream variety shows. Simply put, he was at the height of his career.

But after a few visits to Boracay, he traded the city for the island. In 1998, he packed his bags and moved.

“Totally different from the Manila scene. At the end of the night, lahat ng musikero (sa Boracay) nagkikita at nag-uusap. Maliit lang ‘yong isla eh. Magkakakilala lahat ng musikero dito 'tsaka maganda dito, nagbibigayan. Pwede ka na lumagare, ‘di katulad sa Manila,” he said.

The musicians he met on the island inspired him to pursue a different dream. This time, not so much for himself but for the music scene in the island. He helped mentor some of the budding artists on the island to develop their craft.

“Maraming magaling dito. Nakita ko sa isla na kailangan ng music culture. Marami ako matutulong dito. Musically, alam ko may maibabahagi ako sa Boracay.”

“Nagset-up ako dito ng studio para matulungan ang mga locals kasi naisip namin na in the future, magkakaroon ng mga artist sa island na bubuhay sa island. Maraming magaling dito. Mahahasa ka ba naman araw-araw eh halos ang tugtugan mo is every night.”

A trip to Artstrong’s studio is a literal visit to his home. His bedroom, in the two-storey apartment, doubles as the recording studio -- equipment a few feet away from his bed. Adorning the walls are artifacts of his own and the island’s musical history -- guitars, percussions, and indigenous instruments of all shapes and sizes.

The walls also served as silent witnesses to the stories of musicians like Armand who had visited and laid down a track. Every bum note, all the angst-ridden octaves, lines of love on loop, and melismas of madness. So many emotions, laid bare in the room through song, a space filled with spirits exorcised from singers.

Yet while there were many opportunities on the island, musicians still had their own share of struggles. There were gigs that paid well, yes, but on most nights, many of those playing by the beach earn less than minimum wage.

“Sasabihin ko din sa ’yo, hindi madali ang buhay dito sa isla. Ultimo workers, mga minimum wage. Mababa din pati ‘yang mga musikero dito dahil dumami na rin ang musikero. No'ng maayos-ayos pa ang sweldo, masaya lahat. Eh dumami. Bumaba pa sa minimum. Mahirap din,” Artstrong said.

“‘Yon na nga, P250 per set. May food naman pero siyempre gastos kinabukasan ubos agad. Kasi dami ng musikero, naghahati na sila sa set. Mga P7,750 per month. Bayad mo pa sa renta sa boarding house mga P4-5 [thousand].”

With the shutdown, it’s going to get worse for some of the musicians.

Artstrong came to Boracay to dream. He now describes the shutdown as a nightmare, a real-life horror movie.

On his way to Steve’s Cliff, he noticed the empty beachfront. There was a sense of solace in seeing the island without the visitors.

“Malungkot. Kasi dati maglalakad ka diyan, every corner ng beachfront meron laging musicians. Meron mga musikerong tumutugtog tapos masaya. Katulad kanina dumaan kami, merong mga tumutugtog pa rin pero iilan na lang. Ramdam mo na malungkot din sila eh. Nabuhay ang Boracay sa entertainment.”

Like many of his peers, Artstrong took the initial news of the shutdown with a grain of salt. For them, it was too impossible.

But as the days dwindled and the government-mandated closure approached, they started to sing a different tune.

“Actually, sapul lahat. 'Di naman talaga ine-expect na mangyari ‘to. Parang 'di kapani-ipaniwala na pwede palang mangyari itong mga usap-usapan lang namin noon.”

“Napaka-hassle. Sobrang daming nawalan ng trabaho. Sino ba naman 'di maiinis? ‘Di ba parang sinabi mo na kunwari taga-Maynila ka, pinaalis ka sa bahay n'yo ng anim na buwan. Pinaalis ka sa lugar ninyo at hindi ka pwede pumunta doon ng anim na buwan. O kaya pinaalis ‘yong mga kapitbahay mo. Anim na buwan, ikaw lang natira doon.”

But Artstrong understands that the bells have tolled. All they could do now was to face the music and play it by ear.

“Matinding adjustment kasi musikero nakasanayan na tinutugtugan, madami din pinapakain, madami tinutulungan, 'di magagawa ang plano.”

At Steve’s Cliff, Artstrong took center stage.

He shared a song he wrote called “Boracay Island Love.”

The reggae-infused track was neither angry nor somber. It was more gleeful than grim. It was Artstrong’s love letter to the island that he has long considered home.

“Mas okay ‘yong masaya na tugtugan. Marami na masyadong malungkot.”

In his long career, he had gotten used to rounds and rounds of applause from crowds. This time, the cheers from his fellow island-musicians -- however few they were left -- were much more celebratory than the thunderous claps he had received before.

“Something’s off.”

Right outside of Steve’s Cliff, Ed Patenio fiddled with his Yamaha electric violin. He had been performing all night at the bar and he thought that something was wrong with the sound.

His eyes darted back and forth as he wielded his bow, against the strings of the violin that rested on his shoulders. He was trying to figure out what was wrong.

He synchronized his violin’s computer with the frequency of the bar’s sound system.

“Ahh, perfect.”

If anyone knew about perfection, it would be Ed. Since picking up a violin at an early age, he had trained relentlessly to improve his craft. Music and the arts were important to him. It was, after all, in his bloodline. His father was a sculptor and a gunsmith. His mother’s family were musicians. Most members of the legendary group Friction Band are his uncles.

Ed enrolled at a conservatory through a full scholarship. Later on, he played with a string group with international instrumentalists. His talent led him to perform for presidents and leaders, and with pioneer artists in Boracay like Django Valmores, Perry Argel, Noy and Nonet Pilora and Boy Panagsagan. They would perform from dawn to dusk. He met Artstrong in 2000 in front of a bar and talked about what they wanted to do for Boracay’s troop of musicians. They’ve been friends ever since.

“I believe music is the voice of God. And he gave musicians such to be heard by others. Music gives me wings and joy.”

Boracay -- the island right across the waters from the town in Malay where he grew up -- became his stage. The world, his audience.

"Bago pa man naging kilala ang Boracay sa buong mundo, naging haven siya ng mga artist at musicians."

Like most of the island musicians, Ed’s sentiment on the shutdown would vary from question to question. Mostly though, he supported the move. For him, the island has already given too much. It’s now time for a well-deserved rest. He also cited the island’s deterioration due to mass tourism.

“Malungkot dahil unti-unting nawawala ‘yong charisma nung isla. Eh dahil sa nangyayaring 'di dapat nangyari. Pero heto, binabangon ulit. So the government is doing their best na maisa-ayos. I think this is the time. Masakit but we are now reaping what we sowed.”

Ed is pinning his hopes on what the government hopes to do during the six-month closure. And it’s a lot.

According to Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano, the island’s faulty sewerage system will be fixed. The roads will also be widened, which means that structures that built into the national highway would have to demolish. Those that violated environmental laws would have to comply or risk charges against them. They will also look into establishments that were allegedly built on the island’s wetlands and forestlands. Clean-up of the coast is also a top priority.

More importantly, they are also going after local government officials and within their own agencies who gave out and approved permits to violators.

“Obviously, may mga government officials dito na naging negligent. May mga buildings dito na tumayo ‘nang walang permit. Meron naman na may business permit pero wala namang ECC. “Yung iba lumampas sa 25 plus 5 easement. Violation talaga. Siguro we’re talking here of 800-plus establishments. Sa Clean Water Act, may 300 establishments na nag-violate dito. Parang wala ‘nang order. Tawag nga namin, organized chaos,” Ano said.

Ano said the shutdown was necessary for an unhampered, focused rehabilitation.

“Parang sick patient na pag-pinasok mo sa operating room, huwag muna siya magtrabaho. Mag-rerecovery, then normal na siya ulit.”

While Ed is counting on the government to pull off the seemingly impossible task of fixing Boracay’s many environmental woes, he also feels for his peers. Especially those that were forced out of their jobs because of the shutdown. Some of them have moved out of the island, in anticipation of the closure. They went to to other tourist destinations in the country like Siargao and Palawan to perform there.

“Six months so wala kaming pwedeng tugtugan na pwede kami i-compensate. Being arists, we will still perform, kung may pera man diyan o wala. But sad to say, marami rin nangangailangan dahil ang pagiging musikero ang trabaho nila. May mga families sila. So kailangan din isipin ang finances.”

Some of the island’s musicians, those who didn’t want to leave Boracay, shifted to other jobs. They hung up their instruments and picked up construction tools. There’s a demand for more manual labor on the island for the massive rehabilitation efforts.

“‘Yon ang malungkot na part. Tumutugtog at nag-tatrabaho sila ng marangal ‘tas hindi na pwede. It’s like starting anew. Pero 'di mo rin masisisi if they go to other fields. Marangal din maging karpintero pero siyempre, they are into music.”

Ed, for his part, plans on helping other artists in their community. The island may shut down, their livelihood gone, but the passion for music has to persist.

He can’t live without the music. It’s not just his blood. It’s also his soul.

Armand Tajanlangit was busy fiddling with his phone. He had been scrolling through his Facebook feed. Photos from that afternoon’s security simulations by the beach had made the rounds on social media. There were some islanders who weren’t too keen on seeing an increased police and military presence on the island.

He cringed as he watched one of the videos that were uploaded, and had attracted heat from various sectors.

The footage showed dozens of policemen, clad in full battle gear and shields in tow, storming towards the beach. One foot right after the after, black boots pounded the powder-white sand.

It showed a woman, down the stretch, crying in panic at the sight of salvation. A man was holding her hostage — one arm locked around her neck while the other pointed a pistol to her head.

“Help me, please!”

Across the clear-blue sea, members of the military maneuvered their naval craft — zigzagging past other water assets stationed by the shore. They too were rushing towards her.

The woman kicked and screamed as she tried to break free. But the gun was just a few inches away. There was no escape. Her knees buckled. There was nothing else she could do.

Police had surrounded them. She closed her eyes and whimpered one last cry for help.

Bang!

A crack of gun exploded into the muted soundscape.

Bang! Bang!

Another round. But they were blanks.

Then all of a sudden a voice boomed from the speakers. It had a professional timbre and the cadence of a Filipino announcer — mixing Fs with Ps, and long Es with Is.

“OK, one more please! This time, with more emotions.”

The woman, who just a few minutes ago was screaming, let out a hearty laugh. The man who took her captive, did the same.

“Let’s do it one more time. Performance-level.”

High-fives all around as the police dispersed and headed back into their original positions.

Nearby tourists who had witnessed the whole thing had looks of utter confusion. They weren’t quite sure what to make of the scene that had just unfolded at the beach.

Authorities were tasked to keep the island in order. The 630-man team of police, military and the Coast Guard had been conducting drills by the beach for weeks.

They called it a “capability demonstration” — showing off what they can do in various emergency scenarios during the shutdown. They had rehearsals for a terrorist attack, a live-shooting scenario and protest riots. This last one was for a hostage situation.

It alarmed some of the tourists who were still on the island. After all, they came to Boracay to see first-hand what was promised in brochures and campaigns: a paradise.

Instead, in between dips into the island’s cool waters and long walks by the beach, they saw scenes straight out of a war zone.

For better or worse, the islanders like Armand, Artstrong and Ed, will wake up to a different island for the next six months. There’s no changing that. What matters now to them, is how they move forward once the island reopens.

For them, the six-month shutdown should be taken as a renewal -- not just for the musicians but for the island itself.

"We have to go on with life and to hope that when this island opens again, there will always be something new,” Ed said.

Before the last call at Steve’s Cliff, Armand went inside. He sat at the piano and began playing the song he penned for the island. He called it his “message in a bottle” for the rest of the world.

The next six months will be rough, not just for their community, but for those who will be left behind – those who chose to say and those who have nowhere else to go.

In two days, the island will shut down and the lights will go out.

Armand cried out as he reached the chorus of his song. Fingers banging on keys. Sweat dripping, temples throbbing.

When dark clouds come tonight. We burn bright!

Light up, light up, light up... Boracay.

Once more with feeling.

-- With reports from Biena Magbitang