There’s this analogy I can’t get out of my head. I’m speaking to National Artist Ryan Cayabyab, and songwriting coaches Trina Belamide, Jungee Marcelo, and Dinah Remolacio inside El Pueblo’s Cafe 1711. And if the walls of El Pueblo could talk, they could tell a cornucopia of stories about local music, but these formidable musicians are writing their own chapter through PhilPOP, an institution that aims to find, raise, and uplift a new generation of Filipino songwriters through their boot camps and competitions. Sir Ryan tells me that for some many years, he’s been trying to find the artist who will do for the Philippines what ABBA did for Sweden.
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It’s a compelling comparison, and we can discourse until the cows come home about the discursive worth of comparing the arts of the East and the West. But the analogy lays, in interesting terms, PhilPOP’s titanic undertaking, and its place in the world of local music at large.
Some exposition: the PhilPOP songwriting competition has been running for five years, but the first bootcamp took place in 2017. The organization is known for assembling the living legends of local music to act as its coaches and counsel, such as the inimitable Mr. Cayabyab, folk icons Noel Cabangon and Jim Paredes, and industry veterans such as Karylle and Itchyworms.
These musicians—of a generation that now play the role of mentor—are helping a new generation of songwriters who might just break the mold. Johnoy Danao (with his song “Kung Di Man”) and Miguel and Paulo Guico, the central duo of Ben&Ben (with their song “Tinatangi”), were past winners of the songwriting competitions. But the bootcamp is how PhilPOP can more closely raise the Philippine songwriters of tomorrow.
Belamide takes this mission on through her role as a coach, working with musicians who have great (sometimes undiscovered) talent, and untapped potential. “We involve the songwriters themselves because it is their composition so it’s really their thing. We ask them, we involve them, and we go into the production side we ask them, ‘Okay ba sa ‘yo ‘tong sound? Is it okay with you?’”
Many of the boot camp’s fellows are young musicians. One would think this collaboration process would necessitate crossing big generational distances to see eye to eye, but that doesn’t seem to be true. Paola Mauricio, an electronic soloist musician, remembers her time at the Batangas bootcamp in Balai Isabel in May, as encouraging and enlightening. “There’s a coach there, Sir Marlon [Barnuevo]—he does arrangements for people like Nyoy Volante and stuff—he did a whole talk about how powerful digital audio work stations and software are for songwriters now.” Mauricio was initially worried that because she didn’t fit the “traditional” mold of the soloist, laptop in lieu of an acoustic guitar, that she wouldn’t find a place in the camp. But she did. “At the end of it, people have the ears for what I’m making,” she says “I didn’t feel like I had to change anything about how I already make music, to feel like I could get people to listen.”
Cayabyab seems keenly tapped into what young songwriters bring to the table, and is more than happy to explore their unique experiences. “Their milieu is different, the way they look at life is so much different from the way we did before,” he says. “It’s an ocean and you hear it.”
And when these specific sensibilities and approaches to beat and melody are paid proper attention to, coachers and campers can go beyond the mentor and mentee relationship, and true artistry can flourish.
“We take pride in the way we look at a songwriter, not just a camper and not just the songwriter,” Marcelo tells me, a past winner of the PhilPOP Songwriting Competition in 2014, who gained the honor with his song “Salbabida.” “Sobrang pakialamero [kami] sa mga buhay nila. We become their friends, sobrang pasok and involved kami sa mga personal away nila.”
It’s that sense of community, really, that characterizes the bootcamp, and is probably the best evidence of PhilPOP’s work in bringing different creative mind together. Miss Ramonne, a soul and R&B and co-fellow with Mauricio, uses the word “magical” to describe her time at the bootcamp. “Learning from some of the industry’s finest songwriters and producers is a dream come true,” she says. Such conversations inevitably lead to talks of collaboration.
Mauricio likewise came out of that camp feeling less alone in her field. “All of my closest friends right now are from that camp. They’re like, my biggest support system.”
Mutual support is a big thing for PhilPOP “We want to build not only a community of songwriters but people who support songwriters,” Belamide tells me, and that involves more than just getting people together in a camp and making friends. The “syllabus” of a PhilPOP bootcamp covers not just artistic lessons and workshops, but also talks and classes on how to navigate the industry, and knowing your rights as a musician. In a culture where the vocation of music is seen as unprofitable or frivolous, these lessons stand a chance to change culture at large, when passed down to the right people.
And as of now, PhilPOP is certainly doing much work upturning the landscape, by way partly through a twist in their songwriting competition. This year, PhilPOP is working with the National Quincentennial Committee, by rallying musicians to celebrate 500 years since Lapu-Lapu’s victory in Mactan. “In essence, we are coming up with a heritage playlist,” Remolacio states, which is set to come out in 2021. The best songs from the fellows of the bootcamps (the Davao bootcamp recently concluded, and there are six more to go) will appear on the playlist, and two tracks will most likely come out this year on Spotify. It looks like the NQC, which part of the National Historical Institute, will be working with gold for this monumental project.
Normally, the organization would commission a professional, more established musician, but Cayabyab welcomes this change. “The main point is having younger people write the music, if you ask me, instead of asking a professional guy who’s older, he says. “You know the best thing that happened to that project is using younger people to come up with ideas and the songs, the melodies. Mas fresh, they’re talking to their peers, they’re talking to their age group.” And why wouldn’t it be the best thing? If the old guard is investing all this wisdom and trust on fresh blood, then Philippine music has nowhere to go but up.
Portraits by Joseph Pascual