Back in the mid-1970s, Ryan Cayabyab was already making a good living as a musician and arranger for songs written by other composers: Jose Mari Chan’s Philippine Airlines jingle, “Love at Thirty Thousand Feet,” Willy Cruz’s “May Minamahal,” Jim Paredes’ “Nakapagtataka.”
But the now celebrated musician, proclaimed National Artist last year, the man whose name is now synonymous to Original Pilipino Music, was at the time still hungry for recognition—which he says is something that often eludes arrangers in particular.
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“When people hear a song, the first thing they will ask is, ‘Who’s the singer?’ After that, they’ll want to know who composed the song. But nobody will really wonder who arranged it. So that’s the reason I got into songwriting. I also want to be known,” he tells us after a press conference at the Oasis Cafe at Solaire Resorts and Casino. A concert at Theater at Solaire will be given in his honor this August 31 called Maestro Ry: A Tribute to Ryan Cayabyab.
After realizing he could do better, popularity-wise, the smart young man now fondly referred to in the industry as Mr. C or The Maestro went on to compile a distinguished body of work that includes acclaimed theater musicals like Noli Me Tangere, El Filibusterismo, Rama Hari, and the production based on bodabil star Katy Dela Cruz’s life, Katy.
And of course, there were the classic hits that largely defined his musical legacy including “Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka,” “Kahit Ika’y Panaginip Lang,” “Nais Ko,” “Kailan,” “Liman-Dipang Tao” and what is now considered his signature song, “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,” which famously won the grand prize at the first Metro Manila Popular Music Festival in 1978.
Looking back, Mr. C considers himself very fortunate to have the career that he had, given that he and his siblings were in fact discouraged by their own mother, the former and late Celerina Pujante to pursue a career in music.
“My mother was an opera singer so she knows how hard it is to have a career in this field, as it is mostly dependent on performances or gigs that you are booked in,” says Ryan.
Still, as fate would have it, the hits came his way and, as he so often puts it, “things just fell on my lap”—success included.
Just to get through college
Ryan took piano lessons as early as four years old. Back then, his family had about 10 boarders in their house, all of which were music majors. “So I imbibed their vibes,” says Ryan. “When we transferred to another house when I was 9, I was rummaging through our things when I found a brown box that contained musical pieces. I learned these pieces by reading and playing them every day in my spare time,” the songwriter shares.
The young Ryan became so good at learning musical pieces that by the time he was 15, he could play any piece thrown his way. At this point, he was already thinking of becoming a bar pianist to support his education. “Unfortunately, pianists were not in demand in those days. Bars preferred organists so I ended up being a pianist instead for a choral group. It paid P200 a month which was already a lot of money since my fare from Makati to UP Diliman is only 35 centavos one way, while my tuition, since UP is a government-subsidized school, was only P144 per semester.”
It was also around the time when Ryan started arranging songs for singers and vocal groups—although it would take time for him to realize he could get paid for it.
A turning point in the composer’s musical odyssey came when he met the man he would credit for giving him the biggest break of his career—actor Victor “Cocoy” Laurel.
The son of former Vice President Salvador Laurel and theater stalwart Celia Diaz-Laurel, Cocoy was then a well-known matinee idol and is still best known today for being Nora Aunor’s leading man in the 1971 film, Lollipops and Roses and its 1975 sequel, Lollipops and Roses at Burong Talangka.
“I was training for the Madrigal Singers and he was starring in a show,” relates Ryan. “I met him and he saw I could play the piano. All the songs he wanted to sing, I could play. He made me his pianist and music director and later introduced me to his parents.”
The Laurels took a liking to Ryan. Then Senator Laurel offered him a scholarship in music. “I was then taking up Business Administration and majoring in Accounting. Senator Laurel took me to his office and said, ‘You’re very talented, why are you taking up accounting? You know, we all have our own individual knowledge, talent or specialty that we can contribute to the community. If you’re not really that good or that happy with the Accounting course you are taking, then why not pursue something you’re really good at?’”
Laurel then said something to Ryan that stuck with him throughout his career. “He said, ‘We see your talent. Why don’t you go to music school? You need to study because while you’re already good, you can be the best if you will learn to be more music literate and get the education from the good music teachers. When you become the best and the authority in what you’re doing, then you don’t have to look for jobs, the jobs will come looking for you.’ Since then, I have also been saying that to everyone, especially the young up and coming artists.”
Arranging his destiny
While working with Cocoy, who was then starring and guesting in several television shows, Ryan also started to meet the likes of Jose Mari Chan, Nonong Pedero, Pilita Corrales, Basil Valdez who was then still with the Circus Band, and Celeste Legaspi who was then with the Ambivalent Crowd. Ryan would eventually work with all of them starting with Celeste in her 1975 TV special that netted him a PATAS award (then the local equivalent of the Emmys) for Best Song for a quirky tune called “Chewing Gum Charlie.”
“When you become the best and the authority in what you’re doing, then you don’t have to look for jobs, the jobs will come looking for you,” the senator told him
As an arranger, Ryan was also beginning to be as sought after as his contemporaries like Doming Amarillo, Quito Colayco, Emy Munji, and Eddie Munji III.
By then, several artists from the then mighty Vicor Music Corporation started to go their own way and became part of a fledgling and maverick label called Jem Records. Led by fellow composer Willy Cruz and the Apo Hiking Society, Jem’s initial stable of artists included Pilita Corrales, rockers Mike Hanopol, Maria Cafra and Florante, Visayan singing sensation Susan Fuentes, the girl group Passionata, and a rising star in then former Circus Band vocalist Hajji Alejandro.
Looking back, the period was probably the most creative of Mr. C’s career. He did not only arrange many noteworthy recordings for Jem but it was also the time he started to come into his own. In 1977, Jim Paredes, who was reviewing jazz records for Jingle magazine, produced Eddie Munji III’s Pinoy Jazz album, a well-received collection of jazz versions of traditional Filipino folk songs. For the second album in the series, Jim asked Ryan to do as he pleased with another batch of folk songs, which eventually became Roots to Routes: Pinoy Jazz II.
The album further reinforced Ryan’s reputation as an arranger, and he was also beginning to develop a trademark sound. At around the same time, he was working with Hajji and was responsible for the elegant, jazz and soul-flavored arrangement of his big hit, “May Minamahal.”
“I informed Jem that I was going to join this songwriting competition called the Metro Manila Popular Music Festival and I came up with ‘Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika’ and when it made it to the finals, Jem said it should be interpreted by Hajji,” Ryan recalls. “Now the back story behind that is that the previous year, I joined another competition, the first time I did with my very first pop song, ‘Isang Awit’ which I sung myself. It won 3rd prize and that’s when I realized that if ever I’ll join another competition again, I should have a professional singer interpret my song.”
When he joined Metropop, Ryan was up against formidable competition: Celeste’s husband, Nonoy Gallardo (“Pagdating Mo”), Nonong Pedero (“Narito Ako Umiibig”), Joel Navarro (“Swerte Swerte Lang”), Heber Bartolome (“Tayo’y Mga Pinoy”) and a then up and coming folksinger named Freddie Aguilar (“Anak”).
“If you ask me, they’re all winners. The entries were really great but what I did was to come up with what I thought was a winning concept. The contest being the first Metropop, I came up with a song about Filipino music, about how beautiful our music is. And Hajji did a very good job, I think that’s why it also won.”
On writing “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika:” The contest being the first Metropop, I came up with a song about Filipino music, about how beautiful our music is. And Hajji did a very good job, I think that’s why it also won.
“Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” went on to become a timeless classic and the unofficial theme song of succeeding Metropop contests and its eventual successor PhilPop, which Ryan himself helped organize. Today, when people think of OPM, it’s usually the first song that comes to mind.
Punctuating Mr. C’s Metropop victory was his work on Hajji’s third and final album for Jem, the aptly-titled Strictly OPM which included the singer’s rendition of “Isang Awit” as well as another R&B uptempo number he wrote, “Ikaw at ang Gabi.” In addition to a total of four compositions, Mr. C also played the haunting piano intro of “Nakapagtataka” which he himself arranged.
Unfortunately, Jem’s game-changing ways was short-lived and the label eventually folded with Nonoy Zuñiga’s Ako ay Ikaw Rin album from 1981 as its last hurrah. In that album, Ryan contributed the underrated track, “Is This What You’re Thinkin’ Of.”
That same year, the now respected composer was also allowed to have another album of his own, the purely a capella, One which would predate Bobby McFerrin’s hit recording of Don’t Worry, Be Happy by a good seven years.
The album, which contained songs like “Tsismis,” “Mamang Kutsero” and the very popular “Liman-Dipang Tao” was considered a risky proposition even for an adventurous independent label like Jem. So Ryan took it upon himself to produce it with his own money.
“I spent a total of P43,000 for the album and that was in 1981,” Ryan recalls. “I paid for the recording sessions, the album, and the first few hundred copies. I did it because I was offered a teaching job and since I’m going back to school—this time to teach—and it also happened to be my birthday, and I thought I was leaving the industry so I wanted to do the album for myself. I didn’t care whether it sells or not.”
On producing his solo album One for P43,000 in 1981: “I thought I was leaving the industry so I wanted to do the album for myself. I didn’t care whether it sells or not.”
In hindsight, the decision to make One turned out to be a stroke of genius. The year after it was recorded, it was honored by the Cecil Awards with a Best Special Album citation. Today, it’s considered a classic and one of Mr. C’s greatest achievements. An existing copy in good condition was recently sold online for P7,000.
But even before Jem finally closed shop, Ryan was already identified with another Circus band alumnus. In what is probably his longest collaboration with any artist, Ryan wrote some of his most enduring ballads for Basil Valdez. And he had one person to thank for it: the late, great George Canseco.
“George was one of the first people to notice my lyrics. Since he wrote most of Basil’s early hits, he was present during the recording session of ‘Paraisong Parisukat’ which I wrote for a movie,” offers Ryan. “In the movie version sung by Christopher de Leon, there was this part where I originally wrote, ‘Madarama mo ang pagsabog ng liwanag, mahahawakan mo ang mga kulay ng bahaghari….’ George heard that and he told me to change the last line to ‘Mahahawakan mong bahaghari at ang sinag…’ and it sounded better!”
Asked if there was some kind of rivalry that existed between him and Canseco at the time since they both wrote many of Basil’s classic ballads, Ryan said he saw Canseco as more of an inspiration rather than competition. He particularly admired Canseco for his ability to write some of the most compelling lyrics for Filipino songs.
“George heard that and he told me to change the last line to ‘Mahahawakan mong bahaghari at ang sinag…’ and it sounded better!”
For Basil, Ryan wrote hits like “Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka,” “Nais Ko,” and “Iduyan Mo” among others. One Cayabyab composition that particularly stood out for its rather unorthodox arrangement was “Kahit Ika’y Panaginip Lang.”
“I like to come up with concepts when I’m writing songs. My concept for that particular song was this guy who was enamored with someone even if she only happens to be a dream. I asked Bambi Bonus, a very good singer who sang back-up for Basil’s many songs to sing that part where the dream was talking to the guy. That’s why there was a female part in the song. Bambi was the panaginip,” Ryan revealed.
Another Basil classic that Ryan is particularly proud of is “You” which he did not actually write but arranged. “In the album that contained that song, Basil divided the arrangement duties between me and the man who wrote the song, the late Gerry Paraiso. He ended up with the side that had my song and I ended up with the side that had ‘You’.”
Like his arrangement in “Nakapagtataka,” “You” is also characterized by a haunting piano intro that Ryan will again utilize for the Apo Hiking Society’s “When I Met You” when he was asked to be the sole arranger of the group’s 1983 album, True To My Music.
While his association with Basil further cemented his legacy as one of the country’s finest tunesmiths, it also identified him with the adult contemporary genre. While he managed to pen hits for the likes of Martin Nievera (“How Can I?”) and Gary Valenciano (he co-wrote “Once Upon a Life”) who were at the top of their game in the 80s, Mr. C wondered if he could still create music for a much younger market.
His answer came with “Kailan,” a song he wrote for Smokey Mountain, the second preteens group (the first was 14k) that he discovered and developed. “I became more conscious on how to make my music lighter. ‘Kailan’ was like an eye opener for me. I can’t believe I could write that kind of music. You can just imagine how I felt when it became a big hit. Even in the provinces, people know that song.”
“Kailan” was the first of a string of Cayabyab-penned hits for Smokey Mountain that also included “Paraiso,” “Can This Be Love” and especially “Da Coconut Nut” that went on to become his biggest international hit to date.
“I became more conscious as to how to make my music lighter. ‘Kailan’ was like an eye opener for me. I can’t believe I could write that kind of music.”
The song was also part of Mr. C’s “youth phase” where he also wrote popular children’s songs, like the popular Christmas song, “Kumukutikutitap” and the opening themes for the TV series, Sineskwela (which he himself sang) and Hiraya Manawari.
Yes, in between writing songs for popular music artists, Mr. C also found the time to write music for films, theater and television. This started as far back as 1973 when he created the score for Ophelia and Paris which starred Cocoy Laurel. Other noteworthy projects included Mga Bilanggong Birhen (1977), Aguila (1980), Hihintay
And of course, there was Ryan Ryan Musikahan, the late night TV show that in addition to winning many accolades allowed him to become more popular and kept him abreast with the latest musical trends through the guests he accompanied every week.
Ryan admits that had the show been created today, his guests would most likely include the younger generation of artists who will be among those paying tribute to him at the coming Maestro Ry concert including Autotelic, IV of Spades, Nicole Asensio, Morrisette and Urbandub.
These names will be joined by Celeste Legaspi, Basil Valdez, Kuh Ledesma and many more.
Reflecting on his legacy, Ryan says he always goes back to what George Canseco told him when he was still young and starting in the industry.
“George said, ‘Welcome to the world of the immortals.’ At the time I wondered what he meant by that. It was only later on when I realized what he was trying to say. You die, you fade away but your songs stay, your works remain but only if they are significant and people know about them. People say that my songs are too commercial but the truth is, it’s not at all easy to be commercial, one cannot predict what song will become a hit,” Ryan says.
Fortunately for Ryan Cayabyab and for the rest of us touched by his exemplary body of work, his place in that world of immortals is very much secure.