In the mid-1980s, the Philippines underwent political and economic troubles. Yet the decade pulled though and set the stage for a whole new scene in Manila’s nightlife.
Mon Maramba found himself in the middle of that scene as a DJ — starting with new wave parties in 1983, on to house music that stretched into the ’90s, and from which he transitioned as a member of an experimental band in the 2000s.
Now, from the United States where he’s been living, Maramba comes home to spin the music he loves at “Retroed,” with another notable DJ, Jon Tupaz, on October 7 at Samsung Hall, SM Aura in Taguig.
In a recent email chat with ABS-CBN News, Maramba traces the roots of his profession that he’s celebrating after 40 years.
Tell us how you started as a club DJ, and what motivated you to become one.
Attending my first high school dance in 1979, I was amazed to see a DJ play continuous music that wasn’t heard on the radio. From then on, I wanted to be one. Every chance I’d get, I’d sit and observe what these DJs were doing. Eventually, my friends and I formed a small mobile disco group with gear we borrowed from our homes, hahaha. I got to practice the basics.
My first club gig was at King Kong on Hemady Street, Quezon City. It felt like a milestone — I was spinning records in a place that famous people went to. (King Kong was a popular mid-1980s disco and showbiz hangout owned by filmmaker Marilou Diaz-Abaya.) From there, I was driven to find the next level, where club music was heading and what role I can play. I became a regular DJ at Jealousy, Subway, Faces, and Euphoria.
How old were you at the time, and how wide was your musical knowledge?
I heard great music growing up. My dad’s a real jazz fan, but he also listened to the classics, as well as the progressive sounds of his time. My elder sister was also into a variety of music. She has great taste. An uncle and an aunt from the United States would visit, bringing many disco records. At age 17, I was pretty much exposed to a wide range of music. I might not have a musician’s understanding of it, but I know a good groove when I hear it. I can imagine how a track would affect a crowd if played in a certain way. The one thing that has never changed in my 40 years as a DJ is the passion for finding music and sharing it with a crowd.
What was the party and club scene back then, ’cause that was the mid-’80s, Ninoy Aquino had just been killed, there were plenty of rallies, the economy was bad, although things got better after EDSA 1.
I started when the whole disco scene was kinda leveling off. From the high-end discos in 5-star hotels, people went to weekend parties at the clubhouse of Corinthian Gardens and Valle Verde (where the mobile DJs were kings), and also at Zigzag, Rumors, and Culture Club. Along with this shift in location, the music was changing, too.
When things settled down after EDSA 1, there was a new generation of clubbers who wanted something else. There was, of course, that whole new wave sound which had (and still has) a huge following. At that point, I was lucky enough to work for Ed Sy, owner of Subway, who knew I wanted a different sound, too. We introduced house music to the Philippine nightlife scene. Some of our regular crowd were flight crewmembers who would arrive from New York or London, bringing records which became our “exclusive” playlist.
When you became a full-fledged professional DJ with regular club gigs, how much were you getting paid?
It wasn’t really much, like my salary at my first job after college.
Was it enough to support yourself (and later your own family)? If not, how did you augment your income?
It was enough to support myself and help out the family. It paid for my college tuition and my hobbies.
What songs were usually on your playlist at gigs? Were you partial to a particular genre?
I come from a generation of DJs who felt it was part of our job to educate the audience. I made sure to play the latest music I could find. I’m proud to say we played new stuff.
Since the mid-’80s, I have always been fond of house music. I like the bass-heavy, steady and electronic feel of house. The best part is, it’s open to creativity, which is why a steady stream of different flavors are injected into house. That’s why there’s chill jazz, funky bouncy, sweet soulful, and further on to all-out electronic madness.
What years would you consider the peak of your career as DJ?
I think I gained success in the ’90s. After a brief stint at Faces, I started a 10-year residency at Euphoria. I also got to do gigs in the US, thanks to Louie Ysmael. He’s a master of the club business and I’m honored to have earned his trust as a DJ for his club and events.
Along with that high, the late ’90s were kind of a transformation. My interests shifted to exploring making music. By the early 2000s I had an experimental band playing more downtempo/chill grooves. I learned much from hanging out with musicians and other creative artists. From a skills standpoint, I reached a peak in the early 2000s. I understood music better, I had a different approach to my sets, and I was more open to new ideas.
When did you decide to leave the country, and why?
In 2006, I felt I was missing something. I’ve been a DJ my entire adult life, achieved success beyond expectations, but I needed a break. So, explore I did. There were offers to do gigs but I felt I wasn’t quite ready.
But in 2017, Dodo Melicor convinced me to do a show and I just kept going. Even during the pandemic lockdowns, I spun music as a therapy to deal with very weird circumstances. Online gigs are a unique experience. Live DJing is about sensing a room’s mood and reading body language, and yet, the feedback on chat from online shows is direct, personal, and instant.
And now you’re back to do a show with fellow DJs of past generations. Give us an idea of what will happen.
It’s been six years since I did a proper retro party, and only very few people like Dodo Melicor can make this happen. We’ve been dreaming of this event since the height of the pandemic, and to say I’m excited is an understatement. It will be like old times with Jon Tupaz at Faces in the early ’90s. This will be a string of events from Manila to Los Angeles to San Francisco, and online.
To celebrate our 40th year as DJs, we are curating the music that marked our long careers. It’s the soundtrack of our generation. Have a reunion with your high school friends or get the gang together again. It will be a blast on October 7 at the Samsung Hall in SM Aura.
What's the greatest thing about being a DJ?
I love how a good DJ can make music a communal experience. Mix in the right song at just the right time, and you can have a whole room feeling the same emotion. I’ve always thought music can be a time machine. Music has the power to take people back to a certain time and place, and evoke strong emotions of what was once a version of themselves.