Heber Bartolome taught us about Filipino pride as early as the 70s when “Tayo’y Mga Pinoy” first hit the airwaves. More than four decades later, the song remains a relevant reminder to a nation who continues to look towards the West for approval and validation. We were born where the sun rises, the song says, “ba’t tayo ang humahanga doon sa Kanluran?”
Such is the power of Bartolome’s compositions. They’re astute observations on the Filipino experience. They’re anchored on stories the songwriter himself witnessed or heard firsthand—like his early hit song “Nena,” which is about a hard up young girl forced to prostitution. Her mother is a laundry woman, her father died in a machine mishap in the factory. The bargirl told Heber the story herself back when he was doing the rounds of Olongapo music haunts.
Best of both worlds
In an interview with OPM Archives’ and the Filipinas Heritage Library's Muni Muni Stories published last March, the 72-year old Pinoy folk rock icon shared the influences and milieu that helped shape his discography. He said he grew up exposed to church songs. His father, Deogracias Bartolome, was a pastor of the Protestant faith in Cabanatuan City where Heber was born and raised. Because a pastor didn’t really make money, the elder Bartolome, who was also leader of a rondalla group, made violins and other musical instruments.
The next genre the young Heber would be most exposed to is classical music, thanks to older brother Prody who was sent to the UP Conservatory of Music by his father who wanted the kid to take after him. Prody was among those who helped establish the Madrigal Singers. “Siya taga-bigay ng pitch,” said Heber. Prody was also once conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra.
Heber, then, had the best of both worlds: he soaked in the religious hymns in church and classical music at home. He might have carved a path towards a different genre later on but there’s no denying the spirituality and timelessness in his compositions, no doubt influenced by his early musical exposure.
The Bartolome kids were already playing the guitar even as young boys, so when the Beatles started replacing Matt Monro as jukebox favorite in 1960s Philippines, Heber and his brothers had a good time jamming on the Fab Four’s chart-toppers. Heber was very proficient with the guitar. His training was accompanying singing contestants in town fiestas. “Hindi mo alam kakantahin [nila]. Kahit ano kantahin nila kailangan masusundan mo. Gano’n yung training ko,” recalled the singer-songwriter.
Basta may gitara
Heber began his professional career in folk houses. During that time, “Pag may hawak na gitara ang kumakanta, folk singer ang tawag,” he recalled in the Muni Muni podcast. He would play at the Butterfly Restaurant located just outside the UP campus, which was within the driving range of the UP golf course. He would earn 20 pesos a night—a pretty big sum of money for a student renting his UP dorm for 17 pesos a month. Those were the days of 90-centavo taxi rides and 65 centavo meals in the cafeteria—a feast comprised of two servings of rice, two kinds of ulam, a bowl of soup and a banana.
The young man’s “sidelines” as a student were writing for magazines and working as Filipino editor in the campus organ, The Philippine Collegian. This was during the period before Martial Law. His undergrad course in UP was Fine Arts but he eventually took up his Masters in Literature.
Heber was a scholar in the university, owing to the fact that he was a member of the UP ROTC band (he played the French horn). The kid thought that being with the band, he could get away with wearing his hair long—he was wrong. Like his bandmates, he also had to wear the rayadillo, the army uniform from the Spanish colonial period, during special ROTC events. “Nagmamartsa ka na, tumutugtog ka pa,” Heber recalled in an interview with Rene Molina this year on Good News Pilipinas.
Contrary to what others might think, Heber arrived in the music scene playing rock music. When Pinoy Rock became a thing in 1974–“Kayang-kaya ko to ah,” he told himself—he was encouraged to join the era’s popular Battle of the Bands. The Juan Dela Cruz Band of the phenomenal hit “Himig Natin” disproved the popular notion that if you sing something in Tagalog, people will judge you as bakya. Before Pepe Smith and company arrived in the scene, recalled Heber, the only acceptable Tagalog song you could sing in public without being labeled baduy was the nationalistic anthem “Bayan Ko.”
Whether this encouraged or inspired Heber to write his songs in Filipino he didn’t say, but he formed Banyuhay ni Heber during that golden period in Philippine music where original work was finally being celebrated—after years of local artists recording covers of foreign hits. He enlisted his brothers Levy and Jessie, both students at the UP Conservatory, to join him in Banyuhay, which is short for bagong anyo ng buhay.
The sound of Heber
Heber’s music has been summed up as a “unique synthesis of rock and blues, and Philippine ethnic rhythms,” and while there are those who have associated his sound with the use of the native kubing, he recently said in an interview it was actually the mandolin people were hearing and referring to.
But the stories and sentiments of his compositions, there’s no question where those came from. “Yung mga laman ng kanta ko batay sa karanasan at kinalakhan kong environment,” he told the Muni Muni podcast. His pastor father was often sent to poor communities and his playmates were children of farmers. “Lumaki ako sa bukid kaya mga karanasan sa bukid alam ko,” Heber said.
Because pastors didn’t get a paycheck, the Bartolomes didn’t really have much. Yes, young Heber didn’t have to pay tuition, and the ride to school only cost 10 centavos but even that small amount his father couldn’t shell out. The family depended on the single sack of rice Deogracias received monthly, and the vegetables his mother grew for sustenance.
“Lumaki kami sa ganong hirap, saka hindi kami nakaranas ng maluhong buhay,” said Heber. “So nung high school ako, nandito na ako sa Novaliches noon, pa-retire na tatay ko sa ministry niya, kinakausap ko ang Diyos habang naglalakad ako sa malakas na buhos ng ulan. May pasan akong isang puno ng saging na itatanim ko. Kinakausap ko yung God. Sabi ko, ‘Panginoon, bakit pinahihirapan mo ako sa buhay?’”
There might have been no answer from the heavens at that time, but things would become clearer to Heber when he started gaining recognition for his songs. “No’ng akoy nagkapangalan dahil sa mga nasulat kong kanta, doon ko na-realize na kung hindi ko naranasan yung hirap ng buhay hindi ko masusulat yung mga kanta ko,” said the singer-songwriter.
His life in his songs
Heber practiced the simple life depicted in his songs. “Natutunan ko yung maging mapagkumbaba. Kaya kong kumain ng kanin lang kahit walang ulam. Maski hanggang ngayon basta nagugutom ako kakain ako ng kanin, kukurot ako ng kaning lamig, lalagyan ko ng carbohydrates yung tiyan ko. Hindi ko kailangan ng ulam. Kasi ang ulam pampalasa lang yun eh, for variety, para hindi puro kanin kinakain mo.”
It’s the same simple life that echoes in his joyous “Almusal” where he makes poetry of the ordinary Juan’s daily breakfast—
“Nilagang kape, tuyo at sinangag
Dilis na binusa at pritong tinapa
Sawsawang suka, bawang at paminta
Ganyan ang almusal na nakakagana.”
and celebrates the way we eat—
“Dahil ako'y lumaki sa pagkaing ganyan
Kahit anong ihain ng mahal kong nanay
Hindi ko na kailangan pa, tinidor at kutsara
Ang magkamay ay mas mainam pa”
with a bit of social commentary thrown in—
“Sardinas na maanghang, inutang lang sa tindahan
Manipis na pandesal sa kape'y isinasawsaw
Presyo ng bilihin, hindi na makaya
Kaya't nagtitiyaga sa tuyo at tinapa”
As for his biggest hit, the anthemic “Tayo’y Mga Pinoy,” which has been sampled by FrancisM, covered by Aegis, and recorded by Ely Buendia, Rico Blanco, Barbie Almalbis and Raimund Marasigan for a Smart campaign, it just came to him—which is really how songs happen to Heber.
“Dumating sa akin yung melody no’n nakatayo lang kami sa may pinto ng dormitoryo namin, may inaantay kami ng kapatid ko,” he told Good News Pilipinas. “Siya naman may gitara. May inii-scale siya. Ako naman nag-comment ako, ‘Ganito dapat scale niyan.’ Doon sa scale na yun, doon na nanggaling yung melody.”
And the lyrics? “Pag lumilikha kasi ako may puwersang dumadating sa akin eh. Lagi kong iniisip na God-given ang mga sinusulat ko eh. Para kang ginagamit ng kung sino. Dumaan sa isip mo, naisusulat mo ngayon. Hindi yung parang, ‘Ah susulat ako ng tungkol sa pagka-makabayan.’ Wala akong ganoong mga intensyon.”
Although he did acknowledge the influence of the times in his writings. When he wrote “Tayo’y Mga Pinoy,” the Philippines was five years into Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law and Heber was living inside UP, bastion of student activism in the country. A great sense of nationalism surely pervaded the zeitgeist and crept into the songwriter’s senses. And then, of course, one should factor in his personal beliefs. “Ako talagang sinasabi ko lang kung ano yung totoo, tsaka yung sa pilosopiya ko. Habang buhay na lang ba tayong mahihiya dahil sa itsura natin? Pagka matangos ba ilong kahanga-hanga? Pagka maitim ka nahihiya ka? Yung mga ganong bagay parang questionable sa ‘kin yun.”
The honesty of his lyrics and the authenticity of the experience he depicts make Heber’s songs unique narratives that resonate with many. “Yung mga kanta ko merong bahid ng pulitika [pero] wala akong kantang may mga sloganeering, mga ‘Ibagsak,’ ‘Makibaka huwag matakot,’ wala akong ganong lyrics. Sa akin, maluluma yon eh. Magbabago ang panahon, hindi na siya bagay. Pero yung kanta ko kahit anong panahon puwede mo siyang pakinggan.”
He tells it like it is and listeners have responded to his songs like they’re calls to action. His “Karaniwang Tao,” for example, is just a poignant telling of an ordinary worker’s woes.
“Pagkat ako'y karaniwang tao
May simpleng trabaho, katamtamang sweldo
Walang bahay at lupa
O kotseng magara
Na meron sila ako'y wala”
There’s no anger in the words or in Heber’s voice but we imagine it hits people in many different ways. In fact, it has once sent a man to make a choice that will forever change his life.
Heber met this guy in the mountains of Nuevo Ecjia, during the days when he was dating his future wife Maita Gomez, the Miss Philippines who was then with the NPA.
The guy didn’t have a clue he was talking to the singer-songwriter, and Heber didn’t introduce himself as Heber. He asked the guy why he joined the rebel army. “Ang sabi niya meron siyang narinig na kanta,” recalled the musician, “kanta ni Heber Bartolome.”