As Conspiracy Garden Cafè closes, its founders look back 2
Cooky Chua and Bayang Barrios during a gig at Conspi. Photo from Conspiracy Garden Cafe's Facebook page
Culture

‘Doon na kami nagtandaan eh’: Looking back on 19 years of Conspiracy Garden Café

From a simple hangout to a cultural hub—Noel Cabangon and Cooky Chua trace the evolution of this ‘safe space’ for Filipino music
RHIA GRANA | Aug 07 2022

Filipino music fans would remember 2003 for a number of notable highs. There was the Taiwanese phenomenon called F4. There was the resurgence of the novelty hit, from Sex Bomb’s “Spaghetti Song” to Viva Hot Babes’ “Bulaklak” and Bayani Agbayani’s “Otso-Otso.” Parokya ni Edgar filled the airwaves with “Mr. Suave”; “acoustic” became the thing, and we were introduced to a sweet young lady with a powerful voice named Sarah Geronimo through a singing competition. 

Late the same year, music was also in the minds of six respected and admired Pinoy music artists—Gary Granada, Noel Cabangon, Joey Ayala, Cynthia Alexander, Bayang Barrios and Cooky Chua. They weren’t exactly out to create a phenomenon. But they “conspired” to put up what would become one of the country’s most beloved live music venues: Conspiracy Garden Café, or what would be known later on as Conspi. It opened its doors on December 8, 2003.

Conspiracy Garden Cafè
Conspiracy Garden Cafè was launched on December 8, 2003. Photo from Conspi's Facebook page

The conspirators

Putting up Conspiracy was Granada’s “brilliant idea,” Cabangon tells ANCX. Granada, the man behind the songs “Salamat Musika,” “Holdap,” and “Pag Natatalo ang Ginebra,” and the one among the six founders, according to Cabangon, with the entrepreneurial flair, had the perfect location in mind right off the bat—59 Visayas Avenue, a former restaurant and events place in QC. It would serve as a regular tambayan / performance venue for Granada and company. “Kung saan-saan kami nag-iiinom,” recalls Cooky, “so mas maganda kung may homebase kami na bahay.” 

The vocalist of alternative pop/rock band Color It Red recalls a very energetic local music scene during that time. “Andun pa yung energy ng lahat, yung gutom na mag-jam,” she says. Which meant it didn’t take long for everyone to buy into the idea of putting up a bistro slash music venue, despite everyone’s lack of experience running one. 

Noel Cabangon, Cooky Chua, Dolly Ann Carvajal and Gary Granada
Noel Cabangon, Cooky Chua, Dolly Ann Carvajal and Gary Granada. Photo from Cooky Chua

“I remember pinag-uusapan namin na ‘pag itinayo namin yun, kami-kami rin ang waiter na magse-serve,” Cabangon recalls, smiling. The idea was to have “a safe space where people could meet, discuss, and talk about anything under the sun,”—music and other forms of art, the day’s issues, society, culture, politics etc.

There were many suggested names before they zeroed in on the best one. “We arrived at the name Conspiracy na nanggaling doon sa [goal na] ‘to inspire each other.’ To conspire—may pagka-clandestine, revolutionary spirit, which also reflects our own different involvements,” Cabangon, the guy who became famous for the anthemic folk classic “Kanlungan,” shares. “Conspiracy because it’s a place where people could meet, kahit na sino—estudyante, taga civil society, aktibista, artists.”

With Dong Abay
With Dong Abay. Photo from Cooky Chua

The house on Visayas Ave.

The two-story house on 59 Visayas Ave., easily reminded visitors of an ancestral home one spent childhood summers in. It has a spacious garden with cobblestone floors right from the entrance. “I remember we were even trying to revive the fountain na hindi maipon-ipon ang tubig,” Cabangon offers. The water just kept running out. 

Conspiracy, despite the loaded name, was as straightforward and unpretentious as one can get. It started with a most basic sound system, and even made use of the furniture and kitchen equipment left by the previous tenant. There was the main performance hall, which could accommodate 50 to 60 people, and a long, but smaller space just beside it. On the other side was a bar which also had tables and can fit 20 to 30 guests. The garden was popular too. “Nakakatuwa kasi people still go there kahit na may pagka-messy doon pag umuulan,” Cabangon says. To keep the customers dry, the staff would install tents during the rainy season. 

Conspiracy Garden Cafè
The Conspiracy Bar Room. Photo from Conspi's Facebook page

As operations started, the founders realized they needed to bring in more capital to keep the business going. So they decided to open Conspiracy up for investors from different sectors. Doing so, they figured, would help bring in more people to the café. Meanwhile, it was agreed that each investor can only own up to four shares. “Kung may botohan, kahit gaano karami ang shares mo, considered as one vote yun to avoid monopolizing the decisions,” Chua recalls.

With the involvement of people from outside the music world, Conspi transformed from being a café and gig venue to a favorite spot for parties and meetings. Artists from different fields also started hanging out at Conspi. This was when Granada and company realized it would be best to turn the place into a full-fledged cultural hub. Art exhibits, poetry readings, and launches started booking Conspiracy. The group Dakila, an organization of artists and activists advocating for human rights, was born here. In later years, the place also became a venue to launch up-and-coming visual artists. Their works adorned the Conspiracy walls, giving regulars something new to see each time they visit. 

Conspiracy Garden Cafè
The Conspiracy Music Room. Photo from Conspi's Facebook page

‘Sa Conspi pa rin ang ending’

The founders’ initial agreement was for each of them to perform one night a week but this didn’t quite happen. Cabangon played every Wednesday. Chua took on different dates. Ayala would play on weekends, either Friday or Saturday. Alexander and Barrios would play from time to time.

“Sa amin kasi, ako lang at si Cooky ang tumutugtog ng pang-general patronage,” says Cabangon. “Kami yung kumakanta ng mga covers na pang entertainment, aside from our progressive songs.”

Noel Cabangon
Cabangon in one of his regular Wednesday gigs. Photo from Cooky Chua

“Lagi kaming nasa set ni Noel e,” Chua recalls. “Lagi kaming nanggugulo dun. Magsasama-sama kami sa set. Mago-OPM medley kami nina Bayang, Gary sa stage na puro kabulastugan.”

“Doon sila nag-iinuman sa gig ko. Guguluhin nila ang set ko,” Cabangon says, smiling. “Magja-jam sila. Sisirain nila ang gabi ko.”

Even when the founders had shows in different parts of the metro—say in Makati or BGC—Chua says they would often cap the night at Visayas Avenue. “Ang ending, doon pa din kami lahat magkikita-kita sa Conspi kahit gaano na ka-late yun,” shares Chua. They would drink and talk and entertain guests til the wee hours.

Chua shares one unforgettable memory from one of those after-gig mornings. She and Granada were talking to a friend when Granada excused himself to go to the restroom. Half an hour passed and the singer-songwriter had yet to return to his seat. “Bigla akong na-paranoid,” recalls Chua. “Pag-check namin ng CR, naka-lock. Magiba-giba na namin ang pinto. Yun pala nandoon sya sa loob ng CR, natutulog!” 

Musical director Mel Villena and opinion columnist Conrado de Quiros.
Musical director Mel Villena and opinion columnist Conrado de Quiros in the house. Photo from Cooky Chua

No ROI

In succeeding years, the founders began to have less involvement in the management of Conspiracy. Other projects and gig schedules demanded time and attention. But the venue still had sold-out shows—the biggest would be the acoustic gigs of Ebe Dancel, Bullet Dumas, and Johnoy Danao. “Sobrang umaapaw sa tao ang venue kapag sila ang tumutugtog,” says Cabangon. The benefit concerts for The Jerks frontman-guitarist Chickoy Pura in August 2019 also drew in the crowds. 

“When we were discussing in the latter months of 2020 if we were still going to open it, I voted no kasi siyempre marami din kaming responsibilidad na kailangang sagutin,” Cabangon tells ANCX. “Opening it will only add to our financial problems.” 

But majority of the shareholders didn’t share the singer-songwriter’s sentiments and voted for its reopening, which was why Conspiracy reopened in January 2021. In the months prior, the café catered exclusively to takeout food orders, which proved not enough to shoulder overhead costs.

Cabangon and Chua were both saddened by the news of Conspiracy’s closure but they weren’t exactly surprised. “Wala talaga siyang ROI sa 19 years na nag-exist kami,” says Cabangon.

Conspiracy Garden Cafè
Senator Kiko Pangilinan jamming the night away with Cabangon. Photo from Cooky Chua

“Matagal na kasi siyang naghihikahos,” adds Chua. “Grateful na lang ako na tumagal siya. Na-surprise nga ako na nabuhay pa siya after the pandemic.” 

Managing director Soc Banzuela posted on the café’s Facebook page that they were issued a notice to vacate the property on July 26, 2022, and was given the month of August to transfer operation to another place. Shareholders were advised about a meeting and a farewell event to be held on August 19 at Conspiracy. On that day, the shareholders will decide whether to continue operations in another location or close the business for good.

Banzuela only has good words for the landowner, Mrs. Cecilia Chan, who he says, “has been very generous to our company over the past 19 years.” Chan, in fact, did not ask them to pay rent during the pandemic. “But now, ageing, she has other priorities for the place and we knew she struggled with her decision. We can only thank her enough and wish her all the best,” Banzuelo wrote.

Conspiracy has no doubt made a dent in the live music scene and has a special spot in many a Filipino artist’s heart. “Hanggang sa muli, Conspiracy. Magkikita tayo muli. Salamat at paalam muna,” wrote Ebe Dancel in a social media post.

Conspiracy Garden Cafè
Even when the founders had shows in different parts of the metro, Chua says they would often cap the night at Conspi. Photo from Cooky Chua

“Ang ganda-ganda ng concept behind Conspiracy. Tingin ko na-fulfill naman nya ang dream niya from the start na makapagbigay ng lugar sa maraming artist, lalo na sa mga nag-uumpisa pa lang,” says Chua. She’s thankful to Conspiracy for the lasting friendships she has forged there through the years. 

Hindi naman ako masyadong malulungkot [kung sakaling mawala ang Conspiracy] kasi dala-dala naman namin yun sa loob namin,” she says. “Hindi naman kailangan ng physical na lugar para malamang nandoon ang samahang yun.”

Cabangon, for his part, says he would definitely miss the place as well as the musicians he’s shared the stage with at Conspiracy. “Doon na kami nagtandaan e,” he says.