MANILA -- “Kay ganda ng ating musika. Ito ay atin, sariling atin. At sa habang buhay, magiging atin.”
“It never gets old,” OPM hitmaker Hajji Alejandro told ABS-CBN News, when asked about his iconic song, “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,” that won for him and its composer, National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, the grand prize in the first Metro Manila Popular Music Festival, back in 1978.
Alejandro, in fact, has been constantly singing “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” in all his concerts here and abroad through the years. No doubt, the song has been identified with him as much as it has been with its composer.
“It is now undoubtedly a classic and iconic OPM piece sang by just about all Filipino choirs, glee clubs and bands for the past more than four decades,” Alejandro beamed.
When Cayabyab first offered Alejandro the chance to interpret “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” for the Metropop, it was not surprising as they both belonged to the same recording label, Jem Recording. Alejandro, however, had mixed emotions.
“I was excited, nervous, flattered and scared all at the same time,” Alejandro recalled. “Overwhelmed by the magnitude of the song festival where I would have to compete with the country's finest and seasoned singers, plus the impending impact it would have on my young career should I win or lose.”
Alejandro’s “dearest friend and mentor,” the late maestro Willy Cruz, introduced him to Cayabyab, who gave him a copy of the song entry for the Metropop. “After hearing it the first time, I immediately related to it and fell in love with the song,” Alejandro said. “Throwing all caution to the wind, I said ‘Yes’ [to Ryan].”
Alejandro was only on his second year as a solo artist when the chance to compete in the Metropop came his way. Although it was his first time to join a singing competition, he had already had hit records, “Panakip-butas” and “Tag-araw, Tag-ulan,” back in 1976, after his stint with the Circus Band.
“Those songs were immediately followed by my first long playing album, simply titled ‘Hajji,’ released in early 1977,” Alejandro said. “I did an extensive promotional campus concert tour nationwide for the said album.”
That highly successful nationwide campus tour subsequently earned for Alejandro the enviable moniker, "Kilabot ng mga Kolehiyala.”
Despite this, Alejandro admittedly felt the pressure as he would share the Metropop stage with the music stalwarts at that time. “Understandably, because of the impressive roster of singers I would be up against, plus the fact that I had no prior experience competing in a singing contest,” he shared.
Alejandro competed against the likes of Celeste Legaspi for Nonoy Gallardo’s “Pagdating Mo,” (second place), Maricris Bermont for Nonong Pedero’s “Narito Ako” (third place), and Anthony Castelo for Vic Villafuerte and Rolando Tinio’s “Ibig Kong Ibigin Ka” (fourth place).
The competition also gave rise to other iconic songs like Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak,” Heber Bartolome’s “Tayo’y Mga Pinoy,” Joel Navarro’s “Swerte Swerte Lang” and Joe Reyes’ “Ngumiti, Tumawa, Magsaya, Kumanta.”
Other music icons who joined the first Metropop were Janet Basco for Jose Mari Chan’s “Minsan Pa,” Imelda Papin for Joe Reyes’ “Ang Dampa sa Gulod,” and Nanette Inventor for Jose Ilacad Jr.’s “Saan Ako Patutungo.”
“My recording company at the time, Jem Records, assigned stage director Leo Rialp to help me out,” Alejandro said. “Leo, who knew my knack for dancing, designed a simple but tremendously effective choreography best suited for ‘Kay Ganda.’
“We rehearsed that choreography day in and day out for weeks prior to the contest until such time that the movements became second nature to me, when I sing the song. So came the day of the competition, I was just bursting with confidence, knowing exactly what I needed to do to win.”
After bagging the grand prize in Manila, Alejandro and Cayabyab were later sent to represent the country in the first International Seoul Song Festival in Korea, also in 1978. They took the Grand Prix for “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” while Alejandro also went home with the Best Singer plum.
“We again won the grand prize, making ‘Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika’ the first Filipino song ever to win the highest award in an international song competition,” Alejandro proudly said.
“Words simply cannot express the pride and joy of winning such a historic musical event in our country. That was definitely a major highlight in my career.”
Interestingly, “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” was only the third pop song Cayabyab had written at that time. In 1977, Cayabyab penned -- and performed -- his first pop song, “Isang Awit,” which won third place in the World Popular Music Festival Philippines.
“I sang the song myself and it was a lesson learned – to leave the singing to the professional singers,” Cayabyab told ABS-CBN News. “That is just what I did when I made it to the finals of the first Metropop in 1978. I chose Hajji Alejandro to interpret the song.”
No wonder, it was such an “exhilarating experience” when “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,” successfully romped off with the grand prize. “It had only been a year on the same stage when I didn’t win the grand prize in another song competition,” Cayabyab recalled.
The world of song competition was very new to Cayabyab then. He hadn’t even written a hit song to his name at that time. “I was not known in the industry then as a songwriter,” he noted. “My work was as an arranger, music director and pianist for artists like Pilita Corrales, Cocoy Laurel, Celeste Legaspi and Basil Valdez.”
His very first hit song – “mild lang” – came later in 1977. It was “Paraisong Parisukat,” recorded by Basil Valdez, the theme song for a movie directed by Elwood Perez, “Masikip Maluwag Paraisong Parisukat,” starring Christopher de Leon and Alma Moreno.
Writing “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” also in 1977, turned out to be an inspiration for Cayabyab, especially since there was a strong clamor for more original Pilipino music in the '70s.
“The deadline of entries for the Metropop was in September 1977,” Cayabyab recalled. “It was the first Metropop Music Festival and I thought to myself, what better subject or concept for a song than to give praise to our own music.
“It was borne out of a community or shared question: What is the Filipino identity – in art, in music, in architecture, etc. My concept was to elevate the status of our own music by claiming how beautiful our music is.”
Cayabyab noted how many Filipinos, until now, are still trying to reverse the way many of us think, that the local product is inferior to those made abroad. “It is quite difficult for many of us to shake off our colonial mentality,” he maintained. “It shows in our royalty remittances. The national collection of music performance royalties is still tilted in favor of foreign music.”
Choosing Alejandro to render “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” for the Metropop was not hard for Cayabyab. “Hajji was already a popular recording artist and was a sought-after talent for concerts and shows at that time. It was but natural that we pooled our strengths together to create a big impact on the competition proper,” he said.
And they did. Triumphantly.
In 1981, Cayabyab opted to include “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” in his solo album, “One,” that contains a capella selections of his original songs, as well as Filipino folk tunes and traditional music.
While he wrote three new songs for the “One” album – “Liman-Dipang Tao,” “Tsismis” and “Mamang Kutsero,” for some reason, he was compelled to include “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika.”
“I had never performed ‘Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika’ prior to 1981, so I thought that including it in my ‘One’ album was the most natural thing to do,” Cayabyab said.
To date, more than 40 years after he penned “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,” Cayabyab is elated that the song has remained a best remembered OPM tune embraced by Filipinos through the years.
“I think ‘Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika’ has become a classic because of its rallying cry,” Cayabyab explained. “It is the same mantra I adopt whenever I give workshops, camps and music lectures.
“I need not say how beautiful our music is. I only exhort every young, aspiring songwriter to write about their thoughts and feelings and express them in song in their own language.”
He insisted the beauty and diversity of our culture should be exploited by each and every creative musical artist. “This has been catching on in the various regions of our archipelago,” Cayabyab said.
“One day, we will wake up extolling how great our Visayan songs are, our Ilocano, Kapampangan and Bicolano songs, our Ilonggo and Pangasinan songs. Those songs are actually here now! Lend them your ears.”
In 2018, Cayabyab was named National Artist for Music and the following year, he became the only Filipino in the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Awards honorees.
In July 2019, on the celebration of “Linggo ng Musikang Pilipino,” the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) lauded “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” as an opportune piece of musical creation.
The NCCA declared: “The song exalts the emergence of Filipino nationalism in music. It describes in metaphorical language the beautiful experience of discovering the gift of song.”
In January 2020, Cayabyab was honored by De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde School of Design and Arts Gallery with a musical exhibit aptly titled “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,” depicting his life and works through the years.