The Pass-Her-By-Girl sat behind a table near the bar at The 70’s Bistro. It was a little over two hours before she was to take the stage with her side project, Tres Marias, with Bayang Barrios and Lolita Carbon, and there she was taking questions for a lengthy magazine feature.
Cooky Chua had a tough time getting a cab to Anonas. “Saturday traffic,” she apologized profusely. “And the cab driver was slow.”
She’s had time to catch her breath. Like she’s done for the past 25 years, she goes out for a smoke, one of seven she goes through in a day, to steel herself. Three minutes later, she pronounced herself ready and plopped down to the chair. “Go,” she enthused and somehow, the first one wracked her brain. Her eyes glistened as they accessed memories perhaps not revisited in some time. It takes her a few seconds to process it. She smiled.
Has the world passed Cooky Chua and Color It Red by?
“No,” she said firmly. “We’re still around. The members are mostly the same. We gig as much as we can. One time, I heard this fan say CIR is his favorite new band.
It has been 25 years since Color It Red formed. This year, on the band’s silver anniversary, a fifth album, titled “Silver” (what else), was released. “That’s one for every five years,” cracked Chua.
Around the same time, Tres Marias’ debut album also came out. “I was nervous what my bandmates from CIR would say. It was like taking away some of the attention from ‘Silver.’ But they were cool with it. Besides, the albums are meant for different audiences.”
Chua could have easily described CIR’s catalogue that has seen the band change its music through the years.
If the band’s debut album, “Hand-Painted Sky,” was for the alternative generation, the second, “Fool’s Circle,” retained that jingle jangle feel but offered glimpses of where the band’s sound could go (“Ganyan Ka” was a jazzy number). By the time the third album, 2000’s “Pop Fiction,” was released, the band’s music had taken a sharp turn to something a little more brand new heavy as acid jazz and soul became popular.
The self-titled “Color It Red” of 2007 continued to show the band’s willingness to reinvent itself, although in a retroactive manner, as it served as a bridge to what “Silver” eventually came out to be.
“Silver” feels like it stepped out of a time warp or you just tuned in to DZRJ. The album is a paean to the band’s youthful years, when disco ruled the world, when Sting made it all right to crossover into jazz, and when Linda Ronstadt discovered the Great American Songbook (“What’s New” circa 1983 and recorded with bandleader and arranger Nelson Riddle). The other songs are bluesy and somehow apropos for Chua’s voice that has caramelized through the years because of age, whisky, and even more alcohol.
Chua protested. “I don’t drink as much,” she raised her hand to accentuate her revelation. “Only during gigs now.”
She then produced a bottle of Emperador brandy from her bag that contained not only a kikay kit but also CDs of Color It Red and Tres Marias.
Chua’s voice is a source of pride. “I am proud of the fact that I have not asked my band mates to lower the key. I can still hit all the notes. I can sing our songs, anything.”
The woman lives to sing. Gifted with beautiful, soulful and powerful pipes, Chua, who caught the second wave of Filipino bands in the early '90s and became one of the alternative nation’s icons, dispelled any notion of wanting to be a rock star.
“I only wanted to become a singer.”
Her rebelliousness is known to the disenfranchised youth of the post-new wave years– of how, as a young Chinese girl, she discovered music and how it had taken hold of every fiber of her being. As her parents chafed at her dreams of a pop star’s life, she stayed the course.
So Chua sings– at gigs, on other artists’ albums as back-up vocalist, during weddings and baptisms, at hotels, at popular nightspots, everywhere, here at home and abroad. Anywhere.
When Gary Granada, the night’s opening act before Tres Marias, strummed his guitar on stage at The 70's Bistro, Chua, who delights in conversation and banter, lit up. In a split second, she was like a dynamo. Her fun-loving and light-hearted personality took a backseat and the star is born. From the back, she softly sang along and displayed that amazing range of voice for which she is known.
Being swathed in black is something she is known for as well. She ditched the frumpy and unkempt look that characterized the alternative culture and became known for being the woman in black. Not of the Gothic kind but most definitely, not the fashionista feel that came with the packaging of “Pop Fiction.”
“My friends tell me that my wardrobe hasn’t changed. Someone told me that I wore these particular clothes to that event and how years later, I’m still wearing it,” she laughed at the incredulity of it all. “I’m just comfortable with these clothes. It’s me.”
Just like her choice of wardrobe, Chua has stubbornly clung to her musical dreams even as many of her contemporaries have packed it in after their '90s heyday.
During those days, it became cool for the young to listen to Original Filipino Music (or OPM). Bands mushroomed overnight as record labels scrambled to snap them up. The airwaves were filled with sounds that years earlier would have been the sole territory of rock stations NU107 and RJ. If it was good enough to be played on the likes of WLS-FM, then they needed to sign at the dotted line for their recording contract. And because of that success and a wider audience, it meant that local albums would be pirated as well. That was as sure as any sign that the alternative had become the mainstream.
And Color It Red was at the forefront along with the Eraserheads, Parokya ni Edgar, Tropical Depression, Rivermaya, and others. The band was like a local version of Fleetwood Mac, where their quarrels became public and they never stopped gigging.
“We were young…” recalled Chua as she took another stroll down memory lane, “...and foolish... and drunk.”
She laughed hard.
“But Color It Red is a family.”
Then the band scene faded as local companies struggled to fight piracy. Napster, the forerunner of digital downloads, also changed the way people accessed their music. Some bands survived and evolved to the changing times. Others didn’t. But Color It Red gigged on.
“We’re like wine,” she giggled with the drinking reference. “We get better with age.”
However, the death of close friend and mentor Dominic Gamboa (aka Papadom, lead singer of reggae band Tropical Depression and formerly of punk outfit Betrayed) gave Cooky sobering pause to reexamine her life and her mortality.
“I was a young college student listening to different music when Domeng grabbed me and said, ‘Listen to this.’”
It was Lolita Carbon’s “Biyaheng Langit.”
The song cut through her soul, and Chua knew what she wanted to do with her life. “That song,” she said, “...changed my life. And so did Domeng.”
Gamboa’s passing due to kidney failure left a void in Chua’s heart. “Domeng…” her voice trails off. For the first time tonight, she was groping for words; the mirth gone.
Her band and music remain an important part of her life. But in between days, Cooky works for International Alert, a London-based charity NGO committed to ending violent conflict around the world.
And when there are gigs, she performs. “Before it was to work for myself. And now, it’s for my son and to put him through school.”
Cooky finds her son, Waki, with more than a burgeoning interest in music. He plays the guitar pretty well and has sounded off on more than one occasion about following his mother’s footsteps.
It sends a chill shooting up her spine. “I don’t want,” she says although she will never tell her son that.
I remark that her life has come full circle and it’s a pun to borrow the title of CIR’s second album, “Fool’s Circle.”
Her smile is wistful. “But I will not stand in his way,” she professed after sipping from a glass half-filled with Emperador brandy. “If that is his dream, then he has every right to pursue it.”
A few minutes later, Gary Granada calls her to join him on stage. The crowd at a packed 70's Bistro applauds lustily. When Tres Marias finally takes the stage, it’s close to 11 p.m. “We’re going to be up here for a long time,” Chua addressed the crowd, who no doubt will get their money’s worth tonight.
The band then played some familiar strains.
It’s “Biyaheng Langit.”
“Biyaheng langit pare ko
Ang pasada ko
Pamasahe ay libre
Magkasama lang tayo”
Cooky Chua is once more in her element, dancing and singing. And she’ll be in good company this coming July 22, when she joins many of her contemporaries in “The '90s Live” at Solaire.