Dong Abay's new album is filled with references to UP, government, hope

Rick Olivares

Posted at Nov 23 2017 04:10 PM

Dong Abay. Photo provided by author

Welcome to "Humanidad, the new album from Dong Abay or the Dong Abay Music Organization (D.A.M.O. for short). 

It’s trademark Abay -- 14 songs about life written with bite, sardonic wit, and dollops of passion that fuels a sacred fire for one of the most talented and respected musicians of his generation.

It’s a great album. And maybe in due time, it might very well rank up there with the first Yano album for its treasure trove of hummable and great songs that scream “classic” from the bombastic intro of the first song, “Oligarkiya.” 

It is also a progression of the man as an artist. Now here’s why:

Like Yano's self-titled debut, "Humanidad" drips with Abay’s life as a student at the University of the Philippines (UP).

Like their contemporaries, the Eraserheads, Yano's and Abay's music were filled with ditties about life at UP where they all went for college. While in Diliman, Abay’s professors made a massive and lasting impression on him that he got drunk on life and devoured books and teachings. And Abay says that to this day, he is a student of life.

In "Yano," there was “State U,” “Iskolar ng Bayan,” and “Coño Ka Pre.”

On the new album, three songs were largely influenced by readings from those college days. The song “Vulgares,” which was written in 1991, was adapted from the Spanish poem, “Vivir.” “Dasal” was likewise adapted from a story by Mark Twain that he read while in college. And “Bahaghari” was inspired by poetry from poet, screenwriter, and journalist, Pete Lacaba.

“I majored in Humanities and if you add everything that I have learned from the people I met and studied under in UP, I am the sum of that,” said Abay. “I thought the word ‘Humanidad’ was magical. And it’s perfect for the new album.”

14 songs

If you’re counting, it’s his seventh album -- counting the releases with Yano and Pan - that spans 24 years of being a musician. But according to Abay, he has only four. The rest being demos or samplers. “Para sa akin,” he explained. “Ang album ay dapat 14 songs.” 

If that is so, then his only 14-track albums lists the Yano debut, Pan’s "Parnaso ng Payaso," his solo "Filipino Album," and now, "Humanidad." 

No, there’s isn’t any feng shui to this numbering. “It’s just me,” he simply explained. “It’s perfect.”

If you care to notice, "Humanidad" doesn’t say “Dong Abay” but “Dong Abay Music Organization,” D.A.M.O. for short. 

Laugh if you will but rest assured, the album is no laughing matter. The album is performed by four men. Abay might have written the words or even thought of the melody, but they were given life by Kakoy Legaspi (guitars, vocals), Simon Tan (bass and vocals), and Abe Billano (drums and vocals). They aren’t back-up musicians or sidemen. They are a band. D.A.M.O. is a band. “The original demos are far from the ones on the album,” pointed out Zalamea. 

Abay nodded. “I can play a guitar as a tool for songwriting,” he extrapolated. “But for me, my voice is my instrument. I cannot multi-task. I can sing but I cannot sing and play the guitar at the same time. Meron akong pinaghuhugutan sa mga words ko. I have to concentrate. Malupit naman 'yung tatlong musikero na kasama ko. Songwriting is 50% of the work. The other musicians give life to it.”

The result is something powerful. And the sequence of the 14 songs tells a story. At one point, the song “Oligarkiya” was in the middle of the track listing. But a band vote – told you it’s a band and not a front man with a bunch of back-ups – all decided that "Humanidad" lead off with “Oligarkiya.” “It’s explosive,” pointed out Abay. “It sets the tone.”

And if you know your Dong Abay history, it completes a trilogy of sorts, diatribes against the government. "Yano" featured “Trapo.” "Parnaso ng Payaso" has “Kawatan.” And now, D.A.M.O. features the angry Oligarkiya” that rails, “Anong demokrasya? Nagpapatawa ka ba?” You can throw in “Porky” that is another Molotov cocktail for a song. 

The 14 songs in "Humanoid" weren’t necessarily written a few months ago. Many of them date all the way to more than a decade ago. But as Abay is wont to do, he has a “garden” of songs. “I pick them out at the right time to record as a part of a new album.”

Street poetry

At 46, Abay has lost none of that passion, bite or if you will, that sacred fire. “I take my life and profession as a songwriter very seriously,” he said in a monologue that last five minutes. 

It’s obvious that Abay has a lot to say. On the way from his home in Cainta to Tacio’s in Cubao X where we met along with his manager Elwyn Zalamea to talk about "Humanidad," Abay observed the world around him. 

It is where he gets his ideas from songs. From ordinary everyday people. From situations. From the dangerous times we live in. 

Abay protests the term I hang on him – a street poet. “I am not worthy,” he reasoned. “Bob Dylan. Paul Simon. Sila 'yung street poets.”

Perhaps. But no rock musician – maybe the early Eraserheads – drew so much inspiration from the world around them and wrapped them around songs. 

On "Humanidad," the song “Dakilang Araw” is written from the point of view of a long distance runner he personally interviewed. “For this runner and sigurado ako marami rin ganun ang feeling– running is something spiritual. And under the sun, it’s like their crowning glory,” said Abay. 

“Karera ng Mga Daga” came to him after watching something unfold outside a television station where people were literally racing rats -- an overt reference as well as to the rat race that is life. 

“I am fired up by life. I cannot lose that fire,” declared Abay. “Ako to, eh.”

There's still hope

For all the barbs and social commentary on "Humanidad," the first single is “Positibo.” It is the 13th track on the album. 

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It is an answer to a fan who once asked him, “May pagasa pa ba Pilipinas sa mga nangyayari sa lipunan?”

“Of course,” enthused Abay. “Kaya nga meron kasabihan na ‘while there is life, there is hope’. Kung sa tingin mo ala nang pag-asa, ano 'yung point ng buhay?”

Abay said that recording the vocals to “Positibo” required several takes. “Gusto ko damang dama ko 'yung saya ng pagkanta ng isang mensahe na positibo.”

Abay showed off his arm that has a tattoo that reads: “May pag-asa.” 

It’s his mantra. And after multiple listenings to this darn good album, "Humanidad," it might be yours too.