'The work continues': Cayabyab eager to write more songs after Ramon Magsaysay Award

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 11 2019 08:04 PM | Updated as of Sep 12 2019 12:17 PM

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MANILA -- One by one, the awardees stood on stage to share their stories of struggle, sacrifice and triumph – two journalists who upheld truth and justice, a human rights advocate who fought for her missing husband, and a successful executive who lost a son to suicide.

Last to be awarded was Filipino music icon Ryan Cayabyab, who was recognized for being a moving force in the local music industry through his well-loved songs and commitment to training young artists.

The crowd erupted in cheers as he received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award on Monday night. His response? A speech that gave hope and a delightful performance by a choral group of one of his songs.

Philippine Vice President Leonor Robredo, center, and Ramon Magsaysay Chair, Board of Trustees, Jose Cuisia Jr., 3rd from right, pose with this year's Ramon Magsaysay awardees, from left, Filipino Raymundo Pujante Cayabyab, Thai Angkhana Neelapaijit, Indian Ravish Kumar, Burmese Ko Swe Win and South Korean Kim Jong-Ki during ceremonies in Manila on Sept. 9, 2019. Five people are being honored as this year's winners of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, regarded as Asia's version of the Nobel Prize, including a South Korean who helped fight bullying and suicide and a Thai housewife who became a human rights defender after losing her husband to violence in southern Thailand. Aaron Favila, AP

“My very first reaction was perhaps I am not worthy,” Cayabyab later revealed, pointing out "all the pain and all the sacrifices these other awardees have experienced.”

In an interview with ABS-CBN News a day after the ceremony, Cayabyab, who just last year was named National Artist of Music, said he cried the first time he heard the stories of fellow awardees Kim Jong-Ki, Ko Swe Win, Ravish Kumar and Angkhana Neelapaijit.

“Actually, I voiced it out. I felt, I feel, like I’m not worthy,” Cayabyab said. “All my life doing music, it’s all about joy, it’s all about sharing happiness with the music.”

But it was exactly for this reason that he was chosen by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation (RMAF).


While the four other laureates of Asia's premiere prize were recognized for their courage and strength, Cayabyab was credited for proving that “music can indeed instill pride and joy, and unify people across the many barriers that divide them.”

“You have to have balance to all these sacrifices, pain,” Cayabyab recalled someone telling him. 

Cayabyab’s music was a fitting end to the awarding ceremony – a reminder that amid sorrows and sacrifices, people can look forward to happiness and hope.

National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab is one of five laureates at this year's Ramon Magsaysay Awards. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

The musician was still on a high during the interview the next day.

“What does it feel like? It was a great feeling after last night. Because it took quite some time before it has sunk in,” he said. “Parang (It’s like) is this for real?”

“Somebody was asking me, ‘Meron pa ba after that (Is there anything more after that)?’” Cayabyab said when asked how he feels now that he is both a National Artist and a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee. “None that I know of. But I guess we just go on doing what we do. This is like an affirmation of what I have been doing. So the work continues.”


Cayabyab has won numerous awards for his compositions, which range from 3-minute pop songs to full-length ballets, film scores and musicals.

But he almost did not become a musician.

His mother, the late opera singer Celerina Pujante, made her husband promise that none of their children would become musicians.

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“My parents just came out of the war, from World War II. So music was definitely not part of the rebuilding of Manila. It was not a priority,” he said. “She knew how difficult it was for a musician to get a life, to build a family, and to pursue music as a career.”

Yet at a very young age, Cayabyab learned to play the piano from his mother. It was only recently that he realized that the 16-bar piano piece “Me Gustan Todas” was an actual song by American actor Dean Martin.

“I didn’t realize what she was teaching me was pop. Because all the while when we were growing up, everything was classical music and opera and kundiman,” Cayabyab said. “So I was so surprised to find out that a ‘pop music seed’ was planted early in my life.”

Cayabyab has a theory as to why his mother taught him to play the piano when he was only 3 or 4 years old.

Back then, they opened their home to boarders, mostly music students. Among them was a graduate student who would eventually become the dean of a college in Iloilo.

Unknown to Cayabyab, she tested the young boy’s musical talent at the time. 

“In my experiment, you showed tremendous talent for music recognition,” Cayabyab recalled reading the letter, which the composer received decades later in 2002.

Ryan Cayabyab (rightmost) with his family in 1958. Photo courtesy of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation.

“She said (in her study) that I possess remarkable talent in music and (she predicted that I) will be a very important music person in the future,” he added. “That was when I was 3 or 4 (years old).”

He believes the student shared this with his mother.

Unfortunately, Cayabyab's mother died when he was just six years old.


During a lecture at the RMAF building on Wednesday, Cayabyab recalled that after the death of his mother, his family had “a very difficult time.”

There were times when they would eat only rice with unripe papaya dipped in sugar.

“I could see that food on the table was scarce,” he said. “As early as high school I was looking for a job so I can help in the house.” 

One time, he joined a painting contest, submitting an artwork both he and his father deemed ugly. He won third place nonetheless and was given P50, which was “big money” at that time, allowing him to buy food for his family.

Amid his family’s hardships, Cayabyab continued pursuing music. “I was doing glee club. I was singing in the choirs. It was a musical existence,” he recalled.

Ryan Cayabyab (second boy from the right) sings with other children in this photo from 1959. Photo courtesy of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation.

Eventually, when he graduated from high school, he got a job as a choir pianist.

“I rehearsed twice a week. It paid P200 a month,” Cayabyab said. “I didn’t even think there was a career in music.”

When it was time to enter college, he and his siblings were forced to take business or finance courses to comply with their mother’s wishes. He was studying business administration when he met artist Cocoy Laurel, the son of former senator Salvador “Doy” Laurel and theater actress Celia Diaz.

“(Cocoy Laurel) took me in as his music director, his arranger, as his pianist,” Cayabyab said. “I even stayed in their house. It’s like I was a resident musician.”

Because of his talent, the elder Laurel eventually asked him if he would be interested in pursuing music instead of business administration.

“You should be able to contribute to the community with the talent given to you,” the senator said before offering him a scholarship to any music school he chose.

By that time, he was 18 years old. He went home and shared the news with his father, who simply said, “You are old enough to decide for yourself.”

And so despite his mother’s wishes, he embraced the musician’s life.

Ryan Cayabyab as an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines College of Music. Photo courtesy of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation.


Cayabyab was also swept by the increasing popularity of original Pilipino music (OPM) in the 1970s.

“We must thank the people who were there ahead. The musicians and the singers of the '70s,” he acknowledged. “That was a time when all types of music came out. We had the Manila Sound, the Apo Hiking Society.”

It was during this time when he started making a name for himself, with his song “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” winning in song festivals both here and abroad.

Since then, he has been performing and creating music non-stop. Because of this, it took him 10 years to finish his bachelor’s degree in Music at the University of the Philippines.

He was involved in musicals and operas, television, film and singing groups like Smokey Mountain.

But at one point, Cayabyab decided to migrate to the United States to pursue higher studies. “Eventually we (my family) decided it’s not what we wanted,” he said of their month-long stay in the US.

He said it was easier for him to make that decision knowing that he had an offer from the San Miguel Foundation to set up an orchestra.

“If it was between doing that and migrating, I said this is unusual - to have an orchestra right here in my fingertips and a big choir right there for me to work on,” he said.

The San Miguel Philharmonic Orchestra and the San Miguel Master Chorale produced award-winning albums while he was their conductor.

During the last decade, Cayabyab devoted his time to mentoring hundreds of young artists through the Elements Music Camp and the Philpop Musicfest Foundation. It is for this reason that he is considered an “inspiration and guiding light” by many, according to the RMAF.

Cayabyab said he believes that he would not be successful if not for his natural gift when it comes to music. “I’m blessed because I could play the piano and I could read music,” he conceded. 

But at the same time, he took note of the advice of Laurel to study well and become an expert.

“Because if you’re an authority and you’re the best and you’re very well respected you don’t have to go looking for the job. The jobs will come to you,” Cayabyab recalled him saying.

“Did I have any challenges as a musician? None. It came so naturally,” he later told the audience at his RMAF lecture.

National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab is one of five laureates of this year's Ramon Magsaysay Awards. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News.


Today, Cayabyab is happy with the result of his work with young artists. Some of those who attended his camps have become famous musicians themselves.

He has high hopes for the new generation of musicians who are able to embrace the online component of music, noting that the Philippines has the talent and that the only challenge is how to promote them.

Cayabyab, in an interview with Bernadette Sembrano for "TV Patrol," said he is now focusing on going back to writing songs.

In the past months, he has already written five songs – one for the Southeast Asian Games, two for film-related events, and another for the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ 50th anniversary. He also wrote a song for the veteran vocal group The Company.

Eventually, he said he wants to take a sabbatical to do a “big work” like a new musical, opera or concerto.

Asked why he loves music so much, he admitted that “it’s very difficult to explain that.”

“If you like swimming, you just jump into the ocean and you’re like a little boy,” he told ABS-CBN News. “When you jump into the music whatever it is -- if it’s teaching or playing -- it’s like my playground and I’m very happy.”

“It makes me feel so alive. That’s the only explanation. There is no other feeling but joy,” he said.