Musician and producer Artstrong Clarion was one of the few souls who trooped to Steve’s Cliff, two nights before the shutdown.
Even from a distance, it was hard not to notice him. He didn’t have to make a sound. His look already made a statement: matted, leonine dreadlocks -- ropes of hair swinging loosely from his scalp, over his face. He wore a shirt with the Rasta colors of red, green, and gold. A vibe so quiet and humble but still read as regal and prophetic. Boracay’s own Bob Marley.
Artstrong was there to jam with the musical troop. In a way, his own goodbye to the island where he had lived for more than a decade.
A scion of a celebrated entertainer, Artstrong is the son of Dinky Doo, Sr. who was half of a popular jazz and stand-up duo in the '60s. Yet he made a name of his own on the local music scene. He was a former member of the reggae band Tropical Depression. On his own, he produced music for artists like Kulay, Kyla, and Keith Martin. His 2004 debut solo album garnered numerous industry awards. He performed alongside famous singers in mainstream variety shows. Simply put, he was at the height of his career.
But after a few visits to Boracay, he traded the city for the island. In 1998, he packed his bags and moved.
“Totally different from the Manila scene. At the end of the night, lahat ng musikero (sa Boracay) nagkikita at nag-uusap. Maliit lang ‘yong isla eh. Magkakakilala lahat ng musikero dito 'tsaka maganda dito, nagbibigayan. Pwede ka na lumagare, ‘di katulad sa Manila,” he said.
The musicians he met on the island inspired him to pursue a different dream. This time, not so much for himself but for the music scene in the island. He helped mentor some of the budding artists on the island to develop their craft.
“Maraming magaling dito. Nakita ko sa isla na kailangan ng music culture. Marami ako matutulong dito. Musically, alam ko may maibabahagi ako sa Boracay.”
“Nagset-up ako dito ng studio para matulungan ang mga locals kasi naisip namin na in the future, magkakaroon ng mga artist sa island na bubuhay sa island. Maraming magaling dito. Mahahasa ka ba naman araw-araw eh halos ang tugtugan mo is every night.”
A trip to Artstrong’s studio is a literal visit to his home. His bedroom, in the two-storey apartment, doubles as the recording studio -- equipment a few feet away from his bed. Adorning the walls are artifacts of his own and the island’s musical history -- guitars, percussions, and indigenous instruments of all shapes and sizes.
The walls also served as silent witnesses to the stories of musicians like Armand who had visited and laid down a track. Every bum note, all the angst-ridden octaves, lines of love on loop, and melismas of madness. So many emotions, laid bare in the room through song, a space filled with spirits exorcised from singers.
Yet while there were many opportunities on the island, musicians still had their own share of struggles. There were gigs that paid well, yes, but on most nights, many of those playing by the beach earn less than minimum wage.
“Sasabihin ko din sa ’yo, hindi madali ang buhay dito sa isla. Ultimo workers, mga minimum wage. Mababa din pati ‘yang mga musikero dito dahil dumami na rin ang musikero. No'ng maayos-ayos pa ang sweldo, masaya lahat. Eh dumami. Bumaba pa sa minimum. Mahirap din,” Artstrong said.
“‘Yon na nga, P250 per set. May food naman pero siyempre gastos kinabukasan ubos agad. Kasi dami ng musikero, naghahati na sila sa set. Mga P7,750 per month. Bayad mo pa sa renta sa boarding house mga P4-5 [thousand].”
With the shutdown, it’s going to get worse for some of the musicians.
Artstrong came to Boracay to dream. He now describes the shutdown as a nightmare, a real-life horror movie.
On his way to Steve’s Cliff, he noticed the empty beachfront. There was a sense of solace in seeing the island without the visitors.
“Malungkot. Kasi dati maglalakad ka diyan, every corner ng beachfront meron laging musicians. Meron mga musikerong tumutugtog tapos masaya. Katulad kanina dumaan kami, merong mga tumutugtog pa rin pero iilan na lang. Ramdam mo na malungkot din sila eh. Nabuhay ang Boracay sa entertainment.”