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August 8, 2010

Phil. Daily Inquirer | The Ballad of Noel Cabangon

Written by Eric S. Caruncho
Philippine Daily Inquirer

First Posted 17:02:00 08/07/2010

The moment – if ever there was one – during the inauguration of President Benigno Aquino III was when singer Noel Cabangon led the highest officials of the land in an impromptu sing-along to “Ako’y Isang Mabuting Pilipino [I am a Good Filipino].”

“I was already in the middle of the song when it dawned on me,” recalls Cabangon. “S__t! The past president is here, the Senate president, the Chief Justice, the archbishop, mayors and VIPs. Pagkakataon na ito! [This is a great opportunity] Game!”

Inspired by “Panatang Makabayan,” the song is a modern-day pledge of allegiance, a vow of good citizenship. For a moment, Cabangon even thought of asking the newly sworn-in president to join in, as he had done during the campaign, but at the last moment decided it might detract from the solemnity of the occasion.

“Mabuting Pilipino’ always had audience participation,” says Cabangon. “P-Noy and [his party’s] senatorial bets would swear in front of the people that they would be good Filipinos, and they would have to live up to it. This was my chance to have them swear, in front of all the people gathered there. I didn’t even think of the people here and abroad watching on television.”

Cabangon had only been scheduled to perform one song, “Bagong Pilipinas,” with Ogie Alcasid. But then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had arrived early for the turnover, and the program suddenly had 40 minutes to fill before the inaugural speech.

Cabangon was already packing his guitar when he was called back to the stage. When Kris Aquino called out for “Kanlungan,” his breakthrough radio hit, after “Mabuting Pilipino,” he thought: now you don’t have a choice but to listen to me. Later, Butch Abad would tell him: “Pare, marunong talaga ang Diyos [God is really wise].”

“I was at the right place at the right time,” says Cabangon.

It took him more than 25 years to get there.

But the greatest irony in that triumphal moment – an irony not lost on the singer himself – was the fact that Noel Cabangon first began to make a name for himself as a protest singer, performing at rallies against the administration of Corazon Aquino, the mother of the president he had just helped put in office.

The Quirino Grandstand gig was like coming full circle.

A proud G.I (genuine Ilocano), Noel Cabangon comes from a family of modest means from Rosario, La Union. He learned to sing and pick a guitar at an early age. He mastered the standard folkie repertoire: Don McLean, Jim Croce, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary, and his favorite, James Taylor.

After graduating from the Quezon City High School, Noel persuaded his parents to let him enroll at the St. Louis University in Baguio City. There, while pursuing engineering studies, he tried to get a singing gig at one of the popular folk houses, the Fireplace or the Cozy Nook, but there were no takers. Instead, he landed an unpaid gig at the Solibao, a café in Burnham Park.

“The line that managers would always give you after you auditioned was, ‘We’ll call you’,” he recalls. “They never did.” It was a line he would hear often.

When family funds ran out, he was forced to return to Manila. Getting a slot at a folk house proved even more difficult. It was 1980, and no one wanted to hear folk music anymore. Freddie Aguilar was still around, but even the great Asin had gone to Mindanao in search of greener pastures.

As William Blake wrote, “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” Cabangon’s persistence eventually landed him a spot as an alternate singer in a Kamuning bar called Far West, for the princely sum of P30 a night.

The ensuing years found him living the knockabout life of an itinerant folk singer, the modern-day equivalent of a wandering troubadour. He subsisted on a succession of low-paying crap gigs at places now long-gone such as Crown’s Delight, Grandma’s Kitchenette, Taxco, the International Pub. Sometimes he would alternate with an a-go-go dancer. Other times he was shooed off the stage so the patrons could sing along with the newly-popular Minus One.

“Folk singers are the working class of the music industry,” he says. “You don’t play, you don’t earn.”

Eventually, though, he made his way to legendary venues such as the Hobbit House, My Father’s Moustache, and Gasera, a tiny place in UP Village where he heard the music of the pioneers of protest folk such as Pol Galang and Heber Bartolome.

Cabangon found his music taking a turn for the political in the aftermath of Sen. Benigno Aquino’s assassination in 1983. If there was one place where folk music had never died, it was in the bosom of “the Movement.” It had evolved into an original form of agit-prop protest music nurtured by artists such as Jess Santiago and the aforementioned Bartolome and Galang.

An older brother was an activist, and he himself had become one briefly during a short-lived stint as a business major at the Philippine School for Business Administration, where he wrote for the school paper.

“When we sang ‘Bayan Ko’ at My Father’s Moustache, the patrons would tear up the napkins and throw the pieces in the air like confetti,” he recalls. “Taas kamao [clenched fist in the air].”

As the anti-Marcos protests escalated, Cabangon found himself drawn more and more into the protest movement. But ironically, he was absent at the culmination.

He had joined a band called Shades of Time, and had landed a coveted gig at a resort hotel in Sabah, Malaysia. Momentous events were taking place back home, and the band members were ready to go home when the Edsa People Power revolt broke out. Flights to Manila were cancelled, and Cabangon had to stay in Sabah another month while people were dancing in the streets back home. They had missed the whole thing.

It was just as well, because when he finally got back, not everything had changed for the better. In the new democratic space, the Left had begun to assert itself, through rallies, marches and political campaigns, prompting a reaction from the Right. Cabangon soon found himself in the thick of it when he teamed up with Rom Dongeto and Rene Boncocan to form Buklod. Originally an NGO called Bukluran ng Musikero para sa Bayan, Buklod eventually pared down into a performing trio, later a duo.

For the most part, Buklod found its audience in the streets, during the rallies and marches for human rights, land reform, the end of the US military bases, and genuine democratic reforms.

On January 22, 1987, they were preparing to go onstage at a farmer’s rally for land reform when shots rang out and chaos ensued. The aftermath of the so-called “Mendiola Massacre” found 13 people dead, scores more wounded, and the promise of Edsa in tatters.

In the ensuing years, Buklod recorded three albums – “Bukid at Buhay,” “Tatsulok” and “Sa Kanlungan ng Kalikasan.” Their song “Tumindig Ka,” a sort of tribute to Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” became the unofficial marching song of the Cory-era protest movement. They also contributed songs to the “Dear Cory” and “Karapatang Pantao” compilations which remain landmarks in the politicization of Filipino alternative music.

By the time Buklod called it quits, Cabangon had landed a regular gig at the ’70s Bistro, which gave him the confidence to quit his various day jobs and become a full-time musician. His stint, which began in 1992, would last 12 years, a record of sorts in the live music scene. During this time, he honed his craft.

Cabangon’s Bistro years coincided with the rise and fall of “alternative” music. Just as Edsa had created a democratic space in the political arena, where contradictions between Left and Right could work themselves out, the massive success of the Eraserheads created space in the musical arena where the contradictions between Underground and Pop could battle it out.

“I wanted to explore all possibilities in music,” he says. Cabangon explored avenues as diverse as composing pop songs for Agot Isidro, performing musical theater in “Lean” (a musical on the life of slain activist Lean Alejandro, in which he played the lead) and a production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (where he was also the lead).

Later, he formed an electric folk rock band called Wen’a (Ilocano for “of course!”), with which he recorded an album, “Pasakalye” in 2001. At the same time, he began a fruitful collaboration with the Jesuit Music Ministry that saw the release of three albums: “Huwag Mangamba,” “Medyas” and “Noel” which featured devotional songs, experimental jazz fusion and Christmas songs, respectively.

Meanwhile, “Kanlungan,” a gently nostalgic ballad that Cabangon had recorded with Buklod and released in their final album, had become something of a sleeper hit. The song had found its way into the airwaves as early as 1993, when DJs began playing it on LA and NU FM stations. The song’s popularity eventually led to a posthumous “best of” album for Buklod and CD releases after years of only being heard on worn-out cassettes. Even more incredibly, it was picked up by McDonalds for a television commercial in 2003. The lyrics had actually been written by Rom Dongeto, his erstwhile partner in Buklod, but “Kanlungan” became his signature song.

It was one step closer to the mainstream.

It would take a few more years, though. Cabangon had shopped “Pasakalye” around the major record labels, thinking it was his most “commercial” effort, but all he got was another variation of “we’ll call you.”

Perhaps they didn’t hear another “Kanlungan.” (Eventually the Jesuit Communications Foundation picked it up, not exactly a ringing endorsement of “Pasakalye’s” commercial potential.)

Cabangon finally landed a major label recording contract last year, when he was signed to a two-album deal by Universal Records Philippines. “Byahe,” the initial release, was conceived in the wake of successful compilation albums of covers of old OPM hits by new bands. It would feature songs by Asin, Florante, Apo, Rey Valera, Sampaguita and Buklod, including a new version of “Kanlungan” sung as a duet with Imago’s Aia de Leon.

The album was an instant hit. It promptly landed in the Top 10 OPM albums, and quickly went platinum – a rarity in these days of digital downloading.

Meanwhile, friends in the Liberal Party and Akbayan had asked him to help in the Aquino presidential campaign. Cabangon wrote “Ngayon (Tungo sa Pagbabago)” which became the campaign’s official anthem. He also went out with the candidates during campaign sorties, where the highlight of the evening would often be a sing-along to “Ako’y Isang Mabuting Pilipino,” with both candidates and crowd joining in.

Sales for “Byahe” picked up even more after the inauguration, when a new wave of listeners was introduced to Noel Cabangon and his music. Universal Records lost no time re-releasing “Byahe” with a bonus CD including two of the songs sung during the inauguration, “Ako’y Isang Mabuting Pilipino” and “Ngayon (Tungo sa Pagbabago),” the song Cabangon composed for the Aquino campaign.

It begs the question: why had the mainstream taken so long to catch on to Noel Cabangon?

“Life really begins at 45,” he says. On reflection, his byahe, his journey, has really been toward the mainstream.

“My analogy is, alternative music is like a tributary that will lead you to the mainstream, which will in turn lead to the ocean,” he says. “You don’t want to get stuck in a tributary. The only way to get your music across to the people is to go to the mainstream.”

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