In a country where singers are a dime-a-dozen, what one knows to be true is the rarity of creativity. Because with the every-reality-show that has created the next singer, it is easy to find new talent, a new voice that will get a hit CD in record stores.
And then there are those who are born into the possibility of becoming icon. Of becoming star, but of ultimately being rakstar, the kind that nation needs. That dependable rebel who is ceaselessly creative, unapologetically intellectual, who says take him or leave him alone.
Welcome (yet again!) Dong Abay.
Probably the one singer-songwriter who has gone through as many incarnations as there have been years since he’s done his come back to our side of the world, Abay’s name will always ring a bell even for those who might have been too young to have seen him perform in the 90’s. Expectedly, the name is equated with “Banal Na Aso,” now the classic anthem against religious hypocrisy as we know it in this country.
That this will always be the quintessential request at any Abay gig is something that he seems to have conceded to: on this humid Wednesday evening at 70’s Bistro, it was part of the setlist along with two others from Abay’s classic years: “Esem” and “Tsinelas.”
One realizes that while these songs are old, they have also become classics. The religious hypocrisy, the critique of mall culture, the struggle of the every Pinoy, resonate because these issues still hold true.
To say that Abay has evolved beyond these songs is also to say that where his creativity has progressed, the nation that cradles it hasn’t. That is the curse of the artist who is ahead of his time: he watches as the ground beneath his feet crumbles, and he declares that he will fall through the cracks writing his thoughts down.
Distant but precise
Maintaining a distance from the political and social chaos, Abay has decided to speak only through his songs. It is almost an anti-icon statement to make: let my work speak for me, let it speak for itself. If you don’t consider this a raised fist, then that’s really your problem, isn’t it?
Because also there are just too many voices, too many words. The value of Abay’s songwriting has always been its poetry: each word is painstakingly chosen, no line is out of place. Each song is powerful in its specificity. While these might speak of familiar things—love and loss, poverty and hunger, displacement and ennui—Abay does not make it his business to speak about these universally. Instead, he keeps a keen eye on specific moments, making sure to capture the minutest of details, creating the smaller pictures that matter. This is what make up our every days, but these are neglected and presumed irrelevant, even as these inform what we are as nation.
Abay sings his songs now with a precision, where singing is bound to movements, as premised on the narrative of each song, a particular assertion about nation. The large rakstar movements, the devil-may-care attitude, the screaming and cursing are at a minimum; the insistence that the audience listen, to lyrics and to music—to Abay and his new band—is a stand against appreciation that is tied to a phone camera recording his every move.
It is not possible to capture Abay after all.
This Abay gig was one long set of all-original songs old and new. Collectively, it created a
complete picture of nation, with characters diverse, settings familiar, and narratives painfully necessary.
Also: absolutely relevant.
The new Abay
To say that Abay has become his own man would be missing the point: he was always his own man. He’s always written his own songs, and has always written in a Filipino that traverses wit and humor, the past and present, metaphors and analogies that change through time. As with all writers worth their salt, Abay’s language is in constant flux, and it is what makes his writing relevant if not in a class all its own.
And one is glad it has only gotten better. There is a lightness in Abay now, even as there is a certainty in every step he takes on stage, every movement he makes. His new band is made up of probably the best sessionistas of this generation: Simon Tan on bass, Kakoy Legaspi on lead guitars, and Abe Billano on drums. One can tell that Abay is ecstatic about this new band because . . . well, they are brilliant.
As audience, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed especially if you’re familiar with the songs from Parnaso ng Payaso (from Abay’s Pan incarnation in 2002) and Flipino (from his 2006 independent CD). Tan, Legaspi and Billano have breathed new life into Abay’s old songs, defamiliarizing these and rendering them new. But they don’t just shine a spotlight on Abay’s creativity. They also and ultimately, pay tribute to this man’s work, as they rise to his occasion, and finally—finally!—give him the chance to be himself on stage, because individually the musikeros on stage with him are just as artistically committed as he is.
But of course with his various incarnations, one can only imagine which self it is that Abay is treating us to. Though any musician who begins a gig with a song that starts off: “Magkakaroon ng rebolusyon / simulan ko na kaya ngayon!” is really already wearing his heart on his sleeve.