It’s a sticky summer night in Cebu City’s Kasambagan district and live music spills from a crowded restaurant and into a lively compound filled with casual dining spots. On a thrust stage, a band bathed in blue light performs a song with melodic sounds and peppy beats, as its clear hopeful lyrics about young love moves the audience to sway and sing along to the chorus.
Waiters carrying trays of ice-cold beer bottles and sizzling pulutan (bar chow) deftly weave between tables, as late-comers form shadows in the back of the room. The venue gets uncomfortably overcrowded, but no one seems to mind. The music has taken control of the night.
Right after their set, Karl Lucente and Gino Rosales, the singer-guitarist and synthesizer player of Mandaue Nights, step out of Mac Restobar on an adrenaline high.
You can write a song ad infinitum, but to write it in Bisaya and make it connect with the audience – that’s a feat
The band, formed in June 2017, has been killing it. “First Kiss”, the first of two Cebuano songs off their Love City album that came out in January 2018, has been ranking high in the daily countdown of music channel MYX.
Both Lucente and Rosales find the song’s success baffling. “I guess it reminds listeners of their younger days,” says Lucente, clad in an oversized T-shirt and worn-out bucket hat, a style he has been sporting since he first joined the band scene as a teenager a decade ago.
“You can write a song ad infinitum, but to write it in Bisaya and make it connect with the audience – that’s a feat,” adds Rosales, whose short hair and ironic eyeglasses give off a geek-next-door vibe.
CEBUANO – COLLOQUIALLY REFERRED TO AS BISAYA – IS SPOKEN BY an estimated 21 million people in Mindanao, Central and Eastern Visayas. Not formally taught in schools, it’s easy to speak but a challenge to write. “I go into this rabbit hole of research just to find the right words for my songs,” says Jerika Teodorico, who wrote the lyrics to “First Kiss”.
It’s the morning before Mandaue Nights’ gig and we are sitting inside a café. Teodorico is dressed in a faded T-shirt and a baseball cap that’s partially covering her eyes. The self-taught musician recalls how, as a child, she used to rewrite the lyrics of pop songs. By 19, she had already written a song, “Labyu langga” (“Love you, darling”) that made it into a Filipino movie, sung by a popular female actor.
There’s so many intangible Bisaya thoughts that can’t be conveyed in another language
“My work’s message is kamao ko mo Bisaya (I know how to speak Bisaya). It’s in my heart,” says Teodorico, who has already written over 20 songs in Cebuano. “There’s so many intangible Bisaya thoughts that can’t be conveyed in another language.”
Teodorico whips out her phone and starts reciting verses from “Anino” (“Shadow”) – a ballad about unrequited love which took her almost three years to write: Ayaw lag palabot, basta magpaabot lang ko nga ikaw molutaw / Gikan sa lalom sa langitnong gahom, nagbaga ug wa pa maugdaw. “In English, that that translates to: Don’t mind if I wait for you to be free from such heavenly power / Scorching and not yet burned down. That’s the best translation because English dilutes the actual meaning.”
Now 21 and working as a paralegal, Teodorico says that her dream job is to write Cebuano songs full-time. “If I write more Bisaya songs, then the next generation can grow up listening to them,” she says. “Hopefully, they’ll be encouraged to support it.”
POP MUSIC IS A BIG part of the nation’s culture and local radio stations are required by law to play original songs from the Philippines every hour. Stations, however, have largely been limited to local compositions written in Filipino or English. “It’s hard to write songs in Bisaya because the writers are ill-equipped,” multi-award-winning Cebuano songwriter Jude Gitamondoc explains, echoing the sentiments of Mandaue Nights and Teodorico.
It’s another hot summer day in Cebu and we have retreated from the punishing heat outside by stepping into a crowded mall where Gitamondoc walks to his favorite café and orders a cup of brewed coffee. “The language isn’t really taught in schools, so there’s a lot of insecurity and confusion on grammar. Most songwriters use this as an excuse to avoid writing original songs in the vernacular.”
It’s hard to write songs in Bisaya because the writers are ill-equipped
Gitamondoc, who was born in Surigao, discovered his musical inclination while attending secondary school in Cebu, where the Salesian priests at Don Bosco Missionary Seminary encouraged him to write songs for school events.
He later enrolled at the state university’s College of Music in Diliman, Quezon City, but only stayed for two semesters because he knew his interest lay in pop music.
In 2001, Gitamondoc went back to Cebu to become a full-time songwriter. “Back then, there was no name for mainstream and contemporary music written in Bisaya. Bisaya songs either sounded like rock or nakaraan (old),” Gitamondoc recalls.
To catapult Cebuano-language music into the future, Gitamondoc started an annual songwriting contest, called Vispop, in 2013. Short for Visayan pop, it has gained support from Artist Ko, a Cebu-based cooperative for musicians and artists, and the Filipino Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
Vispop, the contest, became this sort of playground, especially for a younger generation of songwriters who took on the challenge to write fresh Bisaya songs, on genres and topics that hadn’t been used before
“Our goal was to create music that’s contemporary, radio-friendly and unlike anything anyone has heard from Bisaya music before,” Gitamondoc says. From 63 entries in the inaugural edition, the competition received 300 entries from all over the Philippines in 2017.
“During Vispop’s first year, we didn’t really have a definite sound in mind. We were more definite about what sound we don’t like. I remember when we had our first screening session five years ago, one of the songs that really sprung on us and captured our attention was ‘Historias’ by Alphecca Perpetua. That song gave us an inkling of what kind of songs we were looking for: fresh, youthful, infectious or, as we wrote in our online ad, ‘songs that have a hook and a heart’,” Gitamondoc says.
“Before Vispop, Cebuano music was stereotyped into three molds. First was the classic kundiman (folk song) mold in the same vein as “Usahay” and “Matud Nila”. Second was the birit (belter) type that is loud and better suited for singing competitions and third was the novelty mold like the songs of Yoyov Villame and Max Surban. There were many revolutions against these molds, mostly underground, and mostly aligned with a certain genre of music. Bisaya reggae music, Bisaya rap music and, finally and most substantially, Bisaya rock music,” Gitamondoc explains.
“But even with these revolutions, there were a lot of musical ground not covered. And so Vispop, the contest, became this sort of playground, especially for a younger generation of songwriters who took on the challenge to write fresh Bisaya songs, on genres and topics that hadn’t been used before.”
Vispop songs reflect the Cebuano personality – sometimes it is self-deprecating, but always funny and honest
Vispop has now evolved from being the name of a competition to its own genre. June Rabin, a radio DJ whose career has spanned two decades over a number of radio stations in Cebu, has witnessed firsthand this paradigm shift. “Before Vispop, we had the rock genre and a lot of banda-banda (garage bands). Some songs didn’t even fit our radio format, so we’d usually play just one original song from a Cebuano artist, and usually it was in English.
”Vispop, Rabin says, has given birth to music that people in the Visayas region can actually identify with. “Vispop songs reflect the Cebuano personality – sometimes it is self-deprecating, but always funny and honest. So now, we have more of those songs in our primetime playlists.”
HANDURAW PIZZA, a restaurant chain in Cebu, has always championed the province’s local creative industry. At its branch in Mango Square, colorful artwork greets guests before they sink into bean bags facing a stage where poetry readings, film screenings and live performances are held most days of the week. I meet Zarah Smith, whose family owns this establishment.