Super Subcultures

Jazzing Up Life in Manila

Generations after American servicemen first brought jazz to Asia, young Filipinos are embracing the old-school art form and spinning a new sound of their own.

Jazzing Up Life in Manila

“Something has been brewing and I’m waiting to see what it is,” says Alvin Cornista. A Manila-based saxophonist who’s played with the Temptations and Norah Jones, Cornista is a firsthand observer of a jazz scene slowly emerging from autopilot. After years of the same standards being played on repeat by musicians in hotel lounges and bars across the city, an intimate community of serious jazz enthusiasts has sprung up in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. In cozy corners of out-of-the-way bars, foreigners and locals are leaning in to hear music that is wholly original, and absolutely Filipino.

The Philippines has its American colonizers to thank for an initial introduction to the world of jazz. As far back as 1898, African-American soldiers sent to fight the Spanish also brought their harmonicas. In the 1920s, American servicemen based in the Philippines used gramophones to blast popular jazz. In the Philippines, the jazz heyday was between the 1950s and ’60s, when a tight-knit group of talented musicians including Exequiel “Lito” Molina, Romy Katindig and Fred Robles created a uniquely Filipino sound, mixing classic Filipino folks songs and melodies with new jazz chords.

While jazz continued to grow across Asia, namely in Indonesia and Malaysia, a sharp decline in interest among the Philippine audience meant that local musicians were forced to retreat into the shadows of hotel lobbies and dive bars, as pop music took over popular taste. However, in the last few years the genre has resurfaced. Local bands like the Buhay Jazz Quartet, the Jazz Volunteers and Akasha have helped re-establish jazz as a popular medium and are helping the Philippines reclaim its place on the world jazz stage.

The Jireh Calo Project plays a set at the Lucky Chinatown Mall in Binondo, Manila. Jazz venues are few and far between. Calo was performing at Shockwave, a concert with various bands of differing genres.
The Jireh Calo Project plays a set at the Lucky Chinatown Mall in Binondo, Manila. Jazz venues are few and far between. Calo was performing at Shockwave, a concert with various bands of differing genres.

“Though jazz isn’t mainstream, it definitely is alive and kicking in Manila,” says Jireh Calo of the Jireh Calo Project, a newly formed band that has been shaking up the local scene with its jazzy twists on popular songs. “There are people around dedicated to keeping the true spirit of jazz alive. There’s a sort of magic and excitement in the live jams I’ve witnessed and been a part of where musicians who don’t necessarily know each can play together and create something spontaneous. And there are people who look for that magic and find it.”

Jireh Calo Project is a jazz fusion band formed in 2014. Calo was recently accepted to Berklee College of Music but needs some time to raise funds to make it happen. “Since I had deferred my admission for college and chosen to take a gap year this year, I had the time to start my own band, focus on my craft, and immerse myself in the music scene,” says Calo.
Jireh Calo backstage after her set at the Lucky Chinatown Mall in Binondo, Manila. Jazz venues are few and far between. Jireh was performing at Shockwave, a concert with various bands of differing genres.
Jireh Calo backstage after her set at the Lucky Chinatown Mall in Binondo, Manila. Jazz venues are few and far between. Jireh was performing at Shockwave, a concert with various bands of differing genres.

Another band propelling the jazz/blues fusion scene is The Brat Pack, a Filipino foursome that won the second Philippine Blues Competition, taking them to the 30th International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee, in January. According to bassist David de Koenigswarter — whose grandmother Pannonica de Koenigswarter was a patron of Charlie Parker’s — they were nearly disqualified for having a style that’s closer to jazz than blues. They went into the finals without a guitarist, something deemed very unusual for blues bands.

“I believe that the blues has always been alive,” he says. “However, after we came back from Memphis it really went forward. Within a month of us returning, we guested on five different TV and radio shows and got recognition from people who don’t really know about blues in the Philippines. Our goal is make blues mainstream.”

Lead singer Christine Mercado and RJ Pineda of The Brat Pack playing a set at The Roadhouse, a rock and roll and blues bar in Mall of Asia area of Pasay City, Manila.
Lead singer Christine Mercado and RJ Pineda of The Brat Pack playing a set at The Roadhouse, a rock and roll and blues bar in Mall of Asia area of Pasay City, Manila.
The four members of The Brat Pack include pianist RJ Pineda, bassist David de Koenigswarter, drummer Allan Abdulla and Christine Mercado on vocals. “Were basically trying to invent our own sound. We’ve pegged off a lot of different people and now we’re trying to make our own sound,” says de Koenigswarter.

Brat Pack are regulars at the Roadhouse, a bar dedicated to the blues scene and frequented mostly by tourists and ex-pats looking for a taste of home. {photos of greats like BB King, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin on the walls pay tribute to the fact that, like their counterparts in the United States, Manila’s jazz musicians have long found much of their inspiration from classic rock and blues artists.

Keyboardist RJ Pineda of The Brat Pack at The Roadhouse, a rock and roll and blues bar in the Mall of Asia area of Pasay City, Manila.
Keyboardist RJ Pineda of The Brat Pack at The Roadhouse, a rock and roll and blues bar in the Mall of Asia area of Pasay City, Manila.

“For some time the Philippines was really in love with the music of the ’70s and ’80s,” says Cornista. “It’s not fair for the young musicians to be only exposed to one style of music. They will get pigeonholed into that genre. Now things are changing. I’ve heard people play everything from ragtime to European contemporary style. These are the kind of sounds I wasn’t hearing seven years ago.”

As the community builds, he hopes the older members will mentor the old, giving inspiration on stage and off.

Saxophonist Alvin Cornista prepares for a set at Trattoria Poggio Antico in McKinley Hill, Manila.
Saxophonist Alvin Cornista prepares for a set at Trattoria Poggio Antico in McKinley Hill, Manila.
Alvin Cornista is a saxophonist based in Manila. He plays regular gigs at different bars and hotels here and has toured with Norah Jones.

Today, dedicated jazz bars are few in numbers but an increasing number of venues are opting to hold jazz nights. The mainstay is the intimate Tago Jazz Café, where local heavyweights such as Noli Aurillo and Pete Canzon jam together with new and emerging talent. The biggest fixture on the jazz calendar is the annual Philippine International Jazz Festival, which is in its ninth year and has been steadily growing. Other entities have banded together to offer smaller festivals such as the Euro-Pinoy Jazz Concert.

Richie Quirino and Collis Davis’s documentary “Pinoy Jazz” begins with the question: Is there such a thing as Philippine jazz? (“Pinoy” is an informal reference to Filipino people.) According to the documentary, what makes “Philippine jazz” distinct is the fusion of jazz with Filipino folk songs and melodies.

Bassist Dave Harder, drummer Rey Vinoya, pianist Mel Santos, and saxophonist Alvin Cornista play a set at Trattoria Poggio Antico in McKinley Hill, Manila.
Bassist Dave Harder, drummer Rey Vinoya, pianist Mel Santos, and saxophonist Alvin Cornista play a set at Trattoria Poggio Antico in McKinley Hill, Manila.

“It’s a mix of a lot of things,” says Jireh Calo, before playing a show in the cozy back room at the Tago Jazz Café. “You can hear the elements of Western jazz in it but then you can also hear the distinct Filipino soul. Sometimes it’s heard in the lyrics or the way that the vocalist sings, sometimes it’s heard in the scales or chords used, sometimes in the rhythm.”

As Calo prepares for her set, a handful of people come in from their smoking breaks outside, take a pause from their chattering and turn their ears and eyes towards her. She smiles at an audience which she knows well, one filled with many people have seen her grow from her participation in casual jam sessions to a member of a full-fledged band playing gigs across the capital. As her hands strike the first chords, the intimate gathering gets a little more cozy and the three tables of music lovers listen in on one of the newest voices of Manila’s jazz scene.

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