Photo by Bruce Northam
Well, it's actually not that surprising once you learn about musical culture in the Philippines.
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Guys weaned on Led Zeppelin aren’t supposed to like Journey. Yet, decades beyond my rock ‘n roll formative years, I proudly stand in a crowd of Journey fans in Saratoga, New York, enamored with the band’s new Filipino lead singer, Arnel Pineda—the same singer who, a year prior, I watched perform cover tunes in dingy downtown Manila bars where wobbly ceiling fans swatted flying cockroaches. Having previously zigzagged across the Philippines in search of the keys to their native musical genius, I must admit I wasn’t surprised to witness Pineda’s rise to fame.
During my third trip through the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s only Christian country, I sought to answer the question: Why are the Philippines the rock-and-roll engine for the rest of Asia? From Hong Kong to Singapore and back up to Tokyo or Beijing, if there’s a skilled rock band on stage, they’re likely Filipino.
The Spanish colonial era that began in 1565 introduced guitars, choirs, and the art of serenading to the Philippines. This Eurasian hybrid—linked to the Renaissance—set the stage for a nation hooked on music. Historically, Filipinos have a song for every occasion, such as planting rice, fishing at night, and courting sweethearts. The Filipino serenade was inspired by the old-style Spanish romantic scenario: A guy shows up with his guitar outside his dream girl’s home and croons a love song. If she opens her window to listen and sings a song in response, he's in; if the window doesn’t budge, it’s off to voice lessons or another gal’s house. Nearly every Filipino man I met born before 1960 had vivid recollections of serenading his eventual wife—or being shot down in flames.
My musical mission first led me to sand-and-ungle fringed Palawan, a narrow 250-mile-long island bisected by an imposing spine of limestone mountains. One of 7,017 Philippine islands, this is where I met Bing, a charming mother of five. She was serenaded at 2 a.m. by her eventual husband, who wasn’t put off by her underwhelming appearance at the window—her face at the time was encrusted with otherwise beautifying talcum powder. It was true love from the get-go.
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Music wriggled its way into the Philippine heart long before the Spanish towed in stone cannonballs and religion. Palawan’s indigenous lowland Aboriginals, the Tagbanuas, expressed feelings of love in singing poems inspired by the inexhaustible variety of sounds in nature. They imitated the singing of insects and birds and created a bird scale that mimics musical notation. That birdlore vocabulary continues to bond men and women of the jungle.
In the 1980s, karaoke was invented by a Filipino man and then sold to a Japanese investor. It overtook the Philippines and modernized the serenade. Then, jukebox-style videoke began booming from street corners, bars, and malls. While American-style signs of affection play out as pricey gifts, horse-drawn carriage rides, and scoreboard proposals—most American men sing to their women only to humor them—Filipinos still sing to theirs as if their futures depend on it.
After Spain’s rule gave way to American colonization, the U.S. built schools in practically every village and taught the Filipino people English. Hollywood was also delivered to their doorstep. The Vietnam-era military bases needed entertaining, so Filipino rock, jazz, and lounge bands surfaced and thrived. Base towns became hubs for live Western music, which inspired many to pick up a guitar and sing. American soldiers also left behind a legacy of vintage guitars. Hundreds of collectors’ guitars—mostly Gibsons—found permanent homes in the Philippines. Turkey may have claimed the world’s “East Meets West” slogan, but it also justly describes the Philippines’s music scene.
Modern Manila, a mega-city of 15 million, is traditional yet faddish, Asian in character, but Western in disposition. Still hunting for the history behind the Filipino love of music, I was unaware that their irrepressible musicality was about to storm America until I caught wind that the iconic 1980’s rock band, Journey, had just auditioned a Filipino named Arnel Pineda as their new lead vocalist—and that same singer was fronting his Manila-based rock cover band, The Zoo, in a few hours. I sat in the front row and introduced myself to Arnel between sets. He sat with me and explained that Journey’s guitarist admired his covers of the band’s hits on YouTube and flew him to California. Only a few days after his tryout, it was supernatural to witness this still unknown would-be star rock out in a random, smoky Manila bar.
While the decision to hire Arnel had still not been made, I interviewed him after two more Manila shows. His arena-rocking potential was obvious. A month later, Journey announced him as their new vocalist, as well as a world tour. A Filipino fronting a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-bound band was the biggest entertainment news ever in the Philippines, outshining Filipino Lea Salonga’s Tony Award-winning role in Miss Saigon.
Before Arnel was launched out of obscurity and into the world spotlight, the youthful, unassuming 40-year-old was armed only with standard Filipino politeness. He insisted that his birthplace was “a big sponge that’s open to world music.” No stranger to smiling, he added, “We grew up breathing music, it’s in our veins.”
Some may call it luck, but Arnel was well-prepared for this opportunity. His mother, a tailor who passed away when he was 13, began grooming him via in-home performances at age five. Born into poverty, he was competing in local singing competitions by age seven. He went pro at 15, initially showcasing his vocal range in malls and later throughout the Philippines and other parts of Asia. His story was also punctuated by spells of hunger and homelessness.
It seems almost everybody in the Philippines can carry a tune. Women sing to nobody in particular, as they stare into internet café computer screens; a man whistles as he stands before a urinal; cab drivers croon along with their radios; maids belt out while working; a teenaged boy strums a guitar on a street corner, practicing a puppy love song. Like Brazilians and the Irish, few Filipinos are performance shy, because music—from liturgical to metal—is bred into their souls. Although karaoke machines are displacing windowsill serenades, my faith was restored as my Philippine Airlines flight touched down in California, and two flight attendants seated in the jump seats facing me began singing to each other. Music celebrates a universal love, and there’s no greater invitation to love than singing about it.
When Arnel Pineda first toured the world with Journey, he invited me backstage in Saratoga Springs, NY, where he was about to dazzle 25,000 wildly cheering fans. After a hug and a handshake, we reflected on how things had changed for him since our smoky bar-room conversations in Manila. It was a fleeting moment to revel in his rags-to-riches story. It’s rare to successfully replace the lead singer of an iconic band. Van Halen and AC/DC pulled it off, as did Journey. Before heading to center stage, he said, “If my mom was alive today, she would have been so proud.” His body may have been on cloud nine, but his familial heart was beating aloud. I reminded him that I wanted to write his biography. Walking into the spotlight, he turned around and nodded a yes.
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