Kalayo has variously been described as playing “experimental,” “contemporary,” “folk,” “fusion,” “world” and “roots” music, but “music without borders” is probably a better description.
Rising out of the ashes of Pinikpikan, Kalayo—the name comes from the Visayan word for “fire”—likewise employs a host of percussion instruments from various tribal cultures.
But unlike its predecessor, which became notorious for long, formless, trance-inducing jams, much of Kalayo’s music has a seriously funky edge to it, thanks to an expanded palette that includes Louie Talan’s thunderous bass lines and Sammy Asuncion’s psychedelic-tinged electric guitar, supported by the percussion ensemble of Boy Garrovillo, Budeths Casinto, DJ Rodriguez and Reli de Vera.
If the band’s debut album “Malaya” were any indication, Kalayo also displays a focus on songcraft and arrangement that builds on Pinikpikan’s decade-long evolution from hippie drum circle to actual performing band.
This is a band that knows how to kick out the jams, as evidenced by its recent crowd-rousing performances at the Penang World Music Festival in Malaysia and its mini-tour of Paris and Normandy. Top-notch musicianship and stage presence as well as a varied repertoire have served as Kalayo’s passport to the world stage, via the global festival circuit and, of course, YouTube.
It’s a fresh new take on a genre too often dismissed as Third World solidarity music for pashmina-wearing NGO workers and batik-clad anthropology majors. More important, Kalayo paints a picture of the Filipino musician that is worlds apart from the stereotypical hotel lounge bands and pop divas that foreigners most often associate with our country.
“I always want to do something different,” says Sammy “Faith” Asuncion, the band’s guitarist, chief songwriter and musical director.
“I don’t know if it’s been a disadvantage, but I’ve always had that attitude. Sometimes I swim against the tide, against all odds, but in the end it’s a question of how original you can be.”
Asuncion started traveling to the beat of a different drum early on, while growing up in the idyllic green hills of Malaybalay, Bukidnon where he was born on December 6, 1953, to a family of educators.
“My dad was pure Ilocano from Bacarra, Ilocos Norte while my mom’s roots were in Misamis Oriental and Nueva Ecija, but my culture and temperament are pure Mindanao,” he says.
As early as age five, he recalls, melodies and rhythms would constantly be playing in his head, synched with the cadence of his footsteps.
“My father was a school district supervisor, but he also played the piano, the violin and the piccolo and he could read music,” he continues. “My elder brother could play the guitar. We would harmonize at home, that’s why I have an ear for arrangements.”
He picked up the guitar in high school and never put it down again.
By the time Asuncion had enrolled as a business major at the Ateneo de Cagayan-Xavier University in 1970, he was already playing in rock bands and performing in Cagayan de Oro folkhouses, much to his parents’ disapproval.
“What I really wanted to do was play music, but my parents wanted a secure life for me. I finished my course in management and found a job at a bank in Malaybalay. I lasted two weeks. I couldn’t stand it. That was my first and last regular job.”
Asuncion began the itinerant life of a professional musician, traveling from Mindanao to Cebu and Manila scrounging for gigs. With a group of former Ateneo de Cagayan classmates, he formed the Southern Blues band.
“We played blues and rock and roll, with a little Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young so we could get gigs and get a little money to pay our rent,” he recalls.
For the next five years, Asuncion paid his dues. He started touring the country with Lolita Carbon and Popong Landero as Lolita and the Sulabama in 1982. The band had prospects: a record company was interested. But a restlessness had taken hold, and Asuncion felt the need to move on.
He had made friends with a secretary at the French embassy, who had arranged for a quick visa.
“On New Year’s Eve, I flew to Paris, and that changed my whole life,” he says.
Paris was a true melting pot, with people of all races speaking all languages, playing all kinds of music and mingling in the cobblestoned streets. Europe was still experiencing the aftermath of punk and new wave, but with its large expatriate community of Africans and Arabs, Paris was also the epicenter of the emerging world music phenomenon.
“On my first trip to Europe in 1983, I learned how to work hard,” says Asuncion. “It’s not enough to have talent. You have to work hard to be better than others, because there are a lot of talented people. After six months in Paris, I picked up the pulse and the language, and I started to feel at home. I realized that I liked Paris very much.”
He moved in with a French girlfriend, and started playing in bars, singing and playing the guitar. After observing that the ubiquitous street musicians in Paris could actually earn decent money, he started busking in front of cafes with an electric guitar and a small, battery-powered amp.
“I realized that if you are good and can deliver, apart from playing bars you can do well busking,” he says. “Just find a café with plenty of people, set up in front, and play. Back then it was still relatively free. Now you need a permit.”
The constant playing was starting to pay off. Apart from his solo gigs, Asuncion found work with various bands: 911, a punk outfit from Massachusetts; On The Spot, a blues band; and See Spot Run.
“I roamed the whole of Europe,” he recalls. “I would go to Amsterdam with just five dollars in my pocket and my guitar, and find a blues bar and ask to jam. They would ask me to come back the next night. It’s nice to travel alone, observe and talk to people, and understand the deeper side of the culture. As the years went by I lost that macho Pinoy attitude-you know what I mean, pasikat, sentro ng mundo.”
Occasionally, Asuncion would return to Manila on vacation. On one such respite in the mid-1980s, he formed Eurasia with Jun Lopito, Rico Velez, Pete Canzon and Rene Tengasantos. For a while, the band held court in the now long-gone Hotel California Bar in Malate. Their opening act was a young band calling themselves the Dawn. When Asuncion went back to Europe, Eurasia evolved into the reggae band Cocojam.
Back in Europe, Asuncion met the Austrian drummer Fritz “Dr. Sticks” Barth during a Vienna gig. Feeling a musical connection, they decided to form a new band in Paris in 1989. They recruited bass player Maurice Casanove, originally from Madagascar and also a veteran of the Paris street music scene. The result was Spy.
Right from the start, Spy exhibited a unique chemistry. Not only were the members from distant corners of the globe—Europe, Asia, Africa—but they also brought distinct musical influences: rock, blues, funk, jazz, reggae and Afrobeat. With Asuncion’s knack for songwriting, Spy quickly amassed a repertoire of original compositions. They soon made a name for themselves in the Parisian music scene, and made two recordings in Europe.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, just when the Manila alternative music scene was starting to peak, Spy flew in from Paris to blow everyone’s minds. It was supposed to be a working vacation for the band, playing just enough to pay for plane fare and a couple of weeks at the beach. But the band’s fierce live groove was undeniable, and their sound so different from anything else that was going on in Manila at the time that they were soon fully booked for clubs and concerts.
Spy was the ultimate full moon party band and could work a funk groove to death. Crowd-pleasing doobie anthems like “Let’s Get High” and Asuncion’s 25-minute guitar workout on Richie Havens’ Woodstock chestnut “Freedom” left audiences, well, euphoric.
“A lot of the people in our audience were musicians,” he recalls. “Karl Roy, Wolfgang, the Eraserheads. They could see that we were different from anything in the Philippines; we had a strong rock element but funky. It was new to them.”
After Casanove’s departure, Spy went on hiatus and Asuncion was recruited to join Pinikpikan.
Named by Bencab after its debut at the Baguio Arts Festival, Pinikpikan was less a band than a lost tribe of wandering shamans. Their performances were less “gigs” and more of extended rituals involving drumming, dance and audience participation.
Asuncion’s brief as musical director was to whip the band into a marketable shape and arrange the jams into actual songs. It was hard work given the anarchic spirit of the group, but eventually, compositions began to emerge and the result was a series of three albums and even a number of foreign tours during Pinikpikan’s decade-long lifetime.
Eventually, however, the Pinikpikan framework began to seem like a limitation. Friction began to develop over the band’s musical direction. Eventually, the band was dissolved.
Together with bassist Louie Talan (best known for his work with Razorback), Asuncion set out to salvage the momentum that they had built over 10 years with Pinikpikan.
“We planted a seed with Pinikpikan” he says. “Let’s take it in another direction.”
Rather than be limited to Filipino roots music, Kalayo decided to create a truly world music, with influences from Africa, Asia, or any part of the world.
“No limits, no borders, just music,” says Asuncion.
He seems genuinely amazed at Kalayo’s reception so far.
“I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but a lot of people liked Kalayo immediately. We received a lot of invitations from abroad. We didn’t apply for the Penang Music Festival but they saw our video, liked us, and invited us to play. Even the audiences at Penang went wild for us.”
The same went for Paris: Kalayo was invited by the Alliance Francaise as a showcase band representing the Philippines in their Paris event. Once more, they received invitations to play in a jazz festival to be held in France next year.
While they are building a substantial base of local fans, Asuncion says the bulk of their audience is international.
“It’s still mostly foreigners who are filling our venues,” he adds.
Once in a blue moon, Asuncion will resurrect Spy, with Louie Talan on bass and Reli de Vera on drums, a band within a band.
“As I’m getting older, all I want to do is play,” he says. “I no longer aspire to make it big or be famous like Bamboo or Rivermaya. I respect what they do, but my feeling is, I want something different.” •