“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labor and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
François-René de Chateaubriand’s words immediately spring to mind as I enter Diwa de Leon’s cramped home studio/man-cave.
Judging from the sheer amount of stuff crammed into every corner, the award-winning musician and composer is one of the lucky few whose work and play overlap, and are pursued with the same passion.
An entire wall is taken up by two computer rigs: the “work station” on which he creates album tracks and music for film and television, and the “play station” which is dedicated to playing video games.
Musical instruments lean against an adjacent wall: an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, and a hegalong—the two-stringed T’boli lute which has become De Leon’s signature instrument as a solo performer and with his band, the Makiling Ensemble.
Painted green, the wall also serves as a backdrop for De Leon’s self-created videos which he uploads on his YouTube channel.
A self-confessed nerd/geek, De Leon never outgrew his love for Super Mario: figurines of Mario and Luigi and other characters from the durable video game share shelf space with his trophies, including a Gawad Urian for best film score for “Baybayin.” His collection of Super Mario amiibo—game figurines with programmable data—covers the door.
Born in 1980, De Leon represents the convergence of tradition and technology. Striking a balance between the two worlds has been the essence of his musical journey, thus far.
The grandson of composer and National Artist for Music Felipe Padilla de Leon (his parents are current National Council for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) chairman Felipe “Jun” de Leon Jr. and writer and feminist Anna Leah Sarabia), he was brought up to value traditional Filipino culture and nationalism.
Music was a given in the De Leon household.
“Everyone in the family was required to play the piano,” he recalls. “It was an unwritten rule, specially when my grandfather was still alive. When there was a family gathering, everyone in the family would line up from youngest to oldest to play the piano.”
It was his mother who pressed him to learn the violin, reluctantly.
“I was a rebellious pre-teen, but eventually nagustuhan ko rin,” he says. He also taught himself to play guitar.
De Leon had grown up hearing his father’s kundiman and classical music albums and his mother’s Antônio Carlos Jobim and Astrud Gilberto collection. But he was also developing his own tastes, which leaned more toward Nirvana than Nicanor Abelardo.
And then, in 1996, he heard the music of Joey Ayala.
“He was at his peak, he was still playing barefoot and jumping on stage,” De Leon recounts. “I was at an impressionable age, so it imprinted on me. I even went to see him at ’70s Bistro. I was only in first year high school so I had to have a chaperone.”
De Leon was particularly impressed with Ayala’s use of the hegalong, a two-stringed lute, also known as kudyapi, which is played by various indigenous tribes in Mindanao and Palawan. Eventually his father gave him one as a birthday gift, a crudely-hewn instrument from Lake Sebu, with wooden frets glued to the fingerboard with beeswax that tended to fall off in the summer heat.
De Leon had attended the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) in Makiling, but his focus had been on visual arts, despite the family’s bias toward music. After graduation, he enrolled at the University of the Philippines as a landscape architecture major.
“I was a late bloomer,” he confesses.
But in 1997, together with four batch mates from PHSA, he decided to form a band.
“We wanted an outlet,” he says. “My jackass answer is: we wanted to be rock stars.”
Thus was born the Makiling Ensemble.
It was an auspicious time to form a band: the “alternative” music scene was at its peak, audiences were receptive to new and original Filipino music.
With its percussion instruments and De Leon’s use of the hegalong, the Makiling Ensemble was lumped together with Joey Ayala, Grace Nono and other so-called “ethnic” artists.
From playing at rallies and student council meetings, the Makiling Ensemble soon moved on to paying gigs at various clubs.
When the band became more serious about their music, de Leon shifted from architecture to music, a move which met with immediate approval from his father. He would graduate with a degree in composition from the UP College of Music, by which time the Makiling Ensemble had become a full-time concern.
The Makiling Ensemble went on to release three albums: “Medyo Modern” (2000); “Patintero sa Ilalim ng Buwan” (2001); and “Malakas at Maganda” (2005).
Parallel with the alternative music scene was the development of the independent cinema movement. In 2006, the Makiling Ensemble composed the score for “Pandanggo,” an entry in the first Cinema One film festival.
De Leon next wrote the music for Ruelo Lozendo’s “Kolorete” (2008). His kundiman/sarsuwela influenced music won “best original score” in that year’s Cinema One film festival.
Word of mouth about de Leon as an emerging film composer soon spread throughout the industry. Not long after, GMA 7 came knocking on his door for an offer to create some ethnic-flavored music for the “Survivor Philippines” reality show. De Leon would go on to score four seasons of the show.
One of his first jobs after graduation had been with a studio producing ringtones for Japanese cell phone companies. After a short learning curve, he became adept at composing and recording full orchestral arrangements using just a computer and a midi keyboard.
These skills came in handy as film and television work started to pour in. In just a few years, he has amassed a body of work that includes TV shows such as “Survivor Philippines” and “Bayan Ko,” films such as “Emir,” “Mamarazzi” and the horror film “Chain Mail” and music for TV ads.
With the Makiling Ensemble performing only occasionally, De Leon has found time for other musical outlets. One of these is the “Hegalong Project.”
“At the time I was fascinated with electronica and chill-out music,” he recalls. “Why not make a concept album with the hegalong and technology? Eventually it became a self-challenge: how far can I push two strings musically? Can the hegalong fit any genre? Jazz, blues, electronic, classical—I explored all possible genres just to prove to myself that this Filipino instrument can still be played in a modern setting.”
The result was “Memories on Two Strings,” De Leon’s debut “solo” album featuring 25 songs, all recorded on his computer.
When he’s not playing the hegalong or composing film or television music, De Leon geeks out as the “String Player Gamer” (www.youtube.com/user/mangdiws), a music project which has to be seen to be appreciated.
In a nutshell, it’s De Leon’s YouTube channel featuring his self-created video clips, most of which are his orchestral arrangements of video game music plus visuals. Some of them feature the “Mini Mario Orchestra,” which are multiple images of De Leon in a Super Mario costume, playing the various instruments.
Others feature the SPG Singers, also multiple images of De Leon, singing a cappella versions of video game music from classics such as Sonic the Hedgehog and the Final Fantasy series.
Laugh, if you will, but at this writing, String Player Gamer has 30,000 subscribers and now earns De Leon a tidy sum every month.
This is a fraction of what pop stars such as Taylor Swift are able to generate through the Internet alone, but all things considered, it’s an avenue that Filipino musicians should explore, says De Leon.
“Every day, there are 100 million watchers looking at video game-related features on the Internet,” he adds.
“I embrace technology, but I’m also aware of the danger it poses,” he says. “That’s why I won’t go all-digital. I still like acoustic instruments, the organic element of music.”