It’s a Friday night, and Ramon “RJ” Jacinto is onstage performing with his band, while a crowd of mostly matrons dance like carefree youth to classic rock and disco.
Welcome to Bistro RJ—the club that Jacinto opened in 1986 upon his return from exile in the United States to catch up with a hobby that was a passion in his teens. Bistro RJ used to have several branches and has moved locations a number of times, but it seems to have finally settled at its current address for the past five years, the basement of Dusit Thani hotel in Makati.
When Jacinto turned 70 last June, he celebrated the milestone by giving in, of course, to his passion of playing guitar and singing for two nights: a publicly announced concert with Joey “Pepe” Smith, Ely Buendia and other rock artists at the Ynares Coliseum; and a special, by-invitation show with pop acts at RCBC Plaza’s Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium.
The Bistro RJ gig is a weekly ritual that Jacinto enjoys.
Not much has changed in his daily routine, except for certain dietary concerns. He avoids “rich foods,” he says, due to his high uric acid and cholesterol levels. “Pero mamaya papawisan ako, baba na naman ang cholesterol ko,” he tells Inquirer Lifestyle a few minutes before going onstage.
He has also stopped drinking whisky. “He’s into fruit juices now, strawberry,” volunteers his secretary.
On a typical weekday he’s usually in his Makati office “by 8:45 a.m. Unless I have a lunch meeting I stay there till 2 to 3 p.m. And then I go home to take a 30- to 45-minute nap. That’s my recharging, my secret. And then I do my afternoon meetings, cocktail parties and band rehearsals. I sleep at about 1 a.m.”
Every morning he looks forward to something he loves to do, he says, “because when you wake up, there’s so many things you have to do. If you don’t like what you’re doing every day, lalo na ’pag hindi mo gusto trabaho mo, mahirap, tatanda ka talaga. My mind is very active.”
It’s hard to imagine Jacinto getting old, because outside the corporate world where he oversees a number of businesses, he’s always been identified with a youthful, rebellious lifestyle: rock ‘n’ roll.
Playing the ukulele
In 1960, at age 15, he released his first single, an original instrumental composition, “Weightless,” recorded with his band of Ateneo high school classmates then called Ramon and the Riots, whose other members were Alan Austria, Jimmy Colayco and Bernie Evangelista.
But Jacinto reveals that his musical roots go back even earlier, when he learned to play the ukulele at 8 years old.
He recalls, “When I was vacationing in Baguio with my grandfather, I used to see his driver playing the ukulele. Sabi ko, ‘Turuan mo nga ako.’”
Jacinto says he could not read notes, even as he “studied in six or seven sessions with Pedro Concepcion, the classical guitarist.”
He adds that his father, Fernando Jacinto, loved classical and jazz music. “Aside from being the steel magnate, he played piano in the house. My grandmother, Rosario Pantangco, sang in church.”
He says Little Richard, a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer, was an early influence. One afternoon in grade school at Ateneo, Jacinto recounts, “Late yung teacher, ang ingay ng klase, umakyat ako sa teacher’s podium, I started singing (the lyrics to ‘Long Tall Sally’). My classmates clapped along.”
At age 12 he was playing the acoustic guitar and “learning Jimmy Rodgers songs, and then the Everly Brothers, tapos Ventures na, with electric guitar.”
In those pre-Beatles years, Ramon and the Riots, along with The Electromaniacs, Orly Ilacad and the Ramrods, and other guitar bands could be considered the precursors of Pinoy rock, having written and recorded their own songs.
But Jacinto went further; he put up his own radio station, DZRJ, while still in junior college.
He says he went through the process of applying for a radio franchise and frequency by going to Congress on his own. And though he had access to funds—the Jacintos then owned Security Bank—he had to apply for a loan.
The station’s first site was the backyard of his parents’ house on 4th Street, New Manila. Two of Jacinto’s bandmates, Austria and Evangelista, were also its first DJs.
DZRJ gave birth to Pinoy rock in the early ’70s by being the first radio station to play the songs of the Juan de la Cruz Band.
In 1986, the station also played a key role in the Edsa 1 People Power Revolution when Fr. James Reuter, SJ, asked one of his theater proteges, June Keithley, to sit as anchor and report on the rebellion after the military had destroyed Radio Veritas’ facilities.
In the same year, Jacinto returned to the Philippines after living in exile to escape martial law. He says he spent 1972-86 in Rome, New York, San Francisco, and then Hawaii in the last few years. “When Marcos landed in Hawaii, I went to Manila,” he says, laughing.
Making up for lost time, he opened Bistro RJ, which is on its 29th year, and then RJ Guitar Center, which now has 15 branches.
His Rajah Broadcasting Network operates 11 radio stations nationwide, nine on FM and two on AM. “The radio station business is not easy, it’s very competitive,” he says. “But I have my niche. I think those who listen to radio are still the baby boomers. I hope to launch three more stations on FM, hopefully this year.”
And then there’s RJ TV, which airs Jacinto’s Bistro RJ gigs as a blocktimer on the UHF channel 2nd Avenue.
As for the most important musical lesson he’s learned over the years, Jacinto credits Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, former guitarist of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, for telling him that “‘it’s all getting the groove,’ the beat of the music and how you put everything together. It’s not how fast your fingers are… The Beatles were not that good (as musicians) when they started. But there was chemistry…”
Does he still believe in the power of rock ‘n’ roll?
“Yes,” Jacinto says, “kaya lang it’s not mainstream, although it’s better now. Dati, kami-kami lang.”