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‘Who’s Winston Raval?’

The jazz man’s name might ring a bell to film buffs—he composed and recorded the scores for 18 of Ishmael Bernal’s films
By: - Staff Writer
/ 05:01 AM February 12, 2019
‘Who’s Winston Raval?’

Jamming with guitarist Noli Aurillo at the Conspiracy café.

Old school, that’s what Winston Raval is, a professional musician who cut his teeth playing jazz in nightclubs on Roxas Boulevard, back when the strip was the place to go to for live music, not the al fresco hotel for the homeless that it is now.

There aren’t many left, which is why I hang on to every word when he tells a few war stories:

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“I was playing keyboards for Boy Camara and the Afterbirth at Rino’s on Roxas Boulevard when martial law was declared,” he recalls, speaking in Tagalog. “We were playing rock: Yes, Led Zeppelin, Elton John. Because of the curfew, people stayed in the club [until curfew was lifted at 5 a.m.].

“It became a drug market,” he adds. “There were Constabulary Anti-Narcotics Unit agents disguised as hippies, wearing longhair wigs. We were targeted. I went up to the band room upstairs to get some sleep when there came a knock on the door. I opened the door and they shoved a gun in my face. They told me to point to someone who they had planted drugs on. I pointed. A picture was taken. Then we were brought to Crame. We were there for a week.

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“Every morning we had to sing ‘Lupang Hinirang,’ and shout ‘Mabuhay ang Pilipino!’ One of our fellow inmates was Chinese. When he shouted ‘Mabuhay ang Pilipino,’ the guard gave him a rap on the head and said, ‘You’re not Filipino!’ It was Lim Seng [the Chinese drug lord later executed by firing squad in the early days of martial law].”

Pianist, arranger, composer

If the name Winston Raval rings any bells at all, it might be among film buffs, because besides being an ace pianist and arranger, he also composed and recorded the scores for 18 of Ishmael Bernal’s films in the ’70s, including such classics as “Himala,” “Nunal sa Tubig,” “Ikaw ay Akin” and “City After Dark” (as well as Lino Brocka’s “Jaguar”).

Most of his film credits were under the name Vanishing Tribe—basically Raval plus the session musicians who were available to play in his scores.

“Ishmael didn’t really understand music, but he was very strict when it came to matching it to the feeling that he was trying to convey,” Raval recounts. “It was a coordinated effort of the scriptwriter, the director and me. We would study the script and determine where the music would go.”

Eventually, he was writing music for a full orchestra.

“In 1978, ‘Ikaw ay Akin’ won an award for best film music because I played jazz on the score,” says Raval. “It was ‘a new dimension in film music,’ they said.”

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Lifetime achievement

Raval is too modest to bring it up, but he is the first film music composer to win a Gawad Urian Lifetime Achievement Award. Special mention was made of his integration of jazz with indigenous instruments in his movie scores.

The transition from playing jazz and rock to composing film music came easy for Raval, since it harked back to his early experiences. Born in 1945, he was a prodigy who learned to play the piano even before he learned to read or write.

“Back in Laoag when I was about 3 years old, we would watch movies in the evening,” he looks back. “I would retain the melodies of the film music, and pick them out on the piano. My mother, who was a music educator and the professional musician in the family, saw that I had an ear for music, so she got me a piano teacher when I was 5.

“When I was 13, all the Laoag musicians would come to the house to jam,” he continues. “There were singers, violinists, guitarists. One of them, a tenor, had a radio program and got me to play the piano with his band. The other musicians were already in their 40s. The program was called ‘The Troubadour Sings.’ We would do songs by Mario Lanza.”

No turning back

Raval enrolled at the University of the Philippines College of Music to study composition, but had second thoughts about a music career. He dropped out before graduating, enrolling in San Beda’s Bachelor of Arts program with the thought of later taking up law.

Before he could do that, however, he somehow ended up in Hong Kong with a gig at the Bayside. It was a branch of the Roxas Boulevard Bayside nightclub, which featured the likes of Lito Molina’s Jazz Friends and Raul Manglapus’ D’ Executives.

‘Who’s Winston Raval?’

Winston Raval started playing the piano when he was 3. —photos by Leo Sabangan

There was no turning back after that.

“People ask me, ‘Who’s Winston Raval?’” says Tita de Quiros, shaking her head. “I first heard him at the Six Halves. I was a music student, a piano major, and I said, ‘ang galing ng pianista.’ He was accompanying the likes of Nelda Lopez Navarro and Joey Lardizabal.”

The next she heard of Raval was when she joined the 1971 production of “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” which starred Boy Camara as Jesus, and featured the cream of the Pinoy music scene at the time, including the Afterbirth, Wally Gonzalez of the Juan de la Cruz band and Edmond Fortuno of Anakbayan, as well as Oscar Yatco conducting the Manila Symphony Orchestra.

Back then, professional musicians moved freely between playing jazz, pop and rock. It paid to be versatile, literally, doubling your chances of landing a paying gig.

Despite his facility with all types of music, however, Raval is a jazzman at heart. His influences include pianists Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Bill Evans.

Even in film music, he favors Lalo Schifrin, best known for the jazzy scores on “Mission: Impossible,” “Enter the Dragon” and “Bullitt.”

“If you don’t know their music, you’re not a jazzer,” says Raval.

As the Philippines slid into recession in the mid-’80s, however, work dried up for many professional musicians. After trying farming in Ilocos for a while, Raval went to Los Angeles to try his luck there.

“You have to assert yourself in the US,” he says. Eventually, he landed a series of gigs and has since been working as a professional pianist in America.

Last year, he wrote the music for a theatrical production called “Warrior,” about the manongs of San Francisco and their struggle against eviction in the ’70s. It was staged in Los Angeles with Filipino jazz singer Charmaine Clamor playing the female lead.

He hopes to be able to stage it once again, this time in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, on one of his regular visits to Manila, Raval played a rare concert at the University Hotel in the UP Diliman campus. “Just Jazz” featured a piano trio with Colby de la Calzada on bass and Mar Dizon on drums.

Special guests included guitarist Noli Aurillo, vocalist Skarlet Brown, kulintang player Tusa Montes and Vanishing Tribe member Caloy Rufo.

A CD anthology of some of his music is being produced, which should answer the question: “Who’s Winston Raval?”

Until then, YouTube will have to do.

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