One August night in 1994, Joey Ayala found himself on stage at Folk Arts Theater, headlining what would arguably be the biggest performance of his career.
“Awit-Banahaw” was an ambitious concert that incorporated elements of dance and theater, featuring a suite of new songs that Ayala had composed specially for the performance, along with earlier work that had entered the canon of original Pilipino music: songs such as “Agila (Haring Ibon),” “Magkabilaan,” “Walang Hanggang Paalam” and a handful of others.
The project had started out as a response to a very real problem.
Banahaw, a mountain sacred to a number of mystical cults that blended folk Christianity with older, animistic beliefs, was under threat from illegal logging, quarrying, mining and slash-and-burn farming.
With seed money from an environmental nongovernmental organization, and the blessings of Luntiang Alyansa ng Bundok Banahaw, a consortium of concerned groups, Ayala and his frequent collaborators—playwright and theater director Al Santos and award-winning choreographer Agnes Locsin—immersed themselves in the towns of Tayabas, Dolores, Lukban and Sariaya in Quezon, imbibing the strange vibrations emanating from the sacred mountain, and communing with members of Samahan ng Tatlong Persona Solo Dios and similar Banahaw cults.
The result was a new set of songs inspired by the mystic mountain, to be performed live in a major cultural venue, with theatrical staging and dance choreography. It was hoped that “Awit-Banahaw” would raise public awareness of the threat to an important ecological and cultural treasure.
If only it had been that simple.
There was a lot more riding on “Awit-Banahaw” than might have been evident at the time.
I first met Ayala in 1978, when we were both fellows at the University of the Philippines (UP) National Writers Workshop. He had submitted a short story in English, titled “Brown Christmas,” which had impressed me with its experimental use of language and nonlinear plotting. Clearly, this was a writer to watch, but Ayala went back to the hinterlands of Davao City. I heard nothing more about him until 1987 or 1988, when the artist Jose Tence Ruiz—who turned out to be his classmate at the Ateneo—played a cassette of “Panganay ng Umaga” at the newspaper office where we worked.
Was this even the same guy?
To begin with, the songs were in Pilipino. A couple—“Agila (Haring Ibon)” and “Wala Nang Tao sa Sta. Filomena”—were clearly beyond much of what was passing for original Pilipino music at the time.
It turns out he had recorded the lo-fi, DIY cassette way back in 1982. He also had another album’s worth of songs that were even better: “Manong Pawikan,” “Ikaw na May Baril,” “Walang Hanggang Paalam” and the title track for what would become “Magkabilaan.”
Even more impressive was the fact that Ayala had managed to come up with a distinctive sound with his band Bagong Lumad, incorporating indigenous instruments such as the hegalong, agung, kulintang, bongkaka and kubing.
The folk rockers Asin were among the first to use indigenous instruments in their music as far back as the late 1970s, but Bagong Lumad had taken it one step further.
Along with the sound came an ethos and a worldview, informed by deep ecology and a reverence for nature and those of the human species closest to it.
Clearly, the man had evolved since the writers’ workshop that long-ago summer. He had, among other things, become an eloquent spokesperson for the emerging environmental consciousness.
Still, Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad remained largely a well-kept secret in certain cultural and activist circles, until 1991, when they finally landed a major label record deal with WEA Records and a management contract with Butch Dans, manager of APO Hiking Society.
In the aftermath of Edsa 1986, the local music scene had blown up, and a lot of well-informed people seemed to think Joey Ayala at ang Bagong Lumad were going to be the next big thing.
The label had taken the unprecedented step of launching three albums in one go: “Panganay ng Umaga,” “Magkabilaan” and “Awit ng Tanod-Lupa,” with improved sound and proper graphics.
In those days before the internet and social media, major label muscle was essential to making a dent in the music industry, and his label gave Ayala the kind of promotional media blitz reserved for a major act. They had even had some success with “Karaniwang Tao,” which garnered radio airplay and some exposure on the nascent MTV as a music video.
Dans had originally wanted to sign him as a solo act, but Ayala insisted it had to be a package deal with Bagong Lumad. He had taken the drastic step of uprooting his family and his band from the relative insularity of Davao to Manila, in order to take his shot at mainstream acceptance.
By 1994, however, things had taken an unexpected turn.
It was an unlikely gang of UP dormitory kids who broke the dam and captured the imagination of young Filipinos. The success of Eraserheads was sealed with the consternation and controversy provoked among the likes of Tito “VST” Sotto by their radio hit “Pare Ko” the year before, with its catchy, irreverent chorus.
In 1994, they would top that with their second album “Circus,” proving that E-heads mania was no fluke.
Although Ayala was accorded elder-statesman status, he and Bagong Lumad remained outliers in the “alternative” music scene. With the possible exception of his sister Cynthia, who had done time playing bass for prog-pop band Hayp, Bagong Lumad were not professional musicians per se, at least not at this stage. Prior to their major label debut they were basically a cultural outreach performing troupe, subsisting on Cultural Center of the Philippines grants and the occasional concert. The working musician’s lot of surviving from one low-paying gig to the next was a hard and bitter pill to swallow.
Critical not commercial
The artist’s curse of critical without commercial success, among other things, weighed heavily on Ayala’s mind as he geared up for “Awit-Banahaw.”
It was also, he recalls, a period of private emotional turmoil, quite at odds with the public image of the “woke” nature mystic.
He had turned 38 while working on “Awit-Banahaw,” and perhaps some of it could be attributed to a delayed-onset midlife crisis.
There were also tensions within the band.
“I had a sense that this was going to be as good as it gets,” Ayala recalls of that period. “I felt we needed a change of focus. People felt our music was not accessible.”
A younger, up-and-coming musician had told him his music was “masyadong amoy-lupa” for popular taste, with its themes of nature and the environment, and its use of indigenous instruments—even though Bagong Lumad had launched a mini-trend lumped under the awkward rubric “ethnic rock,” that was used to tag such disparate acts as Grace Nono and Ang Grupong Pendong.
Truth be told, Bagong Lumad’s image as tribal troubadours, a selling point at the start, had become a straitjacket by this time. Audiences reflexively cheered when Ayala brought out the hegalong, but what was it exactly that they were cheering for?
Steeped as it was in Tagalog lore, “Awit-Banahaw” was a chance for Ayala to shed that baggage and explore something new, reinvent himself. In place of the usual ikat weaves and “Vietcong pajamas” that made up Bagong Lumad’s stage gear, artist Brenda Fajardo was tapped to design costumes more in keeping with the Banahaw vibe—something Macario Sakay or Hermano Pule might wear.
“In the romanticization of indigenous music and culture, we have forgotten that the Tagalog are also a tribe, that Tagalog is ethnic,” Ayala said at the time.
(In hindsight, this kind of high-flown anthropology-professor talk went right over the heads of kids enamored with songs like “Laklak,” “Lakas-Tama” and other grunge hits of the day, but “edutainment” was baked in the Bagong Lumad cake.)
For “Awit-Banahaw,” Ayala went out and bought an electric guitar, his first. Bob Dylan had enraged his audience of folk purists when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Perhaps going electric in “Awit-Banahaw” would, at the very least, let his audiences see Ayala in a different light and help him break out of the “ethnic” stereotype.
Besides, there was no denying the sheer physical impact of the mountain itself.
Banahaw exerted a palpable force, an energy that Ayala had experienced as “stopping the world.” Entering one of Banahaw’s numerous caves, he had undergone what can only be described as a mystical experience.
“I can’t describe it fully in words, because it wasn’t an intellectual experience,” he recalled. “It wasn’t a rational experience. The mystics have a word for it—congruence—when the inner world and the external world become one.”
The man who emerged from that cave was not the same one who went in.
There was, therefore, no question of not doing “Awit-Banahaw.”
Pulling it off, however, was going to be a beast.
For one thing, how to communicate Banahaw’s spiritual power—something he had experienced firsthand—in words and music and spectacle?
By this time the production had become increasingly complex, consisting of so many moving parts, all of which had to go off and work together in perfect synchronization. The project bean-counters grew increasingly anxious as production costs mounted, but Ayala and his collaborators were too swept up in the intoxication of the creative process to worry about such mundane matters.
Locsin, who would go on to become artistic director of Ballet Philippines the following year, had brought in some of her best dancers to execute her choreography.
She and Ayala had been college classmates in Ateneo de Davao, and had first worked together on a rock musical—interestingly enough, also about a mountain, Mt. Apo—back in 1976. She had worked again with Ayala on the critically acclaimed ballet “Encantada” in 1992, and she had developed a feel for Bagong Lumad’s music that allowed her to work out dance movements that captured what the songs were about.
Finding the right balance, however, so that the dancers wouldn’t overshadow the music—that was the tricky part.
In addition to Fajardo’s costumes, architect Wendy Fernando Regalado was brought in for set design, to do what she could to evoke the grandeur and mystery of Banahaw on the usual shoestring budget.
Santos, a veteran of Philippine Educational Theater Association, had his own entourage of assistant directors, production assistants, light and sound technicians, and stagehands.
He had written a detailed script for the production, designed to highlight the music that he and Ayala had composed specially for “Awit-Banahaw,” songs such as “Yungib,” “Batong Buhay” and “Monumento” that no one in the audience would have heard before. To balance the new material, some of Ayala’s “greatest hits” were included in the mix.
Additional musicians, including a string quartet, were brought in to augment Bagong Lumad. Musical director Ronnie Quesada was hired to work out new arrangements.
In short, as opening night neared, “Awit-Banahaw” involved as many people and as much sweat and sheer work as your average repertory musical.
But most producers embark on a musical anticipating a run of several performances. Counting the initial field research in Quezon, “Awit-Banahaw” represented months of work by the cast and
crew, which would be distilled into two and a half hours on stage, for one night only.
The whole thing was, in retrospect, insane, but it was too late to ask: “Who would do this, and why?” Such is art. It takes on a life of its own, and you just have to go for it, come what may.
As I remember it, there were some hiccups, some technical glitches, but by dint of a heroic effort, the “Awit-Banahaw” crew accomplished what they set out to do: stage an alternative, high-concept dance-drama musical, on a scale no one had ever attempted before, or since.
When the receipts were added up, however, it was found that only around 2,000 people attended “Awit-Banahaw”—less than one-fourth of the Folk Arts Theater’s 8,400-plus seating capacity.
There would be no way to make back the production cost, and therefore no way to finance a repeat performance.
One could only hope that it was the right 2,000 people who had seen the concert. Two days later, Bagong Lumad ceased to exist.
Bass player Onie Badiang gave notice that he was joining the up-and-coming band Yano full time. Vocalist Bayang Barrios announced that she was going solo. Drummer Noe Tio packed up and hied off to Puerto Princesa.
Cynthia Ayala embarked on what would be a relatively successful solo career under her married name, Cynthia Alexander.
As for Ayala, he decided to stay in Manila to keep on making music as a solo performer. His subsequent albums would be recorded and distributed independently.
Some time later, after hethought enough time had passed, Ayala went back and listened to atape of the songs he had written for “Awit-Banahaw.”
“The emotional tone struck me as too heavy, too dark,” he said.
“But maybe I wasn’t in the right emotional state at the time. Maybe someone else would have said, ‘OK ’yan, emo!’”
Due to a tight budget, “Awit-Banahaw” was not filmed for posterity, and the songs Ayala composed for it almost never make it to his set lists. It’s become almost a work of ephemeral art, living only in the memories of those who were there that night. The one exception is Locsin’s groundbreaking choreography for “Magkaugnay,” which made its debut in “Awit-Banahaw.” It is still being
performed by various dance troupes today, most notably in 2018 when Locsin was awarded the Gawad Buhay for dance. Joey Ayala has been twice nominated for the national artist award.