Filipina busker Clarissa Camata, also known as Clarissa Tomato, stood on the Haneul Madang stage of the Asia Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea.
“Hello, I am Clarissa, your friend from the Philippines,” she said in Korean before she started strumming her guitar. Her voice filled the air as sunset descended on Korea’s City of Light.
Her song choices were perfect for that moment. She sang “Fly Me to the Moon,” by Frank Sinatra and “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire. A mix of locals and musicians from other countries made up her audience, and they were clapping their hands to the beat of her music.
“I like her voice. It’s so romantic and sweet,” the host said when she left the stage.
Camata came and performed her competition pieces with confidence. She was in her element at the first Buskers World Cup hosted by the city. The performance was part of the second round of live competition.
She passed the first round against 120 other contestants to make it to the top 64 (of which she landed in the 27th spot). The sole Philippine representative, she unfortunately didn’t make it to the next round, the top 32.
“I was feeling feverish during that round,” she said. Yet, she described the experience as exciting and nerve-wracking. Her knees hurt from shaking. But she enjoyed every moment.
First plane ride
Just last month, she was worried sick about her visa application getting rejected and begged this writer to hold off on the interview until she got her visa. She even camped out at the Korean Embassy in Taguig the night before submitting her documents. She spent the night on the overpass near the embassy along with other visa applicants. (The visa process has since been changed.)
Her plane ride to Incheon from Manila was her first. Her fare to Gwangju was shouldered by the city. She brought snacks in her checked-in bag to lessen her living expenses while she spent almost two weeks abroad for the competition. Camata raised funds for this trip by busking in different branches of Robinsons Malls.
But this little adventure began way before she joined the competition. It started when the 26-year-old decided to quit a stable and high-paying job to pursue music.
“I was a sales trainer in financial technology. I taught people how to navigate and use bitcoin. It became a routine, such that I started asking myself if there was more to life than this. I took the risk and resigned,” she said in Filipino.
Camata did not have formal training in playing the guitar. But she said her family knows that she loved music even as a baby. They observed how she enjoyed singing. Her brothers took up guitar playing when she was around 11. She learned by watching them play.
She continued playing the guitar even when they stopped playing. Sometimes she’d watch videos for lessons.
Initially, she thought of joining a band. It’s a project that she would put off because of the schedule conflict with her bandmates. Anyway, busking gave her the freedom to pursue the kind of music she wants to play.
It took a lot of courage for her to stand at the bottom of the overpass on Shaw Boulevard, open her guitar bag, take out her instrument and play. It was a disaster.
“I didn’t know that I had to secure a permit for that. I thought I could just play anywhere where there are people. That was my first lesson in busking,” she said. She was escorted out of the place and was warned not to play there again without a permit.
Camata described how embarrassing it was for her to be told to get out. People stared.
“Filipinos have this impression that buskers are beggars. I had to overcome that to play,” she said.
So she spent the next couple of months going to places where there are buskers. This includes hanging around Bonifacio Global City (BGC) and watching other buskers perform. She befriended some of them and asked where and how to secure permits.
She was already living her dream, playing music to people on the street, when the lockdowns happened. Eventually her savings dwindled and she had to be creative to earn money. She performed every day for two years on the live streaming app, Uplive.
“The key in online streaming is finding your niche market. I earned a little, but I also didn’t spend as much because we can’t leave our homes,” she said.
When establishments started opening up, she became a contractual artist for Robinsons Malls. Their HR suggested that she join the Korea buskers’ competition. On a whim, she submitted a video taken by an audience member.
She was surprised when it made the initial screening. For the second screening, she asked one of her friends who had a spot in BGC if she could play a couple of songs for the competition. She sang Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.”
“A lot of people think that it’s just a love song, but it could be a song for our parents, too. For our moms. That’s why I chose it,” she said.
Whether she’ll join again next year depends to God, she said. Camata is just grateful for the opportunity that music brought her. She was introduced to a new culture, made international friends and traveled on her own for the first time. Most of all, she showed her talent in a country that exports its music to the Philippines and the rest of the world.