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I think it best to relate my surreal encounter with the late Joey “Pepe” Smith after a baby-boomer’s narrative of a personal musical tour.
I grew up in Dumaguete City in the early 50’s on a wide musical mix consisting of balitaw, kundiman, rondalla, classical, folk, western standards and rock ‘n’ roll tunes. My father, a versatile musician and a veritable rug-cutter, shared his passion for music and taught us to play the xylophone, harmonica and ukulele quite early. His insatiable love for danceable music, especially, made our home the early version of the discotheque and the audiophile’s free-rental shop as many of our relatives and neighbors habitually borrowed 33 and 75 RPM vinyl records that our family had collected through the years. And so, we had hit singles of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, the Platters, Neil Sedaka, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Pat Boone, Patti Page, Doris Day, Xavier Cugat, Everly Brothers and Dolphy & Panchito and so many others.
Growing up as an adolescent years later in Manila, I diligently nurtured my love for music and developed my singing and my skills on the guitar till I thought I sounded like what I heard on the radio, whether it was a romantic ballad, classical, folk, Latin beat or rock. Some of my friends in high school were collecting LP albums of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Cream, The Doors, Who, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Critters, Bee Gees, Simon & Garfunkel and others, and we would outdo each other in deciphering the chords of our favorite cuts. No thanks yet to YouTube and Lyric.com which make such pleasurable learning tasks practically obsolete today!
Along with those, Pinoy Rock music hit the airwaves starting in the ’60’s, which introduced us to some of the iconic local rock artists, such as RJ and the Riots, Electromaniacs, the Deltas, Juan de la Cruz Band, Anakbayan, Hotdogs, APO, Asin and others. My best friends and I, however, leaned more toward the mellower and more poetically-engaging folk and country music. We eventually formed our own short-lived band XYSTS (our clique’s name) singing Peter, Paul & Mary songs. We did appreciate heavy-rock music as well; however, the one-and-only Spanish guitar we shared limited our repertoire, although it allowed us to be featured once as guests at the popular AM Radio Folk-Hour program hosted by a female DJ named Boots Baker. We did that gig right after we had graduated and were just making our way to college where we continued jamming at the UP College of Arts & Sciences canteen and at the “UP Tulay”, a pedestrian bridge joining Palma Hall’s science pavilions.
Not long after, we lent out musical chops to singing ardent nationalistic and revolutionary songs of the activist groups we would eventually join. We marched the streets of Metro Manila, chanting slogans and communistic hymns. At that point, we were engaged in the confusing exercise of resolving social, political and ideological issues, not to mention the accompanying spiritual disputes within the growing multi-sectarian evangelical movement, thus, gradually filling our plate to overflowing. As adolescents, we had read on eastern philosophy and experimented on yoga and transcendental meditation. And on top of that, we had the obligatory academic requirements we had come to fulfill. (But as we told ourselves, “Istorbo lang ang pag-aaral sa barkada.”) Yet we were blindsided by a coup de grace that brought all those concerns to a sudden halt for a while: Martial Law. September 21, 1972 left many of us holding the empty bags of Marxism and Leninism. Some eventually found religion or spirituality; some went underground or took up arms in the mountains, while some joined the establishment and a few became victims of emotional depression.
Somehow, we can proudly claim that today’s baby-boomers went through it all, saw it all and conquered it all. Thanks to the innate persistence and guts we had gained, plus a big dose of trust in the human capacity to discover and improvise on our greatly limited resources, as gleaned from our dogged devotion to express ourselves musically. And we were doubly blessed to have been regaled and bequeathed with some of the best popular compositions of all time. Music, with its indelible power to refresh and to merge the mind, the body and the soul into one being, astonishingly carried us — along with our burdens and aspirations — through our journey of self-discovery, inner harmony and communion with kindred spirits or those who, at the least, resonated our vibes. Here is an advice to the younger set: The best way to impress or please a baby-boomer is to sing or enjoy their kind of music. We like to believe the ‘60s to the 70’s were the Golden Age of modern music.
When Pepe Smith came out with his “Ang Himig Namin” in the ‘70’s, many of us came to appreciate his mellow artistic side and his versatile abilities. Singing solo with expressive elegance in our own language, his ditty exemplified the epitome of the nation’s soul seeking to arise out of the colonial and cultural mess and trash dumped on us from the time when hungry, big-bellied galleons manned by self-seeking, imperialistic Europeans wrested our freedom, erased our history and replaced our national identity. Unplugged and unassuming with an acoustic guitar accompaniment, along with a clear, clean electric guitar, Pepe awakened the souls of many youth to the many possibilities of our own unique musical idioms. And the title succinctly summarized the whole nation’s belated desire to return to its benighted roots. It is said that Pepe composed this song in ten minutes prior to performing it during a concert at the Luneta Park, perhaps, getting inspiration from his namesake, Pepe Rizal, whose statue overshadowed the venue, as well as from drugs. It would not be farfetched to say that he was directly alluding to Rizal in his lyric.
Pepe’s plaintive plea for cultural nationalism added flames to the revolutionary spirit already smoldering during that period. My pals and I often sang it as a counterpoint to the fiery call-to-arms cadence of the left-wing anthem, L’Internationale. For those who do not yet appreciate the power of culture to effect change, it was that raging fervor within us that helped us practically set fire to a university campus, to a metropolis and to a nation. We lost some good friends along the way to our failed utopian journey as sadly as we lost much of our youthful innocence.
I could now recall only a couple of rock concerts I ever attended, that of Seals & Crofts at a college gym in Texas in the late 80’s and one by Eli Buendia and the Eraserheads at UP Baguio in the ’90’s. And they were not at all ones where the audience mainly got high on grass and drugs either. Real wild rock concerts, reputedly, are something else even today. Besides, in the interim between my later college years to the present, I found myself literally converted first to conservative (as in four-part harmony) gospel music and, later on, delved into contemporary gospel, Broadway, jazz fusion, R&B and alternative music.
The recent demise of Pepe Smith brought me back to that day twenty years ago when I dropped by my favorite music shop at the Makati Quad Park. As my usual habit then as well as now occasionally, I went in not to purchase but to check out prices of guitar and keyboard brands. There right behind the display window surrounded by the shiny guitars, Pepe sat and played on a Stratocaster. I was pleasantly intrigued to see a musical legend testing a guitar as if he were a boy caressing a toy and without as much as looking up or eyeing whoever came in or passed by him.
He was lost in his music. And how good he was! After a couple of riffs, he requested the shop attendant to give him another guitar on which he played different riffs. He did mostly rock motives, all of which I could not recognize but could merely marvel at for his dexterity and expressiveness. Whether he was improvising, composing or merely jamming with a band in his mind, I did not know. All alone and silent, I just stood there spellbound, forgetting what I had come for.
A little while after, he asked the attendant to join him on the drums. This time, he did the most mesmerizing blues lick I had ever heard played live. I wanted to picture someone else in front of me; but, no, it was Pepe Smith, no doubt – in flesh and blood. And he was all mine! And most of all, it was for free.
So, for about twenty minutes, his music spoke to me. Not once did he look at me. I wandered off momentarily in order to give him space and to somehow convince the attendant I was a serious shopper. Out of respect, I neither spoke to Pepe nor asked for an autograph. He was there to buy a guitar and I was there to window shop. We both got our wishes, although I got more than what I came for.
I left after thanking the attendant – thanking Pepe would have been presumptuous, for he might have said me he was not playing for me. And he was not. He was playing for himself and his music as he had always done so ever since he took up his guitar. Someone said that Pepe Smith did not care for money and cared only for his music and his love ones. He had been jailed once for using drugs and helped back on his feet by a friend who bought him a second-hand guitar and introduced him to a band he could play with.
Pepe Smith went on his merry way along his musical path while I went on my own. Our paths had never crossed in that sense, except for that one time I indulged myself with his kind of music and his legendary kind of playing. No, not exactly. As a lad, I had heard him play often on the radio, “Ang himig natin inyong awitin upang tayo’y magsama-sama sa langit ng pag-asa . . . .” His words and his music had definitely crossed my mind, my heart and my soul in my youth. And it is certainly partly because of that song that I still write melodious melodies in Pilipino while endeavoring to bring out what makes this country unique and, likewise, fervently hoping that someday its versatile people will dwell in harmony once and for all.
For that, I thank you, Pepe.