When my friend Ivon came to the Philippines for a visit, he searched online for jazz, found only one place, Tago Jazz Café in Cubao, and checked it out. “The players are really good,” he said, “and so young!” We dropped a few times, loved the music–which gets going some time after ten in the evening–and were impressed with the total commitment to jazz we found there. Then we interviewed the owner, Nelson Gonzales.
In Tagalog, tago means “hidden.” In 2010 when Tago Jazz Café first got started, there were five partners chipping in—three friends, my brother and me. At first, the place was half its current size. We opened in November of 2011 and lasted until July 2012, when we closed down, and I found myself left with all the debt we’d accumulated. We were closed for eight months. During that time, we had no electricity, no water, nothing. Little by little, I renovated the place as best I could. I built the stage over there with my bare hands. I reopened in April of 2013 and joined the UNESCO Jazz Day Festival, which is a worldwide celebration held every April 30. Tago was the first representative in the Philippines. I also got endorsed by the UNESCO International Jazz Day Team and got a signed letter from Herbie Hancock himself.
This place is not your ordinary restaurant or bar. I’m not going for a fancy or glamorous venue. It’s really an uphill battle for a guy like me because I’m poor and have no other source of income. Also, because jazz was almost nonexistent in the Philippines, the hill is steeper than usual. At Tago, I am the default drummer, the security guy, the janitor, the accountant, as well the cook. I do it because there’s something really special here, and there’s something much more for the whole country. Some old folks may argue that there has been jazz here since the 1960s or 70s, and it does exist in the expensive hotels and venues. But the music is more often than not commercial. It’s all top forty, what some people call “elevator music.”
Here, I try to put all these people together so they can interact while playing. This creates something new onstage. In a sense, I’m trying to educate a lot of folks. A lot of the people in the audience are new to jazz. They know very little. After coming here and hearing what we play, even on a bad night, gradually they realize music isn’t just pop and commercial. So yeah, I’m pretty happy blowing their minds by allowing them to experience live jazz in an intimate setting. At first I was just trying to stay afloat as a business, but now my purpose has evolved into educating people and bringing them together. Most of the players who come are between 18 and 35. I’m 39. After me are people in their forties and fifties.
As a drummer, I was influenced by Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa (but without the drugs and all that), Steve Gadd, Vinne Colaiuta, Dave Weckl, and new cats like Jojo Mayer, Chris Dave and Ari Hoenig. Back in the 80s there were videos on television of Chick Corea and Quincy Jones and jazz legends. Mostly I heard it on the radio. When the 90s came, it was almost all gone. The few radio stations that played jazz eventually shut down.
There’s a gap of maybe twenty or thirty years between the old players and the kids. From the 1980s to the 1990s, jazz almost stagnated here. Well, there were key clubs over the decades, like Birds of the Same Feather, Monks Dream, and then 10-o-2, and prominent jazz players who persevered, like the Miss Annie Brazil, Emcy Corteza, Eddie Katindig, Bob Aves, Pete Canzon, Boy, Tateng, and Henry Katindig, Elmhir Saison, Koyang Avenir, Tots Tolentino, Jeannie Tiongco, Skarlet, Richard Merk, Mar Dizon, Joey Valenciano, and Noli Aurillo, to name the few jazz cats and educators.
But in reality, the Philippines doesn’t have a sprawling jazz scene, since politics, mis-education, commercialism, and vicious exclusivity took over, turning people away and pushing them to pursue something else, to somewhere else, away from all the intense frustration. The politics spreads like cancer and is clannish. It gives birth to poisonous rumors and the great divides which ultimately killed Filipino jazz. It almost led to the total erasure of this art.
Most of the kids who come here are going to the University of the Philippines or the University of Santo Tomas. But even in the universities, the training is in classical music with only maybe one percent in jazz. I think kids are discouraged from taking up jazz because it’s hard to find employment in the field of music after graduation. There’s almost nothing.
There is a new generation of jazz cats here though. The master arranger and conductor Mel Villena and his daughter Ria Villena-Osorio and her brothers. Other excellent jazz musicians include Mel Santos, Dave Harder, Simon Tan, Rey Vinoya, Alvin Cornista, Noel Asistores, Karel Honasan, Michael Alba, Paolo Cortez, Chuck Joson, Chuck Menor, Gabe Cabonce, Bergan Nunez, Jayman Alviar, Glenn Bondoc, Jr Oca, Janno Queyquep, Paolo Dela Rama, Otep Concepcion, Reli De Vera, Michael Guevarra, Nikko Rivera, Krina Cayabyab, Mel Torre, Anna Achacoso-Graham and Jireh Calo. They go far deeper. They’re incredibly talented. They own the stage and continue to impress audiences.
I’m trying to build a healthy and viable Jazz scene here, and so are a lot of folks, but there’s a lot to be done. We lack technical proficiency. We’re maybe thirty years behind our counterparts in the Southeast Asian Region. Some of the foreign cats are really good, and they are well supported by the government and the private sector. Here there’s no support, so players who want to take up jazz or some other “non mediocre” art form just concede. They succumb to just getting by.
At Tago, most of the players do standards from the 1940s like John Coltrane, while others venture into modern jazz. There’s a thing in New York that’s rather heavy. Some really like to stretch it—at least try to stretch themselves. So some pretty interesting stuff is created.
When foreign acts come here, the turnout is about the same as for an all-Filipino band. We’ve had Christian Bucher, a Swiss percussionist; Todd Hunter and Jeffrey Lewis, who play for Dionne Warwick; the guitarist Chuck Stevens; Claude Dialo, the Swiss NYC-based pianist; Jess Jurkovic, a NYC-based pianist; Art Hirahara, a NYC-pianist; Wes Brown, another NYC-based bassist; and Edsel Gomez, a New York-based Puerto Rican pianist who plays for Dee Dee Bridgewater and is a Grammy Award winner. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a local act or big names. When the people in the audience finally do get to hear their music, they get hooked instantaneously. They’re enchanted, captivated, hooked. Once, Royal Hartigan, also a grand master and doctor of percussion, was here with his band from New York. It was raining, and the place was packed. Most of the audience didn’t know him or his music. But when they played, man, they ripped the stage, and they killed it. The way he played was so spiritual that everybody seemed to feel it. His aura was just spectacular.
But even if I really publicize the performance, not a lot of people come. I don’t know why. Perhaps most are afraid to open up and discover something new that they might eventually love.
When it comes to performing, the local folks tend to be shy. They tend to hide and keep the volume down, while the foreigners just get out there and play and have a good time. That’s why we’re encouraging people to come and jam, especially new guys, so they can learn how to interact with the other musicians and the audience, throwing out energy that comes back to them. This place is very intimate. There’s no hiding it when you hit wrong notes. I want the players to develop their skills and talents so that they can hone their skills and be less anxious about criticism. Some people get intimidated by the genre of jazz because they think you need a certain level of proficiency. Well, it’s true, and everyone has to pay their own dues. We tell them, “Just play your heart out. No one is judging you. You’re not going to learn what you’re doing wrong unless you fail onstage, unless you go up there and really stretch yourself.”
I consider jazz as a free art form. It’s not an exclusively American thing anymore. It is global. It is the sound of the heart and the keen mind played in such colorful passion. In the Middle East and Europe, people are coming up with newer and bolder stuff. So why can’t we? I want to fuel it with whatever I can, set it on fire.
I’m planning to go to the Department of Education and persuade them to include jazz history as part of a specialized subject. It would be impossible if we just talked to all the individual music teachers about jazz theory. It would take twenty years. So we’ll start with basic history—who’s local and who’s international—and to have a few materials, like a one-hour introduction to Miles, Dizzy, Bird, and all the other jazz gods. Then the kids will at least have an understanding of what jazz is. So that’s the plan. I hope they approve it. I also talked to a college about giving me scholarships to hand out. We’re working on the agreement now. Hopefully, next year I’ll be able to screen applicants and give out scholarships to fifty poor kids for the duration of their college careers. That’s fifty kids off the streets. Fifty kids learning an instrument. Fifty kids can affect the lives of others as well, in an open and positive, and progressive manner.
If Tago were in a highly-commercialized location, the rent alone would kill me. I would probably shut down after two months—unless someone gave me 50,000,000 pesos. But in that case, I’d probably end up doing the same as those high-end bars do there, like ask for ridiculous amounts of money at the gate and serve expensive beer and bland, French-sounding food. Tago would then become a glamorous club. It wouldn’t be jazz anymore, just your typical party place. So no, I’m staying here, where it’s real.
My grandparents settled in this house after World War II around 1947. They were the first to live in this neighborhood. There were no streets, just water buffaloes and grass. Nowadays, I keep checking with the neighbors about whether or not we’re making too much noise. But they’re okay with it. It’s not really loud, just like a big stereo that was left on. When the door’s shut they don’t hear it. The train, the MRT, is louder. A neighbor in front gets grumpy when somebody parks right in front of his gate, so I’m always telling people not to park there. Once, a couple of musicians got into an argument outside and began yelling. Someone complained and the local police summoned me. I went to the station and said the incident was nothing serious, just friends having fun. I try to let the barangay officials know what we’re doing. It’s not just noise. People are not coming to take drugs, set cars on fire, and make a wild ruckus. We’re doing something cultural that you probably won’t hear anywhere else.
We’ve had no security problems inside or outside. No fights. If you come in a stranger, you go out with like twenty friends. I’m trying to get rid of the wi-fi so that people don’t come to talk with each other over the internet. We’re trying to get people to listen and pay attention for once, not just blab to each other and post selfies on social media.
It’s a great feeling to play and interact with the other players as well as with the people in the audience, from those in the front tables all the way to the last inconspicuous person at the back. You can feel that unexplainable energy. For me, every time people go up onstage it’s astonishing— elating. Again, jazz here in the Philippines isn’t really popular, and being able to play in an intimate setting, it’s really something special. I say, “Intimidation doesn’t exist in my place. Come. I welcome you all.” For the people in the audience who might think they jazz is “hard to understand” I say, “What the heck, it’s music. Jazz is communication without words. You just let your emotions and thoughts flow through you and through your instrument.”
When you play with other people, you’re tossing in an idea, creating a melody and a tempo, something new. If there’s tension, somebody has to give some slack. The interaction is the beauty of jazz. People pitch in and the ideas are like a ball which you throw to other players and the audience. When someone catches it, it burns and so they throw it back, and it builds. It’s all about the emotions of people interacting, sharing a moment of positivity and goodwill with each other.
Coming from the South, go North on EDSA. After Camp Crame, the biggest police camp in the Philippines, and after the Boni Serrano flyover, make a U-turn at P. Tuazon. That will put you Southbound on EDSA. At the Petron station, turn right at Main Avenue. You’ll see Tago two blocks away.– Coming from the North, go to EDSA, go South and after the P. Tuazon underpass, turn right at the Petron station, then go straight for two blocks away.
Schedule: We’re open from Tuesdays through Sundays, from 8:00 in the evening until sunup. The players and the music vary every week. We have pop jazz to modern, free jazz to avant garde.
Food and drink: We have comfort food, which is a mixture of Filipino local, Italian, American and Persian cuisine. The drinks are mostly beer, rum, whiskey of course. What’s jazz without whiskey? And soda. Nothing really expensive.