A Filipina Vocal Group at Tago Jazz Café
At the end of October, I went to the Tago Jazz Café in Cubao to hear the vocal group Baihana (pronounced bye-HAH-nah), which means “girl” or “woman” in Cebuano. It was wonderful sitting four or five feet away from world-class musicians singing close harmony. I almost fell off my seat when I heard “Jeepers, Creepers, Where’d You Get Those Peepers,” one of the songs my parents sang and danced to before I was born and in my early childhood.
Not long afterwards we met for an interview in Mrs. Graham’s Café in the Tomas Morato district of Quezon City.
Mel Torre—I teach yoga and Barre3, which is a mix of ballet barre, yoga and Pilates. It’s been in the Philippines for only about four years. My clients are lunching moms and people who need to unwind from working in Makati. Eventually I would like to specialize in therapeutic yoga.
I started singing professionally about eight years ago, when I was working at a call center and singing in small bars for around eight dollars a night. When my sister died I realized that if I wanted to do something else, I’d have to start doing it. So I quit and started pursuing music full-time. A few months later Krina posted an advertisement for an alto. I knew her already from the University of Philippines Vocal Ensemble, so I decided to audition. That was six years ago. I also sing with the Blue Rats, a blues band which by their own admission is a hobby band, although it is the longest-running blues band in the country.
Krina Cayabyab—I’m teaching in the Arts Studies Department at the University of the Philippines and doing graduate work in musicology at UP in the College of Music. I teach voice and music theory at the Music School of Ryan Cayabyab. I’m a freelance arranger and composer, and I do the composition and arrangements for Baihana. I grew up as the daughter of two musicians. My father is a composer, and my mother studied choral conducting, but now she teaches and manages the school.
Anna Achacoso—I run Mrs. Graham’s Café with my husband. This is our first business venture together. We started out just selling macaroons online and at bazaars. The café will be a year old in December. The Burger Project next door is also our business and my husband’s family business, which we run together with his family. I also do backup vocals at ABS-CBN, a television network nearby. And I’m a mom. My mother and I are licensed kindergarten music educators. Right now we’re trying to develop our own music program for kids. We’re also expanding the second floor to include workshop space for lessons in arts and crafts.
Baihana—Initially, our main influence was the girls’ vocal groups of the 1940s, when the popular music was vocal harmonies in the bebop style. In 2008 Anna had the idea of taking the style of the Puppini Sisters, an Italian group singing in the bebop style, which is considered jazz. They also do pop songs or more modern songs with a bebop twist. So we also took modern songs and put a bebop twist on them. In 2008 that was pretty new for Filipino audiences. That’s how we connected to the jazz scene here. To many people the word “jazz” means instrumental music, but our vocal style uses the same language, with the harmonic progression and the rhythmic style of syncopation, making it “not pop.” But there is still some pop in our arrangements, so our music forms a nice bridge between what the Puppini Sisters do and what the Pentatonics are doing. We’re not really boxed in by genre. When we’re asked what kind of style we do, we just say “vocal harmony.”
We try to make jazz more accessible to people who may be put off by music that seems to too elitist or too complicated. When we say that we do “a bit of jazz” they feel more connected. By bridging pop and jazz, we make jazz more accessible, so people don’t think of it as over their heads. Maybe appreciating our music will lead them to explore more. We’ve been told not to stick a label on ourselves, but because we like jazz a lot, so we do try to incorporate as much as we can into our song choices.
The doors really started opening for us when Krina entered the 2012 Boy Katindig Song Writing and Jazz Band Competition. We won as Best Jazz Band, and Krina won as Best Instrumentalist. For our prize Boy Katindig took us to the international festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. After that we were invited to several festivals. It was kind of funny because we were represented by Third Line, and they’d discouraged Krina from entering. I’m sure they had their reasons, but we pushed for it. When we won we had more opportunities, both local and international. We were invited to several jazz fests. In October 2013 we did an intermission number at the Borneo International Guitar Festival in Kota Kinabalu because one of the organizers was part of the youth festival we attended. So everything connected. Most recently we went to a jazz festival in Kuching, Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo.
The number of gigs we do is different every month. It depends on the season. One year we had a lot of gigs out of town and abroad, and then this year it’s been mostly corporate events and weddings. The out-of-town appearances are usually in Cebu and Davao, where they seem to really appreciate our music. They have awesome musicians in Davao. We’re always really nervous when we go there because we know that people there are very good. We went to Sinapore to sing at the launch of Chanel’s new line. Just this year we went back for the wedding of a couple who’d heard us at the Chanel event.
Yes, our repertoire includes Tagalog songs. We did a cover version [a song previously recorded by another group] of the APO Hiking Society song “Yakap Sa Dilim” and “Mabuti Pa Sila” by Gary Granada. We also have a medley of music from the 1970s, which is considered the golden era of original Filipino music. We had a corporate gig where we were asked to do a nine-minute slot of purely 1970s Filipino music, and so Krina made a nine-minute medley.
Mel wrote “Ganon Talaga” when she broke up with her then-boyfriend, now her husband, and Krina set it to music. Actually, we have enough original work to fill an album. We keep saying we’ll do it next year, but we just did a rough recording for a demo which we’re going to submit it to an independent producer here. It’s not like signing up with a big label, because then we’d be asked to do more pop, which is not something we’d feel comfortable doing.
We also do jazz tunes from the 1940s, like a vocalization of an instrumental by Count Basie, and standards like “Orange-Colored Sky,” “Got the World on a String” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” We sing Charlie Parker in Tagalog. The other night we did “Hold Tight” by the Andrew Sisters. We do a lot of Andrew Sisters’ songs and some Chordette songs, like “Mr. Sandman.” When we do pop songs, we always do them the Baihana way. We have songs by Maroon 5, Bruno Mars and the Beatles—“Good Day Sunshine,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” Our repertoire contains some classics, like “Time and Tide” by Basia, some Michael Jackson and also the Supremes. Whenever possible Krina does a new arrangement for us, but some standards, like “Orange-Colored Sky,” are not far from the original version.
When we build up the repertoire we always take the audience into consideration. As performers we have a responsibility to entertain or to keep the crowd satisfied. With our uniqueness we’re able to strike a balance where we really enjoy what we’re singing as well. Sometimes when the audience isn’t listening we joke with each other, we become looser and we have more fun singing for each other. It does happen, like at corporate gigs where people may just want to mingle. We were hired for the job, so we will still perform all out while having fun onstage.
The audience response depends on a lot on the venue. In a bar there’s more socializing, and sometimes a people change the dynamics when they come in. They start clapping and the others just follow. If it’s not a concert people are likely to chitchat every so often, even if it’s a good crowd and they really do watch us. If we go to a bar with our friends we’re bound to talk to each other. We’ve been both lucky and unlucky, with really good audiences and some who seem to be not listening at all. But because we enjoy our music anyway, we don’t get annoyed and irritable. That’s why we don’t compromise our music, so that we still enjoy it every time we perform.
One of the things that we learned while performing is that when things happen you have to roll with the punches. In our first big concert at the music museum, during our second song, Krina fell. We just turned it into a joke so it didn’t seem like something went wrong. In a recent concert one of the microphones went off, so two of us ended up sharing. We decided as a group that if we want to be professionals we have to act the part and be at ease. We’ve learned. In our very first videos, we looked super stiff onstage, and we didn’t know how to deliver spiels. It really took a long time.
We joke and interact with the audience, partly because for a time we were managed by The Third Line, a trio of men who do vocal harmonies. A big part of their act was interacting with the audience or being funny. So we picked up on that a bit, although from the start we were already always joking with each other. But then we developed that in our group.
Sometimes audiences here in the Philippines won’t show that they appreciate what they’re seeing. They won’t always applaud or cheer. So we wonder whether we’re getting through. Are they really getting the music we’re offering? But then people will come up to us afterwards and say they really appreciated your music. So it’s like, “Okay I didn’t notice.”
We love performing at Tago. The audience may be noisy sometimes, but they appreciate the music because they know it’s a jazz place. It’s not like singing in a regular bar where the people are noisy and they expect a show band. Besides, Nelson Gonzales, the owner, is a very good friend and he’s been really supportive. There are other musicians who jam with us, and we know they appreciate our music. They always give feedback, sometimes critical feedback. Certainly we’ve heard people say they’d like to hear more improvisation from the musicians and also from us. We learn from watching them as well. We get inspired and try to improve our songs.
We’ve grown a lot since 2008. Krina’s arranging skills and the sound of our voices are on a much higher level. Three years ago we did backup for Richard Poon, who’s popular here. Our voices were so small, tiny. So self-improvement is one reason we always go to Tago. Honestly, Nelson doesn’t earn a lot. He keeps Tago going because he knows so many musicians have a hard time finding a venue to play in.
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