Recently I sat on the porch outside Tago Jazz Café with Nickie Mossman, and she supplied the words to go with the photos I’d taken at a benefit a few nights before at Cafe Astana in Makati. (Click on photos to enlarge.)
The benefit we had was for Joel Galang, who was my pianist from 1987 until I went to Hong Kong in 2007. We were like siblings. His parents loved me, and I was really like a member of the family. I came back in 2011 when my mother got cancer because I needed to look after her. I didn’t have time to look him up. When I did go to his old address in Cubao, I was really
surprised that his house had been demolished. There was just a vacant lot. Then a few weeks ago I heard that he’d had a stroke and his brother had abandoned him. He was living on the streets. The news was very painful.
Was there a story behind why he was abandoned?
His brother is a jerk. He’s been spending all the family money without giving any to Joel. I hated him for that. But I knew Joel had a son, Jovy, so I went looking for him. Fortunately, last Saturday I got his number and I called and insisted on seeing him. He came over around midnight. We talked, and I said, “All right, what are we going to do about your father?” We agreed to go through Skarlet and the Heart of Music, which is the official non-governmental organization for helping musicians with severe medical conditions. Jovy doesn’t have much money, but as his son he has an obligation to care of his father. I promised him to help him. He said he has always seen me as his aunt, which I really appreciated.
The benefit happened because a group of friends—the owners of the bar where we performed, the regular customers and other singers—found out about Joel. They got in touch with me and asked if it would be all right to have benefit to raise money for his physical therapy and his medicine. He can raise the affected arm, which is a good sign. After a stroke some people can’t raise the arm at all. So when they asked me about the benefit, I said, “Why not?”
Then I called Skarlet to tell her, since she’s the one looking after Joel. We also wanted her to be in charge of the money we raised. That’s why we were at the table going over the figures. She wants it to be clear that what she does with the money—to avoid suspicion and all that. Everything was written down. That’s why I love her. She’s very transparent. What you see is what you get.
So it really was a spontaneous thing, which was why I happened to see your invitation on Facebook at the last minute.
Yes. I was inviting everyone. The songs we played were mostly the jazz standards we were singing when Joel was still playing the piano. We wanted to inspire him, to tell him, “Look, you have to do something. You have to get well so you can get back to paying for us.” Heart of Music will help him, and I heard there’s another group as well.
Can you tell me something about Heart of Music?
Well, HOM has been really, really good to musicians. I think it’s growing slowly. I hope it will be really successful very soon because, as I see it, there are lots of musicians who need help, even people out in the provinces. It’s the only NGO I’ve seen that helps. What HOM does is try to find sponsors for musicians who need dialysis or medications for high blood pressure or some other on-going condition. My mom was a recipient. She was a singer. When she needed blood I contacted Skarlet, and she helped me with two bags of blood. As long as I’m a singer, I qualify for help, and so does my family. I like the people with HOM because they really care. Skarlet is such a beautiful woman with a very big heart.
I think they are going to have another free dental mission or something. I heard that somewhere. And once again it’s Skarlet’s HOM doing this for the musicians.
Now, for my readers who don’t know about music in the Philippines, could you tell me more about Skarlet?
She was the lead singer with a ska band called Put3ska [a word play based on the Tagalog phrase, putres ka—damn you] and another called the Brownbeat All Stars. They had cut records. For a while Skarlet owned a bar called Ten02, renamed Skarlet’s Jazz Kitchen. When I first heard her sing, I was so amazed that I said, “Who’s she?” I met her that night. Then when I came back from Hong Kong a few years later she’d already formed Heart of Music. It was a great idea to set up an NGO for musicians. The government certainly wasn’t helping. We’re not earning enough—sometimes as little as 500 pesos [$11.36] a night or even less—and we’re so tired. We entertain people, but nobody entertains us. I’d been telling people that we should do something. We should help each other. But at that time I guess people were scared. That’s why I admire Skarlet so much.
What would people be scared of?
I don’t know—probably the government. With the system here you’re not going to get protection unless you hand over a certain amount.
There was also that NGO scandal.
Yeah. That’s why during the 1990s musicians weren’t into putting up unions or NGOs. I hope this HOM grows bigger and bigger and gets a lot of sponsors to help musicians like me. To be honest, I’m not getting any younger. One day I’ll have to call Skarlet and ask for help. When I saw how she really helped Joel—I call him my brother—the way she helped my brother, I don’t know how to thank her. She pulled him off the streets, and she asked Nelson if Joel could stay at Tago for a couple of days. That was fine by Nelson, but Joel couldn’t sleep. He needed rest. He’d had a stroke. He’s also really stubborn. He’d go around asking people for cigarettes and beer. Well, he’s in a bar. What do you expect? The temptations are there.
So scarlet had to pull him out of Tago. After that I heard he was with his brother, and then back on the streets, which was really terrible. But I think everything’s going to be all right. I heard they’re going to put Joel in a hospice. His son and I will provide moral support.
Yes, the hospices are cheaper than the national hospitals [which charge about a third or less than the private hospitals]. The hospices here are run by nuns, and they only ask for a small donation, like 50 pesos [$1.13]. So I think that would be better for him. It’s better than his staying on the streets.
I know someone who lived on the streets here for quite a while. She looked like she was dying. Very, very thin. Skin that had turned an unhealthy shade of brown from a skin disease. People had tried to get her into a treatment center, but she wouldn’t go. One Sunday afternoon I rode around with some friends who were trying to find an emergency room at a national hospital which would treat an infected cut on her foot. They eventually found one. I’ve seen other people who have no teeth because of methamphetamine poisoning but who keep having babies because reproductive health isn’t available. There’s a nice, gray-haired woman who comes to my friend’s soup kitchen and who showed up once with a knife wound all down one side of her face. So I know what somebody who lives on the streets can look like.
I saw the pictures of Joel when he was found. He also had a skin disease from living on the streets. He’d made a bed outside a barangay [district] hall. Skarlet said he’d tried to talk the barangay people into letting him come inside when it rained, but they said no. It did rain when Skarlet went to visit him, and they both got soaked. That’s when Lilybeth offered him a room.
URLs to copy and paste on your navigator bar:
Skarlet and friends spearhead advocacy to help ailing musicians.
Facebook Heart of Music page. https://www.facebook.com/heart.ofmusicorgphilinc?fref=ts
A reader writes:
Carol Dussere was a professor of English from 1984-86 in Xiamen University, Fujian, China and from 1989-2006 at Dongguk University in Seoul. The interviews and photos on this page were collected as a result of her experience abroad. She currently lives in the beautiful town of Tagaytay, Philippines, where she is working on two book manuscripts. ("Dussere" rhymes with "blue hair," which she doesn't have yet.)