At the end of October, 2014, I interviewed the three members of the Baihana, which means “woman” in Cebuano. Krina Cayabyab (soprano, songwriter and arranger–center in above photo), Anna Achacoso (soprano–right) and Mel Torre (alto–left) talked about their music and their individual lives. The post is available via the link in the right column on the screen as Philippihes. A Filipina Vocal Group at Tago Jazz Cafe. Recently Baihana celebrated their eighth anniversary with their first album. I attended the album launches at 12 Monkeys in Makati and Historia in Quezon City. Mel and I talked again before the second launch on August 30.
I’m a fan, as you know, and I love the album. Why don’t you tell my readers about your music in general and also a bit about each song on the album?
Our music is heavily influenced by the 1940s by the Andrew Sisters’ pop swing, by the sound of the Chordettes and more recently by Manhattan Transfer and The New York Voices. We use a lot of vocal harmony. Since early this year we’ve been adventuring more into the more frightening waters of a capella, so it’s just the three of us without musicians behind us. Or we sing in collaboration with other groups, a beat boxer or a bassist.
The album contains some of our favorite songs from over the years, and some are more radio-friendly, which we think will entice listeners to hear our music as accessible. People might think of jazz harmony as something that they wouldn’t understand or that would be challenging to listen to. So with this album we’re trying to bridge that gap.
But also so that jazz people won’t turn up their noses up at it, right?
I hope not. We worked really hard on it. Our sound has matured over the years. When we started it was a lot more Andrew Sisters, but now it’s a lot more personal. Baihana has a sound of its own. Krina does our arrangements, and most of the songs are in Tagalog. Most of the album is original songs based on our personal experience—heartbreaks and lessons learned. For us this album is a story of ourselves and not just a random collection of songs.
Why don’t we go through the list?
1. “Isaw” is one of our first original songs, written by Krina. In 2010 it won the best song in the novelty category at the FILSCAP [Filipino Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] Songwriting Competition. It was one of our first awards. “Isaw” is based on an event in Krina’s life at UP [University of the Philippines], when she ate ten sticks of isaw and then got sick afterwards. It’s a Filipino street food, basically intestines [chitlins or chitterlings] . We all graduated from UP, and “Isaw” is kind of our ode to the school. Several members of AMP Big Band played on that track, and Mel Villena did the big band orchestration.
2. “Problem,” originally by Ariana Grande, goes back to our roots with the sound of the Andrew Sisters, but with a contemporary popular song.
3. “Java Jive” (The Ink Spots, 1935, Manhattan Transfer, 1975) is a favorite we’ve been singing for seven or eight years. We freshened it up for this album by having Lester Sorilla play trumpet.
4. “Chill” is an original song written by Krina, and I think this is really her advice to herself. It’s about taking the time to relax if you’re busy and knowing when it’s time to pull back. The sound is very Lambert, Hendricks & Ross.
5. Anna wrote the lyrics for “Bintana” [window], and Krina did the music. It’s was about Anna’s still having a weird connection with a guy she’d already broken up with. So even if the door was closed a window was still open, which was confusing and hurtful.
6. “Sirena/Pusong Bato” is my personal favorite. It’s a playful mixture of two very popular Filipino songs. In a way it’s very technical, but not so much that listeners don’t enjoy it.
7. I wrote the lyrics and a simple blues melody for “Make it Hurt,” and Krina made the fancy, funky arrangement. I drew it from my experience when I first started singing about ten years ago. I realized that life was too short not to go after what you want, so I quit my job at a call center without a back-up plan. For two years I worked on my music career—this was way before I met Baihana. It was a struggle, and I really had to hold on. I was singing in small bars with a guitarist, earning 300 pesos a night for five hours. I was baking cakes to make a bit of extra cash. The song is about not giving up, holding on, even if it hurts. It was very unyogic. Yoga is a little more about detachment, letting go of external things and learning to distinguish between external things and who you are as a person. And this was about not letting go. But I wouldn’t be here now if I’d just given up.
8. “I know” is Krina’s song about her ex and that feeling you get when you know the relationship is about to go south.
9. “Let Me Love You,” with Anna’s lyrics and Krina’s music. The arrangement is very pure, just vocals, piano and cello, so that the poignancy of the song would show through. It’s about her and her love for her husband.
10. “Donna Lee” is Charlie Parker with Tagalog lyrics. It’s about how much we love jazz. It’s usually the song jazz musicians appreciate most when we perform outside the country, because they all know “Donna Lee” and they appreciate that we put Tagalog lyrics to it even if they don’t understand them.
11. “Mamang Kutsero” was written by Krina’s dad, Ryan Cayabyab. We got the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra to play the music. So it’s a super-special last track.
All of the songs have Paolo Cortez on guitar, Julius Lopez on bass, Jesper Mercado on keyboard and Karmi Santiago on drums.
We’re really proud of the album. We produced it ourselves with no record label, completely independently. We relied a lot on help from friends. For example, for “Mamang Kutsero” the orchestra played for us for free. We still haven’t made back what we put into it. Our struggle now is to market and sell it. We’d like to reach a wider audience, which is where the international release will come in.
When are you anticipating that will happen?
We’re still waiting for some tracks to be remastered and remixed. We’ll get them in September, so probably around October, just in time for our concert November 18 at the Music Museum. You were at the other album launch at 12 Monkeys, right? We got the album that day, and we weren’t even sure it would arrive in time. There wasn’t enough time to market the album. That’s why we decided to move the Music Museum concert to November 18. It will be more a thanksgiving show than an album launch.
How would you say Baihana has grown as a group over the last eight years?
We definitely sound tighter. Even though we still sound different, we sound more blended. No one voice sticks out, compared to how we sounded when we began. Krina doesn’t have to direct us as much, although sometimes she has to indicate where she wants the song to go. Our voices have also matured individually. But we always want to sound better and better. I think we find it easier to learn new songs. We’re much more familiar with Krina’s arrangement style. We’re also a lot more comfortable performing than we used to be when we stood there frozen. People would say, “You guys look so shy” or “You look so scared.” We’re still shy and scared sometimes, depending on the audience and the venue, but at least now we’re more comfortable putting on a game face.
What I saw was people who were very relaxed and joking with the audience and having a good time. That was at least twice at Tago and once at City Club.
Well, we’ve definitely improved in that respect. Even my mom said so, and she’s hard to please. We’ve also gotten more comfortable with giving each other feedback, whereas in the beginning we weren’t that close as friends, so it was hard to tell another person she was singing a note wrong.
Do you think Filipinos are reticent to offer criticism? I noticed that when I took a couple of creative writing classes at UP.
For sure. Actually, even now we’re very careful to be nice to each other when we provide feedback. It works for us because there’s no hard feelings.
What events have you been to since we talked the last time?
I think we told you already about the World Youth Jazz Fest, right? February last year Diane Schuur played in Manila with AMP Big Band, and we opened for her. It was so nerve-wracking, knowing that she was probably backstage listening. She’s got a super-sharp ear. But my God, the experience was amazing. I was in tears after we performed and she was singing. Her voice is still so good, and she can still hit those hit those high notes.
In November of 2015 we participated in the Tokyo Manila Jazz and Art Fest, the second Tokyo-Manila jazz festival held here in the Philippines. There were a lot of Filipino acts, like The Brat Pack. Isabella, the daughter of Kuh Ledesma, is now venturing into jazz. Of course the big star was Charito, a Filipino jazz singer based in Tokyo. She brought her amazing Japanese band with her.
Also in November, when APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] was here we did four or five performances of a suite put together for the event. We worked with the Philippine Opera Company to show a different kind of harmony, then also with a traditional folk dance group. We did four performances, two in Manila, one in Cebu or Davao and one in Iloilo.
Around the same time we started to record the album, and we were rehearsing for Lani Misalucha’s European tour. She’s a great singer, and I’ve been a fan of hers since I was a kid. For all of us it was a dream come true to sing backup for her. The best thing was she gave us a couple of our own spot numbers when she was changing costumes. So we got to show our stuff to audiences in Europe–London, Manchester, Norway, Denmark, Geneva and Finland.
What time of year was it? How was the weather?
That was late April to mid-May of this year, so springtime. The weather was perfect. It was cool, but the longer periods of daylight were starting.
April this year we ventured into a full a capella show with Pinopela, a nine-member a capella group based in Baguio. We’d met them a couple of years ago at the A Capella Open. It was super-challenging for us to do a whole show a capella because we’re used to the comfort of having a band. Usually we do at most one or two songs a capella. It was really nerve-wracking because we had to have choreography and then costume changes in-between. We had to practice with the choreography a lot so it wouldn’t show when we were out of breath.
Actually, choreography is not a bad idea.
For sure. It made a huge difference. We’re used to a small space, but this was on a big stage at RCBC in Makati [Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation]. For a show like that we can’t just stand still, especially if we’re singing lively a capella. Now we’ve finished recording the album and the album launch at 12 Monkeys. We’re getting ready to take the a capella show to Baguio.
Do you feel that you have grown, apart from wanting more exposure?
We have definitely grown musically. We’re more comfortable performing. After doing that a capella show all of us felt that there was nothing we couldn’t do. As far as exposure is concerned, we still have a long way to go. We haven’t tapped into social media much yet. Really just Facebook and Instagram for us. We need to build our base and to get our music out there. We only have a few songs on Youtube.
How old are you?
I’m 33. Krina and Anna are 28, turning 29.
So you could have another 40 years of singing.
That’s the plan, to go for as long as we can.
What about the work-life balance? You’ve got a lot of things going with teaching yoga.
I have only about eight classes a week of 60 or 90 minutes each, so that’s not bad at all. But Krina is teaching and studying musicology at UP, and Anna has a full day’s work six days a week in the bakery and café. She and her mom also sing backup for a singing contest on ABS-CBN. That’s six to nine in the evening. She has rehearsal, then there’s waiting time, and the show is about an hour long.
We sing two or three times a week and we’re preparing for the a capella tour in Baguio. So we only really rehearse if we have a new song or songs we haven’t sung in a while. We’ll rehearse them with a band and among ourselves. But aside from that, each of us practices on her own so that when we rehearse together, maybe once a week, we all know our parts, and it’s just a matter of cleaning things up. If we have a big show coming up, we rehearse two to three times a week, especially if there’s choreography.
What’s your feeling about bringing Filipino elements into more international jazz?
I think we should. Early last year we went to a festival in Taiwan, where we met a band who played jazz standards on all traditional Taiwanese instruments. It was all instrumental. But we did learn a Taiwanese folk song. I loved it. It was a children’s song with nonsense words which imitated the sound of the rain on the roof of a train.
I’m not well versed in traditional Filipino instruments, but Anna has a degree in Asian music, so she should know. I’ve been hounding her for the longest time to accompany one of our songs on a traditional Asian instrument. She said the tuning was different so she would have to retune the instrument.
The scales are different.
Right. So it wouldn’t be that easy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. I think Bob Aves is doing stuff like that, jazz fused with Filipino elements. A couple of years back he did at one of the Philippine International Jazz Festival.
Johnny Alegre is doing world fusion in addition to western-style standards. But he has a couple of groups, right? Humanfolk and Johnny Alegre Affinity.
I’m not sure when we will get around to it. It’s not in our immediate project.
What do you see as the next thing you’ll be doing?
After the concert? I’m not sure. We’re talking to a group of people now who might manage us, so a lot of things are kind of up in the air. We would definitely love to start participating in more festivals abroad, like Java Jazz [in Jakarta, Indonesia] and other international festivals. Next year I think is their tweveth year. For the past three years we’ve gone there to watch. It’s kind of a tradition. But we’ve never applied to perform there, although it’s a dream of ours.
Hopefully, one day we’ll do a tour of our own. When we were on Lani’s tour we made some friends in London and the other places we visited. We could maybe ask them for help. Then also the new manager could make the arrangements. One of the things we’ve learned is how hard it is to manage ourselves while also worrying about the creative side. Haggling with clients over the price and also performing. We really need to have management.
To purchase the album, go to Baihana’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/BaihanaGirls/shop?rid=317046090098&rt=9
Videos on Youtube:
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.)