In an upscale hotel nightclub centred in Manila’s Makati business district, Gabriel (Gabby) Claudio and his band are slaying a decidedly sincere rendition of the disco standard I Love the Nightlife.
Despite performing for a half-full basement room on this Friday night, Mr. Claudio beams as he merrily plucks his bass guitar and the female lead singer delivers a near note-for-note perfect facsimile of Alicia Bridges’s 1978 anthem. This band is tight.
At 57, playing with a cover group, or house band as it is known here, is a second career for Mr. Claudio. He is a former federal cabinet member and was a top political adviser to two presidents.
Welcome to the Philippines, where even ex-political power brokers have a passion for popular music in a country that is endowed with singers and musicians.
House bands are a major export for the Philippines. Groups get sent all over Asia. From Bangkok to Jakarta to Shanghai, Filipino bands perform at bars, pubs and nightclubs. They can also be found in places like Dubai, where demand for cover groups is rising. A few even make it to Las Vegas and other cities in the United States. Filipino house bands are also a ubiquitous fixture on cruise ships in the Caribbean.
Manila-based communications executive Junie Del Mundo says he has stumbled across his compatriots in the most far-flung reaches of the continent.
“I was recently in Xinjiang province in China and I walked into a bar. Even in Urumqi, in the middle of the Gobi desert, I find a Filipino band,” Mr. Del Mundo said.
There are a handful of notable success stories that keep many aspiring singers in the Philippines dreaming. Cover-band performer Arnel Pineda was discovered through postings on YouTube when members of the American group Journey were looking for a new lead singer. With a voice bearing an uncanny resemblance to original Journey front man, Steve Perry, Mr. Pineda got the gig.
Back at the hotel nightclub in Manila, Mr. Claudio offers his thoughts about the roots of this musical tradition. “Perhaps we get it from our colonial history with the Spanish,” he said in an interview between sets. “More than other cultures, Filipinos are very expressive. We’re sentimental – on the verge of being emotional. Music happens to be a very good way of expressing our sentiments. It’s usually about love, happiness and sadness, or relationships that have gone sour. I think it’s a cultural thing.”
As Mr. Claudio’s group earnestly performs a set of romantic ballads and oldies power pop, hundreds of other Filipino groups are doing the same thing – not only in bars and nightclubs in Metro Manila but around the globe.
Why Filipinos have become the entertainers of Asia is evident on the streets and in the public places of the capital. Music is everywhere. Radio plays not only the current billboard hits but a large dose of the saccharine romance songs from bygone eras. Tunes like Canadian Dan Hill’s Sometimes When We Touch are still in heavy rotation.
In everyday life, Filipinos sing: wait staff in restaurants, people on the street, workers in offices and even in elevators. It is not uncommon for Filipinos to unabashedly break out in song. Some sing in Tagalog – the country’s dominant indigenous language – but more sing in English. Western pop music rules in a country where English is spoken more than anywhere else in Asia.
In fact, despite its Japanese name, many Filipinos claim that karaoke originated in the Philippines. A Filipino inventor named Roberto del Rosario claims he invented a sing-along machine call Minus-One in 1975 and he was awarded a patent for it in the 1980s. Filipinos take the craft of singing very seriously – sometimes too seriously. At the karaoke bars, local advise foreigners not to sing My Way, the defiant ballad made famous by Frank Sinatra. Upstaging another singer with a rendition of the song can lead to hurt feelings, fisticuffs and even gunfire. Local news reports have said that people have been killed in disputes over their singing of My Way.
A career singing in a cover band, however, rarely begets violence nor, for that matter, fame or fortune. At most local clubs in Manila, band members each receive less than 600 pesos (about $14) a night for playing as many as four sets. This is supplemented by tips from audience members who typically offer a group 100 or 200 pesos with each song request.
(At a local club in the Manila of neighbourhood of Ermita recently, Someone Like You by Adele was a particularly popular request that forced a diminutive Filipina singer to belt out the song three times in the course of the evening)
Regardless of the low pay, there is no shortage of talented bands looking for work according to Jackson Gan, a Manila-based promoter who has been sending Filipino groups overseas for more than 20 years.
Dubai is now a hot spot, he says, with as many as 60 venues looking for groups that can mimic tunes by performers ranging from Guns N’Roses to Lady Gaga to Rihanna.
“Filipinos are great musical interpreters,” said Mr. Gan, who explained that Filipino cover bands first began travelling overseas in the 1960s and ’70s to entertain U.S. troops with popular songs in Vietnam..
“It is the environment,” Mr. Gan said. “They are poor and many can’t go to college. Music is often the only way to succeed and make it out. It is like [boxing champion and congressman]Manny Pacquiao. The singers are role models and their families hope and believe they will succeed on their talents rather than luck.”
Mr. Claudio and his band Double Vision, meanwhile, have different aspirations. They recently played at a birthday celebration for his former boss, ex-president Fidel Ramos. And Mr. Claudio is also hoping to put some distance between himself and his other former boss, ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She was recently placed under house arrest and charged with election fraud while a chief justice she appointed endures a very public impeachment trial.
“I’m trying to stay away from politics,” Mr. Claudio said.
“I can’t imagine anybody getting mad at me for playing in a band.”