Forget the days of Sarah G and Charice: meet the new artists shaking up the Philippines

Disillusioned by commercial Pinoy pop, a new generation of Filipino artists are shaking up the music industry and Manila scene with their original sound.
Mito Fabie, who has the stage name Curtismith, raps in English to minimalist beats, marking him out from his contemporaries. He is part of a movement of independent artists who are bringing a more cosmopolitan flavour to Manila’s music scene. Courtesy Mito Fabie.
Mito Fabie, who has the stage name Curtismith, raps in English to minimalist beats, marking him out from his contemporaries. He is part of a movement of independent artists who are bringing a more cosmopolitan flavour to Manila’s music scene. Courtesy Mito Fabie.

Inside a club in Manila one recent Friday night, Mikhaela Cordero is standing backstage, holding her palms on her cheeks, eyes closed. Slowly and gently she massages her jaw.

“This is how I release the tension on my face,” she says. “This is how I get to sing so flawlessly.”

Her name is called, Cordero walks on the stage as the audience cheers.

“Good evening, I am M-L-A and I don’t think you’ve ever heard anything like this before,” she says, her stage name a wordplay on Manila.

Dressed in a black sweater, denim trousers and a pair of gold heels, the 28-year-old Cordero spends the next 20 minutes performing a set of original songs she has written and composed. The tracks, with titles like Taas Bandila (Raise the Flag) and Puso ng Pilipino (Heart of a Filipino), evoke Cordero’s devotion to her homeland. Indeed, judging by the crowd’s reaction, it seemed like they haven’t heard anything quite like her brand of sound before.

“It’s nationalistic, it’s anthemic, it’s a bit folk,” she explains after the show, which is one of many open-mic nights being held across Manila on weeknights.

“But my music is also inspired by soul and maybe some synthpop. I call it ‘post-Pinoy pop’ – because when have you ever heard synthpop in Tagalog?”

Cordero’s music stands out in a contemporary Philippine industry dominated by pop ballads that are heavily influenced by American musical styles, albeit with the lyrics in Filipino.

The country’s most popular music artists, such as Sarah Geronimo, Charice Pempengco and Regine Velasquez, often sing about heartbreak and romantic longing akin to the soaring power ballads and uptempo pop of their international counterparts. Thus, in a mainstream scene controlled by a handful of record labels – primarily Star Records, Viva Records and GMA Records – there isn’t much room for musical idiosyncrasy.

Mark Reyes, who teaches popular culture at the University of the Philippines in Manila, takes a sharper stance. “There is no originality, if we’re talking specifically about the mainstream artists. It’s literally ‘same sound, different day’,” he says, cautioning that the lack of diversity in musical styles in Philippine pop music trickles down to the independent scene, as well as to performing venues and karaoke bars.

The state of the industry, however, is not as dire if you look to alternative voices such as Cordero. While the mainstream operates within a predictable and formulaic system, there are bright, young things recently emerging out of the shadows and into the popular audience’s aural consciousness.

The pack is led by Mito Fabie, a 22-year-old rapper who performs with the stage name Curtismith. In a local hip-hop scene where rappers commonly hail from the less well-off, whose sombre rhymes tackle impoverishment and who sing in Filipino, Fabie comes from an upper/middle-class upbringing. He also raps in English about coming-of-age themes that may be typical in western hip-hop, but not as much in the Philippines.

Back in May, he caught the attention of British business magnate Richard Branson, after Fabie raised his hand during a talk on innovation he was giving in Manila. Fabie went up on stage and started rapping lines from his original song Going In For Life. “I’m the type of kid that dreams of shaking up an industry,” he rapped. “It’s killing me, but I got a lucid flow / Search for opportunity, make sure it’s original.” Branson later asked an assistant to hand Fabie his business card.

With his crisp delivery, Fabie often raps to the tune of an understated rhythmic background, with a recurring set of synthesised-sounding beats guiding his flow. Such a minimalist musical sensibility is unlike the harsh, throbbing pounding in the songs of popular contemporary Filipino rappers like Gloc-9, who raps vigorously in supersonic speeds tough to represent in a time signature. Fabie has released two albums so far: Ideal in 2015 and Failing Forward over the summer. He says he never intended for his music to stand out – he’s just being himself.

“I feel no responsibility to rap in Filipino because English is my first language, so it’s natural that I rap in it,” he tells me.

The notion of authenticity in hip-hop has been historically rooted in street culture – of MCs “keepin’ it real”. Coming from a relatively privileged background compared with most hip-hop acts, Fabie says he doesn’t feel the need to rap about certain subjects to appear more legitimate.

“Authentic to me is just being real to yourself – as long as the music speaks honestly,” he says. “I’m not gonna pretend to be someone I’m not to try to please people I don’t know. My style just tries to capture the point in life I’m in while recording the songs.” Fabie’s stage name, Curtismith, is a remarkable reference to actress and presenter Anne Curtis-Smith, one of the country’s biggest celebrities who is also known for her inadequate singing ability.

In 2011, she released a parody album titled Annebisyosa (a play on the English word “ambitious”), to show that she can take a joke. Astonishingly, the album went platinum; she has released two more chart-topping records since.

So is Fabie’s MC name a tribute to Curtis-Smith’s resolve or a critique on the music industry’s priorities? He won’t be drawn – but implies he wanted the audience to interpret it as both a wink and a jab. Regardless, Fabie is sceptical of the artistic direction that mainstream recording companies have been taking.

“This generation is aware that we Filipinos are more capable and talented than what these companies are putting their money behind,” he says. “So, independent artists are taking the initiative. We will keep pushing our art whether they end up supporting us or not.”

The music of Fabie and Cordero are among a growing number of artists and collectives slowly changing Manila’s musical sound into something more cosmopolitan. But is it for the good or the bad of the local culture?

They are certainly breaking ground, perhaps even gesturing towards the establishment of a post-Pinoy pop genre that Cordero espouses. But like many trailblazers before them, they need to be wary of alienating their audience. Their music still has to have something that’s relatable to the public, that listeners can hook on to.

That’s how music works after all: you hear something that captivates your attention and, as a result, you tune in for more.

Likewise, recording companies need to give these distinct voices a chance and a platform. Local listeners, too, would benefit from being more open to new ideas. As Fabie raps in Going In For Life: “If you listen I can penetrate your soul / I’m a Filipino that is trying to break the mould.”

James Gabrillo is a former arts editor at The National and a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge researching musical spectacle in the Philippines.

Published: September 14, 2016 04:00 AM


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