Grace Notes: Philippines Musicians on the Road
Village to Metropolis: Filipino musicians on the road
Wearing identical slinky black dresses with spaghetti straps and clutching their microphones, Joy Villanueva and Mary-Jane Jocson patrol a smoky bandstand at the Q88 Wine Bar in the JW Marriott Hotel at Pacific Place in Hong Kong, belting out Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman" in front of the Harmony and Rhythm Band. The cocktail lounge is filled with expatriates and mainlanders, some of whom hear them singing, many who don't -- dancing, drinking or shouting at each other over the music.
The two are the thrushes for the five-member Harmony and Rhythm combo, itself part of a vast musical diaspora of Filipino musicians that stretches from one side of the world to the other, singing and playing in venues as varied as upscale cocktail lounges in London and San Francisco to nondescript bars on the Rajang River in Sarawak. Forty years ago, they were singing in Saigon, daring intermittent nightclub bombings by racketeers, Vietcong and competing bar owners. They have been pouring into Hong Kong since 1949, when Shanghai's colorful night scene was ended by the puritans of the Communist Revolution.
Amazingly, performing artists make up the second-biggest percentage (after domestic workers) of the Philippines' 8 million-plus overseas job migrants, according to the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration. Nearly 1 million Filipino composers and performing artists work overseas, according to the Philippines National Statistics Office, although a depressingly large percentage of the women are probably sex workers. In 2005, according to humantrafficking.org, a website dedicated to combating trafficking and exploitation of sex workers, 71,084 "performing artists" made their way from the Philippines to Japan in 2004, a significant number of whom "are believed to have been women trafficked into the sex trade."
Villanueva and Jocson have escaped that fate, working in a luxury Hong Kong hotel and filling out the dreams of hundreds of thousands of young Filipino musicians who for decades have given music the mystical property of a ticket out of poverty and obscurity in much the same way that young black males see basketball as their ticket out of American ghettos. There is hardly a hamlet in the remotest part of the Philippines that doesn't have hut with a karaoke machine. And in those without it, there is music in virtually every home to accompany aspiring performers. Church choirs and school music classes are universally packed by aspiring performers.
The common perception in the rest of the world that all Filipinas can sing is definitely not accurate. At night, the karaoke bars can be heard for miles virtually everywhere as singers, some of them truly awful, try their best. They might not be good at it but they love it.
Not particularly inventive, Filipino bands and performers nonetheless can and do mimic virtually every singer or singing style in existence. There are few like Lea Salonga, the Manila-born actress who played the leading role of Kim in the West End musical Miss Saigon in 1989. Once, at the Café Deco restaurant on Hong Kong's Victoria Peak, the uncanny sounds of bebop genius Charlie Parker's 1949 classic, Klactoveedsedstene, came echoing over the sound system. A surreptitious peek at the music on the stands while the band was on break revealed the reason. Band members apparently had listened to Charlie Parker tapes countless times, laboriously writing out every note Parker and other members of the band, including Miles Davis, Fats Navarro and JJ Johnson, had played, then duplicating them. Scores of songs had been copied out the same way. Jocson herself, for instance, can do a mean Shania Twain singing From This Moment.
The wellspring of the musical diaspora for Jocson was in Imus in the Philippine province of Cavite south of Manila, where she played on a riverbank and rode on banana boat rafts her father made for her out of banana tree trunks while she dreamed of a career in sparkling dresses. At the age of 4, Jocson would use the family table as her stage, deploying a broomstick as her microphone. By the time she was 6, she said in an interview, she had already decided to become a singer. At 17, she was joining television singing contests in Quezon City, egged on by her mother, a frustrated entertainer herself.
"She was really happy I made it as a singer," she says. "Lots of people want to sing in the Philippines but they just don't have the chance." By the time she left, she says, the river through Imus was so polluted by dead animals, garbage and sewage that nobody wanted to ride on banana tree rafts.
The performing life isn't as glamorous as it looks. It is a Monday-to-Saturday grind from 8:30 pm until midnight, or up to 2 on Fridays, Saturdays or any night before a public holiday, which means the band normally gets to bed around 3 am. There are no statutory holidays or annual leave. The hotel decides what they wear. Although the Q88 is one of Hong Kong's most upscale nightspots, Jocson and Villanueva have to supplement each of their HK$11,000 monthly salaries with a happy-hour gig at the Langham Hotel in Kowloon for as much as HK$5,500 a month each. Generous guests would occasionally give handsome tips of HK$2,000-3,000 which would be divided among the five band members.
At that Jocson and Villanueva are well paid relative to their fellow musicians directly from the Philippines, who average HK$ 7,000.00 monthly, some with free accommodation from their employers. Others, however, claim that they are receive only HK$5,000.00 with the same benefits.
Bernardino Julve, Labor Attache at the Philippine Consulate General of Hong Kong, says Filipino musicians who are Hong Kong permanent residents typically are paid better than new arrivals, asking for $12,000 a month on average. However, what the immigrants are making in Hong Kong is a fortune compared to what they would have made in the Philippines. The $11,000 a month that Villanueva makes for working four or five hours a night is much better than her counterparts in other parts of the world. Indeed, after engineering, banking, finance and so on, music is Filipinos' most profitable occupation in Hong Kong, the labor attaché says, adding that about 2,000 Filipino musicians are in the SAR. Musicians typically remit 40-50 percent of their earnings back home to their families in the Philippines, so more than half of what they make goes back to the Hong Kong economy. According to one study, performing artists in Japan alone pour as much as US$450 million a year into the US$10 billion in total inward remittances into the Philippines economy every year and probably significantly more if money remitted outside official channels is included. One Manila Times estimate suggests Filipino performers in Japan send back as much as US$1 billion a year.
It was a hard slog for Jocson to get to where she is, starting in the Bodega Night Club in Quezon city before first going overseas to Kuala Lumpur and ultimately, in 2000, to Niigata, Japan. The money was good but, Jocson says: "Not only did I sing, but I had to sit with the customers, pour their drinks and light their cigarettes. There were some horny people out there.''
But, after six months, she says, she was able to return to Manila with 500,000 pesos (US$9,450) in savings and move her singing career in a new direction. But, she says, she remains the breadwinner of her family. Her eventual goal, she says, is to get her family off that Cavite riverbank. "Every time it rains there, it floods," she says. "One time in 2000 or so, it rained so hard it never stopped, and my brother called to tell me that the house was half flooded."
Villanueva grew up in the Northern Philippine province of Nueva Ecija on a farm that grew rice, onions and vegetables. She helped out in the fields, she says, "until I cut myself one time. After that, I just had to feed the pigs and do the housework.'' Her father died when she was 12 and she was sent by her mother to live with relatives in Manila. Most of her childhood friends aspired to become singers but most of them were sidetracked into homemaking or nursing. Only a few are professional singers in Japan. Her circle of friends thinks of her as the most successful of the lot.
At 17, like Jocson, she began singing in Kuala Lumpur hotel bars and working as an optical shop assistant by day. It took her five years to get a major offer from the Shenzhen Shangri-La. The pay was low but she got room and board and free use of the gym and spa. She came to Hong Kong in 2002, working as a freelance singer in clubs and hotels until she joined the Harmony and Rhythm Band a year ago. The two are reluctant to talk specifics about what they pay their agent, who takes the total monthly payment from the Marriott, then distributes the money to the members of the band. She was the one who paid the initial deposit on Jocson's tiny studio in Tsim Sha Tsui, which the singer refers to as the size of a walk-in refrigerator. "You open the door," she says, "and it's everything – the kitchen, the bathroom, the living room and the bed." She took a two-month pay cut to cover the cost of the room deposit, which was paid by her agent, Eva Antigua of Harmony Productions, who represents almost all the Filipino musicians in Hong Kong.
Antigua used to be a singer herself, but gave it up because agency is much more lucrative. She arranges musical dates, visas and residences, sometimes housing musicians until they can find a place to live. Julve says the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) has an established system for overseas Filipino performing artists. It keeps records of performing artists in an Artist Registry Book. Artists must pass an audition in front of a POEA panel to prove that they are competent, although most of them are already established performers with secured job offers when they go to the audition. The Hong Kong Musicians Union is the main professional organization for Filipino entertainers that is registered with the governments of Hong Kong and the Philippines. They often act as counselers and arbitrators before the cases go to the Labor Attaché. Relationships can be tough, as they are for most overseas workers. Jocson maintained a long-distance relationship before her boyfriend came to Hong Kong from the Philippines, but then they went separate ways. She now spends much of her spare time with her Chinese boyfriend, while Villanueva goes to a Filipino Baptist church for companionship. The women call each other "sister" and it shows in their manners. They get terribly homesick. Filipino families are tightly knit with a strong sense of filial piety. Even extended family members have expectations for their overseas kin.
"Don't even think about not bringing gifts when you go back [to the Philippines] for a visit," said the women theatrically. "Anything, something, even boxes of chocolate will do. If you have nothing to bring, you might as well not go back at all."
How long will this life last? Depending on how good she looks and sounds, a songstress can go on as long as people want to hire her. For Jocson and Villanueva, it would be a long time—-they still looking in those tight dresses and sound good on those mikes at 29 and 30. But Villanueva hopes to become a permanent resident of Hong Kong in two years, when she hopes to lay back, switch to a day job and do occasional functions at night.
Are her dreams fulfilled? "Half and half," she says. Singing is her passion and she is happy doing it. But the student in her remains unfulfilled. She would like to study again, she says, perhaps learning Mandarin and taking some vocational courses. "I enjoy being onstage and meeting people from different part of the world," she says, "but fame wasn't one of my goals in life. It was part of my dream, but I'm happy with what I have right now as long as I can please people and they appreciate me." In the meantime, she continues to send the money home to take care of her family, as do the other 8.1 million overseas Filipinos. Jocson's dream is also yet to be fulfilled. At age 17, she received numerous offers in modeling, commercials, acting and recording from the directors and producers who saw her perform in Makati City. She would like a show of her own, she says, a mini-concert with backup dancers and singers, "like the ones you always see in Hong Kong. So the dream lives on. "It's the Calvary of life," Villanueva says, and Jocson high-fives her in agreement.