writing, feature, college

When Earth meets Sky

Category: Interview

It was Plato who said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. ” One does not readily understand the real meaning of this quote. At least, not until one has spoken to Joey Ayala and Cynthia Alexander. These people completely define what Plato had to say eons ago. They took the same road to triumph ans share the same blood. They’ll give you a different feel of what life really means—through their music, that is.

Traipsing the World with Your Tsinelas on
What do you get when you mix talent, philosophy, humor, indigenous instruments and two glasses of iced cappuccino? The answer: an interview with the awesome Joey Ayala. It’s not that much, if you think a good conversation over lunch is not a lot to work with.

“The thing is, I don't write in a genre.”

Contrary to what other people may think, his stuff is not alternative rock. It’s neither folk nor OPM. Some think it ought to be world music. Record stores even have his CDs and tapes on shelves that say “neo-ethnic” on them, but music enthusiasts really don’t know why they’re there to begin with. “If it were up to me, I'd just say Joey Ayala and put it on a shelf.”

“I was a musician already without realizing it. I was doing it because it was fun.”

Joey Ayala consciously would like to think of himself as a literary artist. A makata. Way back in high school, he would write scribbles on paper, throw them away, and his mother would secretly send them off to various magazines. Before he knew it, he had a byline in one of them, namely, Leader Magazine. He won third place in the Carlos Palanca Awards back in 1983, for a short story he’d written with hismanunulat tendencies. He dreamed of one day being famous for his works of fiction and poetry, but when he started honing his musical talents, everything changed. He started performing in front of people and realized the immediate gratification that came with it. Either they like you, or they don’t. For him, writing is a solitary thing. You agonize. “Even if you are accepted, you don't even know if people actually read. If they do, you don't know if they actually like it.”

He’s had his share of ups and downs of being in the music industry. Writer’s block, stage fright, ego trips—he’s been there, and he’s certainly done that. He even mentioned that to get past huge ego involvements, one really has to manage one’s self. No need to control it—you just have to go through it and then suffer the consequences later on. However, there are two very different kinds of fulfillment that a certain Joey Ayala can get from it all. One is through composing and writing, getting the feel of being an author. Another is the fast-paced world of performing, where he at once gets the satisfaction he deserves.

Joey on Filipino Music
“It's in continuous flux. You can't make a static description of it.” For him, the Filipino culture is so open. So open-ended. As citizens of this country, we absorb anything. We assimilate everything. We adapt to everything. “Wala ng boundaries kung ano ang kultura sa ibang bansa sa kultura naten, so ikot lang tayo ng ikot, balik tayo ng balik.” 

“I wanted to be a guitarist.”

Since the beginning, he always wanted to be someone like Carlos Santana. He considered him his role model. He even remembers the day he went to buy his first Santana album. On the way to the record store, he was stopped by a school mate and was invited to come over to his house. There, he listened to the vocal style of James Taylor for the first time. Totally smitten and enamored with the lyrical quality, the melancholy, the internal quality and the sensitive guitar work, he became a James Taylor baritone.

After that experience, he started writing in earnest, and ironically, in English. Both his parents were English writers. He only started writing in Filipino when he received a few letters telling him about the Juan Dela Cruz band. He got curious, listened to them, and it tickled his fancy. He bought a dictionary and started writing in Filipino.

The turning point in his life was when he decided to become a musician full-time. Back when he produced his first album Panganay ng Umaga in 1986, he still considered playing music as a thing he did on the side. However, when he went to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival and found himself in the midst of all sorts of musikeros, he saw the life he wanted for himself.

Joey on Cynthia Alexander
“Ang galing niya.” He is totally amazed with the wide expanse of talent his sister has when it came to music. For him, his sister’s first few gigs had very high musicality, and for her to be able to play such complicated pieces was something to be proud of. “She used to say she was living in my shadow. Now I say I am basking in her light.”

Joey on how to use musical talents to help with today's problem on terrorism: “Musical talent is an economic thing. Tayo ang number one exporter ng entertainer sa buong mundo. But it’s not originality. It’s covering, imitating. Our musical talent is in performing, not in originating. How to help? It's natural in our cultural history. We're probably the only colony that identified with its colonizer rather than rebel against it. Gusto natin maging amo.”

“Basically, a song is where the inside and the outside meet.” Experience is the best teacher and the most effective subject for songwriting. Making a song out of real events that took place is an expression of how one feels about life.

“Saglit lamang ang ating buhay
Tilamsik sa dakilang apoy
Ang bukas na nais mong makita
Ngayumpama'y simulan mo na”
-Awit ng Mortal

What is life all about? “It's finite and you create infinity within the finite parameters.” That’s Joey Ayala. A lover of life. A being of this earth who takes pride in walking the streets, appreciating all things, even if it means only wearing a pair of tsinelas. And that was just after two glasses of iced cappuccino. Who knows what he could do after.

Scouting the Sky for Miracle Rain Showers
Interviewing Cynthia Alexander gives you the same thrill as sky diving. You are excited at the thought of it. You are nervous at the moment right before it. Once you are at it, you feel an energy so great. You begin to see things from a different point of view, and take delight in the wonders life has to offer. When it’s over, you simply remember.

“When I started writing, all those genres...they meant nothing to me anymore.”
Jazz, rock, classical. These are mere examples of what Cynthia Alexander can play. As long as she could write music, she definitely could play it. If she had a choice, she would put all her albums on a shelf under “independent release”. Also, her music, like she says, is for remembering. “Some people are afraid of my music because they don’t want to remember anything.”

“When I woke up, I felt I was a changed human being.”

Back in third year high school, she took a nap after a very difficult review of trigonometry, a subject she enjoyed but nonetheless had trouble with, like most people. A few moments later she looked at her hands and they seemed like they weren't hers. “I did not want to be a rock star. I did not know what that was. I grew up by the seaside and I grew up with my friends. I did not know what it was like to be a rock star and I grew up without a television set.” However, after that day, everything became automatic for her. She started playing, and she kept on playing and playing various instruments like the drum set, piano, and guitar.

Her first idol was Joni Mitchell. In fact, the first song she ever played was by Joni Mitchell.

There was a particular event in her past that she remembers quite vividly. That was when she was at the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak. “I was on stage. When I was singing, I became aware that time has expanded itself. I was in the middle of the song. I felt like I was in between the notes that I was singing and playing. I was between echoes from one note to the next note. When I’m on stage, I have no idea of time. I’m in a meditative state.” That’s Cynthia for you.

Cynthia on Reincarnation and Tala
“Reincarnation-- how can anyone not believe in that? How can you not see beyond that? My daughter Tala, who’s six, knows that. She even talks to me about the time when she was my mother. ‘I don’t know why I have to be born again but all I know is now that I am born, now that I am alive, I have to die.’ That's how she speaks.”

“Music is a healing thing.”

“In the beginning, you know you’re in the womb of your mother, you hear the heart beating. For me, I guess I would always want to come back to that—that comfort. It's something I always go back to. Sound, not just music, but sound. So when I’m writing, I come back to what was before me. It makes me reach out to what will be even after me.”

She prefers smaller crowds when it comes to gigs. In the beginning, she didn’t even have a band. She did and recorded everything by herself—the guitar, the bass, the keyboard. These days, she usually hires people to play some instruments to back her up, but she still writes everything, down to the last cello chord.

“The only fear I have is the fear of myself when I’m onstage.” Whenever she feels weak and vulnerable, that’s when she does the gig all by herself. She gets up on the stage, all alone. That’s when she realizes she’s naked and bare. That is how she “character builds”, her exact words. She does that to feel less insecure of herself and to avoid putting the blame on other people in case something happens.

She deeply admires Indian music. Not only music, but also the entire Indian culture and religion. There was one time when she played with a bunch of Indian musicians at a temple in Davao. She didn’t realize that playing in the temple meant she was equal to the priests already. These musicians she played with—she considers them her teachers.

Cynthia on Filipino Music
Pahirapan dito eh.” Actually, she thinks everywhere in the world is “pahirapan”. She calls this “the age of forgetfulness”. “This is Kaliyuga; people are a bit great on contradiction. It is evident that people have already forgotten.”

Cynthia on Joey Ayala
Magaling siya. 

“Teacher yun, eh. Malaking ilaw yan si Joey Ayala. Even from the beginning, alam mo na kaagad nasuperstar siya. Joey Ayala has the presence. the charm. Hawak niya ang lahat ng tao sa *bleep* nila. Whether Hapon, Indian... kahit saan. We went to Malaysia, New Zealand, Canada, America. *laughs* Women are all charmed by him. It's his message, and he has a way with words. He knows how to use his words.” She is obviously enthralled with her brother’s musical talent.

Cynthia’s Answer to the World’s Terrorism Dilemma
For her, being a Filipino musician has a contribution. “Music can be used as a medium for unification, for bringing light.” Spoken like a true guru. One of her wishes is for a more peaceful new year. There’s just too much chaos in this world.

“I get inspiration from the knowledge that you're nothing.”

According to her, we are all just going back to where we came from. From remembrance. “If you read through my lyrics, you'll see that from the first album, the second album, I’m explicitly using words from my memory.”

“Why, why do you worry
We are not born nor do we die
What is happening happens for the best
What will happen happens for the best
We have come empty-handed
We will go empty-handed
What have you lost
That you were weeping
What have you found
That you have lost
What is happening happens for the best
What will happen happens for the best
We have come empty-handed
We will go empty-handed
What you have
You have got from here
What was given
You were given here
What you took
You took from here
What you gave
You gave unto here
We have come empty-handed
We will go empty-handed

“What have I come here for? When I leave, what do I take? Nothing. It's speaking not only for me but for everybody.” Subtle, but explicit words. That’s how Cynthia Alexander relays her message to anyone who is willing to look up to the sky, listen—and remember.

(Published in The LaSallian, the official college paper of De La Salle University-Manila)