Salt of the Earth

A Filipino folk rock legend now lives in Ramat Hasharon with his Israeli wife and daughter.

By
August 7, 2008 14:40

February 1984: A young, freshly-recruited United States Peace Corps volunteer arrives in the Philippines to begin his assignment assisting poor rural communities. Although almost overwhelmed at first with the sights, sounds and sensations of this colorfully "Third World" Asian country, the new recruit is aware that wherever he goes he hears music. He soon realizes that it is not just "music" he is hearing, but always the same music played everywhere, on millions of portable radios. And it's not just coming from radios, he soon discovers, but also from what seem to be billions of battered tape cassettes, played over and over again in restaurants and shops, on buses and taxis, and blaring from the stereo speakers of the ubiquitous fleets of strange, gaudily-decorated public transport vehicles called "jeepneys." The group's music is everywhere, especially at the almost-daily student demonstrations against the US-backed regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. The new Peace Corps volunteer is also discomfited to hear the group's songs thundering from loudspeakers at several massive demonstrations near the US embassy in Manila, where the students demand an end to the "Marcos dictatorship," the closure of all American military bases in the country, and an end to "US meddling" in the Philippines. The young American cannot understand the song lyrics, which are all in Tagalog, but the melodies are pretty - almost sweet - and the group's vocals are uniformly soft and gentle. Confused, he asks a new Filipino friend, "Are these songs anti-foreign, anti-American?" His friend considers the question for a moment and replies, "The songs are not 'anti' anything. They are pro-Filipino, and pro-Philippines." His friend shows him their album, and he learns that the three-member group is called "Asin" - the Tagalog word meaning "salt" - and that it is composed of Lolita "Lolit" Carbon, Cesar "Saro" Bañares, and the group's apparent leader, Miguel "Nonoy" Pillora. June 2008: The formerly young United States Peace Corps volunteer is now a middle-aged feature writer for Metro. He is astonished to discover that Miguel "Nonoy" Pillora is alive, well, and living in Ramat Hasharon - with an Israeli wife and their 11-year-old daughter. Musing on the irony of both himself and Pillora somehow finding their separate ways to Israel, he remembers the Yiddish saying, "Man plans, God laughs." Over cups of coffee and a bowl of cracker nuts - a popular snack in both Israel and the Philippines, Noy Pillora reflects on the long, winding road his life has taken. Now 54, he notes the changes in his first name from Miguel, to Mike, to Nonoy and finally to Noy. "The name changes reflect transformations in me, from one person to another. I never like to stay in the same place, even within myself." His voice is invariably soft and frequently punctuated with laugher as he recalls his early years. Born and raised in Bacolod in the central Visayan islands, he grew up at a time of increasing tumult as resistance to the Marcos regime began. Radicalized by student demonstrators returning to Bacolod from universities in Manila, Pillora left home at age 17 and threw himself into the rapidly rising stream of cause-oriented movements. He spent virtually all of his time with a small group of similarly radicalized friends. "Then we formed an organization. We became active - very active - until we were hunted down," he recalls, laughing. "So I left Bacolod and went to Manila, because I needed a legal identity. The authorities were hunting me down at home, so I had to build a new identity someplace else. But the Philippines has 7,100 islands. You make a mistake on one island, you can always run to another one, and then another one," he says, with more laughter. "I got to Manila and immediately enrolled at the University of Manila. Actually, that's all I did - enroll. I never actually attended a class or even went inside. I spent my whole time in folk music houses." Pillora was still only listening and singing along to the music, but not performing. "At this time, I was still another person, not yet transformed into the person I became next. But music was already inside me. As a little boy, I performed in the local church choir. Filipino village culture is very conservative, and if a kid has no good reason to go out at night, he does not go out. So singing in the church choir was the only way for me to get out of the house. That's where I found my voice, singing baritone." Despite the direction his music was later to take, Pillora's early influences were American: Crosby, Stills and Nash; Bob Dylan, and especially Peter, Paul and Mary, the iconic folk music trio of the early 1960s. "I always liked Dylan, particularly for the message of his songs, but when it came to the vocals, I liked Peter, Paul and Mary. I really fell in love with that group," he recalls. Pillora readily acknowledges that much of the harmonies and styles of arrangement of Peter, Paul and Mary later became deeply embedded in the music of Asin. "In some of those Asin songs, you can really hear Peter, Paul and Mary in the guitars and vocals." After performing briefly with a childhood friend, Pillora met Cesar Bañares, a guitar player from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. The two immediately hit it off. "We drank together, played together, became friends and got very close, until we decided, 'Okay, let's make a group.'" They began performing American songs, mostly Simon and Garfunkel, to an increasing number of appreciative pub audiences. "Soon," Pillora recalls, "we were running from gig to gig." Before long, at one of these gigs, they met a female singer named Lolita Carbon. The three became friends. Before long, Carbon and Bañares deepened their friendship and became lovers, and soon the three began singing together. It was clearly a match made in heaven. Pillora recalls, "I am a baritone, Saro was a tenor. We needed a voice in between. The first time she sang with us, we knew it was a perfect fit." The two men had been singing covers of Simon and Garfunkel; Carbon had been a rock and roll singer, singing the songs of Janis Joplin. Pillora introduced them to folk music and Peter, Paul and Mary. "They listened to the music, they agreed, and we decided that this was what we were going to be." The new group had no name, however, until Pillora heard a song by Joan Baez called, "Salt of the Earth." Identifying with Baez's paean to the working poor, Pillora proposed the song title for the name of their new trio. Later, the group Filipinized its name to Asin. They began performing steadily and started to become known. In late 1977, a recording company approached them one night and asked for a demo tape, which the group readily supplied, containing all original songs written by Cesar Bañares, including the song that was to become their first smash hit. The company called them in to record - two hit singles and an eponymous album - and the young trio soon became a phenomenon. Most of the group's following believed that they were simply the right group with the right sound and message at the right time - a time of repressive Marcos dictatorship, spectacular corruption, destruction of the environment for the enrichment of foreign companies paying bribes to Marcos cronies, and the desire among the country's young people to somehow return to what they imagined to have been an older, simpler, more traditional Philippines. Not only was Asin one of the first bands to successfully explore social and political themes, they were perhaps the first group to use indigenous Philippine bamboo and gong instruments in their music. Asin also paid homage to the tribal music of the southern Philippines in many of their songs, particularly that of Mindanao. Perhaps most importantly, at a time when the country's airwaves were full of nothing but American Top 40 songs and the country's native culture was being buried under waves of American movies and TV shows, they wrote and sang their songs in Filipino, thus giving the Tagalog-based national language a new "hipness" and attraction to the nation's youth. Their first album featured songs that have since become standards, and their second album contained a tune that has since become one of the favorite Philippine love songs of all time. Pillora recalls, "By this time, all of the American influences in our music were gone. The only thing that remained was the style of vocal arrangements, which were influenced by Peter, Paul and Mary. Was the music anti-foreign, and nationalistic? Was Asin, as some charged, a "subversive" political group? Pillora replies, "I would say that Asin was a moral group. It stood for morality, not politics. It was the delivery of our songs that was 'radical.' Both we and our audience projected ourselves into the music. When the song was angry, we were angry. And when you heard it, it hit you. The songs were about you, and what you were feeling. People identified very strongly with them." Although the Marcos regime's attitude about Asin was often ambivalent - police were known to confiscate their tapes from time to time - a lot of the stories about Marcos cracking down on the group were untrue, Pillora says. "The story about our being disbanded by Marcos because of the message of some of our songs isn't true. It never happened. In fact, our music was loved by both sides, the Left and the Right. Both sides appreciated the fact that we were something different, something distinctly Filipino." Marcos may not have disbanded the group, but disband they did, after only two years. While their voices always harmonized flawlessly, their artistic temperaments did not. Known almost as much for their rocky internal relationships as for their music, the group's quarrels became legendary, even spilling over into their song lyrics. A lot had to do with money problems, brought on by their having signed - in their youthful innocence and excitement - a recording contract that paid them almost nothing and made the recording company the sole owner of their songs. The stresses of being immensely popular while remaining poor and hungry finally became too much to bear, and the group disbanded in 1980. Carbon and Bañares went their separate ways. Pillora returned to Bacolod and studied civil engineering at a local college, while working at, of all places, the provincial office of a government ministry headed by Marcos's wife, Imelda. After some two years of this, Pillora received a telephone call from a group of university students who had made it their personal mission to reunite Asin. Pillora listened to members of the student group and agreed to try to remake the band. He dropped out of school, quit his job, and went down to Mindanao to look for Bañares. The trail led first to Davao, where he heard Carbon was living. He found her quickly and she was at once very excited about starting up the band again. When he finally met up with Bañares, his old friend needed little convincing. As Pillora recalls the moment, "I talked to Saro and pffffft! Asin was reunited." Their first concert, in early 1983, was played at a huge coliseum, in front of thousands inside and thousands outside trying to get in. A third album was recorded and became a gold record almost immediately upon its release. A fourth member of the group was added, Pendong Aban Jr., who became the group's bass player. More albums followed - seven in all - before the group disbanded again in 1990. In 1993, Cesar Bañares was murdered in a bar in the violence-plagued city of South Cotabato because he refused to sing for one of the bar's patrons. Carbon and Aban reunited as Asin once again in 2000 and continue to perform. Pillora decided not to join them this time. From the time of the group's disbanding in 1990, he had become involved with someone else. Born and brought up in Ramat Hasharon, Ayelet Hazan had just finished her BA degree and decided to take a break for a year. Like thousands upon thousands of young Israelis, "Ginji," as she is better known, headed east. But unlike most of those thousands upon thousands of young backpacking Israelis, Ginji was traveling alone. With a voice so soft one must strain to hear, she recalls, "I did not even plan to go to the Philippines. I was on a trip to Japan where you could take a stopover in the Philippines, and I did." Not long after arriving in the Philippines, Ginji met her future husband. She smiles as she remembers: "People were sitting around a table, singing, passing a guitar from one person to another. When the guitar reached Noy, people started telling me that he was a musician, that he had a group and made records. Afterwards I talked to him and told him I'd be very happy to listen to his original music. And that's how it started." The newly-married couple settled on the resort island of Boracay, where the white sand, blue-green sea and easy-going attitude are famous among tourists from all over the world. They established souvenir shops featuring crafts by native artists, and in time had a daughter, whom they named Lalel. They remained in Boracay for 17 years before moving to Israel one year ago. Why leave an island some call "Paradise" to endure the strains and rubs of life in Israel? "To begin with," says Ginji, "paradise is not paradise when you actually live and work there." Their major reason, both Pillora and Ginji say, was that their daughter had become old enough to make sense of some of the things she was seeing in this wide-open, anything-goes tourist beach resort - drugs, sex and so on. Another reason was that after 17 years in the Philippines, Ginji felt strongly pulled home. "I always knew there would come a time when I'd go back. I needed it for myself because I wanted to close some circles and see what it would be like to be an adult here." She also wanted to be near her mother, who is elderly and unwell. How have they adjusted? Pillora says, "People ask me how I'm adjusting to Israeli society. The truth is I don't 'adjust.' I stay who I am." Ginji agrees. "Noy doesn't try to get used to places. Places have to get used to him. He just remains the same man wherever he goes. I am the one who feels the need to adjust. I just don't really feel Israeli any more." Both agree that their daughter has had little or no problem becoming an Israeli child. The couple have been playing music together for years, throughout the 1990s, and even recorded an album together in 1996. In the year that they have been here, they have entertained at numerous occasions before mostly Filipino audiences in Tel Aviv, singing Asin songs. Although she speaks, as she says, "very little" Tagalog, her pronunciation of the songs is flawless. "It just comes from practice," she says. "And I think it's connected to the fact that in my childhood I was always singing and learning by heart songs in many languages - Spanish, French, English - even though I couldn't speak the languages." Pillora has been busy the past year with his paintings and pen-and-ink drawings of Philippine scenes, and the couple have prepared a line-up of original songs in English which they have begun performing at "hat concerts" at their home and at the homes of friends. They look forward to interacting with Israeli musicians, and their long-term plans are to record their new English songs to expand their audience. But for now, the problem is a lack of money to record. Pillora says, "So in the meantime, I get myself ready. Because I know that when the time comes, what I need will come too. I really believe this."


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