Dong Abay: Reflections of an outsider

By Ian Urrutia

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“Humanidad” is now available at Treskul Records & Cafe, or through the Humanidad Facebook page.
 

MANILA, Philippines — When thinking about music icons who have transcended their legacy into close-to-home otherness, Dong Abay comes to mind. Over the past 25 years, the former Yano frontman has built an entire career challenging the rulebook of the local music scene with anti-establishment ideals and outsider ingenuity. He remains punk in every sense of the word, a poet and activist by soul, always several steps ahead of his peers in elevating reinvention into an art form.

Those that safeguard the canon of Pinoy rock are quick to write him off in the major billing, relegating him to second fiddle to the greats. Sorry to burst your bubble: It’s only made Dong Abay more relevant than ever. After taking a sabbatical from Yano — inarguably one of the biggest bands of the ‘90s — and his other band Pan, Abay rose to prominence once again with full-length independent releases, “Flipino” and “Rebulto.” Both solo albums not only anointed Abay as a gifted singer-songwriter who made compelling records to stand the test of time; it also gave life to a vision of transformation and character. This time, his singing has drastically improved with understated restraint and grace. He’s found a voice that courses up and down a lover’s spine, yet could still spark a revolution. More than anything else, Abay has established himself as a master storyteller in the Joey Ayala/Jesse Santiago vein, one who is more than capable of articulating the frustrations of his fellow people and turning them into a classic anthem with striking moments of beauty and despair.

Resurgence

Fast forward to 2017: Abay just headlined two major concerts with fellow contemporaries in the ‘90s alternative music scene like Cooky Chua and Wency Cornejo, collaborated with Gary Granada on a music project that advocates political and cultural consciousness among the youth, and showcased his crooning abilities with “big band” shows in the Metro.

There’s no denying that the folk-punk genius behind hits Perpekto and Tsinelas is having a great time, but his most significant moment in pop culture happened this year when he performed Banal Na Aso, Santong Kabayo with no other than Joey Ayala at Ang Bagong Lumad on Rappler Live Jam. The video, which amassed more than three million views, drew controversy when Abay flashed his bottom at one point, showing his tattoo. “The placement of tattoo on my butt is a statement,” he said in explaining his actions. “It’s a cultural and political statement. ’Yung performance, na-transcend nito yung pagiging song niya. It became a tattoo, a timeless story of Filipinos. It’s our story.” But there’s more to its meta-reference than meets the eye: Abay’s stage presence and eclectic persona were distinctly and undeniably his. He shared the stage with Joey Ayala not as a worshipper, but as an excited collaborator who has so much to offer. He performed like his life depended on it, and somehow, it translated into something larger than life.

More on Humanidad

Nowhere is this clearer than on “Humanidad” — his first release as the frontman of Dong Abay Music Organization, a supergroup that boasts top-notch musicianship from Kakoy Legaspi (guitar, mandolin, harmonica, and back-up vocals), Simon Tan (bass and back-up vocals), and Abe Billano (drums and back-up vocals). “’Yung mga kasama ko dito, they’re beasts in their own right,” the acclaimed singer-songwriter shares. “Parang hayop talaga sila sa dedication at commitment to help me realize the potential of my music. They did help me sa lahat, mula arrangements down to intricate subtleties.”

The band has been holing up in the studio since 2014, recording songs that Dong Abay had written as far back as 1991. “‘Humanidad’ is a fine collection of 14 songs that I wrote at different phases in my life,” he recalls. “Iba-ibang timeline siya. May songs dun from ‘Flipino’ days pa namin ni Sir Robin Rivera, mayroon namang commissioned work from the past.”

The new record furthers his evolution as an artist, putting premium on Dong Abay’s newfound voice and songwriting capabilities, as well as the band’s technical proficiency. Abay recounts, “Most of the songs were inspired by being one with nature. I did some soul-searching sa mga bundok, sa mga dagat, at sa mga travels ko. When I do travel with my band, I write my lyrics — being awed with the beautiful work of nature. Nag-immerse ako, spirituality and that sh*t. I talk to the plants, I talk to the animals.” Free from self-imposed pressures to topple the brilliance of his previous albums, “Humanidad stands out as a record whose best asset is its straightforward delivery and unassuming warmth.

There’s lightheartedness to it that communicates the soul-baring intimacy of “Flipino” or the sonic adventurousness of “Rebulto,” but on conscious ditties like Oligarkiya and Porky, you know he’s bound to shake up the system with his signature devil-may-care attitude and unadulterated angst. “Ito yung mga kantang nag-uumapaw yung galit ko,” Abay tells Supreme. “Sinulat ko yung mga kantang yan as reflection dun sa masalimuot nating karanasan with corrupt public officials. Nakakalungkot lang.”

Other Projects

Apart from his latest full-length record, Dong Abay is busy working on an album that reinterprets the songs of folk legend Gary Granada — a project that he’s most excited about. “I try to do justice in interpreting the material. Ibang discipline din kasi ito. You need to respect the demands of the producer and the songwriter, and you have to make sure to bring the right kind of emotions needed to own the song,” Abay expresses enthusiasm over the project.

There is talk of re-recording his second solo release, “Rebulto.” From seven tracks, the rock music icon plans to add more songs to the concept LP, championing a premise where our national hero Jose Rizal’s Luneta monument comes to life. “May Part 2 pa yun,”Abay says. “That was so lazy of Rizal to just dance and become a rebulto again. Parang nagsayaw lang siya. Here, I wanted him to experience modern life as it is, no matter how painful and ugly it can be.” It’s hard to come up with groundbreaking album ideas that defy categorization.”

Here’s hoping everyone learns a thing or two from the rebel outsider himself.

 

Photo by Joseph Pascual

Shot at Negative Space Café

 

 

 

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