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Baguio’s folk and country sounds
by Ofelia C. Empian

LET’S GO COUNTRY -- Western country music, which is a popular genre in Baguio and the rest of the Cordillera, continues to attract locals and foreign visitors, who patronize folk houses such as the Old West Music Lounge and Cowboy Town in La Trinidad, Benguet to listen to their favorite songs played by young and seasoned musicians. -- Ofelia C. Empian

A long line of people could be seen entering a makeshift movie house in Mankayan, one of the mining towns in Benguet. Everyone was excited to see John Wayne’s latest film, “Cowboys and Indians.” The small cinema is starting to be filled with people, across ages, all gushing about what action will they see from the horse-riding, gun-wielding, Levi’s-wearing cowboy that was John Wayne. While waiting for the film to start and for others to come (the movie would only be shown once), the controller would play various folk and country music. The next thing heard is the chorus of people singing along to Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry,” Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” among other songs. It was the ‘60s.

Fast-forward to now, these songs still can be heard particularly in an age-old radio station in the city center and a small pub in Marcos Highway. 

Long-time musician and lawyer Jose “Bubut” Olarte, Jr. said he is influenced by the music of Williams and Woody Guthrie.The latter inspired him to get into folk music.  

“Last night, I played a gig with Atty. Nestor Mondoc and Rey Pomar. We innovated on covers. It was a fine evening for folk music. There was an audience of customers who came despite the weather,” he said, referring to the late August monsoon rains that heavily hit the city and neighboring areas. 

Radio broadcaster Cris Bartolo of DZWT 540 dedica-tes a time slot for the playing of classic folk and country hits, especially for the old timers. 

“From 2:45 to 4 p.m. of Monday to Friday, I play only old songs to cater to the older generation. The textline is open for requests, and sometimes I receive messages from war veterans themselves asking for a particular old song,” Bartolo said. 

Other times, it would be the grandchild requesting for a song saying, “Isu ti kanayon nga ipatugtog ni lolo mi ga-min”; them wanting to relive the memory of their loved ones through these old but lasting songs.

Cowboy culture

Bartolo said the introduction of cowboy movies and folk and country music and the overall cowboy culture to the Igorots were a way for the American colonizers to get through the “natives” without using violence. 

“The Americans would play a gramophone in the town square, playing only folk and country music. The people, out of curiosity would go near to where the sound was, and they found the sound to be odd at first then later it became satisfying,” said Bartolo. 

Io Jularbal, a University of the Philippines Baguio professor, said the Igorots found the approach of Americans friendlier than that of the earlier Spanish colonizers who used violence in trying to establish their colony.

“The Americans took time to know our culture, the Spa-niards were more into religious spread and moralism while the Americans were purely administrative in their dealings with us,” Jularbal, chair of the Committee on Culture and the Arts, said. 

Jularbal said the Americans related with the Igorots in a way, because their way of life is very similar to the Igorots. 

Due to the terrain of the Cordillera, the Uni-ted States government sent people they knew would find their way here. So they sent the finest mountain men from states like Utah, the “rugged cowboy type,” the “frontier’s men” – all who had experience in dealing with the natives (i.e. American-Indians). 

“They thought that these men are best fit for the environment of the region because we had bad roads; these men are known to be hunters and trackers,” Jularbal said. 

And these men, too, later became friends with the natives, this time the Igorots.

“Whatever culture they had back in the American Western States, they shared it with us and we embraced it,” he said. 

The influence was so strong that as a 10-year-old kid in the ‘50s, Olarte said his pa-rents bought him a cowboy costume. 

“In the ‘60s you’d wear denims if you were a cowboy or a hippie. Using maong pants was not favored by those we referred to as ’squares’ but I wore Levi’s when I was a boy because it’s a cowboy’s attire,” he said.  

Levi’s wearing, folk / country-singing cowboys 

There isn’t much difference with folk and country music, according to Olarte. 

“There is really no distinction between country and folk. I think if one uses minimum instruments, like acoustic guitar and bonggo only, that’s folk. If the rendition is not country or rock and roll, just poetic singing of lyrics, that’s folk,” he said.  

It was a bold move for the only country authority, then called Magic 99.9 now simply known as “Country” to shift from playing top 40 hits of various genre to sticking to folk, rock, and country as its radio format. This set them aside from other radio stations in the country. 

“This is basically respect to the ‘country territory,’ recognizing the music of the highlands,” said Nick Calinao a.k.a. “Nick Daniels,” a DJ of the station. 

It was in the station that the music of the late Joel Tingbaoen (known for his cover of “Why Me Lord”), Lourdes Fangki (play that Fangki music! original songs include “Montanyosa”) and Conrad Marzan, among others was popularized. 

In the ‘70s, folk houses in Baguio were the hit.  

Popular folk houses, where Baguio talents were honed were Ginger Breadman, Cozy Nook, Wagon Wheels, Fireplace, and Balingit, among others. 

Then came Wild West in the ‘80s where the yodels of the late Mike Santos were heard and the Buckstrait Band that played the newer country songs at the time.  

The cowboy hat-wearing Santos, even at 76 years old, still performed at Music Magic in the late 2000s together with Buckstrait Band’s Jonathan Quijencio. 

Some of these folk musicians are now scattered in different fields and in different parts of the globe. Despite this, they still find time to come together once in a while. 

“We never formalized our association as Baguio folksingers. I guess we were kept together because we preferred the same music: folk, country, folk rock, and bluegrass. We are amazed that we kept in touch through the years. We, musicians and friends, did not plan it to be that way but it kept going,” Olarte said. 

“Sometimes I ask myself, why is the group still intact up to now? During reunions, we talk mostly about music and family. Folk and country music will be around forever,” he said.  

COWBOY CULTURE -- On display at the Museo Kordilyera at the University of the Philippines Baguio is the photo of American Dean Worcester of Mora, a prominent “baknang” from Atok, Benguet with his family around 1910. Interesting enough, Mora is wearing a cowboy hat, probably influenced by the American cowboys or the frontiersmen who were sent by the United States to deal with the Igorots, who ended up embracing the western cowboy culture and started owning it. -- Ofelia C. Empian

Folk / country stories

Folk and country songs have deep meanings aside from the poetic and prosy structure of the songs to basically tell a story.  

Take it from 23-year-old Jasmin Ann Jacer a.k.a “Jazz Roberts” of Magic 99.9 on her explanation to a group of young students who told her that country music is “baduy” and “boring.” What she did was to answer them by playing samples of country songs, helping the students understand the genre. 

“Then I explained to them: That’s how this powerful genre works. It is not about the rhythm, the beat. It is all about the message, the experiences of the singer/songwriter, which people could relate to, and each singer has their own style. Most Cordillerans are into songs with deep meaning and history behind them. They just don’t go for the trendy, twerky songs but rather go for songs that speak of faith, encounters, the beauty of life, family hometowns, and even trucks,” she said. 

Bringing out the humanitarian side of folk and country

One of the household names of folk artists here is Conrad Marzan.

The California-based Marzan is one of the finest talents of the Baguio music scene during its heyday in the 1970s but along with this status, he was also known for his concert for-a-cause stints to aid various ailing indigent patients around Baguio-Benguet and even the whole Cordillera.

The Baguio folk musicians had an organization working with the Baguio Correspondents and Broadcasters Club during the time of Ramon “Mondax” Dacawi as president in the ‘80s and the ‘90s.

Until now, with the friendship he has formed with Dacawi, they still coordinate in organizing concerts for-a-cause in and out of Baguio and even as far as the U.S., where he is now based.

The proceeds all go to the indigent patients in the region, Marzan said.

But concert for-a-cause, according to musician-turned journalist, March Fianza, also started around the late ‘70s when then Law student Dennis Habawel (former Ifugao governor) together with Bobot Olarte organized a concert to help build the school library in the area.

Fianza said that Habawel invited them along with other folk musicians in Baguio including Marzan, brothers Alfred and Randy Haban, Reuel and Bobby Carantes, the Cariño siblings (Jessica, Judy, Joey, Jill), Jack Cariño, and Hector Cruz, among others.

From there, other concerts for-a-cause were organized at Lepanto, Mankayan and even as far as UP Los Baños.

“We even had small concerts in Atok, Buguias (Benguet), Bontoc (Mountain Province), Dagupan (Pangasinan), and in various schools without sound system and people still came and watched us,” Fianza said. 

Until now, folk artists do what they can to pool funds for indigents in the city.  

Despite the coming of various music genres in the city, Olarte said folk and country music is here to stay. 

“Folk music will be prominent again. It comes and goes. In the end, we Baguio community of folksingers, also ventured into reggae and new wave music, but we’d go back to folk,” said Olarte.  

For Jularbal, the genre is here to stay, especially with the presence of newer country artists that appeal to the younger audiences. 

“The songs of Scotty McCreery (American Idol winner in 2011) is being played in radio stations in Manila so country is here to stay and will expand more,” he said. 

“We have young listeners. In fact, the show I handle every morning, entitled ‘Country Road Extremes,’ targets the young ones. I air the songs hot fresh from the oven, new wave of country songs, bro country, and country pop which in fact some of the oldies don’t appreciate because it is far from the traditional country songs. And mostly during the show, I receive messages/requests from students, young professionals, and the youth,” DJ Jazz Roberts said. 

Although the cowboy culture has come from the Americans, Jularbal has this to say: “We took it from them and made it ours,” and it has become the identity that the highlanders now proudly wear wherever we are in the world.

-- Ofelia C. Empian

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:: Baguio City moving beyond 109 through culture and creativity
:: Designing a creative city for Baguio’s crafts industry
:: Adding Cordillera culture into Baguio’s cullinary industry
:: Preserving the Ibaloy culture through School of Living Traditions
:: Literature thrives in a city above the clouds
:: What is a Baguio film: A docu in the making
:: Woodcarvers, weavers, & Baguio’s crafts industry
:: Steering policies to sustain Baguio as a creative city
:: Creative Baguio title slips prospects into the creative community’s mind

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