by Johnny AlegreIn March of 2007, in a hectic two weeks in New York City I was setting up with bassist Ron McClure and drummer Billy Hart for a recording project, I gave myself a brief spell to explore a street known as “The Bowery” in Greenwich Village. The Bowery was just a few dozen steps away from a rented walkup I was occupying along 4th Street in the Village’s east side, and there was a very different kind of record shop I found along the Bowery called The Downtown Music Gallery. Now mind you, the Village has some of the most comprehensive record stores there are, but this particular store was extraordinary for their selection of avant-garde CDs. Name it, whether jazz or rock or post-modern classical or electronic, if it was anything outside the norm, chances are you’d have a better prospect of finding it there.
Truth is, I was not very big on avant-garde, but I’d be wasting my experience of the Bowery if I didn’t delve into this CD paradise. Years before, I’d braced myself to listen to LPs by John Cage (“Prepared Piano”) and Ornette Coleman (“Free Jazz”) and Edgard Varese (“Ionisation”), and even taken them home, all because they were free for the borrowing from the dearly-missed Thomas Jefferson Library of the U.S. Information Service in Araneta Avenue in Quezon City. The abandoned library’s building was years later converted into a funeral home; but that’s another story however symbolic. And further on, I’d had the opportunity to learn in college about tone rows and musique concrete and aleatoric elements, and all that long-haired stuff. I even had watched Karlheinz Stockhausen in Madrid (of all places) and had shaken his hand. But finding a New York shop lined wall-to-wall with Compact Discs of which I only knew, maybe, one percent of the titles was a humbling experience. I gravitated towards the jazz section where I found some comfort recognizing more familiar names such as Sun Ra, and Derek Bailey, and Paul Motian, and even Soft Machine. I had always yearned to own a small collection of albums by avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, particularly because they were truly very hard to find, and also because his playing represented a good chunk of guitar music that I didn’t understand and wished to comprehend. I readily bought a handful of those, but what amazed me were two of the Bailey CDs I chose which were collaborations of his with a Filipina-American drummer named Susie Ibarra.
Susie Ibarra is one of very few musicians of Philippine origin who have risen to the loftiest levels of recognition in the American and International concert scene. She had performed with artists as diverse as Sean Lennon, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Yo La Tengo, jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, saxophonist John Zorn of Masada, the Indian violin virtuoso Dr. L. Subramaniam, and so forth. I knew about her to some extent because a musician friend of mine, Mikah Azurin, had sought her out on his own and apparently had made acquaintances with her. And so I would hear information from Mikah about Susie’s infrequent trips to the Philippines to learn the kulintang, and a recording she had made called “Electric Kulintang”.
Fast-forward a year later, back in Manila in April of 2008, for an event called “Jazz On The Green”. Some officials in the U.S. Embassy had organized a private event to bring my group, Affinity, to play in their yard for the embassy personnel and the ambassador while the sun set famously on Manila Bay. It was such an attractive concept, and so we went about organizing what was to be a private recital and gesture of goodwill. And in the morning of that gig, I received an unexpected call from Ricky Jalbuena, a jazz aficionado whom I didn’t see very often. He goes, “Hey Johnny, guess who’s in town? Susie Ibarra. Are you playing tonight? I’d like to bring Susie and her husband, Roberto, to see you.” Imagine my mix of shock, delight and nerves. And so I hastily plunged into the diversion of calling those in charge, explaining that I have special guests how ever unexpectedly, and can we please make an exception to accommodate these very exceptional people, and I can email them their credentials immediately to explain everything, and it would be such a great favor, really. It went somewhere along those lines.
Some words about Susie’s husband, Roberto Juan Rodriguez, whose Cuban-Jewish family had sought exile in the United States after fleeing communist Cuba at the onset of the Castro regime. Roberto’s trumpeter father had joined the orchestra led by the great Cuban bassist, Israel “Cachao” Lopez in Miami, Florida. Roberto found himself apprenticing as a drummer for them and many other Cuban and Cuban-Jewish ensembles. He took note that a number of leading Latin pianists and trumpeters of the ‘60s and ‘70s had been Jewish. Moving to New York, he played with Paul Simon, Julio Iglesias, the Miami Sound Machine, Joe Jackson, Lester Bowie, Randy Brecker, Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Liebman, and Phoebe Snow. I learned about all of this much later, way after having met the guy, and getting to know Roberto was so normal and unassuming. He considered the Philippines to be the home of the greatest dessert ever, halo-halo. He had visited Manila several times already and he would extol the virtues of this incomparable dessert.
Suffice that I played at “Jazz On The Green” like there was no tomorrow. In the aftermath, over biscuits and juice, Susie Ibarra, Roberto and I exchanged telephone numbers, and so it all began as some means of contact to exchange our albums; and possibly we will have a “merienda” one of these days? The couple had a huge itinerary, which included trips to meet various ethnic music instructors in different parts of the country, and an invitational concert at the Philippine Women’s University, but we found ways to meet up during lulls. Once or twice by then, the idea of a musical collaboration occurred and it gradually became more real as the days went by.
But let’s slip now into a parallel reality. In the same April of 2008, the legendary female guitarist June Millington was on a visit to Manila for a women’s rights advocacy, and by chance she had an event of some sort organized for her in Mag:net Katipunan, right on the very night of my gig. Rock Drilon of Mag:net gave me a heads up about it on the morning itself, which was kind of becoming a pattern in those days. But I was excited. The Philippine-American June Millington, whom Guitar Player Magazine described as “the hottest female guitar player in the country”, founded the trailblazing rock group, Fanny, with her sister, bassist Jean Millington, which recorded five albums for Warner Brothers' Reprise Records, including Mother's Pride, produced by Todd Rundgren. In 1971 Fanny also served as session players and did arrangements for Barbra Streisand's self-titled album, and had recorded for Keith Moon and David Bowie. June didn’t have a band with her at Mag:net but it was so natural, and perhaps expected of me, to invite her on stage to jam with us.
Cynthia Alexander was in the crowd with her friends at Mag:net, and there was much clamor, and she too jammed with June Millington. On my way home at the end of the night, as June Millington was still signing autographs away, I mentioned to Cynthia about Susie Ibarra also being in town, and that she and Roberto were here to study Philippine music, and maybe, just maybe, we might record. It was such serendipity, as both Cynthia and I agreed that it would be great for us to get together and create new music. Well, of course, everyone here knows Cynthia as the effervescent singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist of “Comet’s Tail” and “Rippingyarns”; but it is perhaps less known that Cynthia is a terrific bass player. In another time when she went by the maiden name of “Cynthia Ayala”, she had won a Best Bass Player award in a Tokyo festival. And so I had a bassist for the project, if ever. And she could sing, and play a bunch of other things.
Malek Lopez had just returned from Berlin, Köln and Kuala Lumpur with his electronica duo, Rubber Inc. With his partner Noel de Brackinghe, he had collaborated, and recorded an album, with the Teichman Bros from Germany. Noel was the engineer for two albums I made for Candid Records in a studio that they co-owned; and now Malek and I were exploring the idea of recording some collaborative tracks, but we didn’t quite know yet just how. He’s an excellent sound designer, and he went to his gigs with his other group, Drip, lugging a laptop. When I mentioned that Susie Ibarra, Roberto Rodriguez, Cynthia Alexander and I would possibly go to a recording studio, Malek was keen on the concept right away. And so to Tagaytay to write songs quickly, I went; and afterwards to a studio booth to create demos in the days following; and then to hole up at home to write the charts with a piano and guitar in hand. And frequently, we were on our cell phones. But this was only all possible if what we played together were music all of us had a commonality with and wanted to do; and it felt like a proverbial “golden number” to realize. The pressure eased up a bit after Susie messaged me from Boracay that the music was good to go. And with some more serendipity, Cynthia had a chance to socialize with Susie and Roberto at a party (hosted by Mishka Adams’ mother, Agnes Arellano) and thus it all became comfortable.
Just a few days before Susie’s and Roberto’s return to New York in late-June of 2008, the five of us converged in Shinji Tanaka’s studio to interpret, improvise on, and record a suite of compositions, collectively entitled “Humanfolk”. Shinji’s sizeable Sound Creation facility suddenly appeared cramped, as his studio floor was littered with our instruments of all manner. Drums, cymbals, brass and wooden kulintang, bamboo buzzers and rain sticks, acoustic and electric guitars, the grand piano fixture, tambourine, and assorted world percussion such as shakers, clappers, guiro and kalimba. It was possible for anyone among the five of us to pick up any instrument and play it credibly. And so Humanfolk happened, indeed, on a very special day that collected the stuff of dreams.