Defiant Beat

Published in Metro Society magazine, August 2014

Can you hear the sound, she sings, in a voice that soars. The enunciation and clarity of tone is reminiscent of a young Lea Salonga and the vocals are distinctly Filipina, with a delicate lilt that is the singer’s own. We dance to the beat of a different drum, she declares. From the rooftops hear the distant hum. This is the music video for the single “Different Drum” and it shows a woman dressed all in black with kohl-lined eyes, wearing a feathered fascinator and neckpiece inspired by Black Swan and1920s dark glam.

Get ready to meet Cherrie Anderson, fierce frontwoman for London-based electronica band Ooberfuse. They describe their songs as, “audio footprints left behind by people impelled towards invisible things.” Although not as well-known in the Philippines, the band has a sizeable following in London due to their spirited East-meets-West beats and fearlessness in tackling serious themes, from political oppression to sex trafficking. They were named as the most original band in a UK-wide competition out of 10,000 initial entrants, where the final play off was in London’s iconic O2 arena.

If that wasn’t enough, the band packs some serious credentials. Who else can say they opened for Pope Benedict during the World Youth Day 2011 in Spain (playing to a live audience of about 2 million), or that they once performed live in the House of Lords? The band has also toured and headlined concerts in Brazil, Canada, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the Vatican. They have released two albums so far, with their third album in the works.

Cherrie’s musical anointing is in her blood. “My mom loves to sing. She also taught me how to play the piano.  My mother is passionate about all kinds of music, folk pop in particular. In addition to la-la-la-la-ing along to Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’, I was rocked to sleep as a baby to Freddie Aguilar,” she said. At the age of six, Cherrie began singing and playing the piano in her local church, eventually singing in various churches and other venues in her teens. She amassed a repertoire of songs in her head and aside from folk songs and OPM, is familiar with jazz standards, gospel, R&B and British pop. If she’s in the mood, she might sing something from Oasis or the musical Grease as well.

Despite the early start and obvious talent, Cherrie didn’t set out to become a professional musician; instead, she wanted to become a lawyer. “My dad is a lawyer, so I was always interested in social justice.” She completed an LLM (Law) degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It’s one of the most prestigious universities in Europe, and their Law Department is the UK’s number one research institution.

Eventually, Cherrie realized that her interest in social issues and passion for music could be brought together – fused, as it were. When she met her current bandmate Hal St. John, she started writing music. Today, Cherrie, Hal and producer Kinky Roland make up Ooberfuse. True to their name, the band experiments with combining an assortment of musical traditions, melodies, and instruments.

“Music, for me, is one of the more effective ways of highlighting social justice issues. It is not a solitary occupation. Inspiration comes from engaging with others. Meeting people in London who share a common vision about the power of music to lift up those who have fallen down and to heal the hurts of a broken world provided the impetus to write and launch out into the shark-infested waters of the music industry,” Cherrie explained.

One of the challenges she faced when she started out was being a Filipina who was trying to break into the British music industry. “As with any industry, it is natural to want to protect local initiative from outside competition,” she said. “The lovely thing about London though, is that it is such a melting pot of cultures.”

“Initially, it was a challenge working out how my Filipino identity could be blended with other nationalities without compromising or offending either. But we found that it pays to be true to who you are. For example, we sometimes fuse Filipino instruments like the kulintang in our music and to our surprise, British people like it!” Ooberfuse has received support from Ministry of Sound, BBC Radio, Swedish House Mafia, London dance act Faithless and even 80s icon Boy George, who complimented their cover of “Turn 2 Dust”, calling it cool and quirky.

Cherrie shared, “We’ve also partnered with various charities where we use the power of music to give a voice to the voiceless – such as the Sophie Hayes Foundation, the British Pakistani Christian Association, Christian Solidarity Network, Aid to the Church in Need and others.”

This desire to engage their audience on a deeper level and call attention to a diverse number of issues can be heard in tracks such as “Free Asia Bibi” and “Blood Cries Out” on their album Seventh Wave, which both reference the persecution of Christians in Pakistan. “Rescue” is a song from the perspective of a sex trafficking survivor, and the more recent single “March of the Downtrodden” gives voice to victims of sexual abuse. They have also collaborated with North Korea’s only known death camp survivor in the song “Vanish the Night”. The weight of their musical subject matter is balanced by their catchy beats and rhythms.

Such depth and complexity is unusual in the current electronica/techno scene, making Ooberfuse a rebel of sincerity in a sea of synthetic, surface-level lyrics. Their focus is a result of Cherrie’s Filipino values and beliefs. “My faith, which was nurtured in the Philippines, infiltrates all aspects of my life.”

Even though she’s been in different places growing up (aside from Manila, she’s lived in San Francisco, Kuala Lumpur, and London), Cherrie still counts the Philippines as her home, and makes it a point to visit Manila or other parts of the country at least once a year. “I love Christmas in Manila. Filipinos are the best at showing the world how to celebrate Christmas. The tradition of Noche Buena, singing carols, and families coming together make up my favorite childhood memories.” Last year, Ooberfuse did a haunting rendition of “Oh Holy Night” featuring five children who survived Typhoon Yolanda for charity.

One interesting fact about Cherrie is that her palate has remained quite Pinoy, in spite of her travels and years spent abroad. “Whilst most people in London are happy with pasta, bread or potatoes, I have to eat rice once a day. I also love tortang talong, kesong puti, pandesal, ube cake and danggit,” she enumerated. She’s also familiar with some local restaurants. “I like Tapa King, Kimpura and Pancake House.”

Cherrie works tirelessly on developing new material inspired by her faith, current events and whatever topic, theme or issue captures her or her bandmates interest. A typical day for her and the rest of Ooberfuse starts with breakfast in Brixton, South London, where they discuss plans for their new album, music videos or upcoming events. Afterwards, they usually head over to the studio to work on a track for their album.

“We also make time for phone interviews, email interviews and radio shows. At night, if we have a gig somewhere, such as in Camden Town, we do the necessary preparations and soundcheck for a set. After the gig, we have dinner while dissecting how the show went. Then we all go home and do it all over again the next day,” she cheerfully added.

This year has been a busy one for Cherrie. Recently, Ooberfuse was selected to be part of a 20-date tour of UK universities as part of The Coffee House Sessions, curated by Huw Stephens of Radio 1. It’s a fun project that brings students and artists together for live performances on university grounds. Those interested can check out the band’s Facebook page, Soundcloud, Twitter or their official website www.ooberfuse.com.

The band released a couple of new songs earlier this year, and has just released their latest single, “Different Drum”, last July 28 via Peak Flow Records. It’s a bold encouragement to those who choose to declare their difference to the world. “We would like to keep making music that connects with people all around the world. We are currently working on an album which we are looking to release later within the year. It will include a couple of Filipino-inspired tracks.” It’s an album that long-time fans in the UK and other parts of Europe are anticipating, and could be the thing that reaches out to local Filipino audiences looking for something fresh, significant and cross-cultural.

For Cherrie, being a Filipino means acknowledging the greater things. “It means a love for God, family and community. Being Filipino means finding beauty and generosity in humanity.” This is exactly what Cherrie seeks to do with her music, as she challenges listeners to stand up, pay attention and dance to the defiant beat of a different drum.

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Journey of the Center

Published in Metro Society magazine, April 2009

As the CCP celebrates its 40th anniversary, it’s interesting to trace how the vision for the Cultural Center has evolved. The CCP was created as “a trust for the benefit of the Filipino people, for the purpose of preserving and promoting Philippine culture in all its varied aspects” (EO No. 30). It has hosted notable local troupes such as Repertory Philippines, and international artists such as opera star Placido Domingo and sitarist Ravi Shankar. The CCP Library and Archives is a special repository of music, arts and the performing arts – one of the first of its kind in Asia. During its early years, the CCP Museum also had a permanent collection of musical instruments, paintings, pottery, and the other artifacts. To acknowledge artists and their work, the National Artist Awards were formed in 1972. The first National Artist Award was conferred posthumously to Fernando Amorsolo, and succeeding awards have been given to artists within the fields of architecture, broadcast arts, dance, fashion design, film, literature, music, theater, and visual arts. To accompany this, the International Artists Awards were created to honor foreign artists. Those awarded include pianist Van Cliburn and prima ballerina assoluta Margot Fonteyn.

Despite these accomplishments, the CCP had to overcome accusations of elitism and superfluousness even before its inauguration in 1969. Admittedly, the Center initially catered to the privileged and promoted ‘high culture’ and arts such as opera, ballet and classical music. It still does and will continue to do so. The CCP does not apologize for accommodating the upper classes or keeping its high standards of excellence. However, it acknowledges that popular arts and artists do not equal low standards. In the book “Cultural Center of the Philippines: Crystal Years” (1984), Visitacion De la Torre wrote that the Cultural Center “maintains a democratic, open, ecumenical stance… to attain fuller, richer results.” At no time has this been truer than today.

Nestor Jardin, the CCP’s current President, is proud of what it has become and is enthusiastic about its 40th anniversary. “We opened the celebration with the Pasinaya Open House Festival last February 1. It was attended by about 29,000 people. We had 100 performances for one whole day all over the complex.” The celebration was organized so that during the year there would be ‘peg months’: specifically, February, April, July and September. The month of February highlighted Filipino artists and original Filipino works. There was the Gabi ng Musikang Filipino last Feb 13 and the 40th anniversary gala production that featured masterpieces of Philippine music and dance last Feb 27. The 40th anniversary Visual Arts exhibit has already opened, and there are many more events lined up. The CCP’s achievements in the past 40 years will be the focus of this year-long celebration.

One major accomplishment is its discovery and support of Filipino artists, both established and emerging. Another is how it has helped build up an original body of works from Filipino artists, via commissioned work programs and grants. The CCP has also democratized arts and culture in the Philippines. Jardin stated that, “the CCP has that stigma of being for the elite, probably because the high profile events during the time of Mrs. Marcos were big social events. But through our outreach programs, arts councils and nationwide training programs, we have given opportunities for artists, artistic groups and cultural workers to take part in the development of the country.”

An example is the Sining sa Eskwela program. There are about 16 regional schools for the arts across the country, modeled after the Philippine High School for the Arts which the CCP supervises. Students in these schools can specialize or enter into art programs for college. The Sining sa Eskwela program helps these schools by providing training for teachers and helping them develop teaching materials. In addition, the CCP encourages the youth to appreciate fresh and innovative works of arts. There’s the WiFi Body Festival that showcases young, emerging choreographers; the Virgin Labfest, which features young directors, actors and playwrights and Cinemalaya, which supports new filmmakers. The CCP has also actively supported their resident companies such as the Madrigal Singers and Bayanihan Dancers in tours and competitions abroad. The CCP’s vision in the 1980s was to open itself up to more popular forms of entertainment to prove that it supported all aspects of Philippine art. Also, there was a desire to export more Filipino artists and arts abroad. Now, almost 30 years later, the CCP has succeeded on both counts.

However, the CCP’s vision has evolved to take into account not just cultural, but economic issues. De la Torre wrote, “The CCP is not expected to earn like a bank or any financing institution because its investment is in culture and the arts which are hardly quantifiable.” True, the CCP is not expected to earn like a bank, but part of Jardin’s personal vision is to see the CCP become self-sufficient: “We hope to develop the CCP into an artistic, cultural, tourism and commercial complex that will earn enough funds to operate independently of government support, and fund each program nationally and internationally more actively.”

In this day and age, it appears that almost everything, such as the effect of the arts on the economy, can be quantified. “Few people know that the creative industry contributes 11.1 % to the GDP, and that contribution is with minimal government support. In countries like China, Australia, and England, where the government has recognized the creative industry alongside mining, agriculture, and health as a major sector of the economy, there are programs that support it. I think with more such programs, the contribution to the national economy will increase.” Jardin said.

Aside from this, the CCP intends to emphasize the arts as being relevant to the everyday lives of Filipinos. Jardin explained that, “The common perception of the arts is that it is peripheral to our lives, and is mostly for aesthetics and beauty. Many people do not realize that the arts can play a transformative role in society.” First, local arts help to establish a national cultural identity. Second, the arts can help in improving our economy via the creative industry, which employs artists, designers, writers, cultural workers and the like. Lastly, Jardin noted that “the experiential nature of art, whether looking at a painting, listening to a concert, or watching a play, can have a deeper impact in instilling positive values”. Exposure to the arts and culture can complement and even enhance lessons taught within the formal education system.

Jardin was quick to add that he was not criticizing the ‘art for art’s sake’ stream. But to him, “an artist cannot detach himself from his surroundings. An artist, as a person, must interact with his environment. Given the gift of talent, it is his responsibility to react to his community – its concerns and issues – and reflect these in his works so that the community can benefit. In so doing, he will produce works that say something.” This view goes beyond Mrs. Marcos’ ideology of ‘art as beauty’ that the CCP was partly a result of, and the prevailing postmodern slant of many artists today.

As De La Torre commented, “the Center is a human institution manned by people, by artists who have their own imperfections, even idiosyncrasies.” As such, it is not perfect – nor is it static. In order to survive, the CCP had to undergo a re-visioning, achieving a delicate balance between the ‘art for art’s sake’ and ‘art as an instrument for social betterment’ streams of thought, and keeping their commitment to excellence without alienating the multitude. Will it be able to maintain this elegant, and at times, precarious position even as it tries to reach its goal of financial autonomy and promote the transformative power of arts and culture? One can only hope that the CCP proves to be a prima ballerina assoluta in this regard.

Sense and Eccentricity

Article published in Metro Society magazine, May 2009

A bright neon sign spelling AVANTI backwards. A discreet brick garden wall.  A panaflex of Hitler’s picture. An antique apothecary cabinet.

What do these things have in common? Nothing – until you realize that you can find all these at the home of avante-garde artists Cesare and Jean Marie Syjuco. The Syjucos are experts at ostranenie, a technique where disparate elements are juxtaposed, allowing people to see a common thing in an uncommon way. This technique (also known as defamiliarization) is a fundamental idea in 20th century postmodern art. It helps people recognize art in places where they least expect to find it.

Art infuses the Syjuco household with dramatic energy, from their numerous installation pieces scattered about the living room, to the strategically placed pots of basil by second-floor landing of their spiral staircase. It also fills the lives of their children Michelline, A.G., Trix, Maxine and Jules. In Hindu-Buddhist literature and visual arts, one can find references to apsaras, celestial nymphs that dance to the music of gandharvas, skilled musicians who played for the gods.  If the Syjuco women are apsaras of performance art, practicing the steps of some graceful yet chilling waltz known only to them, the Syjuco men are artists whose experiments with music and other media result in works that perhaps only pagan gods could fully understand.

A musician, visual artist and experimental poet, Cesare A.X. Syjuco has created what his website describes as ‘visual literary transmedia’ – pieces that merge poetry, visual art, sound, and so on – that have won him numerous awards and acclaim. So many things have been said and written about him that adding anything more would be redundant. He’s both an iconoclast and luminary of the Philippine art and literary scenes. His reputation as a reclusive genius has been further cemented by his refusal to be interviewed and his short, yet polite, answers to emailed questions for this article.

Jean Marie started out doing paintings, and then gradually shifted to installations, performance art and sculpture. While our crew is busy setting up, she’s also at work serving food and drinks, and chatting with our managing editor about art, culture, gardening and cooking. It’s hard to imagine that this gentle and talkative woman is a pioneer of the performance art scene in the Philippines back in the 1980s, with performances so raw and disturbing that her daughter Maxine couldn’t go near her for days after seeing her perform. Despite this, two of her daughters have followed her footsteps and both are now distinctive performance artists themselves.

In the course of their marriage and careers, Cesare and Jean Marie have created new spaces that have allowed experimental art to grow within the country. Cesare created his literary hybrids, fusing words and visuals in startling ways, while Jean Marie’s performances in the CCP and other places brought performance art to the fore. Both are also pillars of installation art in the Philippines. In the 1990s, they had the Art Lab in EDSA, a key venue for conceptual and experimental art at the time. Cesare and Jean Marie have been married for 30 years and in celebration of this milestone, they had their first collaborative art exhibit last year at the Mag:net Gallery in The Columns, Makati. Last year also saw the Syjuco children (now adults) further establish themselves in the worlds of art and literature. They did this on their own eccentric merit, and in their chosen fields of art.

Michelline, or Mickey, is the eldest of the Syjuco siblings. She was the lead singer for the now defunct art-rock band Faust! and one of the youngest painters exhibited in the juried Annual Exhibition of the Art Association of the Philippines.  She launched her first show called Armadillion last year at Mag:net Café and Gallery, Bonifacio High Street. It featured a large mixed media installation that showcased both her large and miniature pieces. Mickey is both a sculptor and jewelry artist, creating arresting sculptural jewelry made from brass, steel, pearls, sterling silver, pyrite and other contrasting materials. After Mickey is A.G., the eldest male sibling and resident techie of the clan. He graduated Summa cum Laude and is currently a systems analyst at a Fortune 500 company and self-confessed ‘odd man out’ due to his regular job. His preferred medium of expression is music, and at 18 he was the guitarist and composer for Faust! Now, he is the guitarist for Utakan, an experimental art band composed of his wife Mica on synths, and sister Maxine on vocals.

Despite being the middle child, Trix is the one that the siblings agree is the most responsible. She comes across as soft-spoken and reserved, a far cry from her disturbing yet memorable performances. She is also the one with the widest range of interests. She has done performance poetry, photography, sound art, TV hosting, and acting. She also did back-up vocals and played bass guitar for Faust! Her primary passion right now is video, and she is currently doing some video editing for her father. She graduated Magna cum Laude from San Beda, with a degree in Communication and Media Studies. Next in line is the loquacious Maxine. At 24, she is already a well-known performance poet whose first book of poetry, A Secret Life, was published late last year. She is also a musician; at the age of 12 she was the youngest member and drummer of Faust! and now fronts Utakan. She has also done photography and commercial modeling. The youngest is Jules, who has just turned 19. He’s fresh out of high school. He also plays the guitar and sometimes helps A.G. compose for Utakan. Like most boys his age, he enjoys music and playing RPGs such as Neverwinter Nights. But unlike most boys, Jules has that Syjuco passion and strong artistic inclination. “All I want to do is play my music and be heard. I want to make good music.  Ever since I was a boy that’s all I ever wanted to do.” He asserts.

With such an artsy-intellectual background and numerous accomplishments behind them, one might assume the Syjucos are the aloof and pretentious sort, a postmodern Von Trapp family before the entrance of Maria. But one would be sorely mistaken, as they are warmhearted and unassuming, as well as surprisingly firm in their adherence to certain traditional family values. Like most Filipino families, they have a ‘family day’ once a week. Each member has a specific task; Jean Marie comes up with a theme (i.e. Mexican food), Trix cooks one dish, A.G. comes up with a new cocktail, and so on. They are so used to being together that when A.G. was in Chicago during the holiday season, they had him on webcam for Christmas Eve, with his own seat at the dinner table. They value communication and openness. “I don’t think there are any secrets in this family,” Maxine reflects. “We all know what’s going on with everyone else and sometimes at night we all hang out in my parents’ room, just talking. Usually at the dinner table everyone’s talking at the same time and there’s an overflow of ideas and thoughts. That’s how close we are.”

The affection and closeness shared by the siblings is evident from the way they interact and naturally continue each other’s sentences during the interview. Trix goes, “you see sibling rivalry a lot on TV and in movies, but we’ve always been supportive of each other. We know the goals, dreams and passions of each one; the strengths, as well as the weaknesses. We’re support systems for each other. We’ve always been.” Mickey adds that “When we have performances, we end up staying until 4 am and it’s just us, drinking and talking about what happened during the night.”She recounts that during their teenage years, none of them ever felt the urge to rebel as their parents were so loving, open and (in the words of their friends and classmates) “so cool!” The fact that both Mickey and A.G. are married, and the others express a wish to have children and be with someone in the future, show that being part of a family is just as important to them as creative freedom.

However, becoming artists isn’t something that all the Syjuco siblings planned to pursue. Trix says that she was torn between doing the arts and something that would be taken more seriously, but by the time she reached college, she realized that art was what made her truly happy. Mickey relates that “Growing up, I saw my parents struggle, so I didn’t want to be an artist. That’s why I took Business Management. But I discovered that it was inevitable, and I also ended up doing something art-related.” A.G. on the other hand, wanted to take English Literature but ended up doing Computer Science. Still, he admits that, “I always have that creative itch that I just need to scratch. I guess I scratch that itch with my work with Utakan”. Maxine never wanted to be anything but an artist. In his e-mail, Cesare admits that “I’ve always imagined I’d have doctors and lawyers for children.  I’m still hoping they come to their senses and leave the arts to me.”

As the siblings speak of their father, their voices take on a warm tone, full of loving respect. They all agree that he is the most intelligent person that they know. “He knows everything!” Mickey and Maxine chorus. “He’s like a sponge.” During their growing up years, their father took the time to learn about and share their interests. A.G. recounts that when he would get into a new music genre as a teen, such as industrial rock or death metal, his dad would listen as well. In a short time, his dad would end up knowing more than he did about the music. And when Trix went through a phase where she wanted to make her own clothes, Cesare got really into it, even helping her tatter and distress her own jeans.

In past interviews, Cesare calls Jean Marie his anchor and inspiration. When the girls have a new poem or artwork, most of the time their mother is the first one to see it. Jean Marie was once a teacher, and can be very honest and objective in her assessment. Maxine and Mickey say that sometimes her honesty can be a bit hurtful, but it’s good for them. But, “When it comes to music, the person I bounce everything off to first is my dad,” A.G. says. Jean Marie and Cesare played a large part in the development of their children as artists and musicians. “One has to balance an artist’s ego with a father’s sense of responsibility.  I imagine few people can maintain that balance.  And so I think it makes my family somehow special.” Cesare wrote. In 1992, after years of living a very public and hectic artistic life, he abruptly withdrew from the whole art and literary scene, becoming a recluse for about 12 years. “Everything was so public already,” Jean Marie recalls, “and we had to raise our family. We felt that we had to focus on guiding our kids.” During this time they continued to do their art steadily and discreetly. Meanwhile, their children began their own artistic journey, one of their highlights being the formation of the band Faust! which Jean Marie and Cesare managed. Faust! was the youngest commercially signed and recorded band in the history of the Philippines, and though short-lived, it won the 1997 MTV/Philips Asian Band Search and was dubbed by one writer as “one of the most progressive and exciting bands in Asia”. Their second album was launched on the internet, the songs in mp3 form. This was an extremely bold and innovative move, in the days of dial-up connections and wav files.

Past projects aside, this year seems to be busy for everyone, as each Syjuco is currently involved with or setting up some projects. Cesare will be launching his CD album/book A Sudden Rush of Genius. He also has a one-man multimedia show at the Metropolitan Museum in July. Jean Marie is involved in a ‘travelling show’ program that brings experimental art to different high schools in Manila. Mickey is planning another exhibit in October at Firma, Greenbelt. Maxine is having her first one man show in August at the Mag:net Gallery in the Columns, and Utakan started recording their album this summer, tentatively entitled Who’s Listening to Van Gogh’s Ear? Trix is working on a series of youtube videos for their father, as well as a video montage of the Electric Underground Collective – a mix of various avant-garde musicians, poets and performance artists who have collaborated with Cesare. Aside from playing with Utakan, A.G. is also working on their father’s website and new album. Their progressive and oftentimes controversial art is tempered with a tranquil home life.  “Though our art is avant-garde, we still have traditional family values. People notice that we’re always all together. We eat dinner together, pray together and think of experimental performances together.” Jean Marie shares.

“You have this image in your head of what a perfect family is supposed to be, and when most people see us they don’t think we fall under that conventional family. But our family is just so close and all of us grew up feeling so loved,” Mickey explains. Maxine adds that “In my family, we were taught that Art exists everywhere, and it’s just a matter of being able to recognize how it can be brought to life.” And that, in essence, is what the Syjuco family is all about: Living Art. The integration of art into everyday life, and the transformation of objects into art – be they words, chords, rusted metal, plastic or one’s own body. This is a family that seeks to fill itself to the brim with art, but more importantly, it is a family bursting with life and love. One that has dinner together, looks out for each other, and watches American Idol every week, rooting for Adam Lambert. Here, the domestic and artistic spheres do not clash. Instead, they strengthen and collaborate, producing a family where creativity and unity can thrive.