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.

Two Hot to Handle

Published in Metro Magazine, December 2009 – January 2010

Legs slightly apart, she leans towards him. His hand is on her waist, his face serious yet expectant. Her fingers tentatively brush the edges of his jacket. Their faces are less than an inch apart, and they feel each other’s breath.

A scene from a movie? Not quite. Although Kim Chui and Gerald Anderson are working on a new one, this is just a regular photo shoot, on a regular day. Their body movements and expressions are dictated by a photographer, their outfits carefully constructed by a stylist. In a few seconds the risqué pose is broken by teasing side comments from the crew and their bodies relax, laughter and an easy camaraderie replacing the sensual air of the shoot. Witnessing this split-second transformation, as well as their overall shift from teenybopper love team to a more sophisticated and mature pairing was quite interesting. This ‘growing up’ began with their love scene in Tayong Dalawa, and is now established by this very grown up photo shoot for Metro.

The shoot focused on a sexy theme, but it was more about mood than skin. “It’s about texture,” said Pam Quinones, the stylist for the shoot. “For example, lace and leather are sexy.  We did some strategic showing off – a bra strap here, that kind of thing. It’s not outright sexy, but more edgy. Most of the pegs that we looked at were European; a lot of Kate Moss and Johnny Depp in the 90s, that sort of thing.”

On styling Kim and Gerald, she shared, “there’s really no problem with dressing up Kim. She has a model kind of body. The challenge was to show more curves. That being said, we prepared really body fitting outfits, short dresses, revealing tops, stuff like that. For Gerald, he also has a perfect body so it was all about projecting a sexy attitude.” Mark Nicdao, the photographer, made sure that proper lighting was used and the atmosphere was captured. “I talked to Pam and found out that the look would be textured, so I went for the sunlit effect so all the details are going to be there.”

“We didn’t want it to seem too mature.” Pam explained. “We wanted it to be appropriate for their age. They’re young, sexy and fresh.” That pretty much sums up the direction that this much-adored love team is going towards, as they conclude a chapter of their careers with the end of Tayong Dalawa, and start a new one with their upcoming movie next year.

Kim admits being a bit nervous at showing so much skin during the shoot. “Nangangapa pa ako at first, pero ok naman. It wasn’t easy. Pinakita ko nay un legs at cleavage ko. First time to sa photo shoot!” She admits. Despite this, the photographer had much confidence in Kim during the shoot. “She knows how to project and she’s really used to this already.” Mark said. He has photographed her in other shoots, mostly for product endorsements. He comments that this shoot is quite different. “This is another step for her career, and we’re trying to project another image of her – a more grown-up image. She’s very model-esque, that’s why it’s easy to shoot her. She knows how to move and I don’t have to tell her what to do. I also think she’s very fashionable not just in shoots, but in normal life. She looks stylish and put together.” That’s quite true, as she arrived at the studio dressed casually, in jeans and a tunic-like top, yet looked very chic and composed.

Gerald is no stranger to photo shoots that involve a bit of shedding. “Medyo sanay na ako sa maraming skin. May konting hiya pa rin but overall, it’s ok. Masaya naman.” He commented. Mark has worked with him in the past as well. “I’m just going to show him what to do, but the expressions will be coming from him.” Mark said. “He’s a good actor. Whatever instructions I would say in previous shoots, he immediately delivers. He’s probably one of the best young actors in the country now.”

The Nice Boy

Gerald has a friendly and communicative face. His expression shifts from relaxed to thoughtful to serious in seconds. He speaks English fluently, with just a hint of an accent – a slurred vowel here, an emphasized syllable there – it’s indicative of those who have spent a few formative years in the US. But he also switches to a comfortable Taglish frequently. There’s an unassuming intelligence behind his amused eyes and laid back attitude. He’s the type of guy any mother would love for her daughter to date – a good looking, respectful Catholic boy. And it’s not just some showbiz front that he projects. In the midst of Typhoon Ondoy, Gerald was one of those who tried to help out his neighbors during the floods without seeking media coverage for his do-gooding, unlike some other hot (tempered) young actors.

He also isn’t a stranger to disasters and dangerous situations. “I’ve been through an earthquake and a volcano eruption when I was living with my mom in Gen San.” He reveals. “I was about 14. Syempre nakakagulat din yun. Things like that you can’t control. It happens.” On the recent typhoons and flooding, he goes, “With everything I saw, I’m now more aware of climate change. I’m trying to push for awareness of climate change because it’s a big factor regarding what’s going to happen to us in the future.”

We talk about his background, and the transition from Mindanao to Luzon, from province to big city. “Moving to a big city is very different. Gen San is a small city. Manila is so overpopulated. Nakakabigla, and may konting adjustment. People here are different, kase at 10 or 11 pm tulog na ang mga tao sa probinsya. Here, parang after 24 hours di pa rin natutulog.” Most young people who make that leap go wild, but Gerald seems to be pretty grounded. It’s probably because of where he grew up, and his experiences there. When asked how growing up in General Santos City made him different from boys his age who grew up in Metro Manila, he explains that, “Gen San is very exposed to terrorism and violence. One time I was at a mall and there was a bomb. Buti na lang they found the bomb and took it outside where it exploded. Pero naramdaman pa rin namin ng mom ko. After feeling that, after seeing that, you feel like doing something to fight against that. Even before that there were so many bombing incidents. Here in Manila you don’t get that much terrorism. Kawawa din yun mga nasa provinces because it’s also uncontrollable for them. It’s really hard.”

He reflected that, “the youth should be more cautious about the things they do. It’s good to inspire the youth to do better, and be more aware of what’s happening around us.” Hearing this come from someone who has braved floods, grown up with terrorism as a reality and is currently a Red Cross ambassador convinces me that Gerald can walk his talk.

The Chinita Girl

When Kim entered the studio, people greeted her in a courteous, efficient manner. She smiled, and sat still as they fixed her hair, put on her make-up and chose her clothes. When she says hello you wonder if she actually sees you. Her pretty face is distracted, thoughts preoccupied with things only extremely busy, constantly scrutinized 19 year old breadwinners know. Still, she’s polite and manages to laugh and smile a bit while being interviewed.

During the interview we talked about the recent storms that have hit the country. Kim showed empathy for those devastated by the floods. “Yun mawalan ng bahay, na-feel ko din yun eh. Pinalayas kami sa bahay namin dati, when I was in grade 4, due to financial problems.” Kim is stable and successful now, but her early life was not as charmed. Aside from being evicted from her house, her parents separated when she was young and Kim was not able to finish high school. “Dumating sa point na lola ko na yun nagaalaga at nagpapaaral sa amin.” She reveals. “But all those problems made me a stronger person. Ngayon independent ako, di na ako na umaasa sa lola ko. Napapaaral ko na yun mga kapatid ko. Sabi ko nga sa kanila na batang mommy na nila ako.” She smiles. Kim has four siblings, three of which are younger than her. The youngest is in Grade 4, and they all stay with her lola back in Cebu. “Ayaw kase magpaiwan ng lola ko so doon muna lahat sila. Ako lang yun nasa house.”

In Cebu, Kim was an average teenager who went to school from Monday to Friday, worked as a cashier in her aunt’s store on Saturdays and studied at home on Sundays. Now, half the country has seen her blossom from a cute, 16 year old to a trendy young lady whose face can be found on TV screens, print ads and movie theatres. “Naging life-changing para sa akin ang pagiging artista.” Kim admitted. “Nagkapera kami, nabibigay ko yun gusto ng family ko at naging kontento ako with life in showbiz.”

Her family visits her every now and then, but it must get lonely once in a while for Kim. When I ask questions she looks at me with eyes made too wide by eyeliner and false lashes. When she answers she tends to glance away at times, in shyness or hesitancy. Despite the remarkable metamorphosis into a cool, long-legged vixen for the photo shoot, Kim seems too thin and frail in real life. But it’s this air of tired vulnerability, this softness and uncertainty that makes her sexy. No wonder Gerald is sweet on her. By the end of our interview, I felt like giving Kim a pat on the head and stuffing her with donuts.

Showbiz love

There’s always the question of whether or not these two will get together in real life. The whole love team business blurs reality and fantasy, and there was some joking during the shoot. “Kim Anderson!” One of the staff shouted as they were shooting. There were some laughs, but they seemed used to such. “I’m very comfortable with her.” Gerald admitted. “The feelings are there. Pagkatapos ng shows and tapings namin, after every show we do, my feelings get stronger. After all, kasama ko sya everyday for the past 4 years.” Kim, on the other hand, gave the standard line: “Friends lang kami kaya ok lang.” She went on to explain, “naging routine na sa amin na pag may camera, ‘uy, love team tayo’, pag wala ‘uy, normal na tayo’. Nasanay na kami and naging close na kami sa isa’t-isa so hindi mahirap umarte sa TV.”

I went to the studio assuming I’d interview them both at the same time. Perhaps be able to observe the way they related to each other, read their body language, interpret subconscious gestures and the like. But I ended up talking to the “Kimerald” duo separately, which actually proved to be a refreshing experience after constantly seeing them together on TV and in photos. Whatever the state of their friendship and love team (on or off screen), it’s good to remember that Kim and Gerald are two separate people, both hard-working, determined and talented, and capable of more than just producing “kilig” moments at the drop of a hat. And as they leave behind their teenage years, their relationship will inevitably undergo a revolution of sorts as well.

Transformations and Reinvention

Speaking of teenage years, how did it feel like, knowing the whole world was watching them grow up:  braces coming off, womanly parts filling out, voice changing, facial hair appearing. These changes can be difficult for any teen, what more for Kim and Gerald who were 16 and 17 (respectively) when they went into the Pinoy Big Brother house? Both seem to take it in stride. “Ayos lang.” Gerald said. In a way, since they (the fans) see me growing up, mas nakaka-relate sila sa akin. Kilala nila ako. It’s normal. Kahit artista ka o hinde, magbabago ka physically habang tumatanda ka.” Kim recalled the first time she arrived in Manila, “di talaga ako marunong magsalita ng tagalog. Syempre bisaya ako! Sa PBB house medyo balu-baluktot pa yun mga sinasabi ko.” It’s been three years since their stay at the Big Brother house, and after that they worked on a number of movies and series together, the most recent of which was Tayong Dalawa.

Taking on any role, especially long roles such as in a TV show, can change a person. Kim said, “Yun mga ibang traits ng character, nai-imbibe mo na. Parang di mo na maalis sa sarili mo. For example, sa My Girl, outspoken at masiyahin yun character. Dun ko nalabas yun sarili ko so nadala ko yun traits nya. Now, lagi kong nalalabas yun sarili ko pag nasa harap ng camera. Sa Tayong Dalawa medyo emotional yun character so nagiging emotional na rin ako sa mga interviews, at pag may malungkot, nalulungkot na ako kaagad. Yun mga iba kong katrabaho like si Jake, na-imbibe nya rin yun character nya. Kase parang dati ang angas-angas nya eh, pero ngayon hindi na (laughs). Ganun yata talaga.”

Gerald added, “Marami kang makukuha sa role, especially since we were taping for almost a year. Dala-dala ko na yun eh. JR (his character) really loves his family, and can sacrifice himself for his loved ones. He would do anything for them. I played that guy for 10 months and until now it’s still with me at dahil dun, mas napamahal ako sa pamilya ko.” But what about if you had to play a character with a lot of negativity, say a villain or a troubled young man? Do you also absorb their traits? I asked. “Talagang nangyayari din yun minsan, di maiiwasan.” He admitted. “Look at Heath Ledger. After taping you try your best to stay with the people you love para maalala mo ulit kung sino ka talaga, kung ano yun mga qualities mo and hindi ka ma-corrupt. I think that would be the best way, for me. To be with family and friends.”

Gerald is the type who embraces a role whole-heartedly.“I like to re-invent myself per project. You have to be focused. Learn, learn, learn, absorb, absorb absorb.” He emphasized. “Especially from your co-actors, the director, and from people who teach you. Tanggapin mo. Kunin mo lahat yun. Then in the future, gamitin mo.” The same goes for Kim. “Mahal na mahal ko ang trabaho ko and sobrang dedicated ako.” She declared. Depending on the call time, her day usually starts at 7 am and often, she gets home the next day.

Kim is willing to take on difficult roles in the future, even ones where she would play someone disfigured or with a handicap – something completely different from her pretty, fresh-faced roles. “Challenge din naman yun sa akin, tsaka gusto ko yun iba-iba.” She’s even interested in playing quirky roles, such as a mermaid, or a group of triplets. “Wag lang yun masyadong daring,” she adds, careful to not take this ‘sexy’ transformation to the extreme. Kim is still a vanilla nice girl, despite the newly added cinnamon spice to her image.

The end – and the beginning

The conclusion of Tayong Dalawa, one of the most talked about and well-received teleserye in recent years, marks the end of another era in the careers of these young thespians, and has opened up numerous possibilities and directions for them. After all, the series boasted an exceptional cast and has been credited with increasing the PMA’s recruitment ranks by 300%. Kim, Gerald and Jake have been given plaques of appreciation by the AFP. With that kind of recognition and influence at such a young age, their stars keep getting brighter and stronger.

In Hollywood, stars are stripped down to pieces, the minutiae of their lives examined under a microscope of admiration and judgment. In Bollywood, showbiz personalities are treated like demi-gods and near worshipped, their lives always dramatic, colorful and larger than life. What about in the Philippines? Here, we sometimes go from one end to the other, but always the humanity of our stars isn’t forgotten. Heartthrobs like Gerald brave a state of calamity to check on their neighbors, and ingénues like Kim are teenage breadwinners. I suppose in this sense Kim and Gerald are more like planets than stars; two bodies in constant motion, rounded by their own gravity.

So Many Stars

Published in Metro Society magazine, October – November 2008

It’s hard to imagine that the handsome man in front of me, with his firm handshake and ready smile, has gone through more loss and death in a few years than one should have in a lifetime. “2003 to 2005, those were difficult years,” he shares. His name is Robert “Bobbit” Suntay, a man with a degree in education – both academic and real. “My wife, father and father-in-law were all diagnosed with cancer within six months of each other. They all died within a year of each other.” Despite, and because of, his experience with loved ones taken by cancer, Carewell was created.

The Cancer Resource and Wellness (Carewell) Community was founded by Bobbit and his late wife, Jackie in 2005. It was fully operational by 2007. They took their inspiration from The Wellness Community (TWC), an international, community-based psychosocial support organization in the US. At the moment, Carewell is currently the only International Affiliate of TWC in Southeast Asia. Like TWC, they provide free resources, support and various services to people and their loved ones who are living with cancer. This foundation is nonprofit. They only have one paid employee, an office secretary, and the rest of the staff and key members are all volunteers.

The resources and services vary. There’s a Library and Resource Center with materials from their partners abroad (such as the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the American Cancer Society). On their shelves are books that range from Philip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts? to Italo Calvino’s Numbers in the Dark.  They provide support groups, counseling and medical consultation, international referral programs, wellness activities, and facilities for meetings and workshops at the S & L Building in Makati, where their office and resource center is located.

“Our flagship program is the support groups. That’s what a lot of people really look for,” Bobbit states. Carewell runs support groups in various venues, from the café in the building their office is located at, to hospitals such as Veteran’s and Asian. Aside from the lovely Carebelles, the women’s support group, there is also something for the men. “We have the Husband’s Happy Hour. You can’t call it a support group because the husbands don’t like it,” He jokingly warns.

As a husband who cared for someone with cancer, Bobbit knows how difficult it can be, and wanted to offer the same support he received to other men. “We started advertising it as the husband’s support group. No one ever showed up.” So they began to call it the ‘Happy Hour’, complete with free beer and pika-pika. That’s when the men showed up.  “I thought these guys would come, drink and talk about basketball, or something. But then they actually talked about the experiences of caring for their wives.” They also have mixed groups where spouses, caregivers, other family members and doctors can come together to discuss, share and reflect on the illness that has changed their lives so dramatically.

Carewell also hosts a number of annual events to bring the community together and raise awareness. This October, they will be celebrating a benefit concert, the Carewell Star Night. It will be held on October 2, from 6 – 9 pm at the Manila Polo Club. “When someone is ill with cancer, the spotlight is on the person who has the disease. But cancer isn’t a disease that affects only one person. Everyone is drawn into the cancer journey. Those relegated to the sidelines, despite being very much part of this journey, are the caregivers and family members; there’s also the best friend who brings them to chemo, and the office colleague who drives them to work. These are the people who help someone with cancer continue living their life. We wanted to do something for them too.”

14 cancer survivors were selected; men and women, old and young, all with different cancers and at different stages. They were asked: Who is your star? Who walked alongside you every step of your cancer journey, when you were at your worst, sickest, and most desperate? The answers varied from husbands to best friends, and the Carewell Star Night is dedicated to all of them.

The main part of the event will be a fusion of photographs, music and videos. Photographer Wig Tysmans shot portraits of the cancer survivors and their respective stars, while renowned cinematographer and cancer survivor Marilou Diaz-Abaya, made videos of the stars and the survivors who chose to honor them. Bobbit explains that, “We’re going to present these to our greater cancer community and say that while we know that the people who really need attention are the ones with cancer, we’d also like to acknowledge and recognize these people who’ve faithfully stood by them every step of the way.” About 500 people are expected to attend, and light dinner and cocktails will be served. “The second part will be fun too. We got Ryan Cayabyab and the RCS Singers to do a show.” They also plan to launch the Carewell Hub Project, a comprehensive development plan that aims to link a network of individuals, organizations, resources, programs and activities for the Philippine cancer community.

Before leaving Carewell, our photographer points to a felt paper doll taped to the bookshelf. “I’m seeing this everywhere,” he comments. It’s a smiling girl with her hands raised up, wearing a bandana, red shirt, black pants and boots. “Ah, that’s our logo. Here, I’ll show you how it came about.” Bobbit goes into his office and comes out with a framed photograph of a smiling woman on a beach, with her hands up in the air. “This is a photo of my late wife.” He explains how she was about to undergo very sensitive surgery while in the US East Coast, and the day before the procedure they went to one of her favorite spots, Crane Beach. “That’s where the picture was taken. As you can see, she was still pretty upbeat.” Jackie’s younger sister Lara conceptualized the logo from a self-portrait that Jackie had done, based on that photo. “So Jackie became our Carewell girl.” He looks at her picture fondly. After that, we say goodbye and Bobbit continues a busy day of interviews and coordination.

I wonder about Jackie, Bobbit, the Carebelles and the husbands who meet in the midst of pain and chemotherapy, but could still laugh, go to events and enjoy long weekends. “Try to find humor wherever you can, because laughter always helps.” Bobbit said. If there’s anything I want to keep with me from that brief visit, it’s the strength and steadfast hope that the Carewell community seem to embody as they continue to expand, stretch their arms skyward, and smile.

 

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.

Eastern Promises

Article published in Metro Society magazine, December 2007 – January 2008 issue.

It’s a Tuesday morning, and the Principal – or the President, rather, is in her office. The slender, graceful woman behind the desk is a far cry from the stern headmistress one would expect at an elite Chinese school; an international Chinese school, at that. Felicia ‘Feli’ Atienza, wife of TV personality Kim Atienza, is the President of the Chinese International School Manila (CISM) in the upscale community of McKinley Hill. She launches straight into a discussion of the school; its origins, curriculum and what makes it unique.

“I think what’s important about the school is that we try to demystify the stereotypes that people can have, or do have, about the Chinese. A lot of people say ‘Why do you call it a Chinese International School?’ ” She enumerates the most common misconceptions. “It’s strict. The math is hard. It’s full of geeks. It’s not sports-oriented.”  Then she smiles, amused. “Part of my vision when I established this school was to break those stereotypes by offering the best of everything to the students.”

CISM combines an American curriculum with a meticulous program for learning Mandarin efficiently at all levels. This unique approach also takes into consideration the Philippine cultural context, which makes it an excellent institute of learning for both local and foreign citizens. The school follows the American standard of education, and participated in last year’s ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills), with admirable results.

There are five core subjects, with the first four being the standard Math, English, Social Studies, and Science. The fifth is the main Chinese language, Mandarin. “Some schools have an ESL program (English as a Second Language). We will be launching a CSL program (Chinese as a Second Language) soon.” Feli says. “A lot of people, myself included, believe that Mandarin is the language of the future, particularly in the business arena.” All the Chinese language teachers are native speakers, and one is from Taiwan. “Extra-curricular programs are also very important to us because I think that aside from nurturing the intellectual aspect of a student, we want them to touch base with the whole right side of the brain. We offer a full range of extra-curricular activities. We have a Lego Club and a Drama Club, to name a few.”

When asked if she’s always been involved in education, Feli shakes her head and reveals a different background altogether. “I was actually in Finance.” She explains. She has a B.S.E. with a dual major in Finance and Multinational Management from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. She worked for JP Morgan Fleming for 5 years then Merrill Lynch for 5 years. Her interest in education was a direct result of motherhood. “I had my first child, a son. When he turned two, my natural instinct as a mom was to look for a suitable school. I wanted an international school, and I wanted my child to be fluent in Mandarin when he graduated. I looked around and wondered, ‘Why is there no Chinese International School?’ I couldn’t believe it when the Chinese are probably the largest minority in the Philippines. I was actually quite puzzled considering there’s a Japanese School, a British school, and even French and German schools. On one side you have a whole range of international schools, and on the other there are local Chinese schools. But I wanted an international curriculum with a Chinese element as well.” Her eldest, who is now 6 years old, is enrolled at CISM together with her other two children. They pass by, giggling and energetic, as Feli walks out of her office for a bit, into the hallway.

On the ground floor of CISM are the Pre-Kindergarten classrooms, a multi-purpose hall and music room. “We’re pretty much fully-equipped. We have a bi-level library, an arts room, an audio-visual room, a music room,  five science labs, a basketball court, a volleyball court, and six Chinese language labs, because we take our Chinese seriously here.” Feli grins. Her passion for both the school and its language program is evident.

CISM also takes its teaching very seriously. The school had a two-day Teacher Training Workshop last August for the faculty. This was followed by a one-day in-service seminar in September, October, and November.  All workshops were handled by former ISM teachers with a minimum of 35 years teaching experience, from the SAGER Learning Institute. “We’re very proud of our faculty. Our teachers all come from international schools.” She boasts.

It’s wonderful to meet a woman whose origin in education is inextricable tied with her being a mother. After all, children will be in school almost everyday for the greater part of their formative years. Where better to place them, than in the hands of someone who is a parent herself? Feli also understood the importance of excellence, in whatever field. “I knew I had to have the best educators by my side when I started.” So she searched long and hard for someone who not only had outstanding credentials, but also shared her dream of teaching students Mandarin. “I was fortunate to meet Lulu, the sister of a good friend.” She introduces her partner, Maria Luisa Que Sian.

Maria Luisa, or Lulu for short, is CISM’s Superintendent. Her qualifications are exceptional, with an Ed.M. in Administration, Planning and Social Policy from Harvard University, an Elementary Teaching Certification from the US, and 15 years of teaching experience in various international schools here and abroad. Lulu had been working in Brent for about 9 years when Feli approached her with plans for the Chinese International School. From the start, she sensed it was an excellent plan. “Once I said yes, I knew it was a commitment.” Lulu explains. She helped create the distinctive academic program, and chose which textbooks from abroad were most suited to the elite academic standards and particular approach of CISM.

“Our goal is to make learning really more experiential. The knowledge becomes a part of the students. By the time they get tested for a certain skill, they don’t even have to study for a test, because they already know how to do it. It’s not about memorizing; it’s about understanding and experiencing the topic. That’s really what learning is about.” Lulu states. She is also a mother, and her children study in CISM as well, one in Grade 5 and the other in Grade 7. “Learning has to be fun. That’s one of the things we try to do; we combine academic excellence with making learning fun for the kids.” She adds.

CISM was three years in the making, and it continues to expand steadily. “Right now we have Pre-kindergarten to Grade 8. Next year we roll out Grade 9.” Feli shares. At full capacity, the school has ample room for 600 students. They expect to reach that figure in about 6 years. “We’ll be working on pre-University – some people also call it college level – courses, such as the IB (International Baccalaureate).” CISM is the first of its kind in the country, and seems to be well on its way to achieving its vision of becoming one of the leading international schools in the world, with its high academic standards, and effective integration of tradition and innovation for the next generation of learners.