Monday, September 17, 2007

Nights out: Penguin Cafe (9/14-15/07)

So this is Penguin Cafe, I said to myself as I enter the place, a relatively nondescript venue as seen outside. It stands in an almost neglected corner of Remedios Circle in Malate, far from the screaming neon lights of the R&B clubs, bars, the Korean restaurants, inns, spas, and grocery

It's now known as Rockola Cafe (on the internet at least; I didn't notice any signage that said so), but it will always and forever be Penguin Cafe. I spent childhood in the 80s seeing on TV and reading about artists and musicians plugging their shows in Penguin. In the 90s, I read articles about artists and musicians reminiscing about their heydays
in Penguin. Indeed, Penguin Cafe is more than just a rock joint. It is an institution regarded as spiritual home by its former denizens in the 80s. It was the hangout of not just artists and musicians during the waning moments of the Marcos era, but also of reporters, foreign correspondents, poets, activists, socialites, and other intellectuals and bohemians of the time. It's contemporary, Cafe Adriatico, still stands right across the Remedios Circle, but I'm not sure if it attracts a new generation of, well, cool people, and not just nostalgists reminiscing about the good old days and trying to relive a past long gone.

Penguin looks like it has been around. The doors, the windows, the tiled floors are from another
era. I read that the marble-top tables were the same ones used ever since it opened. Paintings
hang on the walls and sculptures adorn the corners. Its bygone look gives it character and charm
that antiseptic new clubs simply lack. The atmosphere is pretty laid back and not pretentious.
The dimly lit porch is the smoking section where people lounge
around in sofas, chairs and tables. The airconditioned area is where the bands perform, and where people can actually see
the food they're eating. The whole place feels like the old house of a cool uncle who likes to collect vintage stuff. It was love at first sight. If this place is near my home, I'll probably be a regular.

The crowd is, for lack of a better term, "quality." Friday night, activists were at one table, academics in another, expats, a respected character actor with his Spanish wife at the bar, and the rockers (those would be the guys in black) are the smart types, not the kumag types who say "astig" and "lupit" a lot sabay devil horns.

I made the trek to Malate last Friday to catch a performance by the Makiling Ensemble (or simply Makiling as they want to be known now). The show was part of their 10th anniversary bar tour. How can I describe their music in a few words? I can't. Their music has so many elements: tribal music, Arab, Latin American, country, and the violin sometimes lend the music a distinctive East Asian feel. And those who think you can't play the blues with the hegalong should watch them live. Makiling's music is a truly global stew spiced up with traditional Filipino music. To see and hear is to believe.

I left Penguin towards the end of their second set, with the intention of coming back the following night to catch Kadangyan.

Surprise, surprise. When I reached the entrance the following night, suddenly it was the earth-shaking double bill of Kadangyan and Pinikpikan. I knew Pinikpikan was not supposed to play that night. Having seen both bands live before, to say that I was thrilled would be an understatement. I expected to be blown away, but not like this.

The opening band was Sruvaleh, a member of the Republika ng Musika collective like Kadangyan and Makiling. Their music is largely a djembe and guitar affair. I thought their set was too short though. I hope I could catch them in a full-length performance soon.

The next band was Kadangyan. As they were warming up, a group, no, a contingent, of Americans (Peace Corps volunteers?) came in and flocked around the band while drinking their beers, effectively blocking the view of those who were seated (read: including me), with their "dance" "moves." They basically stayed there forever until the end of Pinikpikan's performance. It ruined the experience a little bit. I just hope that people when they come to bars they don't hog the floor because they're not the only ones there. It's not a private function. And I'm sure the musicians would have felt happier seeing brown faces dancing to their music, instead of them being relegated to the back of the room for lack of space.

The music of Kadangyan is like the sound of a hundred elephants thundering across the forest to the beat of tribal drums, with lyrics I couldn't understand because they're not in Tagalog. Of course the first thing you notice when you see the band live is their look, which will not make them look out of place in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. That is why I was surprised to discover the band, especially tattooed vocalist Bhava Mitra, to be quite hilarious. He cracked jokes in between songs that made the audience laughed. He thanked some of the band's sponsors, Dame guitars for their gear, another for their other instruments, "Kadangyan pawnshop" for their bling, and he asked the audience if anyone could sponsor their shirts, because they don't have.

Pinikpikan came last, with the blistering "Kahimanawari" promising another sweaty live set filled with dancing and clapping. At this point, I lost my sanity and just went with the flow. Couldn't help but get up and jump around to the sound of those djembes and drums, guitars and bass, gangsas and other percs, and Carol Bello's commanding voice. I'd have to put it a notch lower though than their performance in Saguijo a couple of weeks ago, when the band really ripped through it and it was obvious that they thoroughly enjoyed it. Hay naku. There was even one of these Americans who insisted on playing the djembe with the band. Sammy Asuncion looked annoyed, but the guy was too into his percussing that he didn't notice na mukha siyang tanga because he wasn't playing in sync with the band. Jizzes!

Anyway, it was another wild night with Manila's best live act. Kailan kaya mauulit?

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