This is not an obituary: Conspiracy Cafe closes after almost 20 years

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Conspiracy Cafe's two-decade legacy has made it a cornerstone of Metro Manila’s music and literature scene. Photo by JANLOR ENCARNACION

At mapapanood ang sayaw ng mga tutubi
Sabay sa indak at lipad ng ibong humuhuni
At hihinahon na itong di mapakali
At makakahimlay sa mapayapang gabi

– "Dumaan Ako" performed by Cynthia Alexander; Lyrics by Maningning Miclat and Joey Ayala

The beauty of Conspiracy Cafe was that it didn’t feel like a run-of-the-mill resto bar. It felt like the home of an artist, where poetry and song could flourish within its halls. The artist-run space was situated in a gorgeous old Filipino house with a spacious garden, secluded from the hustle and bustle of Visayas Avenue right outside. The paintings on the wall, the capiz windows, and its antique chandelier housed here have seen the growth of almost 19 years of a community of musicians, writers, poets, and creative souls, cultivating an era of vibrant and deeply transformative creativity.

On its closing night on August 19, 2022, almost every table seemed to be reserved for the regulars of Conspiracy — or as any of them affectionately call it, Conspi. An artist was sketching portraits in the garden while a young band was practicing on acoustic guitars and a kahon by the entrance. People all around were catching up after two years inside due to the pandemic, exchanging excited hellos and smiles, despite the knowledge that this would be Conspiracy’s last night.

“It’s a funeral. No — it’s a wake,” said Jun Ragrario, one of Conspiracy’s shareholders. “Like all Filipino wakes, it’s a celebration.” The cafe’s two-decade legacy has made it a cornerstone of Metro Manila’s music and literature scene as a place that was conducive to transformative conversations, social awakenings, and cherished connections amongst musicians, artists, poets, writers, and creative minds.

According to its last manager Soc Banzuela, the cafe opened on December 8, 2003 to over 300 artists, activists, civil society workers, and public servants. Conspiracy hit the ground running because its main instigators were Gary Granada, Noel Cabangon, Bayang Barrios, Cooky Chua, and Cynthia Alexander — all musicians themselves. They played at the bar frequently, and crucially opened it up to emerging artists looking for a place to share their works. Conspiracy was also among the first bars in Manila to hold spoken word poetry performances.

Salie Banga is a staff member who has been around since Conspiracy's first year. Photo by JANLOR ENCARNACION

Salie Banga, a staff member who has been around since its first year, has been a crucial part of Conspiracy’s story. As someone handling the bar day in and day out, she’s witnessed the early days of many of today’s critically and popularly-acclaimed artists. But of course, she always has a soft spot for Conspiracy’s founders: “Mga old songs kasi ang kinakanta nila.” As she wove through the maze of tables and chairs, she was constantly met with greetings and gratitude from those present.

“I can name any Conspi gig I was in and tell you that it was the best gig ever,” said Bullet Dumas. “But really, the best thing about Conspi was always the people. The staff: Ate Salie, Kuya Oca, Richard, Mhel, Ryan, the chefs, the alternates, and the wonderful random people you meet from various fields of work just enjoying the community that was Conspiracy.” Here, musicians knew that they were free to explore and experiment, to shape their own voice or map out new frontiers for their music to open-minded and eager listeners.

Gab Cabangon with his band K.E on Conspiracy’s iconic stage. Photo courtesy of GAB CABANGON

“I felt that my music and my stories were accepted or at least given a chance each time I sang at Conspiracy,” shared Gab Cabangon. “It was my safe haven to be vulnerable and just be a singer-songwriter.” In the years leading up to the pandemic, he was among the younger generations hosting productions with his peers like Pinkmen’s Mark Armas.

Armas also holds fond memories of Conspiracy as a place where the unexpected could happen: “We celebrated my Ate’s debut there. The always hilarious direk Nani Naguit hosted the party, and Julianne Tarroja even came by to play a few songs! That was also my first time ever performing in a bar which felt very special.”

One of the secrets to Conspiracy’s longevity was that it was run by artists, for artists. Its shareholders, managers, and founders were, on many occasions, also its waiters and administrators. There was a lot of unsung labor that held it up, but Tita De Quiros, the bar’s manager when the pandemic hit, remains grateful and in awe.

The iconic facade of Conspiracy Cafe, a portal to art and culture. Photo by JANLOR ENCARNACION

The indoor stage of Conspiracy was converted into a dining area after the management moved the stage outdoors to comply with COVID-19 protocols. Photo by JANLOR ENCARNACION

“Sinasabi namin, pag nagsara tayo, magagalit ang mga regulars,” said De Quiros.. She wasn’t just a manager in the strict sense of the word, even if she took on the role on and off over the Conspiracy’s tenure. She would also jam with Noli Aurillo on the piano, or simply enjoy a drink with friends amid whatever was happening, whether it was Bienvenido Lumbera or Satur Ocampo having their portraits sketched over a drink, or the young Orange and Lemons performing before making it big.

“I’m going to miss this place,” said Joey Ayala, as he walked into the living room housing Conspiracy’s indoor stage. He took a good glance at the paintings on the wall, the blanketed piano, and the egg cartons on the ceiling (which he put, along with other Conspiracy members, to make the room sound better). After tonight, all of these things will be taken down, packed in boxes, or returned to their owners. But the spirit of conspiring lives on.

Ayala said, “The legacy is contained not just in the founders, but what is produced in the people.” Many of the people he referred to were those present, those on the way, and those who were there in spirit. The sense of community and dedication to building creative spaces does not end with Conspiracy’s closure. True to the cafe’s name, whether in the light or in shadows, even after the tip of the iceberg sinks, its impact is bound to resurface in those who keep these schemes going.

Below are more photos from Conspiracy Cafe's final event.