I haven’t been to Araneta Coliseum to watch anything since 2016. My last visit to the area was a few months before it closed its doors because of the pandemic, when I was told by an attendant that a popular Korean singer was holding a concert. She apparently even ate at the Café Adriatico nearby. I had yet to be sucked into the world of Hallyu then; it wasn’t until a couple of months later that I realized I was within walking distance of IU and passed up on watching her concert.
I had the opportunity to be back inside the Big Dome as part of the limited in-person audience for SB19’s third anniversary concert “Our Zone” last November. The experience of lining up to enter was like going into a time machine.
The last time I watched a local act perform live was when the Eraserheads had their reunion concert in 2009, “The Final Set.” It was that long ago that the pictures I took then were hosted on Multiply, it was held at the Mall of Asia Grounds since the MOA Arena had yet to be constructed.
It was a different time for sure. The local band scene was thriving. It had been year after year of great hits that spanned my high school to college years, from Rivermaya, South Border, Bamboo, Hale, Urbandub, Sponge Cola, Mayonnaise, among others. If they weren’t performing in variety shows, they were doing gigs in local bars, sometimes even popping up in school fairs. You could bring your CDs, magazines, shirts and other merch (or buy them at the venue) and have them signed.
You could go into 19 East, El Pueblo, or Route 196, grab a drink with friends, hang out with your crush, and have that experience be capped off by watching your favorite bands. Even at music festivals in Puerto Galera or party spots in Boracay, the intimate setting made the artists feel accessible, almost like they’re part of your barkada.
NU107, the station devoted to local rock talents left the airwaves. 107.5 later became Wish FM, which started the Wish Bus. Reality competitions and their products became the go-to route for wannabe artists, and a lot of other international acts infiltrated the music charts.
In the decade that passed, my own collection of band CDs, concert stubs and merch was shelved in favor of other hobbies and interests, such as graphic novels, sports memorabilia, console games, and general adulting.
I first heard about SB19 the same way many of their would-be fans did: when their “Go Up” dance practice went viral in 2019. But they remained in my periphery since my interests were still pretty firmly on sports and pop culture. It was something that captured my attention only occasionally, like K-pop did back then.
Then COVID happened, and with the closing of borders came about the broadening of horizons especially from the budding soft power that is South Korea. A couple of years into learning about and appreciating Hallyu, I came across the concept of “glocalization,” defined by the World Association of Hallyu Studies as “a successful localization of a foreign global product so much that the original developers of that product want to import the local variations instead of their original version.”
In the Philippines, a product of this was SB19, the five-member group of Pablo, Stell, Ken, Justin, and Josh, who went through the Korean idol training system through their management company ShowBT. It took quite some time for the Philippine market to warm up to their own, likely due to a lot of the same factors previous bands and generations of Pinoy artists faced. One of these being the need for external (read: foreign) validation. Case in point, we’ve all heard comments like “Wow, they sound like a foreign band” thrown in as compliments.
My latent curiosity about them quickly turned to admiration upon learning that all their songs were written by their pinuno, Pablo (fka Sejun). His lyricism is at par with the typically unsung heroes of the indie/underground music community, and when combined with mainstream attention brought by the rise of K-pop, his songs got the opportunity to transcend P-pop as a genre to the point that several acts have since tried to follow suit.
It’s SB19’s third anniversary this year, yet for the most part, they’ve remained underrated. But that’s their story, and a geek and sports fan like myself loves a good underdog story. Getting into their “Zone” was only a matter of time.
Witnessing them first-hand in the same venue where I have seen heated rivalries take place and hear the grandest stars perform made it feel like a milestone of sorts. After a year of watching concerts, fan meets, and press conferences online, they were within reach once more.
The protocols for entering the venue were entirely different than what we’ve seen in malls and other establishments, vaccination cards and QR contact tracing passes had to be shown, along with a negative result taken from the past 24 hours. While in line, Pablo, Ken, Stell, Josh, and Justin alighted their service van to enter for their soundcheck.
I’ve gotten so used to seeing and “meeting” artists just waving at a camera that it was so surprising that they were really there — living, breathing, and smiling through their masks. It’s a real, tangible thing that felt like a rewind, just as vinyls and cassettes made their way back to prominence. At least for a couple of nights, I got to witness what it’s like to be part of a crowd again, to watch artists perform at their peak, and before they embark on an even bigger stage.
The group previously held two online concerts earlier this year: “Back in the Zone” after the release of “Pagsibol,” and “Forte,” a benefit concert that was backed by a full pop orchestra. Both were pre-recorded, perhaps as a test for the capabilities of live streaming with our infamously unreliable internet services.
This was the first time they were going to do it actually live, and not just with the cameras and production crew. The stage and the production set occupied the entire floor area, but limited guests were allowed in the ringside section opposite the stage and in the lower box area, with everyone seated at least a seat apart.
Over those two days, SB19 told their story through their setlist and this opening catchphrase: “This is our zone, break!”
The boys of SB19 have repeatedly said that one of their goals was to have people become willing to study Filipino to understand their songs and other content, similar to how some of us have picked up Korean in one way or another to enjoy Hallyu content more. Proof that they’re succeeding with this are the reaction videos and cover songs that have sprouted on YouTube. While “foreigners react” videos are nothing new (and sometimes problematic), for them, it means that SB19 is being noticed.
“What?” was when the first crop of these popped up, and it ushered in what would be a banner year for the group. The music video on its own was their way of owning their sound and identity. The creative direction of Justin, the choreography led by Stell, the angas brought upon by Ken and Josh, and the profound lyrics written by Pablo all come together as a powerful message: everything from their roots and their past are things to be proud of, as it is what brought them here.
So seeing them perform live was like being back in the early 2000s, jamming along to raw performances and enjoying the spontaneous banter. I imagined enjoying it in a post-pandemic world in two ways: as a gig at a hole-in-the-wall bar with just a few people and a couple rounds of beer, and as a glimpse of their stage and energy level when they finally get to go on tour again.
They delivered with the heat, and then some. It was a celebration worth watching, a thanksgiving to everyone who helped them one way or another. They had a message for everyone, including their bashers through their Billboard Hot Trending Songs Chart topper, the clapback track “Bazinga.” It’s one that’s truly reminiscent of the rap scene, from the likes of Gloc-9 to Abra, the Fliptop Era, Skusta Clee and OC Dawgs, and like the other Eraserheads Reunion, I couldn’t help but imagine how awesome it would’ve been if they had a collaboration with Francis M.
Their new songs are a mix of genres that they continue to identify with, a balance of taking the successful model of K-pop and localizing it with their own textures, flavors, and colors. It’s been so successful that even the jingles for their brand endorsements are written by them, and they’re getting handpicked by movie directors to produce soundtracks.
It was a very intimate concert, not just because of the limited number of audiences allowed inside, but also because it was a celebration both for SB19 and A’TIN. Their performances showed their “thirst” (as Pablo said) to finally perform again in front of a live crowd, and how ready they are for a bigger stage. For their fans like myself it was appreciating how things have gone full circle in a lot of ways.
It’s a long-winded road that brought me back to those same interests: appreciation for local music, the same elements that make characters easy to root for in comic books, sports, and even K-dramas. When I think about how I discovered and came to love SB19, the common thread becomes clearer: They are artists who give heart and soul to their music, who long for the OPM industry to thrive internationally in a way that’s never been done before, who won’t allow any doubter or detractor stop them from achieving their goals. Their talent, hard work, and inspiring story are hard to ignore.
It’s been over five years since SB19 first started training, logging in hours of practice for their choreography and vocals, making sure that they are technically flawless. Perhaps they’re now at that stage when they’ve reached their 10,000 hours — when Stell asked them during the media conference for “Our Zone,” they said it only took them two weeks to prepare for the concert.
It wasn’t smooth sailing to get in the zone. But undeniably, SB19’s growing pains and success have led to more barriers being broken for Pinoy artists. The future of OPM looks as bright as back then, but with more opportunities for local talent to make it bigger. And I can’t wait for what else is in store.
Our Zone replays will be available on the weekend of December 25 and 26 (8pm Philippine Time). Tickets are available via sb19ozone.com.