MUSIC

IN CONVERSATION: Pinoy alt rock icons Acel, Aia, Barbie, Hannah, and Lougee

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Before their sold out concert last Nov. 26, we spoke to (in photo, from left) Lougee, Acel, Barbie, Hannah, and Aia about how the common thread between them as women, mothers, and artists helped them shape a more intimate and deeper relationship with each other. Photo by JL JAVIER

At the center of the well-lit room painted in white are two sets of chairs and tables, where Filipino alternative rock icons Hannah Romawac-Olives, Aia de Leon, Acel Bisa, Barbie Almalbis, and Lougee Basabas would gather. Impressionist paintings are mounted on the wall. A bookshelf stands near a drum setup. Various collectibles decorate the entire space: tabletop clocks, musical instruments, and old radios and telephones, including one with a Garfield design that Acel toys with.

Parked in the right corner is an out-of-tune harp that Barbie plays as soon as she arrives. “Sorry ha. Ngayon lang ako nakapunta dito. ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ ang dating, eh.”

A piano instrumental also plays in the background. The café is sometimes turned into a studio, says Mitch Singson, the owner and former member of local band Sugarfree.

“Marunong ba kayo magkilay?” asks Barbie, moments later. “Ako. That’s my expertise,” says Hannah. Soon the conversation would take them into the era of the thin, low arched eyebrows — the “Y2Kilay” as they put it — that was all the craze in the mid-‘90s and early 2000s, the period that saw the peak of their careers as musicians.

While waiting for Aia, Hannah shares a photo of the artist featured in a local magazine some years ago. “Patingin,” says Acel, leaning forward. Quickly, the room erupts into laughter, as though it were their first time seeing the photo.

“Ang saya ng shoot na ‘yan,” recalls Lougee. “Si Aia ba ‘yan?” says Acel, still trying to contain her laughter. “Si Aia na walang kilay,” Barbie butts in. And then another round of laughter ensues, more raucous than the previous one.

It was this same cozy atmosphere that marked the group’s first spontaneous get-together last September in another café, solely to catch up on everyone’s lives. At the time there was nothing specifically discussed about producing new music, let alone a concert. So it came as a surprise when the group photo shared by Hannah on Instagram was received by the public with nostalgia-induced enthusiasm for a possible reunion concert.

And so began the initiative of co-headlining a concert together. “Gabi Na Naman Productions saw the photo as well and then [they messaged Barbie]: ‘Hey Barb, if you guys wanna do a concert, kami na lang,’” says Hannah. “And then that’s how it all started really. It was so organic.”

Before their sold out concert last Nov. 26 at The Theatre at Solaire, CNN Philippines Life spoke to the group to tackle how the common thread between them as women, mothers, and artists helped them shape a more intimate and deeper relationship with each other — a relationship they struggled to form amid the liminality of the local music industry in the 2000s.

Due to public demand, “Tanaw” will have a thanksgiving concert and listening party “Tanawin” on Dec. 14 at 123 Block in Mandaluyong. For more details, visit Gabi Na Naman Productions on Facebook.

Hannah adds that being with these women feels like a therapy session. “That’s why our rehearsals last eight hours. I’m not even kidding.” Photos by JL JAVIER

Hannah Romawac

A vocalist of Session Road for more than 20 years, Hannah Romawac is best known for the rock band’s hit singles “Suntok sa Buwan,” and “Cool Off.” Both songs have been the national anthems to many permutations of burgeoning romance and hardest heartbreaks, hence the iconic lines “Palayain ang isa’t isa. Kung tayo, tayo talaga.”

Years after a long and winding road with her band, Hannah says this is her first time venturing out on her own. And being away from creating music, living “a quiet life” as a mother to a 10-year-old girl, and co-managing the athletic brand Vamos for a long while, she admits there is pressure to get back to it all over again.

“Impostor syndrome gets you na parang [I question myself]: ‘Do I even have space there?’, ‘Am I still relevant?’”

But the singer-songwriter says she’s glad to be doing the joint concert not only with familiar faces but with people she considers dear to her. “They spoke to me in such a way that they made me feel that there’s value to what we all shared in that generation,” says Hannah. “I said I’m really scared and they said, ‘You know what, we’re all scared. Let’s all be brave together.’”

Hannah adds that being with these women feels like a therapy session. “That’s why our rehearsals last eight hours. I’m not even kidding.” In fact, she wouldn’t have said yes to the concert had it been a different situation.

In the latter part of the interview, Hannah turns emotional, as she notes how her reason for pursuing music changed over the years. “Imagine me at 44 trying to restart a career,” she says. “Parang for me it’s more [like] I wanna model bravery to my daughter. I want her to see that, you know, you can chase your dreams [at] whatever age [you want to].”

Asked whether her definition of being an artist changed throughout her experience in the scene, Aia says “an artist continues the conversation.” Photos by JL JAVIER

Aia de Leon

Since Imago’s inception in 1997, Aia de Leon served as the band’s main vocalist and composer for a solid 16 years, penning popular anthems, such as “Sundo” and “Akap.” The musician has also done remakes: “Ewan” by APO Hiking Society, the “Umagang Kay Ganda” theme song, and Close-Up’s 2013 jingle “Closer Than Ever.” In 2001, Aia was named Vocalist of the Year at the NU Rock Awards.

In hindsight, what Aia cherishes the most from the band’s commercial success and, by extension, her personal wins are the moments where fans would still walk up to her and recognize their songs after all these years. “It gets me emotional na parang ‘Sino ba ako para bigyan ni Lord ng kanta na mabe-bless ang ibang tao, or I would be able to write songs that mean something to other people?”

“Nakaka-humble ‘yun like how ‘Sundo’ was remade, whether recorded or hindi, whether sikat o hindi ‘yung kumanta,” says Aia. “Lalo na ‘yung mga nagse-send ng video na mga bata. Grabe nang next gen ‘yun but still the song is relevant. That’s the power of music. Even if they don’t know my name, I guess that’s a gift that your song lives on.”

Asked whether her definition of being an artist changed throughout her experience in the scene, Aia says “an artist continues the conversation.”

“That’s why I like going to museums, going to galleries and seeing artworks,” she says. “Parang nakikita ko ‘yung continuation ng one long conversation about self-expression. Nakikita mo where one takes off from the past and where it wants to go. Creativity and artistry push the conversation forward.”

“I can still play music, but that doesn’t mean that it’s just me. Parang it’s just something that I do,” says Acel. Photos by JL JAVIER

Acel Bisa

Moonstar88’s “Torete,” the iconic track from the pop-rock band’s first studio album “Popcorn” released in 2000, has been a staple in local music festivals, street karaokes, restobars, and reunion events. I mean, who wouldn’t belt their hearts out to the song’s euphoric and charming appeal? For the young and young at heart, “Torete” is the perfect embodiment of kilig: to fall in love for the first time as if nothing else matters. And of course, this kind of attachment to the song wouldn’t be possible without the child-like affection and gentleness of Acel Bisa’s voice.

Acel served as the band’s frontwoman from 1999 to 2004. Prior to this, she was part of the group act Orphan Lily for four years, which won the Best New Artist award at the 1998 NU Rock Awards.

When “Torete” catapulted Moonstar88 to the limelight, Acel says the gig life back then morphed into a whirlwind of touring and performing almost everyday. “I was able to tour around the country. Lahat na ng probinsya ata napuntahan ko. Usually, it’s mall tours, radio tours, campus tours. So it was an amazing and happy time.”

That is, until her departure from the band, which came as a shock as Moonstar88 was still at the height of their career at the time. But deviating from the band lifestyle and forging a different path on her own, in turn, has allowed Acel to find her identity.

“When I left, parang nalito ako: ‘Okay, ano na ako ngayon?’” she reveals. “Parang I got lost. I think my relationship with the Lord helped me go through that. And then I realized na ‘Oh, more than a musician, I’m Acel.’ My value is not based on what I do.”

“I can still play music, but that doesn’t mean that it’s just me. Parang it’s just something that I do,” she adds.

Now, Acel raises three boys with her husband and works as a financial consultant, and her experience with motherhood has reshaped her views on artistry. “For me, creativity is a lifestyle kasi you can be creative in business,” she says. “But our art, our expression, is music. And hindi pwedeng isa lang, eh. For example, Barbie paints. Hannah designs. Then we write songs. Multidimensional siya. Even as a mom and wife, we can be creative. Parang hindi mo masasabi talaga what is an artist.”

Barbie says that their concert is “just a cherry on top.” “It’s really the friendship and the shared experiences that’s really the blessing for us, for me personally,” she says. Photos by JL JAVIER

Barbie Almalbis

One cannot talk about OPM rock of the 2000s without mentioning Barbie’s Cradle, one of the most successful bands in the scene at the time. Formed in 1998, Barbie’s Cradle evolved from the trio act Hungry Young Poets after bassist Ricci Gurango’s departure from the latter. Barbie is best remembered for her songs “Torpe,” the soundtrack to all those who couldn’t muster the courage to profess their admiration for someone, and “Money for Food,” dealing with economic security that most artists don’t possess.

In 2005, Barbie stepped away from the group act and branched out as a solo artist, producing her self-titled album “Barbie: The Singles,” followed by “Parade” a year after. From there, she established herself as a household name in the local music industry.

But Barbie refuses to take all the credit. “I think it’s not entirely different from my experience as being in a band because even until today I still have a band with me,” she says. “Parang it’s just like the title or the way that you’re presented, like a branding thing. But all the music that I make is still a collaboration. I still have a band that I gig with. When I write a song, I still count on my bandmates to put the song together, arrange it, and produce it. Hanggang ngayon, banda pa rin talaga ako.”

Speaking of collaboration, Barbie says that their concert is “just a cherry on top.” “It’s really the friendship and the shared experiences that’s really the blessing for us, for me personally,” she notes. “Parang, praise God, what an amazing thing to get to do this together. And then I was thinking… frontwomen tayo. We were in bands. We were always at the center of the stage… We came from that as being the center of attention and then we all became moms… I think motherhood has changed us.”

Asked how she interprets the concert’s title, “Tanaw,” Barbie remarks that it’s not only about nostalgia, the impetus that often drives productions of this kind. “It is definitely a looking-back and celebrating what we’ve been through together,” says the musician. “You usually associate the word ‘tanaw’ [na parang] nasa bintana ka and you’re looking expectantly. So it’s also looking towards the future. I guess we’re at this point in our lives where we have so much to be grateful for but, at the same time, we have a different view na of life, and it’s kind of a second chance.”

Lougee says that back then there was no room for vulnerability between her and the other women. “That’s one thing na parang we didn’t wanna show when we were younger,” she says. Photos by JL JAVIER

Lougee Basabas

In the wrap-up group interview, Lougee Basabas shares an anecdote. “Recently, may lumapit sa akin na mommy kasama ‘yung daughter niya, probably a high school [student]. Sabi niya, ‘Pinangalan ko ‘yung anak ko sa ‘yo. Ang pangalan niya ay Loo-ee-jee.’ ‘Yung anak, galit na galit [tapos sabi niya], ‘Loo-jee.’ At the moment, sabi ko, ‘Naiintindihan kita. Lagi rin akong natatawag na Loo-ee-jee.’”

Lougee admits that encounters like this often touch her heart — a small legacy she left years after her heydays.

Lougee is the second generation vocalist of the alternative rock band Mojofly, which was once led by Kitchie Nadal. Known for her hit single “Mata,” Lougee has been in and out of the gig circuit while periodically appearing in music videos, endorsements, and television shows, the most notable of which are her stints in “Eat Bulaga!” in 2007 and ABS-CBN’s “The Voice of the Philippines” Season 2 in 2013.

Recalling the most active period in her career, Lougee says that back then there was no room for vulnerability between her and the other women. “That’s one thing na parang we didn’t wanna show when we were younger,” she says. “We also felt at the time na parang [it’s a] small fish, big pond [situation]. I can only rely on myself.”

But she says this took a significant turn when they all began to navigate motherhood. “We brought our friendship to a whole new level kasi before, although we’ve always been good friends, we never really spent that much time hanging out like outside of the shows,” she shares. “Laging ‘hi, hello’ lang. When we would see each other in gigs, magchi-chikahan konti and then goodbye na. I wouldn’t hear from them for a while. But now, I love na there’s really that intention to check on each other, dive deeper, reach out, and help each other.”

“We’re the only ones talaga na nagkakaintindihan kung ano ‘yung kailangan ng isa’t isa like an emotional or moral support from one musician mom to another. Parang you normally have other musician friends, but they’re not musician moms. So we have this shared, unique bond … We all have the same struggles. I think this season, nag-deepen ang relationship namin and I’m very grateful for that.”

Kitchie Nadal

With a combined 33 million streams on Spotify, it’s hard to deny that Kitchie Nadal’s classic singles “Same Ground” and “Huwag Na Huwag Mong Sasabihin” still has its hold on the kids who grew up in the early 2000s and even on niche fans of today. It’s hard to deny how big the artist was at the time — one who truly defined a generation.

During the sit-down interview, Kitchie was still in Spain. So I asked the women how Kitchie is beyond the image of a rock star. “Kitchie is a blessing to many,” Aia says. “She opened doors for a lot of [people] through her songs. Her songs are timeless, and it just goes through the heart. Para siyang prayer of a dying soul. When you sing her songs, it breathes life.”

Lougee, meanwhile, recalls how Kitchie flew all the way to her home in Las Piñas just to make it to her debut at the time. “Kitchie went there, she came from Palawan pa. Fresh from the plane ha. Meron lang siyang parang puka shell bracelet tapos lumapit siya sa akin and you know Kitchie she’s so sincere [and she said,] ‘Loug, pasensya ka na, ito lang mabibigay ko,’ and sinuot niya ‘yung puka shell bracelet niya sa akin and said, ‘Happy birthday!’”

“She’s the kind of person na instantly magiging komportable ka kaagad kausap because she has a personal touch, eh,” Lougee adds. “She’s like an old friend who knows you, who knows all your secrets.”

Of their friendship, Lougee says, “We’re the only ones talaga na nagkakaintindihan kung ano ‘yung kailangan ng isa’t isa like an emotional or moral support from one musician mom to another. Parang you normally have other musician friends, but they’re not musician moms.” In photo (from left): Acel, Lougee, Barbie, Hannah, and Aia. Photo by JL JAVIER

Among the group, Barbie was the one who endured a rough path to maintain a friendship with Kitchie. It was due to a rift created by the public after the formation of Mojofly, where Kitchie started, and Barbie’s Cradle.

“Actually Kitchie doesn’t like talking about this kasi we don’t wanna think about it,” Barbie says. “But one of the things that we did kasi we were friends but then people would talk about us as if we were competing … We had heart-to-heart talks and we were like, ‘Let’s pray for each other. Let's not allow them to make us compete.’”

“Funnily enough, because of that, there was a time na biglang nagka-collab kami, nagka-projects kami together. It all started from people trying to put us against each other.”

“Kay Kitchie kasi walang masamang tinapay,” adds Barbie, to which the group would agree animatedly.

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Special thanks to Alex Falcon of YDG Coffee and Mitch Singson of 123 Block.