I first heard “Telepono” as a teen at an all-boys private school, as I was just learning how to talk to girls. Our house had a landline, but I was more of an unlitext and Yahoo! Messenger type of person and I couldn’t relate to its rituals and customs. I did, however, latch on tightly to the song’s depiction of the agony of sporadic conversation and the overthinking that fills the silence. So while I was talking to Ebe Dancel before the “Sa Wakas: 20th Anniversary Celebration!” gig, it floored me to hear that Sugarfree’s former vocalist and songwriter didn’t know that over the years, he had been performing the song that was missing a verse from its original.
Dancel only noticed the difference because for Saturday’s all-Sugarfree set, they were going to try to play the songs as close to the record versions as possible. It was going to be a special performance too, because he would be joined by his dear friend and original Sugarfree drummer, Mitch Singson. “After rehearsing all the songs in ‘Sa Wakas,’ especially ‘Telepono,’ sabi ko kay Mitch, ‘oh, so that’s what the album version sounds like!’” he laughed. The years of tinkering and refining his songs have led to skipping four extra bars between the first chorus and the second sung verse. “That song’s so sappy! I used to be really sappy, but it’s fun because it’s [with] Mitch,” he said. “It’s no secret naman that he’s one of my favorite drummers.”
Back to the past
The event, co-produced by Gabi Na Naman Productions and Backspacer Records, was set up as a campus-themed fair laden with sorbetes, isaw, merch booths, and carnival games. This one though was not quite like the UP Fair (“I’ve never missed a UP Fair since I started performing”) or other school events where Sugarfree used to perform (“Sometimes for free, just to get the music out there”).
Instead of students, there were medical residents, accountants, insurance agents, and small business owners clutching newly purchased vinyl records and books, and downing cups of buttered sweet corn and taho, together with grilled meats, pares, beer, and coffee. Some of Sugarfree’s old party of traveling fans, who in their youth followed them from the usual Manila spots to as far away as Isabela province, pulled up with families in tow. In some pockets of 123 Block, lawn chairs and stools materialized instead of banigs and blankets, and occasionally, you could see a few people apply a menthol-scented pain reliever of choice.
The crowd was treated to performances from Brass Pas Pas Pas Pas, Autotelic, Cheats, Johnoy Danao, and The Itchyworms. They shone the spotlight on the music of Sugarfree — Cheats especially, who played a few riffs from “Burnout” during their setup and folded into their set a spirited cover of the coda from “Mariposa.”
“Mariposa,” together with “Telepono,” found traction on NU 107.5 FM in the early aughts (Dancel was handing out demos to anyone who would take them including, fortunately, station jocks Francis Brew and Myrene Academia), but music labels were skeptical taking them on. One afternoon, Dancel glanced at his pet turtle shuffling along and thought that it captured all the band’s troubles at the time. Two years’ worth of time and resources to record the album led to christening it as “Sa Wakas,” whose cover has artist Nix Puno’s depiction of three bored people waiting for said turtle to cross the finish line. The title was a sigh of exasperation and triumph for a band that, according to Dancel, was perfectly happy to just continue playing at all those old bars that have gone the way of Yahoo! Messenger.
An occasion for thanks
Dancel is grateful to still be making music 20 years on, having no inkling then of how many people would come to cherish his songs. “We had no idea that the album would make a mark,” he said. “We had no idea that it would have the impact that people say it has.”
My favorite Sugarfree songs are those which dance between the lines of love (or yearning for it), regret, fantasy, and promise. As one friend put it, sometimes that dynamism is a function of age, where you grow into music you didn’t fully understand in your youth. Credit also goes to the maddening simplicity of Dancel’s style, writing mainly for a guitar and using unpretentious language. Those songs connect with you like a musical Rorschach test, guiding you to what your heart needs to hear within its melodies. In the words of another friend, listening to Sugarfree is like sharing a beer with an emotionally attentive, poetic friend, but a friend nonetheless.
And so, I hear (and try to belt out) a different song each time I return to Sugarfree, tracks like “Kwarto” (Nagpapaalam na sa’yo ang aking kwarto), “Burnout” (Oh, kay tagal kitang mamahalin), “Dear Kuya” (Tawag ka lang sa amin / at parang nandito ka na rin), and so on, all of which the band played that night. The only constant has been Dancel lending me his voice to lift my feelings off my chest.
The main event opened with “Prom,” the first of 16 songs from Sugarfree’s four albums he sang during that night. Dancel performed together with Rigil Borromeo (guitar), Paolo Manuel (drums), John Apura (guitar), and Roger Alcantara (bass). Singson took a turn on the drums for the run of “Unang Araw,” “Telepono,” “Mariposa,” “Ciuda,” and “Insomnya.”
“Ciuda” (Kung akin lang ang mundo / Ibibigay ko siya sa ‘yo) was dedicated to Gab Kee Chee, one of Dancel’s closest friends and Parokya ni Edgar guitarist, who is currently hospitalized for pneumonia. QR codes and other information on how to assist with his expenses were posted around the area.
“While I know he is capable of taking care of himself, the bravest people I know are capable of asking for help,” Dancel told the audience.
Looking to the future
Towards the end of the evening, Dancel snuck in a rendition of “Bawat Daan,” a song he wrote in 2015 as the theme for the “Sa Wakas” musical, and which found new meaning last year as a campaign anthem for then-Vice President Leni Robredo. It was telling of the song’s influence that a smattering of fans attended the concert in pink merchandise, or wore shirts quoting lines from the song. It didn’t escape the audience either that Alcantara quickly flashed double “L” signs with his hands, and dozens more shot up in solidarity.
Right in the middle of the song, one fan in attendance, Ginno, proposed to his long-time girlfriend, Rachel. The band, by the time they figured out what was happening, paused the song after the line, “Nahanap kita (kay tagal kong naghintay).” Rachel said yes. Dancel invited the couple onstage, where they hugged it out and finished the rest of the song. Mitch then returned to play “Burnout” and sent everyone off into the night.
Perhaps then, the most triumphant thing about “Sa Wakas” is its title. For an album about pain, 20 years later it signals an emergence from the depths of despair, a freedom from debilitating thoughts and a sense for better days to come. But this isn’t the end, whether for us, the music, or Ebe himself. True enough, if you look at Puno’s gig poster with an updated turtle, it isn’t plodding along anymore. He’s on an ATV, his eyes are wide open, and that little guy is absolutely flying.