The crowd waited breathlessly as the singer tapped his microphone once, twice, his eyes darting from side to side. As the introductory notes started up, one member of the audience let out an involuntary yelp. The singer gave a dazzling smile and began to croon, ‘I throw my hands up in the air sometimes, singing ay-o. . .’
The ‘crowd’ consisted of my boyfriend and I, and three members of staff from the Tam-awan artists’ colony in Baguio City, the Philippines. The singer was a fourth member of staff, and this was their New Year’s Eve.
The day before the finals of this series of The X Factor are aired, aspiring Brits might do well to cast their eyes towards the Philippines for some musical inspiration.
Never has a nation seemed better suited to these supersized talent shows, as the popularity of the Philippines’s sister programme – Pilipinas Got Talent – demonstrates. (And for an instant mood-lifter I can’t recommend checking out a few clips on You Tube enough.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Filipinos have embraced the opportunity to sing their hearts out on national television with gusto.
From the moment we landed in Ninoy Aguino airport in Manila, music and exhibition were everywhere. In the ubiquitous ‘videoke’ (karaoke) bars, tunelessness and even shyness are no hindrance to performing. As Butch Aldana, owner of the institution that is the Penguin Café/Gallery – bar and gig venue for up and coming musicians – as well as former percussionist of Philippine band Pinikpikan, remarked to me, ‘When a Filipino has money, the first thing he will buy for himself is a videoke machine.’
Not quite ready to embrace the videoke microphone, on our first night we eased ourselves in with dinner in Zamboanga in the popular Manila tourist district of Malate. There we watched their nightly cultural show while sampling local cuisine. There’s no guarantee customers won’t be hauled up to the stage to join in, but we managed to dodge it on that occasion. We’d been given a word of warning – Filipinos are as subtle with flavours as they are with volume – we were to expect garlic, sugar and salt in attention-grabbing quantities. Afterwards, a string trio circled the room, playing pop hits from our native countries while a chubby local toddler danced along enthusiastically.
In buses, taxis and jeepneys (flamboyant converted jeeps that act as cheap mode of transport) cheesy tunes blare out at deafening volumes. Singing along is positively encouraged.
In the bars of beautiful Boracay, singers vie to be heard over those in the neighbouring establishment. Departing from El Nido airport in Palawan towards the end of our trip, a group of ladies in traditional dress serenaded us as we boarded the plane.
With a full calendar of festivals, in the fun-loving Philippines every day is a party. I noticed many shops, offices and jeepneys with plaques or printed signs reading, ‘The problem with life is that there’s no background music’ – which struck me as somewhat ironic in the circumstances.
This is not a place for musical snobbery. A visit to the Philippines is the ideal opportunity to put all those years of practising in the shower to good use!