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Joey Ayala On Questioning His Relevance, Getting Jacked During the Pandemic, and Putting a Degree in Economics to Good Use

The 64-year-old admits to grappling with feelings of relevance during the pandemic, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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When Joey Ayala pops up onscreen he is wearing a sleeveless top in front of a black background. The 64-year-old musician is all smiles as we exchange pleasantries, but I couldn’t help commenting on his muscled arms and toned physique. And so invariably my first question is about his workout. 

“Yeah, I used to work out, but then I quit, and then I went back into it,” he says.

“Weights and cardio?” I ask

Hindi na yung cardio,” he answers. “I found out that it’s useless. Because weight is cardio if you do it properly. May cadence sya. So I work out with the metronome. Para consistent yung speed. Meron syang speed when you're contracting and then releasing the weights.

“There’s only like, six exercises you can do, solb na yung buong katawan mo,” he adds. “You can actually do a full body workout in like 15 minutes. You can do it twice a week, you get nice definition.”

For a split-second I couldn’t believe I was a having a conversation with Ayala about his fitness routine. The singer-songwriter is a national treasure, an artist and musician of the highest caliber who has helped bring authentic Filipino music from dive bars and grassroots communities to the national consciousness. He’ll be the first to admit he’s not quite a household name but he has developed a devoted cult following through the years and is perhaps the closest the Philippines has to indie folk royalty. A composer, poet, writer, activist, and teacher, this year, Ayala is marking a significant milestone in his career: 40 years since he recorded and independently released his first collection of songs in a makeshift studio in Davao City.

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Photo by Screenshot / Zoom.

People might have a passing familiarity with the man with the mischievous grin and hypnotic stage presence, but having stayed in the fringes of the mainstream music scene, there’s a lot to discover about the artist who gave us songs like “Karaniwang Tao,” “Agila,” “Magkaugnay,” and “Walang Hanggang Paalam.” I’ve seen him perform countless times in intimate venues like The 70s Bistro and Conspiracy in Quezon City, but admittedly, have not had the chance to get to know him more outside of his music. One afternoon in February, I finally got the chance, through the wonders of Zoom. Excerpts:

Esquire Philippines: Not a lot of people know you graduated with a degree in Economics from Ateneo de Davao. What led you into music?

Joey Ayala: I wasn’t led into it. I was already a musician when I went into economics. Bagong salta ako sa Ateneo de Davao. We migrated there right after high school here in Manila. Laking Cubao ako. I was born in Bukidnon, grew up in Cubao. Magulang ko were both artists (Tita Lacambra-Ayala and Jose V. Lacambra). Yung pagiging artist ko natural lang. I didn’t even consider it a career because it's the normal thing to be. To write, to listen to music. It’s not a separate endeavor.

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When I got to college in Ateneo de Davao, gusto ko sana ng Music or something related. E wala. So I asked my dad. Sabi niya, don't take up English because you're already a good writer. In high school I was already getting published in national magazines. He said, ‘You're already a writer, don't take up music because you're really composing. So what's the point in studying that? Ano yung mahina mo sa high school?’ Sabi ko, economics. Sabi niya, ‘Yun ang pag-aralan mo. Which is logical.

It sort of rounds out your artistry with the other side of the brain; more analysis more math. And I was surprised because I did pretty well. Yung calculus grade ko was 94. So I realized na mataas din yung scientific aptitude ko, hindi lang artistic.

That’s very rare. Either you're good at one or the other.

Usually. Tatay ko scientist din kasi. So there was really no separation of science and art sa bahay. Both of my parents were logical. Both were intuitive. Both were at the typewriter hardworking. Anim kaming magkakapatid. Walang yaya minsan. Ako yung kuya. I’m the eldest.

So when you decided to study economics and then eventually pursue a career in music, your parents were supportive?

Hmm. How do I say it? They stand in my way. In fact, my dad bought me a good Yamaha guitar in the 70s. Parang he finally gave in. Sige na nga. You have to understand, sa generation ng magulang ko, to be an artist was like a curse. Wala ka talagang kikitain diyan. But they never spoke of it that way because they were both artists. Although my dad was employed as far as I know, in advertising, copywriting. He gave workshops on communication skills, something like that.

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So ang pagiging artist sa generation nila, hindi career. On the side lang. It’s a hobby. So ako, nung nakita nilang musician, pinabayaan na lang nila. And since childhood, yung nanay ko, lagi siyang may musical toys lying around, mga harmonica, and melodica, yung mga maliliit. Baby xylophone. I even met a bungkaka, yung bamboo percussion ng Kalinga. Tinanong ko sa kanya, anong tawag mo diyan? Sabi niya, devil chaser. She did not tell me the native name. Maybe she didn't know it. I must have been nine or 10. From that time on, nawala yung takot ko sa dilim, because I’d go into the dark with that thing and play it chasing the demons away.

When you finally graduated from college, did you ever consider something else with that economics degree? Or was it straight to music?

It was just seamless. Nasa fourth year high school pa ko, nagsusulat na ko for a local magazine. Yung Editor-in-Chief, Alfredo Salangga, kaibigan ng magulang ko, happens to be from Mindanao. I didn't know but I met him when I was still in high school in Cubao. Pag dating ko sa Davao, andun din siya. Professor sa Ateneo De Davao. And he was editing a magazine outside of the school, San Pedro Express. He’d get me to do writing things.

So pag-graduate ko tinuloy-tuloy ko lang pagsusulat. And because I had an economics background, kapag may kailangan kausapin na businessman, or write about anything business-related, natural, sa ‘kin. It was not weird for me to go and I knew the terms. I knew about profits and all that. So seamless yung transition between writing and expression, and numbers and business.

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What about music? At what point did you decide that this was the career trajectory?

Actually, you might find this weird because I decided when I got to perform at the Vancouver Folk Festival in 1986. Up to that time I had been holding down a job doing advertising in Davao, writing marketing communications stuff, doing ghost writing for other people in business. Kokontratahin ko yung organ, publication, I make them all sound good. I charged them for that, I get a commission from the printing press. So that's the way I scraped together money.

At the same time, tuloy-tuloy lang yung music as a hobby. I got to record an album with an activist foundation, the Development Education Media Services. I was writing scripts, exposing military abuses, then I’d be sequencing the sound slide. Tapos gumawa sila ng maliit na sound studio to record voiceovers and documentaries. Tinesting ko. Dala ko ng gitara. Kanta, record. Sabi ng mga kasama ko, gawa tayo ng album! Cassette pa yun. Sabi ko sige. So for a few months, pag may time, yung mga original na kanta, kinakanta and nire-record. Gumawa kami ng mga kopya. Mga 200, 250 copies. Tapos nilako ko yun. I would walk around the city with cassettes in my bag. Pag may nakita akong opisina na may kilala sa loob, I’d ask, ‘o may bente singko pesos ka jan? Palit tayo.’ Ganun ko binebenta yung cassette. 

This was the first record?

Oo. Panganay ng Umaga. That cassette brought me to Vancouver. Because there was a Canadian journalist who was covering the military versus the war with the NPA (New People’s Army). Sumasama sya sa mga rebelde. Ang gumastos para sa kanya, yung founder ng Vancouver Music Festival, Gary Crystal. Ang exchange deal nila, sabi sa kanya ni Gary, ‘Bring me back an act from the Philippines.’ 

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Yung cassette ko yung umiikot sa mga NPA, mga aktibista. So he brought back the cassette, pinakinggan ni Gary Crystal. And two to three years later I found myself with my friends, si Joji Benitez, Davao musician, ka jam ko yan from the time we migrated. Kaming dalawa, we put together a little act, and went to Vancouver. And when I met in person all these wonderful musicians, for whom music was not a hobby, dun ko na-realize na possible pala yun. Kasi sa Pilipinas walang ganun. Lalo na sa Davao. Walang musician na yun ang career. It’s just a sideline, a hobby. Or it's P50 a night sa folkhouse and you're singing somebody else's songs. You're singing James Taylor, Cat Stevens. Pag nag-o-audition ako nun, sinisigawan talaga ko, James Taylor! Dito nga sa Malate sinubukan ko mag audition, sumisigaw sila, James Taylor!

That experience in Vancouver was the turning point? That was when you realized what's possible?

I guess I knew it in theory, but I did not see. I had no models in Davao City of musicians, for whom it was a career. Pag dating dun sa Vancouver, lahat ng nakapaligid sakin, musician. Mga nakausap ko would say thing like, ‘I do 200 shows a year. I miss my family.’ They were constantly on the road, may professional agent ka na tuloy-tuloy lang.

I decided there na, when I go back to Davao, I wasn’t going to go back to my job. And I realized that, in my job, I wasn't going to get rich. I wasn't going to become the president of the company, kasi may anak yung may-ari. Hindi ko naman pwede pakasalan kasi lalaki. (Laughs). 

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So no way I was going to get to the top. Yung sweldo ko, hanggang diyan na lang yan. Vice President na ko nun e. Yung sweldo ko tamang-tama lang sa basic necessities. I was poor and miserable. If I become an artist, I’d be poor and happy. So it was an easy decision. Hinabol ko yung happy. Bahala na yung financials. Ceteris Paribus; everything remaining the same, dun ka na sa happy. It was an economic decision, really. Because the finances of it, pareho lang naman e. Miserable ka either way. So dito ka na sa happy.

Since then you've built a name for yourself. You've become the Joey Ayala. Everyone knows who you are.

Medyo swerte yan. In the beginning I was not going to use my name, really. Kasi puro aktibista kasama ko. They were suggesting gumamit daw ako ng nom de plume.

Like what?

It would’ve been Huseng Babaw or something like that. I talked to my wife about it and she said, ‘Wag, sayang! (laughs) Pag sumikat ka tapos hindi mo pangalan.’ Bilib din siya sa akin. I followed her advice.

I've always been curious how you approach songwriting. Where do you get your ideas? And do you start with the lyrics or the melody?

Sa simulang, simula, models. My first model for a good songwriter was consciously James Taylor. At that time, my original model was Carlos Santana. Sa barkada usong uso yung jamming, may lead guitar. Ako hanggang rhythm lang ako. Mas magaling yung kasama ko. Nag-li-lead. I wanted to be like that.

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One day I was going out to buy a Carlos Santana album for the first time. Nakita ko yung isang kaibigan ko sa kalsada. Sabi nya, ‘San ka pupunta?’ Sabi ko, ‘Bibili ako ng Santana na album.’ Sabi nya, ‘Wag na, nasa radyo lang naman yan, or sa jukebox lang. Sama ka sa bahay, benta ko sa yo yung James Taylor ko.’ So punta kami sa bahay niya. Pinatugtog niya. That was my introduction to “Fire and Rain.” (Sings a few bars). 

At that time I was already a published poet so ang self-definition ko: writer. When I heard James Taylor, I thought—writer plus musician. Songwriter. So it clicked when I heard “Fire and Rain.” Although I'd been listening to songs since I was a toddler, dun lang nag-click yung thought na, kaya mo ‘to.

So I decided to write songs. Pero syempre, model, so a lot of my early songs were James Taylor model, Paul Simon model, Cat Steven model, Don McLean model. People who wrote good lyrics and had singable melodies. Ganun yung naging natural bent ko.

And because I started out consciously as a poet and writer, normally nauuna ang words. Words, may sarili siyang…built-in rhythms and sukat at tugma. Andiyan na siya. Konting hipo na lang kanta na siya. Kung hindi ka masyadong melodic, rap na siya.

All your models were Western artists? Walang Filipino?

Wala e. At that time kasi, the local artists were also in the same stage I was, they were modeling. They were copying the models. A lot of the hits were just American hits na pinalitan ng words. (hums the theme to “Iskul Bukol”).

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They take the melody and then they just change the words.

Yeah yung mga Bobby Ledesma. Generation nina Eddie Ilarde. Matanda sakin ng mga 10 or 15 years. Ganun naman. And at that time, sila yung sikat. It's either that or making ka ng mga Diomedes Maturan or Sylvia La Torre, na ang model naman nila, Western din: operatic, balladeer, crooner. Mala Frank Sinatra pero Tagalog. Kundiman, pero ang areglo niya orchestral na Big Band. So very Western. And not accessible sa teenager na gitara lang ang hawak. 

Malaking bagay yung accessibility. Gitara lang ang hawak mo, meron kang kanta na ang ganda. Buo na siya. Kumpleto na. You just need a voice and a guitar. In fact, when Taylor started doing the bigger band arrangements later in his career, nawalan na ko ng gana because that was no longer accessible to me. I can pick up the lines in the guitar, but the rest of it is gone. Hindi ko na mahabol. Pero yung early albums, na practically voice guitar, may strings ng konti, pero okay lang kasi konti lang. Nung naging arrangement-heavy na yung tugtog, medyo umiwas na ko kasi hindi ko na kaya.

So in 1986, you were at the Vancouver Folk Festival. Was there ever a point in your career when you realized, ‘Okay, I think I’ve made it.’ Or, you know, ‘this is working out for me’?

Kahit ngayon, I don't think I've made it, man. (laughs) I've never been an outstanding commercial. Kasi pag punta ko sa Maynila, ops, eto aapak na ko sa commercial. Ganun yung thinking ko. Sa Davao wala, no industry.

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Pagdating ko ng Manila, bentahan na to. Eto na yung palengke. It’s not, like I sold millions of pesos worth of albums, or anything like that. Commercially, I don't think the company would consider me that much of a success. Successful, yes, but in the commercial sense? (Trails off)

Which is why I'm here in Manila. Actually yung usapan namin ni misis sa simula, two years lang siguro, okay na.  

You’ll do it for two years…

And then go back to Davao. Just to test the waters. Pero nagkaroon ng cash flow. Hindi siya outstanding, pero meron. Just enough. 

But I guess, for you, the definition of success wasn't just selling records and being a commercial hit. So what was it that made you stay? What was eventually your goal if you knew that you weren't going to be like this big artist, like Martin Nievera or Gary Valenciano, who would sell hundreds of thousands or even millions of records?

The money was enough. Yung financial side niya, not outstanding, but better than Davao. Kung babalik ako ng Davao, noon, nung wala pang internet, anong gagawin ko dun? Mas may commercial value ako dito. Kahit di sya outstanding, meron. So I settled for that. Okay na yan.

See, yung satisfaction ko as an artist, hindi naman nawawala. Regardless of whether a song is heard or not, I know it's good. And I get one person to hear it, ishe-share naman niya.

So during the lockdown, I finally decided to put stuff on YouTube. Took me a while, you know. If you ask me, what do I regret, that's one of the things I regret: not doing it earlier. Andami ngayon na Joey Ayala na millions ang views, pero hindi ako ang may-ari.

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That Ted Talk video of you singing the new version of Lupang Hinirang, that comes to mind. Millions of views na yun.

Yeah.

What about right now? Do you listen to contemporary, modern pop music from the West, or even contemporary OPM?

I do. As a matter of professional curiosity. Because I hardly ever listen for entertainment. It's always out of curiosity. I want to find out what's cooking. I want to learn something. I want to find out what the popular taste is and how far away I am from it.

I listen as much as I can until I can no longer stand it. Yeah, because a lot of music, pagdating ng chorus, ayoko na. (smiles). Tama na!  

Example? Which artists do you listen to? Or do you like?

Hindi ko maalala! (Laughs) Hmm. I like Gloc-9. One reason is the quality of his lyrics. So I guess I'm still a writer, you know. I'm still attracted to people who pay attention to what they're saying.

Every time I hear the words, “Ang puso kong ito,” I cringe. (laughs). Siguro 80 percent of local pop songs have that line. Oh my god!

But I understand why. There are less lyricists than there are musicians. It’s harder to write lyrics than to write music. And so that's why I really pay attention to people who seem to have something to say.

Anyone else?

My sister? (Cynthia Alexander). Hindi pa siya sikat bilib na ko sa kanya. Ang artistry niya kasi napaka-all around. Visual, writing, painting. Grabe ang galing nya sa visual. Tapos na-translate niya sa music. Ang husay pa mag-gitara.

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Speaking of your sister, what's your relationship like? I mean, you grew up together…

Yeah, we were very close at a point. And then when she started writing her songs. I think she offered me her songs to perform. And then I listened to them and they were a little too complex for me. And I told her, “I think you better perform them yourself.”

I don't know if she took that as a rejection (laughs). But in the end, she played bass for me for quite a while. And then when she started doing her solo thing, naghiwalay na kami ng landas

But right now, do you talk? Do you keep in touch?

Yeah. Internet messages. Nasa Tacoma (Washington, USA) siya. Ang trip niya ngayon ay flower arrangements. She's a flower sculptor. And she’s an extremely private person. Even for me, private talaga. She’s very touchy about being talked about. 

Photo by Screenshot / Zoom.
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Yeah, let's just go back to you! This is your 40th year in the business?

Well, ang apak ko sa Manila 1991. So 30 years, from the time I set foot in Manila. But by that time, makunat na ko nun. I had three albums done and many songs under my belt.

Is there anything special that you're working on to celebrate the milestone?

Nah. I don't think like that. I'm sorry. I even forget my own birthday. I'm not much of a landmarker. Tuloy-tuloy lang.

When I remember to look back or people ask me about it, I go, tagal na pala, grabe. I’ve had a good time e, so I don't really notice. Lalo na may home studio recording na. Naku. Childhood dream yun.

You mentioned that, during the lockdown, you discovered producing your own stuff or maybe working on your own stuff through new technologies and through the internet. Can you talk a bit about that?

The familiarity with using the computer actually started in 1995. I forced myself to sit down and study MIDI sequencing, because I realized at that point, that if I don't study this, my career is over. Nakita ko yung necessity to understand it. 

So in about two weeks, I was able to produce MIDI-based music for a dance project. I took on the project knowing I wouldn't be able to succeed if I did not know MIDI, and I did not know MIDI. So I jumped off the bridge. Tinanggap ko yung project pero hindi ko alam kung paano. I created an emergency that forced me to learn in two weeks, and to actually use the software. Cakewalk pa yung software nun. Dun nagsimula.

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Ang hindi ko tinutukan is using social media. That's what I meant when, pagdating ng lockdown, napilitan talaga ko tumutok ng social media.

So prior to that, you didn't have a presence on social media?

Napaka-erratic. Like I would write something, then I would quit for two weeks. I was thinking, nobody’s reading anyway. It’s just like writing in the 70s, you don't know if anybody’s reading you. 

Unlike performing. Instant e. (Claps his hands). Yung psychic energy ko, dun napunta kasi may income na, may palakpak pa. Dalawa yung reward. It’s like ice cream and cake. May carbs na, may oils pa. Pinagsama. In nature there are very few foods that are heavily carbs and heavily oil.

Bumalik tayo sa nutrition. Music as nutrition! (Laughs)

May binabasa ko ngayon that talks about music as a genetic code. Everybody has the capacity to understand and to generate music. Depende na sa kultura, what kind of music. But you're born with it, apparently. So that’s part of our genetics. Kumbaga sa computer, built-in na software sa hardware. Very interesting.

Are you working on any new music? Are you planning to release anything?

May working title na ko. Tulala. It's a set of music exploring the trans-inducing properties of indigenous instruments.

Wow.

Ganda ng title. May poetry siya: tula. And meron siyang lala, music. Ooh la la! (Laughs)

I can imagine you did a ton of research on indigenous music.

Most of my research is non-academic. In-absorb ko lang. Nakikinig ako. Ngayon swerte kasi sa YouTube andaming source, if you know what to look for.

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I've always been interested in altered states. Being a hippie. In the 1970s, I read a lot of literature on altered states and meditation and trans. So all of that's coming together in this, this set of music. Tulala.

When can we expect this?

Within 2021. I haven't actually started recording it yet, pero marami na kong sketches. 

And this is something that you’re producing on your own?

Yeah, dito sa bahay. I'll be working with other musicians, but I don't know who yet. Problema kasi, sometimes, yung gusto kong maka trabaho hindi marunong mag-recording sa bahay. Yung ibang mga ka-edad ko, wala talaga. I'm probably in the minority of my generation na nag-aral. Pinilit ang sarili na hind imaging technophobe. Lots of people my age refuse. I even have a friend whom I lost touch with because he refuses to get an email address.

Was it Yuvel Noah Harari? I'm not sure if he's the one to say it, but maybe someone like him. Who talked about the rise of the irrelevant class. People are becoming irrelevant, because what they know is no longer useful. And this lockdown really strips the blinders off. Andaming naging jobless: jeepney drivers, teachers. Biglang, bam, I’m obsolete. 

In the first few months of the lockdown, that's the word that I kept thinking about. Am I obsolete? Paano ko kikita? Kumikita ako sa face-to face performances. And the closer you are to the microphone as an audience, what's called the spit line, when you're sitting in the front, yung tatamaan ka ng laway ng performer. That was the best spot then. Now it's the worst! (Laughs).

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How did you deal with those feeling of questioning your relevance?

The first thing I did was I kicked myself in the creative butt and I wrote a song about the lockdown. Just to dispel the negative chatter. About two weeks later I wrote another song, about a solution to something. I turned all the negativity into positive energy. And I used all that; bwelo bwelo bwelo. Nag weights ako, nag-meditate. I tore down my old studio, moved all my junk to the sala and added a second wall. So I’m working on the physical facility. Against all odds. Then yung isang worker ko got COVID. Tapos namatay yung kasama niya. Nahinto yung trabaho Kami nag self-imposed quarantine. 

So you got busy.

Yeah. Had to. In December I started putting stuff on YouTube. Now I have 1,000 subscribers. Which is the minimum for monetization. Have to maintain for a year, at least 4,000 watch-hours minimum. I realized songs alone are not going to do it. Because the average listener clicks away after a minute or a half. Magla-like sya pero hindi nya tatapusin. Madi-distract sya kasi may nakita na naman sa sidebar.

When people say people have a short attention span, I think that’s the wrong term. I think they mean ‘concentrated attention span.’ People are absorbing more in less time, which is why they get so bored so quickly. Pagdating sa chorus, alam ko na uulit yung melody. So pak! Next! The people who use ‘short attention span’ are the people who feel insulted when somebody stops listening. (Laughs)

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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