A large part of this may be attributed to that popular TV show that aired for almost a decade in the post-EDSA era which followed a simple format, featuring the composer sitting at a piano playing songs for local and international guest artists, in a two-shot, that most basic of camera framing modes, that showed the audience how deceptively simple, almost facile, the art of making beautiful music was—just play something unforgettable and let someone incredibly talented sing it.
A personal encounter with the composer confirms that beautiful deception. Ryan Cayabyab is energetic, eager, and disarmingly modest, matching, note for note, his popular image as a smiling, bespectacled, and ageless talent. “Mr. C,” by which he is known equally to those who know him personally and those who don’t, in fact, works as a perfect contraction of two things—an honorific reserved for those whose genius firmly lies beyond reach, and a term of endearment for those whose said genius never gets in the way of their approachability.
In fact, Mr. C is the first to make the approach—not just toward the interviewer, but also to the hulking Steinway grand, larger than anyone who has never seen one might imagine it to be, bathed in special light like a concept car or an operatic diva, that has been waiting for him at one end of the room. He immediately takes to the keys and plays and sings a handful of bars of “Iniibig Kita,” before stopping, just as abruptly as the first piano did, and turning to us.
“Anytime!” he tells us, and apologizes. “Ang ganda kasi ng piano. You’re drawn into it!”
To still be eagerly drawn toward one’s tool of the trade at the age of 64 is no act of simple instinct. It is a moment that is drawn from a lifetime of acknowledgement and love.
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Like most of us, Cayabyab was drawn first toward his mother’s piano at an early age (four), at a time when having an upright in the living room was de rigueur for every middle-class family. Except that the young Ryan’s family was not ensconced in the middle class, and his mother was no ordinary mother. Celerina Cayabyab happened to be an opera singer and a professor who taught Voice at the College of Music at the University of the Philippines, and they lived, as it remains the privilege of UP Faculty to this day, in a house made of sawali and G.I. sheets on the University Campus. But plain as it was, the house was large, and filled to the rafters—with their family of six and a complement of 10 lady boarders who all happened to be enrolled in the same college.
“So you can imagine, every hour, every minute, somebody was practicing or singing, or playing the flute, or the violin,” he recounts. “No escape from music.”
Ryan admits his luck in having become an uncommonly public personality as a composer.
“When my mother died I was six years old. She told my father not to allow any of the children to take up music as a career. As an opera singer, she knew how difficult it was.”
This was 1949, and Cayabyab recounts how the atmosphere of post-war Manila—a city in the throes of rehabilitation after almost total destruction—compelled Filipinos to be more practical.
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It was perhaps in this spirit that even in his youth, Cayabyab found himself applying for odd jobs.
“Third-year high school, I applied for a job as a radio announcer—in ABS-CBN! Pumila ako talaga!” he tells us, recalling how his hopelessly pubescent voice broke midway into the audition. “Come back when you’re 18,” they told him.
To the young Cayabyab, it more than about just being pragmatic; it was his way of seeking to complement his parents’ income.
“I saw my dad was having a hard time being a government employee,” he remembers. He also recalls the debts they incurred at their corner sari-sari store, and the day they needed to send their nursemaid home because they could not afford her salary anymore.
Cayabyab recalls the hard times of his youth in great detail—from the meals they made out of the vegetables they grew in their backyard patch, to all the making-do and making-the-most-of that they did to survive. He also recalls, in the same spirit, trying his hand at painting—even joining a national art competition—by using old, stiffened paint brushes left behind at their home by a couple of aunts, and painting old canvases with whatever colors were available: “violet, green, and white!”
The upshot: “I won third prize!”—and Cayabyab emphasizes this by slamming down a dissonant chord on the keys before him.