A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Album of Songs Review: Gauss Obenza’s ‘Halinang Mag-Jam’

Produced by Gauss Obenza
Recorded in Davao City, Quezon City and Gold Coast – Australia
Recording Team: Astrid Holz, Jen Levi Sanchez and Gauss Obenza
Mixed and mastered by Angee Rozul

By Karl M. Gaspar CSsR

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 16 Aug) – This is a precious gem of an album, one of the best released so far in 2017. If you dear reader has not secured a copy, go buy a copy and find time to enjoy this collection of songs on a busy morning at the office or, preferably, a lazy late afternoon by the beach! One is assured of a delightful musical experience as this collection of 12 songs are guaranteed to entertain, delight, amuse and provoke reflections from even the most critical listener.

Gauss Obenza, who is the album’s beauty, brains and brawn, takes on a myriad list of tasks to get this album finished: she is the main vocalist, lyricist, guitarist, percussionist, synthesizer and its producer. While she works with an impressive list of musicians, singers and technicians, this album is truly hers from conception to its release. Lets Talk About the Weather is Pilipino and English. While Kinsa Pa man Diay and Daba-Daba are Bisaya-Cebuano. Considering the album’s top quality both in terms of musical aesthetics and technical polish, one imagines this is a product of blood, sweat and tears!

While the album still generally carries the Mindanawon sound borne out of the Mindanao song movement of the Marcos’ martial law years, Obenza makes an attempt to hit the mainstream and come up with songs that borders on pop with mostly Pilipino lyrics. This makes most songs here accessible to the general listening public, and could thus make a breakthrough in the mainstream music scene, much like some albums of the Cebu Pop Music. Clearly Obenza wants to expand her horizon, as she reaches out to a wider public. But taken as a whole, Obenza does not abandon her musical roots; instead she embellishes the sound in order to create a more popular selection.

It has been a long wait since Obenza released an album. But it is all worth it! Obenza has outdid herself with this album; truly Halinang Mag-Jam is worth the long wait from her last production. Lucky are we her fans to be gifted with this superb collection of songs that traverse the various song genres. There are rock songs which make one wish Obenza was on stage doing a Sampaguita act. She sings songs that are ballads, pop, rhythm and blues, and even shades of the calypso and reggae. Being a mother, she sings two lullabies in these songs for her dear children, Mayumi and Andress. There is a novelty song in Cebuano-Bisaya and one that Davaoeños will take to heart, which is a tribute to the Mindanao song movement that arose in Davao City in the ’70s as spearheaded by the Bagong Lumad band of Joey Ayala, Bayang Barrios, Popong Landero, Onie Badiang and the late Noe Tio.

Obenza’s voice was never this supple and vibrant. Known by her wide circle of fans and admirers for her distinct husky voice, she uses her very own “musical instrument” for maximum effect but with seemingly the most minimum of efforts. In this album, the burly voice, sometimes big and strong; but also at other moments sounding in a semiwhispered vocal tone, comes from a heart with deep passion, great joy but also with strong personal convictions. Through all the songs, from start to finish, the voice never wavers, is never tentative. With Kinsa Pa Man Diay and Daba-daba, the voice takes on authoritative power. In Mayumi and Andress, it is soft and silky and could lull anyone to sleep. In Kay Sarap and Paghaharap, it is nice and easy as if aiming to please everyone who is drawn to be seduced by its magic. In the album’s song that bears its title – Halinang Mag-Jam – she sings with total abandon and gets everyone to hit the dance floor. And the diva’s voice rises in Ang Paghaharap.

As is sometimes the folly of some of our local songwriters-singers, there is a tendency to release an album where one song is indistinct from the others in the same album. You listen to one song, and it is as if you are hearing the same song repeated 10 times or even a dozen. The end result is that one gets bored after the third song and ejects the tape. Not Halinang Mag-Jam. It is an album so varied in themes and styles, musical genres and musical types that one has no time to get bored. The net effect is that the listener would want to stay put and listen to the entire collection in one setting.

Looking at the album’s credits, one is amazed at the extent of talents that Obenza was able to mobilize to make this album a dream that became a reality! The other guitarists include Raffy Donato, Paolo Sisi, Kat Ayala, Thirdy Arambulo and Tots Acebuche. A pianist – Cacho Ferrero – gets to play the piano in Ang Paghaharap. The album’s main keyboard musician is Edwin Alconera while Lolong Gonzaga takes on the task with Halinang Mag-Jam. In Unli, Icoy San Pedro plays the harmonica. Percussionists apart from Obenza are Raffy Ayala and Maree Contaoi-Cayas, who brings the kulintang to interface with the other musical instruments in the lively Daba-daba. The drummers include Raffy Donato, Astrid Holz, Ephraim Dabalos and Michael Alba. And Popong Landero’s voice rises above all the other sounds when he does the rap in Kinsa Pa man Diay. And her group of vocalists could constitute a mean glee club with Bernie Barcelon-Paspe, Mike Ayala, Raffy Ayala, Bebot Opaon, Jojo Pascua, Che-che Unson, Angel Balbin, Maida Barrientos, Ramon Garcia, Miguel Nitoreda, Andress Obenza, Hazel Palcutan, Andi Santos and Shunna Santos.

Like many of the famed folksingers who arose in the 1960s music scene, Obenza is a poet. The lyrics’ metaphors swing in all directions, the lines rhyming without end! The major accomplishment is how she manages to get the lyrics fit easily into the movements of her songs’ notes. No bakikaw (awkward) syllabication can be detected which can sometimes sound unpleasant. At some moments, she revisits the chant tradition of our ancestors’ babaylans, at others she is as witty as a schoolgirl at play!

In Magpasalamat, she offers a thanksgiving prayer – Magpasalamat sa bawat gising/ May masisilip pang liwanag/Ang kadagandaha’y naghihintay. The light metaphor deepens with Kay Sarap – Lumiliwanag and bawat araw/ Dahil sa kislap/ Ng kanyang ngiti. But it turns dark when she expresses a deep fear shared by the whole of humanity in Kinsa Pa Man Diay – Takot akong mamatay na mag-isa and as the song progresses, Landero’s rap reminds us that –Ang mga maraming tinatagong pagdurusa/ Sa kailaalim-laliman ng kanyang kaliskis/ May nahihimbing na pagtatangis.

She takes Gina Lopez’s path and reminds us that Mindanao has been the site of the rise of ecological concern and action through Let’s Talk About the Weather with a most “singable” song in a sing-along session with this refrain: Let’s get together/ Let’s talk about what we’ve done/ Don’t be too cool/ To be warm to each other/ Let’s talk about the weatherMayumi is a sweet lullaby, a mother lovingly singing to a child while rocking her in a duyan – Natutukso ang puso kong/ Haplusin ang iyong pisngi/ Nasasabik ang aking bisig/ Na mayakap ang iyong rikit. But the mother of a budding millennial expresses her insecurity at being on the same page as her daughter – Nais kong languyin/ Ang ilalim ng iyong isip/ Nais kong liparin/ Ang narating ng iyong titig. And with Andress, she reminds her son where he came from – Magmula ng magkahugis ka/ Dito sa aking diwa/ May umusbong na damdamin/ Sa gitna ng hardin ng mga pangarap.

Lamig is a feminist lament of a woman in love who is scorned by the un-attentive lover – Nanunuot-suot sa kasuluk-sulukan/ Ng aking kalamnan/ Ang lamig ng sampal ng hangin/ Kung di mo ako pinapansin…Hay tindi ng kurot ng kirot/ Kung di mo ako kinikibo. (Aguy! Morag nangluod si Inday! Hala ka Dong!) The rejected woman’s lament in a context of a seeming unrequited love is in Sang Paghaharap a deep searching of an answer to haunting questions – Paano ba hahawakan/ Ang pag-ibig na di tinatanggap/ Paano ba palalayain/ Ang lahat ng nararamdaman/ Sa iyong minamahal? This is Imelda Papin’s territory, but Obenza sings it ala Kuh Ledesma in the tradition of Dito Ba?

But the woman scorned and rejected moves on to another crack at happiness when she finds a lover whose love is akin to a publicity tactic of any popular resto, namely, the offer for unlimited rice as well as bottomless iced tea. In Unli, a colloquial rendering of unlimited – very much part of Filipino post-modern lexicon – this popular ditty brings in what sounds like puppy love – Parang unli rice and pag-ibig mo/ Di kinukulang laging nabubuo/ Habang binabawasan lalong napupuno/ Parang poso ng bottomless iced tea.

With such a happy ending, Obenza brings the album to a delightful direction with her last two songs. Halinang Mag-Jam, with its upbeat swing, will certainly go down the ages as a song to bring to the dancefloor as deep friendships are celebrated – Halika mag-jam (dance)/ Lasapin ang sarap ng samahan. And finally in Daba-Daba, Obenza returns to her roots in her major role in Mindanao’s song movement of the ’70s and one hears the kulintang happily mixing with drums, guitars and vocals. And henceforth, Davaoeños, as they celebrate their Kadayawan, can sing along with these lines of joy and hope that brings sparkling light – Daba-daba/ Ipakaylap ang kahayag/ Ipalanog ang tingog/ Ipaulbo ang kalayo/ Sa panaghiusa.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Academic Dean of the Redemptorists’ St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations” and two books on Davao history launched in December 2015. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]