Ryan Cayabyab’s life journey to music

(Part 1 of 2 )

“THE alphabet of grace is full of sibilants (hissing) —sounds that can’t be shouted but only whispered: the sounds of bumblebees and wind and lovers in the dark, of whitecaps hissing up flat over the glittering sand and cares on wet roads, of crowds hushed in vast and vaulted places, the sound of your own breathing. I believe that in sibilants life is trying to tell us something. The tree, ghosts, dreams, faces, the waking up and eating and working of life, are trying to tell us something, to take us somewhere.” –  Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace.

Grace is unearned blessings from the Higher Being, where doors are magically opened, and through others. By listening to Him, you walk into these doors, accept God’s will in your life, and you do your best at being the best in your craft.

Ryan Cayabyab shared his Alphabet of Grace: how he formed his identity, decided on his chosen path with the help of his mentors and his current advocacies.

“I am not in awe of people per se because we are all pilgrims, we are given everything and bakit ako nandidito (why am I here?) At bakit hindi nila nakikita ang path nila, bakit hanggang ngayon hinahanap nila? (Why can’t they see their path, why are they still in search of it?) Medium lang ako, the supernatural gift comes from the Higher Being, bigger than all of us. Kayo na ang bahala, kayo naman ang mayari ng lahat ng ito. (I am medium in talent. The supernatural gift comes from the Higher being. I surrender my fate to Him, as He alone owns all these.) I am a human being still learning in life, how to be loving and how to be caring for others. It is important for me to teach as much as I can – bahala na kayo magpalaganap nito (It is up to you to spread this [body of musicality] and grow this),” Cayabyab said in an exclusive interview with the Asian Journal on Monday, Oct. 17.

The quote above captures his life’s mission. He had just flown into Los Angeles, from San Francisco, yet he amiably did the interview, forgoing lunch until later. I learned the meaning of these words, “patay gutom” (suppress one’s hunger) and “huli sa kainan” (last to eat) by his examples.

Even though his mother discouraged him to take up a musical career, music became his life’s path.

How many of us can say our life coincides with the history of a music industry in a country? Considering that his mother did not choose this path for him, he has achieved so much to deserve the title, “Mister C” or “Maestro Ryan.” His career success is also his legacy to one of his children, who graduated summa cum laude at the University of the Philippines in choral conducting, and is now taking her master’s.

The measure of a man is not just in his life’s success, but how he affects others. In Mister C’s case, in thousands of students, he has taught and in millions who have heard his songs.

In 2013, Maestro Ryan received a Papal Award, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice for his body of work in sacred music. Do you get to sing his arrangement of the original Tanging Yaman at Communion of Catholic Masses – do you feel the unleashed divine energy, watch how each worshipper has tears in their eyes, as they move closer to the altar, to receive the eucharist? Or even Lead Me Lord, and Lift Up Your Hands, all his arrangements of original recordings?

The very mention of his name is an expectation, a level of quality —matched by a level of mastery and proficiency — where excellence is the end-product. It is a high level of quality, achievable by consistent practice, of teaching musical theory for two decades at the University of the Philippines and after 2003, consistent advocacies of mentoring students to harness their innate talents in writing songs, composing, and performing them.

Ryan was first taught music by his mother, Celerina Venson Pujante. He lived in Area I, in a sawali (woven bamboo strips) house, with a silong (crawlspace). His mother was an opera singer, who taught at the UP College of Music, with 10 lady boarders learning music who stayed with them.

One day, Celerina sat next to Ryan, played the piano, and sang to him. At 3 years old, Ryan played accurately what he heard.

Later, he came to know that experience more fully when one of his mother’s students became the Dean of Music in San Agustin in Iloilo, and she wrote him : “You were my thesis in music education when you were 3 to 4 years old – you gave signs of your extraordinary musical talent and you easily picked up melodies.”

Ryan was taught how to play the piano by “ouido,” using one’s ear to hear the melodies.

He surmised that when his mother was single, she got together with other musicians at the “tambayan ng mga musikero”(a supply marketplace for musicians) in Quiapo, near Platerias, parallel to Raon. When folks needed musicians for their tertulias or some events, they were taken on an open flatbed, transported to the fiestas where they sang or performed.

As a cantor, she became part of that group. Given her hard life as a musician, “his mother’s dying wish was that none of the three children pursue a music career.” She made Ryan’s father, Alberto Austria Cayabyab promise.

Ryan lost his mother at 6 years old. From the time his mother died to high school, he did not perform, but he learned to read the music sheets, left behind by the boarders. At age 8, 9 and 10, he developed his sight reading skills.

When he graduated high school at 15 years old, he asked for a peso allowance from his father to go to Rhapsody Music House in Platerias. For lack of a budget, the Music House could not give him a job. He asked to demonstrate his piano skills for free, instead, until he was discovered by a relative who told him to audition as a pianist for the Development Bank of the Philippines Choral Ensemble.

He got the job as the pianist of a choral group which supported him through college for three years, taking up a bachelor of science in business administration and accountancy at UP Diliman. He felt more at home though at UP College of Music, where he met Andrea Veneracion who asked him to arrange pieces. The Madrigal Singers and Concert Chorus were also his friends. She asked him to train with the Madrigal Singers.

In one of his pit chorus performances, he met Victor Laurel, the son of Senator Salvador Laurel and Celia Diaz, who invited him to their family gatherings and events. He would come early before the ‘official practice’ at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP.)

After the official show, some artists would rally against martial law in the early seventies, like Behn Cervantes, later joined in by the Philippine Madrigal Singers, the Karilagan and the Manila Symphony Orchestra.

One day, Senator Salvador Laurel asked him, “Why are you taking accounting?” He shared his mother’s wish, to which he said: “We all serve a purpose. Just like the laundry woman, who with newly washed clothes, newly pressed, you feel good about her work. Or the janitor, who cleans the school. We appreciate his work. We are all connected. Our jobs are to make lives better. As long as you are the best in your chosen field, you affect someone.”

The Laurels offered him a full scholarship in music at any college, noting his passion is music. In 1973, he entered the College of Music and after a ten-year journey, he finished. Why? The gigs kept coming to travel and to perform.

His musicality: the highest level of personal best and excellence

Nothing fazes Ryan Cayabyab, when it comes to music, whether he has to play at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York; Kennedy Center and Washington DC Convention Center in Washington, DC; the Shrine and Plaza del Sol-CSUN Northridge in Los Angeles; The Orpheum in Vancouver; Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, or in major cities of Southeast Asia, Australia, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Japan, or even in the Middle East.

Nonoy Alsaybar, Ph.D, a four decade-strong master violinist/teacher, said: “We like working with Ryan, as we find him approachable, calm, and easy to work with.”

Nonoy described working with Ryan, as the musical director of the 42-member Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra.

Nothing fazes the maestro, even as he performed for the King Hassan II of Morocco, Prince Fahd, now King Fahd of Saudi Arabia; not even when he performed for King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain in Manila, Queen Beatrix in the Netherlands, and U.S. President Bill Clinton in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nothing fazes him as he regards these musical events as grace, doors opened for him by fellow musicians, and venues for self-expression, “where I enjoy doing it,” he said.

When asked what is his music’s message, Ryan responded, “my pride in my heritage, pride in my Philippine music, growing up with kundimans (courtship songs) and balitaws (Visayan folk songs that are meant to be danced).”

Later, he got exposed to genres of pop music. He stressed the importance of having an ear for music, the “arbiter for what is beautiful or not” and also being formally trained.

“It is important that musicians learn to communicate first using the mother tongue, first with the ‘sounds of music’ then, the reading of the notes. Understand the importance of the educated, formally trained musicians, as well as the non-formally trained musicians, who are talented and play music by ear, the likes of Bobby Enriquez,” he added.

Watch Ryan Cayabyab’ s televised concerts and you feel his grace, serenity and equanimity, and recently, ABS-CBN Television gave him an entire evening’s tribute.

Just how long has he been traveling and performing?

“46 years, including 20 years of teaching music theory,” he said, and now, his latest advocacies are mentoring students how to perform, how to compose and how to write songs take him to all parts of the Philippines.

For his program on Sunday, October 23, at Plaza del Sol Performance Hall at Cal State Northridge, the first part is devoted to all of Ryan’s songs, to be sung by seven singers: two full songs and 16 excerpts, which contain sacred songs genre to R&B music to a cappella.

While the second part will showcase 100 years of Original Philippine Music (OPM), starting in 1917, with Francisco Santiago’s Madaling Araw (Dawn) and ending with a new song from a CD that was just released a month ago.

Can you imagine a body of work of original music dating back 100 years?

About 188 songs are listed in Ryan’s bio in the areas of film scoring and CDs, but it does not include the television jingles and songs he created for station identifications or ads.

This prolific composer has been responsible for 23 movie scores, 15 Great OPM songs, several CDs: Great OPMs (13 songs), Pasko I (12 songs), Pasko II (12 songs), Spolarium: the Opera (12 songs), The Sacred Works of Ryan Cayabyab (14 songs), Beauty and the Beast (five songs), Great OPM in the Movies (15, which includes Tanging Yaman), Dancing in the Rain (14), One (10 songs), One X’mas (10 songs), One More (10 songs), Roots to Routes (Pinoy Jazz II with 14 songs), The Silver Album (14 songs).

At Christmas time, do you get to sing “Pasko na Naman” or “Mano po Ninong, Mano Po Ninang?” Or “Saan Ka Man Naroroon?” Do you get a sense that our universal sentimentality as Filipinos has been captured by Ryan’s original compositions, and even punctuated?

Can you appreciate Ryan’s body of work sings aloud “Glory Be to God?” How so? He has completed 11 musicals, an opera in Spolarium performed in New York, and even a musical on the Life of St. Lorenzo Ruiz, which was staged in 2013 and 2014.

His success of close to 50 years coincides with the vibrant history of OPM, to which he composed, arranged and contributed to.

[A special thank you to Annie Nepomuceno for sponsoring this exceptional group, Nonoy Alsaybar for welcoming the Maestro, classmates of St. Rita College, Batch ’67 and Toni Rodriguez, (Berklee College of Music graduate) for their contributions and insights about the Maestro, and the Chens for providing the interview venue and lunch.

 Part II – a concert review of Ryan Cayabyab and his singers and the Maestro’s advocacies and how he keeps himself relevant and interesting to his global audiences.]

Prosy Abarquez Dela Cruz, J.D.

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 13 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

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