By Ruben M. Cruz Jr. / Online Editor
There are not many reasons to drink in Malate nowadays anymore, but when our chief photographer, Nonie Reyes, told me Noli Aurillo is playing a gig in The Minokaua, this newly refurbished bar, which used to be Bar@1951 which used to be Cosa Nostra back in the day, I just had to go.
If you have never heard of Noli Aurillio, I can’t blame you. Although he receives some well-deserved mainstream attention every now and then, partly thanks to popular mainstream artists he jams with, Aurillo has simply preferred to station himself outside the limelight.
But try asking top Filipino guitarists and other musicians, or even music aficionados who know their players and niches, to rank their favorite guitarists and explain what separates the legends from everyone else, and Noli Aurillo will probably pop up in the conversation.
I first heard and saw him play live at The Hobbit House in Malate, perhaps almost three decades ago, back when the stripped-back approach to layering rhymes and singing choruses over bare instruments was known as folk music and not acoustic.
This was not the Malate lined with Korean and karaoke bars that it is today. This was the Malate that still had ties back to the 70s and 80s, back when the area was still Manila’s red-light district, where girlie bars indulged the frenetic nightlife of foreigners, particularly American servicemen stationed in the Philippines, which at the time still had two major US Bases in Clark and Subic.
Amidst the glittering pleasure palaces of Mabini, The Hobbit House stood out. Just a stone’s throw away from the Columban priests’ Malate Church and managed by the late Jim Turner, former Peace Corps volunteer and Ateneo college professor, The Hobbit House played host to seasoned folk singers, indeed, it was very much the folk scene itself.
There is now a row of run of the mill eateries where it used to stand. The Hobbit House moved to Ermita sometime in 2007, close to another landmark church, and Aurillo does not play there anymore.
Hearing him play again in Minokaua reminded me of that one magical night at The Hobbit House when I witnessed master guitarist Perf De Castro jam with Aurillo onstage.
The irony was not lost for those in the audience then who knew—the well-schooled and classically trained De Castro, with his 10-string guitar, jamming with the U.P. School of Music-reject Aurillo.
Aurillo can’t read or play notes to this day and his fast fingerstyle involves only the use of forefinger and thumb, something no formal guitar school would ever teach you. But their performances were so well-suited to one another, it brought the house down. De Castro kept looking at Aurillo and seemed both mesmerized and perplexed with his all-encompassing, DIY approach to guitar playing.
I remind Aurillo of that night many years ago when he asks me what brought me this Wednesday to his “Late Night Sessions” in Minokaua.
He does a lot of talking in between songs, gets to know his audience, calls them by their first names, tells them stories and memories, gives them history lessons of songs, guitarists and artists, and of course, asks for their favorites for him to play.
“I remember that night at the Hobbit with Perf,” he recalls. “You know, he was the one who asked to play with me. But I think he brought onstage his 14-string guitar, not the 10. Of course, I was a bit intimidated. Alam mo, si Perf aral yun e. I can’t even read notes. But we jammed well (an understatement for the privileged few who witnessed it).”
This night is turning out well too. And it’s a pity there are only three tables or just four people who came to watch Aurillo play in only his second gig at this bar since it opened on 11 May. Well, six people actually aside from the staff, if you include Mike Kaluag, one of the owners, and Bessie Velez, Aurillo’s girlfriend, who films, collates and uploads his performances on the Internet.
A pity, indeed, but not for us who were treated unexpectedly to a somewhat more exclusive concert.
It was almost 12 midnight when I arrived. I sat down to my first beer hearing the last strains of a medley (I think it’s a medley, but with Aurillo, you can never be too sure) that included “What A Wonderful World”, “A Dream is A Wish Your Heart Makes” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a series of slow standards that Aurillo played with a fluent, flowing stream of guitar, somehow keeping the songs’ warmth and charm despite his intricacies and flair.
The performance immediately reminds me why Aurillo is regarded by music industry insiders as a genius and one of the greatest guitar players the Philippines has ever produced; at the same time telling me, sit down, boy, listen, buckle up.
He took a request, Ed Sheeran’s “Autumn Leaves” then followed it up with his own rendition of “Wonderwall” by Oasis. He played them with prominent percussive sounds, which he creates by tapping, striking and hitting the guitar, at times infusing harmonics as well, by detuning his strings.
Aurillo plays a 10-year-old electro-acoustic Takamine, which he says is a gift. It makes sense since you could play almost anything on it, even classical pieces. Takamines also stand up well to heavy use, they can last seemingly forever, not unlike this artist now playing it in front of me.
“Do you play the guitar?” he asks me. “Yes, but not even remotely close to that,” I reply matter-of-factly. He asks Mike Kaluag the same thing. “Yes. But compared to you I don’t,” Mike says.
My formal guitar lessons consisted of one summer course taken on audit with Professor Jose Valdez (Perf De Castro’s 10-string guitar mentor), which I did on a whim while teaching English in St. Scholastica’s College in the 90s, just to put some semblance of order, some basic mechanics and method to my guitar-playing, if you could even generously call it that. I took a few more music lessons three decades after in Euphonics in Makati Square, under Teacher Kevin, also a St. Scho music student of Valdez but young enough to be my son.
These formal lessons taught me to read notes and tablatures, which I can only do very slowly (I cannot sight-read to this day). I can still play some of Prof. Valdez’s arrangements like “Moon River”, “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Here, There and Everywhere”, which seem to impress a few friends. But what I would give, indeed, to be able to play like Aurillo for a night.
Classical training teaches you to use four fingers when plucking strings, thumb, index, middle and ring fingers. But what Aurillo could do with just thumb and index–this old-school fingerpicking blues player use—is more than what most guitarists can ever hope to do with all four. Indeed, if you close your eyes, you would think he must have more than five fingers in both hands playing fretboard and strings.
During a short break, which he spends drinking a pitcher of draft beer with us customers, I dare measure my left hand against his. Hmmm, I have longer fingers.
“Why?” he asks. Well, it seemed like, many times, you reached the 8th fret with your pinkie while on G from the third. “I did,” he said, demonstrating again, close up, the freakish elongation of his left-hand fingers when he calls upon them.
It’s not such displays of virtuosity though that truly sets Aurillo apart from today’s cookie-cutter acoustic guitar singers you can find in bars everywhere. It is the way he approaches and plays songs with both innovation and reverence. At times, when he introduces songs and explains the way he’ll play them, he sounds as if he’s studying for the priesthood.
In his last set, he plays a version of “Beer” that the band Itchyworms told him was the way they wished it could have sounded.
He plays a couple of old songs. First, “The Irish Girl” by the “impossible to categorize” guitarist Adrian Legg, combining both classical and jazz elements into the song, which he plays a tad slower in tempo.
Then he plays and this time also sings “My Song” by the 70s rock group Atlanta Rhythm Section, which is about the life of a travelling musician.
“My life is a stage, music’s my trade / I play the crowd’s request, the songs they like the best / But once in a while when no one’s around / I get my guitar down and play it from the heart / And I don’t play no part, it’s real, it’s just what I feel / Let this be a song for me / Yours is next but this song’s mine”
Aurillo’s not one with a full range of vocal tools at his disposal. His raspy, sandpapery voice speaks of all the vices a singer should probably shun, but he makes it work and his delivery somehow fills empty spaces in your soul.
Nowhere is this more evident than when I ask him to play Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird”, something I’d always request from any guitar player/singer in any bar I go to. (Ask Marc Velasco and Romy Jorolan, old musician friends from The Hobbit House who I still stalk wherever they are playing these days.)
Aurillo says he considers “Blackbird” one of the best Beatles songs ever, a solo McCartney effort but a Beatles song nonetheless, a song that tells about the struggles of black women in the 60s, perhaps just as timely today. Then he unstraps his guitar, sits down and plays it on his lap, somewhat like a keyboard. He sings it too.
We forgot about our drinks. We stood up from our tables, watched, listened. After the performance, we were too mesmerized, it takes us a moment to realize we should be clapping.
“What were they thinking, rejecting you in U.P.?!”I said.
He tells the story again. About how when he was 16-years-old he came with his father all the way from Tacloban, Leyte to try his luck getting into the U.P. College of Music. Back then, you needed to be able to read and play notes in order to be accepted into the program, and Aurillo could do neither.
His father, a lawyer, pleaded with the professors. Please, he said, if you could only hear him play. Just let him play one song. But they never did.
“A few years after, I found it ironic, when I was playing in The Hobbit House for like P40 pesos per gig, there were a lot of music students from U.P. who came to watch me play,” he says laughing. “Sabi nila there was a program for people like me already, that if I apply I will be accepted this time. Pero siempre kumikita nako eh. Hanapbuhay muna.”
“If you are going to write anything about me, write that. I am proud to be a U.P. School of Music reject,” he says, looking right at me. “And I mean it with no sarcasm, no sama ng loob. Really.”
For his last few songs, he takes a vote from the three tables on what to play, the choices being an original soundtrack medley, a Pinoy rock medley, a classic rock medley and a Cat Stevens medley.
We defer to the youngest among us and surprisingly the young 20-something couple seated in the table behind me chooses Cat Stevens, a British singer-songwriter whose songs I grew up to. Their parents probably did too.
“Do you even know Cat Stevens?” Aurillo asks in jest.
He goes by the name Yusuf Islam now, I say helpfully.
“Well, he will always be Cat Stevens to me,” Aurillo says. “Anyway…”
He launches into the medley–“Mornings Has Broken”, “Father and Son”, “Wild World”, “Moonshadow”—expressive, lyrical and emotive, like a one-man orchestra capturing the vivid harmonies and textures of the Cat Stevens’ compositions, perhaps as he originally intended to evoke.
Aurillo sends us off into the night all smiling, well, the morning actually.
I look at my watch for the first time since I got to the bar. It’s 3:45 a.m. These “Late Night Sessions” really end late. But no one minded. Everyone felt alive, much like one does after a cathartic experience.
I walk to my car thinking those U.P. music professors of long ago should have really let Noli Aurillo play even just one song.