A look back: Elements Music Camp 2015

Francis Brew Reyes

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A look back: Elements Music Camp 2015
Francis Brew Reyes takes us back to the 5-day music camp

MANILA, Philippines – With her pale skin, jet black hair, and black eyeliner, Casper Buenaflor had the air of a goth artiste; her sneakers and fresh denims countered her melancholic mien.

The afternoon was bright and here, in one of the many picturesque nooks of the vast Hacienda Isabella, Buenaflor and 7 of her 59 fellow Elements campers were gathered in a circle for the first of many collaborative activities. 

Her eyes, naturally sad, were welling up; her voice quivering, as Elements Camp Mentors Trina Belamide and Gerard Salonga listened intently to a deeply personal story. Buenaflor’s fellow campers were quiet; they too had just shared personal anecdotes and were slowly recovering from a sense memory exercise more akin to a spiritual retreat or a Lee Strasberg acting workshop than a music camp. Buenaflor finished her story by pronouncing her personal faith, and Belamide maintained her composure.

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

Later in the night, Buenaflor was onstage, guitar in hand, and sang powerfully like a darker Florence Welch accented by an Antony Hegarty-esque vibrato. She remained shy offstage but it was clear that, like her Elements-mates, she was, well, in her element and willing to open up confidently with her own song. The sense memory exercise might have helped; aware of each other’s vulnerabilities and strengths, the campers were, in a scant few hours, no longer strangers or competitors to each other. They let their guard down and everybody felt equal.  

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

Although now on its 6th year, 7101 Music Nation’s annual Elements Singing-Songwriting Camp remains a whispered industry detail to mass audiences feeding on a steady diet of trending noontime show celebrities. Among musicians and songwriters however, Elements is now a must-qualify-for yearly gathering.

Sixty singer/songwriters in the 18-35 age range are picked from hundreds from all over the country, regardless of musical genre or topic. The main requirement is original songs. Those who make it to camp, at the very least, offer a unique turn-of-phrase musically or lyrically without getting too much into self-indulgent esoterica. In other words, original songs, regardless of genre with enough pop potential – and this is not to use the term pejoratively or cynically. Hey, a jazz standard like “How High the Moon” was once considered pop just as the abrasive riffs of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (the commodification of Kurt Cobain’s image and likeness notwithstanding) were and still are considered to be accessible melodies.

Camp director Maestro Ryan Cayabyab, industry veteran Twinky Lagdameo, and Tao Corp’s Julio “Jun” Sy are the heart and soul of Elements. Their immediate collective goal is to discover singer/songwriters; the bigger picture goal is to infuse new blood into the musical ecosystem. 

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

This year’s Elements camp narrowly happened. Regularly held in the Bahura Resort in Sy’s hometown of Dumaguete, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit forced two-day flight cancellations, which meant a huge logistical nightmare. Less than two weeks before the dates, 7101 Music Nation was pondering whether to postpone the camp to next year or find a venue within Luzon and proceed as scheduled.

Music diva Kuh Ledesma’s Hacienda Isabella, known mostly for weddings, became the new Elements home. With its large land area and architectural variety, it quickly felt like a small village peopled by artists armed with guitars and portable keyboards. (Ledesma supposedly even helped out in the kitchen herself, and treated the guests to a live performance later in the week.) 

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

Once the campers and mentors arrived at the Hacienda, they practically hit the ground running. In previous years, the entourage would arrive at brunch, be assigned their quarters, gather for a general assembly mid-afternoon, and then allowed to rest until dinnertime where they get to jam and play their own material. (This is dubbed “White Night,” as everybody is required to wear at least one article of white clothing).

This year, the first module, “I Am A Brand,” presented by international music industry veteran Terry Waterhouse, occurred right after brunch. Early on, the campers were reminded that, whether they were aware of it or not, they were at the very least essentially their own commodity. More importantly, Waterhouse pointed out that the most successful artists in music history are self-aware of their own uniqueness and knew how to use it. He also emphasized that as a Briton who now lives in Asia, he is all too aware that Filipinos are, by nature, the best musicians in the region – and excellent simulations of their heroes. Waterhouse verbalized 4 words that will be repeated by all the other mentors: Find your own voice.

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

The sense memory exercise was part of Audie Gemora’s “Introduction To Performance.” He said research revealed that the thing that most people fear most is not death but performing in front of a live audience.

Emmy Cayabyab’s (Mr C’s better half) gave a workshop on proper vocalization. Immediately after the hour long session, the campers were split into 10 groups for a more involved application of Gemora’s module.

In previous years, it was tucked in the middle of all else, and he expressed last year that what he was trying to teach simply cannot be whittled down to a mere hour. The early placement and longer application time loosened up the campers. Along with Cayabyab’s vocal crash course and Waterhouse’s emphasizing uniqueness, the campers were, from what is normally Camp Day 0, more prepared to deal with the next 4 days perhaps more confidently than in the previous years’ batches. Consequently, the results of the two separate collaborative songwriting assignments on Monday and Tuesday were astoundingly consistent, full of melodic content and lyrical wit. There is a fine line between self-consciousness and self-awareness, and the latter is generally more apropos for teamwork.

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

The mentors themselves are the creme-de-la-creme of the music industry and  tackled each of their respective subjects with the expected knowledge and insight only experience (the good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy) can provide. From conquering fear (Jim Paredes), to dissecting Philippine music history (Joey Ayala), to jingle writing (Jazz Nicolas and Jungee Marcelo), to publishing and copyright laws (Trina Belamide) to name a few, the 28 (!) modules covered important aspects of creativity and the machinations of the music industry.

Arguably, an hour per module is barely enough to accommodate every possible question raised but at the very least, the campers were reminded that talent alone does not necessarily a career make.

The 2015 guest speakers expanded beyond local experts and consequentially local audiences: Tom Lee Music’s John Lee, Billboard’s Jonathan Serbin, YouTube’s James Koo, and Orchard’s Mike Baldo each gave insights and analyses regarding the international market and how to possibly navigate those waters.  

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

Even from its first year, the Elements Camp never said that the industry was going to be easy, nor did it promise “stardom” for the participants. As truncated as the modules are, they do provide enough insight to help the campers realize that a lot of what they decide to do with their careers is largely in their own hands. It is this grounding, stripped of the “showbiz” pretenses, that validates and valuates its existence.

While all the campers are equipped with fine singing voices and songwriting skills, their backgrounds and experiences personal and professional are varied and wide ranging. For example, there’s actress/singer Isabelle De Leon, who sat wide-eyed and serious, dutifully taking notes as Joey Ayala spoke, belying any of her own experiences in the entertainment industry.

Somewhere in the middle of the room, Aliya Parcs, Nicole ‘Nyko Maca’ Severino Lim, and Roxanne Barcelo pondered on some possible missteps they made in their ongoing careers and eventually asked the mentors how things could be corrected.

There were a few painful reality checks for them and, in a way, for their lesser-known campmates who had yet to deal with business concerns. The Ransom Collective’s Kian Ransom, We Are Imaginary’s Ahmad Tanji, Autotelic’s Josh Villena, and Farewell Fair Weather’s Mic Manalo are all known names in the local indie scene. During the camp, they discovered that they still shared the same basic creative and professional concerns as Jonathan Sibay from Zamboanga, Lorie Soriano from Dumaguete, and Bryan Figueras from Batangas. Figueras, who talks incessantly in a thick Batangueño accent, would eventually share tongue-in-cheek Congeniality Awards with De Leon. The diminutive Sibay shared Crush Ng Bayan with Barcelo. 

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

For every story, joke or anecdote delivered by the mentors practically 24/7 (the revered Gary Granada himself reminded everyone that laughter is important), there was a constant reminder of musical challenges to be conquered during and beyond the camp. For example, in the relay game “The Racing Maze,” teams had to either dance the tinikling in odd meters (5/8 or 7/8 instead of the normal 4/4) or vocally harmonize major, minor, and diminished chords as an extension of Gerard Salonga’s basic ear training module.

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

As talented as all the campers are as singer/songwriters, the mere mention of the words “music theory” was enough to have most of them sweat nervously. These challenges served as reminders that raw talent, while an excellent platform, must be shaped somehow by mastery on their respective instruments. Some of them are already burgeoning virtuosos (acoustic guitarist LJ Manzano and fretless bassist Allen Mamaid are at least two examples). AkaFellas’ Jona Paculan, able to sing and identify intervals by ear, effortlessly guided his teammates in the exercise.

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

Between modules, assignments, and activities, the atmosphere was festive and non-competitive. The third evening’s highlight was a first in Elements Camp history: LJ Manzano discretely asked if he could, after his performance, propose to his now-fiancee Joan Da, who was also accepted into the camp. Ebe Dancel then performed a ballad for the beaming couple.

The familiar atmosphere was enhanced by Elements alumni Ramiru Mataro, Talia Reyes, Mic Llave, Bullet Dumas, and Zion Aquino who volunteered to run on-ground errands and acted as activity facilitators. The campers and mentors also gathered for a rendering of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which was filmed and immediately uploaded to YouTube as a tribute to the victims and survivors of the Parisian tragedy. 

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

On the last evening, other alumni including Tiny Corpus, April Hernandez, KA Antonio, Zsaris Mendioro, and Keiko Necesario dropped by, thanks to the convenience of having the camp near Manila.

On the final day, Lagdameo delivered the closing remarks as did the ever affable Jungee Marcelo who played with myriad definitions of the acronym OS – “Operating System,” “Original Song.” Maestro Cayabyab was thanked with a surprise performance from Aiza Seguerra and Jay Durias. Seguerra’s trademark emotive, vulnerable singing left most of the people with moist eyes under the dry mid-day sun. It was a profoundly poignant moment, as even on the first day, the campers were eager to show their gratitude, not only to the Maestro but to Sy and Lagdameo as well. 

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

So what happens after camp besides the lessons and the bonding? Generally, it really is up to the campers to, hopefully, as solo artists or with their own bands, make better creative and professional decisions.

There have been a number of previous participants who arguably learned enough to forge ahead with varying degrees of renown. Batch 4 camper Reese Lansangan recently released her acclaimed indie debut, Grammar Nazi.

Batch 5’s Jensen Gomez leads his band Jensen and The Flips, and the video for their latest single, “Dangerous,” was recently finished. In addition, Gomez is a composer for MCA.

Batch 1’s Bullet Dumas, regarded as one of the most truly unique singer/songwriter/guitarists in recent history, is managed by Stages and has guested in Gary Valenciano’s concerts.

Keiko Necesario from Batch 3 contributed a song to the AlDub phenomenon and released her first EP.

Batch 4’s Davey Langit, known for “The Selfie Song” placed second in the most recent PhilPop competition with his tune “Paratingin Mo Na Sya Sige Na Lord;” his batch mates Thyro Alfaro (himself now a highly successful songwriter and Batch 6 mentor) and Yumi Lacsamana placed first with “Triangulo.” 

Most of the campers organize Campers’ Nights in Manila and a few in the provinces. Now with 360 alumni so far, it is a growing and active community as campers keep in touch and support each other’s gigs and projects.

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

Truthfully of course, not everyone will have a fair shake as a “star,” and some may even decide to explore other areas of an industry ripe for reinvention, reshaping, and restructuring.

It would be interesting if another entity or sponsor would partner up with 7101 Music Nation (which is fueled by Tao Corp) to support a campus tour or something similar for the other campers who may not have the personal confidence or the geographic accessibility of Thyro or Bullet. That 7101 Music Nation is doing so annually, with all expenses paid for 60 campers plus the mentors, without any mass media campaign, is altruistic.

Photo by Francis Brew Reyes/Rappler

To expect them to put up high profile post-camp events is probably pushing it: they also travel across the country to hold live auditions months before the scheduled camp dates. One does wonder about the financial implications and sustainability of the entire project that, thankfully, is past its initial 5-year plan, but only a souless cynic would view it as exploitative: there were no economic profits made here. Songwriting is a nation building exercise as Gary Granada and the other mentors often say; beneath the music-making, this seems to be the raison d’être for the Elements without being preachy. 

Untouched by any specific political, commercial, and religious agendas that drive every argument in the country (the mentors themselves come from different and even contrasting personal and professional convictions), the Elements Camp maintains its purity of intent. It claims to be all about finding and helping original (as much as that word means) local talent – and stands by it.

Perhaps another entity could act as an extra resource and give the project an extra leg and reach. The question, however, is what potential partner would do so without aggressively pushing its own corporate agenda (which is normal; business is business). The creativity is certainly abundant and, as with any natural resource, open for exploitation and appropriation.

Thankfully, the campers themselves are taught how to navigate their end of the business even though some of them have signed unfortunate contracts in the past with companies that have turned them into frozen delights. To call Elements “empowering” is not off-the-mark. 

Three days after camp, Autotelic’s drummer Gep Macadaeg asked this writer how camp went. I told him it was both fun and enlightening. These are probably understatements compared to what his bandmate Josh had experienced as a participant. “Yeah, Josh said it changed his life,” he said, smiling, with a twinkle in his eye. “He showed us some really new ideas….I mean, they’re still melodic as usual but…different….I can’t explain it. And we’re really excited! Basta!” 

And then you wonder about the 59 others who became just as inspired and illuminated, the 300 that preceded, and the next 60 in the new year. 

(For more details and personal stories from the campers, visit 7101 Music Nation’s media outlet Radio Republic at radiorepublic.ph)

 Francis Brew Reyes is a musician and music writer. He played guitar for The Dawn, Peso Movement, POT, and other acclaimed artists and is responsible for the 5 note MTRCB theme. He was a music blogger for Yahoo PH and former chief announcer of NU107. 

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