On the streets of Manila, Martin Riggs lost his wallet and found his voice
MANILA, Philippines – When Martin Riggs first started busking, he didn't even know what busking was. All he knew was that his wallet was no longer in his pocket, and he still needed to make his way home.
Martin got off the bus on the way home from Adamson University, when he noticed that his wallet had been pickpocketed – but he still had to get home. The only thing he had left was his guitar. What else was there to do then, but take it out, and play for his fare?
"Tumugtog ako somewhere sa St. Dominic, malapit sa Bacoor, Cavite...nung ginawa ko siya parang, may maling nangyari sakin, pero tama yung ginagawa ko," he said.
(I was playing somewhere in St. Dominic, near Bacoor, Cavite...when I did it, it was like something wrong happened to me, but I was doing something right.)
"Siguro yun ang testament na pag may nawawala sa'yo, may mas magandang papalit (maybe that's a testament that if you lose something, something better comes along)."
At first, no one paid attention to him – until he entered a nearby bar and asked if he could play one song before the band went on. They let him, a foreigner tipped him P100, and that was enough – he went home.
It was only after that that he learned what busking was through indie artist Ace Antonio. He saw Ace playing in Bonifacio Global City (BGC), which regularly invites musicians to play in designated corners along their shopping areas – like busking lite. Martin then went to the mall closer to his home, Alabang Town Center (ATC), and asked if he could do the same thing Ace did. Like the people at that bar he first played in, they let him.
"Ang ganda (it was great)," Martin said of his first mall busking experience. But he felt something was missing.
"I wanted to try the real streets, yung parang madumi, magulo, yung parang masasaksak ka, yung parang mayroong vibe na rally, may vibe na aktibista (something dirty, messy, like a place where you can get stabbed, something with the vibe of a rally, with an activist feel)," he described.
This led him to a place that fits closer to the description of what he was looking for: in the Lawton area, near Manila City Hall – your textbook loud, busy, chaotic corner of the Metro.
"That's what changed my life."
Not that there's anything wrong with busking in malls, he was quick to add. "It's just that parang mas hapit yung kaluluwa ko sa kaluluwa ng kalsada. Lalo na yung maduming kalsada (I feel like my soul is more attuned to the streets)...it matches the, I don't know, dirtiness of my soul."
Today, Martin still plays on dirty streets – but whether he gets home or not no longer depends on the kindness of strangers. After a video of him busking went viral, he got a fateful phone call from no less than Callalily frontman Kean Cipriano – who just happened to be one of Martin's idols. When he picked up and heard who was on the other end, Martin wanted to throw his phone away in disbelief.
Kean, who was then just starting his label O/C Records, invited Martin to work with him, and now, Martin is the A&R and one of the talents of O/C.
He's also played in places that are definitely not a smelly intersection in the middle of the metro. These are venues and gigs that many aspring musicians are still only dreaming of: the likes of 19 East and Coke Studio, the latter being his first big gig, where he opened for Ben&Ben and cried out of joy while playing on stage.
When Martin does play on the streets these days, people no longer pass him by – they crowd around him, stay, and listen. One time, someone in the audience even came up to him crying, saying his music was just what they needed to get through that day.
And it isn't just passersby that join him, too – the likes of Keiko Necesario, Unique, and BennyBunnyBand have all jammed with him at his favorite spot at the 7-Eleven on P.Noval street in Sampaloc, the site of what has now become one of his projects: Street Gigs ni Martin Riggs.
In person, Martin projects a confidence that might come off as a swagger – but it's probably an effect of playing on the streets for years. You simply can't second-guess yourself when you're trying to get your voice to be heard amidst rushing vehicles, street hustlers, harried commuters, and even some potentially dangerous people .
"Parang mas mukha po kasing ako yung mananaksak kaysa sa kanila eh (I think I look more threatening than they do)," he joked.
But really, Martin said that doesn't actually know if he's safe when he's busking, "especially in a country where we're being deprived of freedom."
Manila's streets aren't exactly the dog-eat-dog, untamed urban jungle that it's often made out to be – not all of them anyway. Some parts are actually safe, with the only real danger being security guards hell-bent on shooing pretty much everyone away who isn't a just passing through.
But for someone as outspoken as Martin, even a safe spot could be dangerous. He, after all, writes and sings about pretty much everything – even testy topics that people tend not to bring up in everyday conversation.
Of love and hypocrites
During his Live Jam show on January 16, he opened slow with "Rendezvous," a song about self-discovery and figuring out one's path.
In "Tayuman," a quiet, delicate love song about missed connections and what ifs, Martin took full advantage of the Tagalog language's oddness as he demonstrated how only a handful of syllables can have completely different meanings with small changes in phrasing and stress.
It's the kind of love song that flies well with Filipino listeners: sad, but, because of the wordplay, a little funny too – the song version of the kind of meme-worthy hugot monologue delivered by the heartbroken lead in a romcom.
From that quiet love song, Martin went full on rage with "Damaso," a scathing diatribe against hypocrites – particularly hypocrites in power.
With lyrics like "Tayo'y tunay bang malaya kung ang dagat natin inangkin ng iba? Diyos umiiyak sa langit, si kamatayan tumatawa sa Malacañang," clearly Martin isn't afraid to get political – which may not be the safest thing to do in public spaces in times like this.
But for Martin, it's no matter: "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die doing what I want: exercising my freedom in the streets."
Of course, that's not to say that he doesn't appreciate playing in venues off the streets. For Martin, playing on stages allows him to perform with so many talented musicians.
"Yung joy na kasama ko yung team, yung mga kabanda ko...every time na kasama ko sila tumugtog sa stage tapos yung mga hindi ko nadidinig kapag ako lang magisa, nadidinig ko, parang di rin ako makapaniwala eh. Ang gagaling ng mga to eh...tapos kasama ko sila tumutugtog ngayon...sila yung mga idol ko nung nagsisimula palang ako."
(The joy I get when I'm with the team, with my bandmates...every time I play with them on stage, and I hear the sounds I don't hear when I'm on my own, I almost can't believe it. These guys are so good, and I play with them now. They were my idols when I was just starting out.)
Martin is set to play on another big stage, Hiwaga, on February 10. It's quite an occasion too: the first-ever Monday show of the long-held tradition that is the University of the Philippines (UP) Fair.
He also teased new releases in 2020 – but, true to his spontaneous, freewheeling nature, was loathe to reveal exact dates.
Not just passing by
No matter how big his career gets though – and at the rate he's going, it is getting bigger and bigger – Martin feels most at home on the streets where he began.
Ultimately, his mission is to make busking so normal in the Philippines that security guards will no longer chase street musicians away. It seems like a tall order for a metropolis where public spaces don't seem to belong to the public, but Martin remains hopeful.
He's so intent on this mission that he's even started a group, the Busking Community PH, a collective of musicians who collaborate and support each other as they take their music to the streets.
The group started when a documentary on Martin's life came out, and he got an influx of questions on busking and performing on the streets.
"Naisip ko since parang naging community na talaga siya ng mga busker, why not start it out? The Busking Community PH? A community of street performers na simbolo ng kalayaan sa bansa natin, kahit mumunti."
(I thought since the buskers have formed a community already anyway, why not start it out? The Busking Community PH? A community of street performers that are even just a small symbol of freedom in our country.)
In Metro Manila, the streets are, most of the time, the last place anyone wants to be. It's the place parents constantly try to get their kids out of. A typical Manila road is is crowded and smells of vehicle exhaust. The sidewalks are mostly cracked or non-existent. Personal space is a myth. Sometimes, safety is too.
Those who are just passing by, who just want to make it home may not like the idea of these artists taking up precious space on already crowded streets. But the way Martin puts it, it's already a chaotic world out there – a bit of music can't possibly make things worse.
"Laging busy ang kalsada ng Maynila, ang kalsada ng Pilipinas laging busy. Ang goal lang naman namin is bilang busker mapa-stop, look, and listen, hoping to make you happy, yun lang naman yung goal, mapasaya lang yung taong nangangailangan ng kanta o ng awit sa saglit ng buhay nila."
(Manila's streets are always busy, Philippine streets are always busy. Our only goal as buskers is to have people stop, look, and listen, hoping to make you happy. That's our only goal, to bring happiness to people who need
Anyone who is out on the street is usually just there because they're trying to get from one point to another. But as far as Martin is concerned, he's there to stay, and keep playing for as long as he can. – Rappler.com