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How Ryan Cayabyab keeps the music playing

Amanda T. Lago

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The music industry's beloved Mr C and respected Maestro is given the Ramon Magsaysay Award, recognizing a legacy that includes more than just the several hundreds of songs he's written

MANILA, Philippines – When Ryan Cayabyab was 4 years old, he played the piano for the first time. His mother guided his hands, telling him which keys to play. Four years old may seem like an early start, but Cayabyab’s mother was classical singer Celerina Pujante – music was in his genes. He tinkered with the keys, playing what he describes as a simple tune, “Me Gustan Todas.” He thought it was a song his mother made up.

In their home, all Cayabyab ever heard growing up was “serious music.” His mother only ever sang opera, kundiman, art songs. They had 10 boarders living with them, and they were all music majors who listened to and studied classical pieces. He must have thought the first song he ever played, the one his mother made up, was one such piece of “serious music.”

Many years and a musical legacy later, he would make a discovery that surprised him. With the help of his daughter and the internet, he found a video of Dean Martin and 3 women singing the very same song from his first piano lesson. It was, he realized, not “serious music,” but a pop song.

“I said, ‘That’s the song!’ I had no idea that it was an extant piece of music. So when I saw it, nalaglag ‘yung panga ko (my jaw dropped),” he said.

“The realization that my mother taught me a pop song the very, very first time that she sat me on the piano, it was a pop song, nagulat ako (I was shocked).”

It may have been a surprise for Cayabyab, but it actually makes perfect sense that the first song he ever played was a piece of popular music.

His discography, after all, is the very definition of popular music. His songs are not just popular, but ubiquitous, in a way that pratically every Filipino knows at least one Ryan Cayabyab composition. 

His music seeps into everything. There’s a “Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka” recording for every generation and mood – from Regine Velasquez’s birit-indulgent take, to Eraserheads’ grungy rendition, to Moira dela Torre’s whispery version. And then there are the countless versions of the same song as belted out on the karaoke microphone, or performed on stages big and small. 

“Whatever you do, you have to try your best and do it as best as you can.”

– Ryan Cayabyab, 2019 Ramon Magsaysay awardee 

There’s a school choir somewhere rehearsing “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” for a competition. As the Christmas season begins, carolers learn “Kumukutikutitap.” At any given moment, someone could be breaking out into “Da Coconut Nut” at random – like what the men’s choir of an American university did on a flight from Kenya to Texas in 2017.

Cayabyab is living proof that music can be a viable career choice, though perhaps one that requires more luck and pluck than most. His mother knew full well that making a living out of music was difficult, which is why when Cayabyab entered college, he initially took up accounting.

“My mother died when she was 43. I was only 6 years old. Before she died, she told my dad not to allow any of the children to pursue a career in music, which means don’t let them study higher music. Because she knows, she knows how difficult it is,” he shared.

Obviously, fate took a different turn, and the once aspiring accountant is now one of the most prolific songwriters the Philippines has seen. Today, he holds countless awards to his name – not least of which is the title of National Artist for Music, which he was given in October 2018.

More recently, he was given the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the highest honor in Asia. Among his fellow awardees are businessman and philanthropist Kim Jong-Ki, journalists Ko Swe Win and Ravish Kumar, and human rights advocate Angkhana Neelapaijit.

‘Mr C’

Cayabyab is one of the handful of musicians the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation has ever awarded, and yet for someone who holds such an esteemed title, who in fact holds several esteemed titles, many people – both fans and fellow musicians – know him simply as Mr C. 

Mr C is well-respected, but he doesn’t demand respect. He arrives to an interview earlier than everyone else. When fans ask for photos with him, he insists on taking the selfie. He has a laugh that fills the room, and the kind of smile that makes others smile. He speaks with his hands, and he tends to get lost in conversation, weaving through personal anecdotes and music industry wisdom – as if he hasn’t been asked to tell the same stories over and over again by writers, journalists, and students. 

It is this casual humility that has defined his career in more ways than one. It was humility that made him accept for instance that he was not skilled enough to be a concert pianist or orchestra conductor – and this acceptance led him to recognize his true skill: songwriting. 

Dati hindi naman ako songwriter (I wasn’t a songwriter before). My work in the industry just had something to do with, as an accompanist, I played piano for somebody, I arranged a piece of music for a singer, that was my chosen profession. Then I realized I also wanted to write music,” he said. 

“I had to imagine myself doing all the other things…. I’m not going to be a serious orchestra conductor because I’m not skilled. Wala ‘yung skill level ko doon sa orchestra conductor (my skill level is not at par with an orchestra conductor). But I can conduct, my music, my arrangements, simple pieces, so I stay where I’m good at,” he said.

“It’s a matter of defining, assessing, and deciding what you should do, and whatever you do, you have to try your best and do it as best as you can.”

As a result of his decision, he has written hundreds of songs that are loved by Filipinos across the board. It is a testament to Cayabyab’s skill that there is always something of the kundiman in his songs – however they are arranged, or whether they’re being sung by a rockstar, or the friendly neighborhood karaoke queen.

The images in his music are vivid, familiar. In “Paraiso,” he depicts an environment eroded by pollution, but one where glimpses of paradise can still be seen. In “Limang Dipang Tao” he brings the chaos of a Filipino city to life, writing about  jeepneys, throngs of people, and throwing in a bit of relationship melodrama for good measure. 

Perhaps most importantly, he nails the way Filipinos feel – especially when it comes to matters of the heart. In “Tuwing Umuulan,” for instance, he writes about a love that pours out of someone like a deluge; in “Kailan,” he writes about a longing that never wanes, even if it isn’t noticed. 

The Maestro

How such timeless and familiar songs are written is not something Cayabyab keeps to himself. He is, after all, as much The Maestro as he is beloved Mr C. 

Even in a half-hour conversation that was supposed to be about his life, Cayabyab managed to sneak in a crash course on the different branches of the music industry, explain the mechanics of how music is enjoyed, and sing a random phrase in several different ways to demonstrate the importance of language and musical phrasing. 

For Cayabyab, Filipinos have a natural musical inclination – they have the ear for it even without formal education. Musical training brings them to the next level.

“Filipinos have very good ears for music. That’s why a lot of non-music literate Filipinos still have jobs in cruise ships, bar lounges around the world,” he said.

Cayabyab started teaching at his own alma mater, the UP College of Music, before setting up his own school with his wife Emmy to make music education more accessible. The Music School of Ryan Cayabyab, which offers a variety of programs ranging from individual music lessons, to music theory, to ensemble singing, was opened in 1986, and continues to operate today.

“It was to give a chance for other people to learn music that you don’t have to get a degree for. So it’s like an alternative school for learning music,” he said.

Aside from that, he is a regular mentor at songwriting workshops and camps such as Elements, and the PhilPop Bootcamp.

Under his wing, artists such as Ben&Ben’s Paolo and Miguel Guico, Thyro, Yumi, Autotelic, Reese Lansangan, and Davey Langit have emerged. His students come from many different musical persuasions, but they were all educated by the same Maestro – which is a testament to how he makes sure not to stamp out his students’ own voice and style even as he mentors them.

“We just give them the tools, but we will not tell them, ‘You should do it this way, or your melody should go that way.’ What we do is, we just give suggestions but it’s really all up to their individual decision,” he said. 

He stressed the importance of being authentic to one’s experiences, no matter how specific or local. One of his advocacies, for instance, is for young writers to make music in their own local languages.  

“The other thing we want to encourage young writers to do is to write in their language,” he said. “It sounds really interesting, each language, because it carries with it a natural inflection. Which is why we encourage everyone to write in their language so that when they contribute to Philippine popular music…almost varied ‘yung texture ng tunog because iba ‘yung pitik (the texture of the sound is almot varied because the inflections are different).”

Cayabyab has said many times before that he believes the next generation of musicians should be better than the ones that preceded them “because that’s the only way that the music industry will move forward.”

With all due respect to Mr C, he has set the bar almost impossibly high. That is to say: What can anyone else write that he hasn’t already written?

But then again, there is nothing more promising than a maestro who keeps no trade secrets, and who continues – and will continue – to share his wealth of music knowledge to generation after generation of young artists.

“I like teaching, I like sharing what I know, and I like playing music,” he said when he accepted his award on September 9. “When I’m doing all of these, I’m very happy.”

It seems that as far as Cayabyab is concerned, the teaching never stops, and therefore, the music never ends. –

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Amanda T. Lago

After avoiding long-term jobs in favor of travelling the world, Amanda finally learned to commit when she joined Rappler in July 2017. As a lifestyle and entertainment reporter, she writes about music, culture, and the occasional showbiz drama. She also hosts Rappler Live Jam, where she sometimes tries her best not to fan-girl on camera.