Story and photos by HENRY EMPEÑO
OLONGAPO CITY — Of course, there will be no comparing Magsaysay Drive today to the time when it was a raucous playground for US military servicemen on liberty.
Back then, the length of this kilometer strip connecting Olongapo to the Subic Naval Base pulsed with blinking neon invitations for booze and girls, and the sound of rock n’ roll in its rawest form largely provided the nervous energy that radiated out into the streets.
But 25 years after the American GIs had left, the street that made Olongapo “the city that never sleeps” still rocks, although with a restrained visage that still entertains but never in excess.
At half past eight last Sunday evening and despite an uncharacteristic drizzle, a steady stream of customers entered Willis Concert Bar along Magsaysay Drive here.
The predominantly Pinoy barkada crowd sprinkled with some young Koreans listened approvingly as the five-man band obliged with mostly mellow-rock requested songs. From a cover of Harem Scarem’s “Honestly,” the band progressed to Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” and segued for the final rendition of Yano’s “Banal na Aso…” And the crowd erupted into whistles and cheers.
This scenario could very be the norm at the top-rated music establishments in Magsaysay Drive today, where blaring heavy metal rock has been largely supplanted by the calmer sound of acoustic guitar and beat box.
At the nearby Brews Bistro, another five-man band initially belted out Kool & the Gang’s orgiastic anthem of “Celebration” and the Pointer Sisters’ infectious “I’m So Excited” groove, but then soon mellowed down into classic hits by the soft music duo The Carpenters and the country-pop soloist Lobo.
Even at the youth watering hole of Padi’s Point, where teenagers in jerseys and ball caps down the heady gin-pomelo mix from tower dispensers and dance to techo house mixes during breaks, the main repertoire was unabashedly slow rock and folksy: Oasis’s “Champagne Supernova” and the OPMs (Original Pilipino Music) “Pansamantala” and “Pangako.”
What has happened?
Singers and listeners alike observe that the taming of the so-called ‘Gapo sound has been set into motion by audience preference. As US military servicemen in the late 60’s and early 70’s drowned out the horrors of the Vietnam War with the so-called acid rock, workers who took their place in the emerging Subic Bay Freeport switched to softer music that relaxed them after work.
The instance that the Americans left, the culture changed. And this place where rock bands played to overflowing audience at Sierra Club, Cal Jam, Rock Trax and Genesis—establishments that were the buzz words among American sailors, as well as base workers—ceased to be the same again.
Noel dela Rosa, a restaurant manager in a hotel at the Subic Bay Freeport and a regular music bar-goer, says most of the Magsaysay clientele today who work in the free port zone prefer acoustic bars where they can talk with their drinking companions while keeping the music in the background.
“That’s why some bars lost their customers when they began using drum sets and electric guitars,” Dela Rosa notes. “On the other hand, there’s a significant sector of the younger ones who prefer techno and disco music, so they go to Club V or to Noctunal (which are basically disco houses).”
DJ Tommy G and DJ Rhon, who both anchor music programs over DWSB-FM, or the Subic Bay Radio, also agree that the local music entertainment scene has evolved over the years and is way far different from its rock n’ roll roots.
“It’s still Western-influenced, because the local audience on the average prefer what’s the latest hits, but it’s now mostly American Top 40,” DJ Tommy explains.
“But when there’s a really hot OPM number, grabe ‘yung flooding ng requests. So it’s a mix really. Kung ano ‘yung latest, ‘yun ang tinatangkilik,” DJ Tommy notes further.
DJ Rhon, meanwhile, observes that a lot of listeners prefer OPM love songs, particularly those popularized by singer-actresses or by noted Filipino bands. She says that this trend in the radio could also be the case for live music bars in Olongapo: the audience simply wants to hear the latest.
The preference for new songs and music and the departure from the rock n’ roll genre, however, has taken a toll among local musicians, says Art Acosta, a local folk singer who started out in 1985 from singing at pizza houses along Magsaysay that flourished during the American years.
“Endangered species na kami ngayon, kasi wala nang sumusunod sa yapak namin,” the 50-year old Acosta muses. “Nang umalis ang mga Amerikano, nawala na rin unti-unti ang folk music.”
Noting that Olongapo music is steeped in the American tradition of folk and rock, he recalls that this has given Olongapo its distinct sound.
He says that because of this influence, Olongapo has become the proving ground where a lot of Pinoy wannabe singers earned their spurs before they galloped into fame and popularity elsewhere. This was true, Acosta says, of a lot of performers the likes of Freddie Aguilar and Arnel Pineda and big Pinoy bands like Maria Cafra and Juan dela Cruz.
Acosta warns that embracing the latest trends had only diminished the identity of local musicians and diluted their mark in the music scene.
“The so-called acoustic music now is not the authentic folk that we knew of. They’re only labeled as acoustic now because they use acoustic instruments—like using guitar instead of the original piano,” Acosta points out.
As of now, Acosta says that very few singers do folk music the way it was intended to be. “Hindi mo na ito makikita pa sa Magsaysay.”
But that, he adds, is also the beauty of it—the loyal followers of authentic folk seek him and his kind. “Hindi mga bagong kanta ang market namin, kundi ‘yung classic songs,” Acosta says proudly. “Hindi ito naluluma kasi luma na.”
What may be good about the evolution of the Magsaysay sound is that it has brought about the emergence of variants from the rock n’ roll roots that suited the mixed tastes of today’s audiences and thus helped keep Olongapo rocking until this very day.
Ironically, according to DJ Tommy, the demise of American rock from the local music scene has not diminished the number of patrons at Magsaysay Drive; the numbers even increased.
“The good-timers during that time were American sailors, and so they were here only when the ships are in,” DJ Tommy points out. “Now, the customers are workers at the Freeport who live here, and thus go to their favorite establishments by the herd—that is, they bring their friends or family members over.”
The adoption of various musical genres has also resulted in the formation of more local bands, he adds.
“Right now we have several young bands that are considered the best in their respective fields. There’s One Way Street, for pop; Fundamentals, for pop and reggae; Brown Candles for reggae; Authentic for classic rock; and Dzyre, which is doing a mixed repertoire,” informs DJ Tommy.
The continuing love for good music among the habitués of Magsaysay Drive could be gleaned from the audience last Sunday at Sam’s Pizza Restaurant, a favorite family dining place among locals here in Olongapo City.
Despite the continuing drizzle that night, diners still scrambled for seats until around 10 o’clock. On stage, a young folk group dished out Ed Sheeran’s “Lego House” and Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” earning applause from young and old folks alike.
Then the Oldies But Goodies Band, an Olongapo original, took the next set and the audience erupted into applause as they started out with the immortal Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”
Soon, the audience, on their seat, was swaying to the beat of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” And not a few took out their cell phones and took pictures and video of the show.
After that, the place came even more alive with the Three Dog Night’s “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog,” as well as with the Connie Francis original “Stupid Cupid.”
Sure, it was drizzling outside. But with good friends, good food and good music, it was a good time.
TOP PHOTO: Magsaysay Drive at night: restrained sights and sounds, but keeps on rocking