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Joey Ayala’s Gawad ng Sining Award is Long Overdue

  •   3 min reads
Joey Ayala’s Gawad ng Sining Award is Long Overdue
Joey Ayala's Facebook page

Ayala was the southern man’s voice, bleeding with sincerity, his lyrics resonant with the truths he held closely

By Joey Salgado

In the 80s, Joey Ayala was the poet-musician from Davao whose songs read like dispatches from the front, battlegrounds of place and mind. 

His was the southern man’s voice, bleeding with sincerity, the lyrics resonant with the truths he held closely. Ayala’s songs were a wicked brew of folk, rock, and the rich musical heritage of the island’s indigenous cultures. They were not the typical protest songs activists have been accustomed to. They were not the acoustic-pop hits played on radio, either. Ayala’s songs were boundary breaking.

Ayala’s first two albums, “Panganay ng Umaga” and “Magkabilaan,” released on cassette by the independent label DEMS Records, were handled with the same care and discretion given to pasa bilis notes, those letters from members of the underground folded several times over to make them easier to conceal. For most of his early converts - activists, NGO workers, artists - Ayala was a discovery too precious to share outside their tiny circle.

In his introduction to “Mga Awit ni Joey Ayala,” a songbook published in 1992, he recalls his early years as an itinerant soul; born in Bukidnon, raised in Los Baños then Cubao, before relocating to Davao City. This restlessness, the resistance to keeping still, is evident in his poetry, music, and disposition. It defies or refuses convenient labels. 

On labels, Ayala wrote: “I have a strange feeling that labels reveal more about the labeller than the labellee.”

“In a sense, these songs are my labels on the world. they describe what I see and sometimes prescribe what I think others should see, interrelatedness, being, wholeness and integration. All these in the everyday course of being or trying to be human.”

His songs are both grand and granular, raging and caressing, as fluid as an eagle’s wings in flight or terror-inducing like the taste of gunpowder in the mouth. In these two albums, Ayala offered songs as social commentary, a prompt for introspection, vessels for poetry, protest, and performance. 

The obvious list: “Bangkerohan,” “Padayon,” “Magkabilaan,” “Maglakad,” “Wala Nang Tao sa Sta. Filomena,” “Agila,” “Walang Hanggang Paalam.”  

The deep cuts: “Awit ng Mortal,” “Panganay ng Umaga,” “Saan ka Patungo Panganay Ko?”, “Ikaw na may Baril,” “Buwan Buwan,” “Bata-Batuta.” 

In 1991, Ayala signed to a major label, had his albums reissued on CD, and promptly invaded the mainstream. Not selling out, as some grumbled, but perhaps buying in. 

In his performances, Ayala wielded a hegalong modded with a pick up (“Can you play Little Wing on that?,” someone once asked him during a gig in the US). He was almost always dressed in tribal colors, dancing barefoot, while intoning, “Ako po’y karaniwang tao lamang” on noontime variety shows.

Joey Ayala's Facebook page

Forty two years after the release of his first album and more than 30 years after going mainstream, Ayala has been awarded the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining by the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The award recognizes Ayala “for his works as a composer, songwriter and singer that popularized the use of indigenous musical instruments, in the contemporary idiom, which contributes greatly to the development of Philippine music.”

The recognition is well deserved and long overdue.


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