20 March 2010


Country When Convenient: Chapter One

When I started playing the guitar again, after about a decade of only singing in the shower, of course people were curious.

And when they asked, I always told them about working in an office, not getting home until after dark, feeling sorry for myself, trying to feel better by channel surfing, and thereby catching one live broadcast of Good Morning America when Brad Paisley happened to be on. One thing led to another, and after a few months of listening to him and other Country artists, it occurred to me that I couldn't properly appreciate their homegrown sound unless I had a guitar.

To this day, Country is a bright ray of optimism in that soundtrack of my life--even if the light only comes from my PC monitor when I'm listening to Internet radio. Yet it's also the anti-soundtrack. I love Paisley's songs precisely because they're about the unfamiliar.

The only one who never asked about Christine was my mother. She didn't think for one second that I had "decided" to take up the guitar. The moment I came home with my new toy and started finger picking my way through songs she had never even heard of was a moment she had known would come when I was still in the womb, and when she had just broken up with my father. I wouldn't meet him until I was five.

In my biased opinion, the main thing to know about my father is that he had a great career in the local music industry all throughout the 1970s, coming out with one of the most groundbreaking jazz albums in the history of Philippine music. It was the sort of album which makes one's name forever. (Think: Charlton Heston doing only Ben-Hur or Charlotte Bronte writing only Jane Eyre.) He could have bowed out of the music scene then and there and still have been sure that he would be admired for as long as there are Filipinos who take music seriously . . . and that was almost exactly what happened.

To continue the main thing, my father had some trouble moving into the 80s. He didn't at all like the new technology taking over the recording studio, and he refused to work with it. Perhaps the crack he was taking gave him additional delusions of grandeur. Yet, even allowing for exaggeration, he ended up never working in a recording studio again.

The last time I saw him, almost half my life ago, was the Christmas I got my first guitar, which I never named and never really bonded with. I took it along when my mother dropped me off at his house, and I remember them getting into a small squabble about it. He told her that she had bought me the wrong kind of guitar--and she wasn't pleased that someone who had never bought me anything had the audacity to pick on her shopping.

That wasn't true, though: he came to one of my birthday parties once and gave me one of those tiny plastic pianos which plays only eight electronic notes. A crappy gift. But even then, I think I knew it was supposed to mean something. When one of the best musical talents in the country gives his child a piano--even a crappy plastic one--it's not a random gift.

He did almost make up for it on the Christmas of my first guitar--the guitar he disapproved of on sight--when he gave me my first lesson. Imagine the awkward fit: my mother's guitar, my father's instruction, my fledgling attempt to understand a world of music that she had accepted, and he was hoping, would be my birthright.

About a year later, when I rang him on his birthday, he said that he had seen a guitar that he had wanted to get for me. It was a baby guitar of excellent craftsmanship--perfect for my small hands and the quality of music he thought I deserved. He hadn't got it for me, though, because it was a little out of his price range. Then I admitted that I had given up on the guitar a few months before, so it wasn't really necessary to get me anything.

Fast forward more than ten years. Now I have Christine and am wondering about him again. I managed to get in touch with his sister, who hasn't seen me since I was small. She asked me to send her a recent picture of myself so that she could see how I had turned out.

I sent a group shot with my friends, but didn't say which one I was. Not that I needed to: in her reply, she told me she could have picked me out of a crowd. "You have," she wrote, "your father's eyes."

I hadn't known that. What I did know was that I have his fingers. During that first (and only) guitar lesson, whenever I needed to rest my hands, he'd hold my them and remark how long my fingers were--how perfectly suited for making music.

No surprise there: I guess my hands have always been little copies of his own. It feels so right to use them to press down on and to pluck the strings of my new guitar. I manage with some level of natural ease, though probably not his own raw genius.