Esteemed Filipino music composer Ryan Cayabyab struggles to recall the first song he ever wrote.
"Maybe I was about 12 years old. Kasi noon pa lang medyo marunong na kong sumulat ng notes. Ang title nga niya 'Dirge'—I just wrote a melody from a classmate's poem," Ryan fondly looks back in a conversation with PEP (Philippine Entertainment) at Arts in the City along Bonifacio Global City in Taguig.
(A dirge is a solemn song expressing grief or mourning and appropriately played during a funeral.)
It was a small step that eventually would lead to giant strides for the young musician.
Decades later, that same faint little schoolboy would rise to compose some of the most memorable tunes found in the local music catalogue.
OPM gems such as "Limandipang Tao," "Araw Gabi," "Tunay na Ligaya," "Minsan ang Minahal ay Ako," "Mamang Kutsero," "Paraiso," "Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka, "Kailan," "Paraiso," "Kailan," "Dahil Sa Iyo," "Kahit Ika'y Panaginip Lang," and "Paraisong Parisukat," among many others, all carry Cayabyab's imprint.
Mr. C (as he would be called in the music industry) would likewise branch out to dabble in theater musicals, orchestral pieces, choral pieces, film and television scoring, and pop recordings, aside from being a well-travelled musical director.
EARNING MUSICIAN. Ryan's journey as one of the country's prominent musicians was a strange fusion of talent, life-changing events, and downright luck.
"I never thought that there was a work called 'musician' or 'composer.' Hindi ko alam 'yon. My mother was an opera singer. So ang alam ko lang performance or magturo kasi 'yong nanay ko teacher sa UP College of Music. Basically, 'yon lang ang alam ko sa pagiging musician," says Cayabyab.
Financial constraints forced him to find employment immediately after graduating from high school. Legend has it that the main reason the young musician took up a business course at the University of the Philippines was in deference to his mother's dying wish: that no one among her children would take music as a career because of its limited earning potential.
Ironically, it was music that would provide Cayabyab the means to pursue his college education.
"Hindi ko alam kung anong trabaho ang meron," Cayabyab shakes his head. "Pero alam ko marunong akong mag-piano."
The Bachelor of Science in Business Administration student wound up playing the keys in a music store in Quiapo while at the same time hoping to be hired for extra small gigs.
Cayabyab, at the age of 15, was able to secure a job as a pianist for a choir group after somebody suggested that he audition for the part.
"Nakuha ako!" exclaims Cayabyab in vivid recollection. "By the time I was already working my way through college and I didn't know na trabaho pala ang pagiging musician."
The budding musician's luck took a dramatic turn after he was picked by matinee idol-singer Cocoy Laurel to be his accompanist during live performances.
"Join naman ako kasi masaya lang, e. Masaya lang maging musician," smiles Cayabyab.
"Tapos mamaya binabayaran na ako sa pagtugtog ko at sa pagsulat ng konting arrangements. Trabaho na pala 'yon! Until now lagi kong sinasabi na I never thought of music as work. But wow! People are paying for these things kasi kailangan nila ng ganyan at ng ganito so it became a profession for me."
Cayabyab's musical talent was simply too much to be ignored. After finishing his third year in college, then-Senator Salvador Laurel offered Cayabyab a scholarship in music education to allow him to further to grow and nurture his skills.
THE SONGSMITH. Taking a formal course did allow Cayabyab to hone his natural talent. Even more important was the fact that education widened his knowledge about the craft more than just concocting melodies by ear and feel.
"Actually, my training is not in songwriting," he clarifies. "I graduated from UP College of Music as a composition major. So 'yong disiplina na tinuturo dun is serious music. Meaning, we have to study Western music as well as Eastern music. We study the discipline of music per se in general. We of course studied the history of Philippine music, composition, theory and literature—that's what you learn in school."
Cayabyab throughout the course of his inspiring career has composed and written a wealth of materials now considered as genuine OPM classics. But like any composer or artist who fondly treats every idea like it were his or her own child, Cayabyab would rather not pick any personal favorites.
"There's none that I would say as favorite ko," replies Cayabyab. "As a matter of fact, when I do a song I'm so excited and happy na laging iniisip ko 'yon ang best song ko. Pero give me a week or two and I would say na sawa na ko sa song ko. I don't like to hear it pero once in a while pag narinig ko ulit sasabihin ko 'Uy, maganda pala 'yon'. But like everything that I've done, I would put them aside and maybe seek new ideas and seek new ways to create new materials."
Cayabyab confesses cringing in embarrassment every time he would hear some of his early works—a common reaction shared by most artists who view their old materials as somewhat inferior, brought about perhaps by limited experience and circumstances during the time the works were created.
"I keep going back to the older songs that I've done. But I like the newer ones kasi ewan ko, feeling ko nababaduyan o nakokornihan ako sa mga luma kong ginawa. I don't know, maybe because nararamdaman ko na ako 'yon nung time na 'yon," he says.
"But that's what songwriting is all about. You date the songs that you write and para bang that was you ten years ago. It says kung anong pananaw mo sa buhay, yung kinakain mo nung time na 'yon. Let's say na 'yong time na yun mahilig ka sa siopao, nung time na yun ang hilig mo pumunta sa mall. Pero ngayon iba na 'yong hilig ko, iba na 'yong gusto kong gawin so hindi na ganun 'yong mga music na ginagawa ko. So, songs date you, the music that you write gives you milestones in your life."
THE MAESTRO AS TEACHER. Many young talents of today, regardless of genre and musical preference, look up to Mr. C both as an inspiration and icon.
To help aspiring songwriters, Cayabyab, along with a handful of Filipino composers, will conduct a workshop to be given to 60 lucky participants on November 14 to 18 at Dumaguete in Negros Oriental. The project is called The 1st Elements National Songwriting Camp.
Much has changed in the music business globally with the advent of technology, which for Cayabyab is both an advantage and disadvantage to young and even veteran songwriters and artists.
"Ang pinaka-challenge ng songwriter is suwerte ka kung ma-pick up ang kanta mo at maging hit. Ang challenge ng nag-uumpisang songwriter is paano mo mapaparinig ito sa tamang avenue at paano ito makakaabot sa isang A&R na mamimili ng kanta. Paano ba ito makakanta, let's say gusto mong kumanta nito ay si Gary Valenciano, e hindi naman ako kilala. So like everybody else, lahat kami dumadaan dun, nagsa-submit kami ng kanta namin for consideration because that's the way to do it," explains Cayabyab.
He continues, "If you ask me, everything is there kasi ngayon hindi na uso 'yong mainstream, ang uso ngayon independent. Siyempre you still have the mainstream, the big guns, the big recording companies. But like film, nandiyan na 'yong YouTube, nandiyan na 'yong Internet and you can upload your songs and let it roam free, so it is much easier. 'Yong time namin isa lang ang route, maghanap ka ng producer na magpu-produce ng kanta mo. Ngayon, marunong ka mag-gitara, harap ka lang sa camera mo tapos kantahin mo 'yong kanta mo then post mo sa YouTube dasal ka lang na sana may makakita. Actually mas maraming avenue ngayon pero mas marami kang kalaban."
Despite the obvious difference the industry does its business nowadays, Cayabyab remains unconvinced that modern music lacks substance as compared to its pre-Internet predecessors.
"Wala akong bias na ganyan," Cayabyab reacts. "Each generation will produce its own geniuses and its own basuras. Meaning, walang generation na magsasabi na kami ang pinakamagaling. Nagkataon lang na nauna kami, so mas matagal ang longevity ng kanta namin at mas marami ang may alam ng kanta namin."
At 56, Mr. C shows no sign of ever slowing down. Aside from teaching and serving as mentor to the young generation of composers and singers, he will soon be seen in a television program while still actively composing tunes and accepting commissioned projects from time to time.
"I plan to still write music, write bigger work kasi I've been writing bigger works even before for masses, operas and musicals and I miss that. But right now I'm writing a musical about the life of a local saint pero matagal pa 'yon," beams the Maestro.