For three songs, she wasn’t my girlfriend. She was a blinding source of light and wonder and I was an earthling looking up at her. I couldn’t recognize the girl who beats me up at Mortal Kombat every night; or the drinking buddy who always swears to never drink again but drinks again anyway; or the manga eater who loves to dip mangoes in frightening amounts of salt and vinegar. For three songs, she was above all that and higher.
Me? I was just awestruck and proud.
I’ve been very lucky to be sort of an embedded journalist in Rye’s journey to return to the stage after three years of blue-collar preoccupation. “Rye” is my girlfriend, Chemae. That was what they christened her in Baguio, the melting pot and battledome of musicians in the country where uncool people are probably harshly getting extinct as I type. A perfectly adequate and averagely below average guy like me wouldn’t survive that fiercely (and literally) cool place. But Chemae did — or rather, Rye. She used to be the lead vocalist for their alternative rock band called Mooncake. We’ve been together for more than a year and during that span of time, I’ve listened repeatedly to their songs which are great — and that’s not because I’m her boyfriend and I’m biased. Radical-supportive-boyfriend-mentality aside, I can confidently say Mooncake’s music rocked. In fact, one of their songs, “Payaso” is still aired in Baguio these days, I was told.
As guitar strings acquired rust and snapped in time however, Chemae faced what every musician in this country has faced and will face. Musical instruments have to be bagged and shelved and copies of lyrics have to be shredded to pursue a more practical and lucrative career elsewhere, down the slopes of Baguio for many. Relationships with bandmates also turned sour as everyone explored new personal challenges of their own. Like my demigod Ely Buendia said, any relationship, give it years and something will go wrong. He called it a natural death. In my interpretation, Mooncake died like that.
But years later, Chemae and I found ourselves in the dingy but comfortable and spacious studios of Pinoy Penguin along East Kamias in Cubao. The novice that I am in all things cool, it was my first trip to a jam studio. The sight of sleek microphones and an up-close look at a complete drum set surrounded by speakers and walls with sound-proof padding absolutely bowled me over. I felt like that wimpy guy in “Almost Famous” ogling rock stars. And the place was crawling with tattooed, pierced, gear-equipped rock starts. Inside Pinoy Penguin, I was officially a groupie.
We were there because Chemae had been invited by our former officemate, Mathew, to be the lead vocals for a band he and his friend were forming. Somehow, Mathew got wind of Chemae’s musical past and contacted me through YM about it one day. When he asked if Chemae sings and if she’d be interested in joining them, I just jumped on him and said, hell yeah! I haven’t forgotten the fact that she had been itching to relive her Baguio days for a long time. It’s come to my observation that musicians will always be musicians, no matter if they end up someday in the basement of an old building, sweeping grimy floors. They’re like soldiers. They never forget their wars.
The new band molded their new music in Pinoy Penguin with me in a corner, sitting on a stool, watching, listening. Chemae was at the mic stand, Mathew played bass, the brilliant songwriter, Gersh, played rhythm guitar, and Dawn slammed the drums. Everything was rocky at first as the four of them felt each other’s grooves. After more sessions at Penguin though, they started to generate a genuine flavor of music. They called themselves “Manaha.” Gersh is the only one who can explain the meaning of the Sanskrit term.
After just four jams, Manaha was off to their first ever gig at Don Bosco Technical College in Mandaluyong. It was a concert for a cause promoted by Jam 88.3 and headlined by none other than the amazingly talented Urbandub. Needless to say, everyone had their share of the heebie-jeebies since it was now a fact that Urbandub was going to kick everyone’s ass with some seriously epic music. Still, Manaha marched on to their baptism — Chemae to her rebirth.
Every band member of Manaha brought their partners to the gig, girlfriends and boyfriend. That was me. I was my rock star girlfriend’s reliable groupie and PA, not that I have a problem with that. In fact, I feel privileged to be in such a rare position for not everyone can look back and say, “Man, I’ve got this rock star girlfriend once…”
My heart pounded louder than Dawn has ever banged the drums as Manaha got ready to play their tunes. When Chemae stepped in front of the microphone, I just mixed in with the crowd at her feet and hoped that everything would be all right. I was probably far more nervous than any of them on the stage. And then they started, and immediately, Chemae transformed into someone whom I didn’t know. She left every bit of her mortal persona behind and turned into this impenetrable and dazzling creature Baguio folks call Rye. Her splendid voice filled every corner of the gym and Mathew, Gersh and Dawn let everyone get a taste of their fresh original music. It was simply awesome and I didn’t move an inch while watching lest I display how anxious I was. Rye danced as I’ve never seen Chemae dance before. It’s not the same stupid “Vice Ganda dance” Chemae would spontaneously do. It’s the Mooncake dance, the Manaha dance, the rock star dance — Rye dance. I was at a complete loss how any averagely below average person like me could summon the confidence to do something as publicly amazing as that.
When the three songs were over, the group shook each other’s hands for a job well done. The bandmates’ loyal partners gave their take on how each member sounded while taking a peek at the first photographs of this cool new band they got going. When the girl came down the stage, she transformed into a familiar face once more. Rye was gone, and here was Chemae, telling me how it was terribly hot on the stage and how, despite her occasionally forgetting the lyrics, the experience was unbelievable and addictive.
Another band later, and Urbandub stepped onstage to the roar of the Don Bosco crowd. Manaha’s members became fans once again as they watched and listened to the spectacular Cebuano band. Chemae was gushing over one of her most favorite bands in the world — giggling at Gab’s stage antics and crooning.
Me? I was still gushing over her. For that night, I just couldn’t believe I was going home with this woman. I was actually going home with a rock star in my arms.