‘Magkaisa:’ It’s the song, not the singer
Once in a rare while, Filipino-Americans in the quiet suburbs of Virginia would recognize Virna Lisa. More often than not, they would need a little prompting to jog their memory, but her connection to the Edsa revolution anthem, “Magkaisa,” frequently does the trick.
“I know that the song is more popular than the singer and I am fine with that,” the former recording artist, who is now based in the United States, told the Inquirer when she visited Manila recently.
Virna Lisa would willingly take the backseat for the song, which she is proud to say is still played and performed three decades after it was composed by Tito Sotto, Homer Flores and Ernie de la Peña in honor of the People Power uprising that toppled the Marcos regime in 1986.
“Those who were born that time are 30 years old now,” she said. “But I have former classmates whose teenaged children know the words to the song, which, I heard, is taught in some schools.”
That is quite a testament to the “universal, timeless” appeal of the song, she said.
Virna Lisa has passed on to her own three children, all born and raised in the United States, the story behind the “classic hit” song.
“When they were younger, they would tease me about it,” she said. But now that they are older, they’ve come to realize its significance.
“My youngest, who is a budding singer-actress, thinks it’s awesome,” she said.
The story of her “accidental” stardom never gets old, as far as her kids (ages 23, 12 and 16) are concerned.
She would regale them with the story of how she was “discovered” by Sotto, now a reelectionist senator, at a dance concert held in Adamson University in October 1985.
“A family friend asked my dad if I could sing there,” she said. With a minus-one cassette tape as accompaniment, she sang “Bridges.”
She wasn’t even aware that Sotto was in the audience.
Sotto was a golf buddy of her father, Toyota Tamaraw executive Joey Loberiza. Sotto’s wife, singer-actress Helen Gamboa, was a colleague of Virna Lisa’s late mom, Aura Aurea, also a former movie actress.
Still, when Sotto offered the possibility of a show biz career, the then 20-year-old architecture student from the University of Santo Tomas was incredulous.
“I didn’t leave my number with them,” she said. “I was so oblivious.”
She thought it was just small talk and was stunned when Sotto tracked her down and invited her to guest in the noontime show “Eat Bulaga.”
“I was so nervous, my knees were shaking while I sang Whitney Houston’s ‘You Give Good Love,’” she said.
Five months later, Edsa happened.
Coincidentally, her family lived in Corinthian Gardens, a gated village along Edsa. She was right smack in the middle of the action, so to speak.
“I will not pretend … I was not an activist and I am sure other people have more interesting stories to tell. But I monitored the events on TV. Also, helicopters flew over our home and tanks were parked near the village gates,” she said.
She admitted that she was “scared” and didn’t really venture out of the house until after the Marcoses were exiled to Hawaii. “But by then, the mood was more festive,” she said.
On the first day of March, she received a call to report to Tasha Recording Studio, owned by Sotto.
“I got the demo tape at noon and was told to go to the studio at 10 p.m.,” she said. “The Tasha studio was in Libis, which was near our house.”
Sotto’s brother and cohost in “Eat Bulaga,” Vic Sotto, recorded “Magkaisa” for the demo tape, she said.
The recording process was an “unfamiliar” experience for her. “It was my first time to record an original song. Before that, I would only do covers for ‘Eat Bulaga.’”
After the first try, Sotto asked for a retake. “I thought I made a mistake. But he later explained that he wanted me to sing it with more emotions.”
At 1 a.m., she was still in the recording studio. “So I could rest for a while, the backup singers were called in to do their part.”
The “Magkaisa” backup singers were Babsie Molina, Bambi Bonus and Vic Sotto.
By 5 a.m., they finally called it a day.
“By 10 a.m. that same day, I saw the song’s music video on television,” she said. “I had to call the studio and ask for the song’s title because we didn’t even get the chance to talk about it the night before.”
She was overcome with all sorts of emotions hearing “Magkaisa” for the first time. “Mixed feelings. But I was so proud to be part of something historic and relevant.”
However, she disclosed to Sotto that she was an American citizen by birth. “I was born in New York, where my parents lived while my dad took his master’s degree. I thought it was ironic that an American citizen would record a nationalistic song, but Tito said it didn’t matter.”
Sotto told the Inquirer: “I wanted an unknown but excellent singer with a powerful voice.” He didn’t want a famous star “because the focus should be on the song and not the singer,” he pointed out.
When she recently learned that the late President Cory Aquino liked “Magkaisa,” she was amazed.
“I got to meet her and shook her hands once, but I regret that I never got to talk to her whenever I performed in a gathering where she was present,” she said.
She’s elated, though, that she was introduced to another former President and Edsa protagonist, Fidel V. Ramos. “He told me that ‘Magkaisa’ was his favorite because it won him the presidency in 1992.”
For the most part, she closed the show-biz chapter of her life when she got married (to banker Snowden Mananzan) and migrated to the United States in 1990.
She basically shunned the limelight—and returned to the stage, only to sing in two Edsa anniversaries in 1994 and 2002.
“First time, I had just given birth and the second time, I sang at the Edsa Shrine because I was invited by Bishop Soc Villegas,” she said.
This year, she will not participate in the Edsa commemoration because she will be back in the United States by then, resuming her duties as a research associate in a consulting firm. The latest visit was for a Loberiza family reunion. Sadly, the Edsa anniversary was not part of the itinerary.
Now divorced, she keeps herself busy with various activities.
“My children are now grown. My eldest Jaco is 23; my second son Toby, 21; and my youngest daughter Frankie, 16,” she said. “I often drive Frankie to her theater activities. Apart from that, I am also the director of the Filipino choir at St. Bernadette Church.”
When Aquino passed away in 2009, she was often asked to sing “Magkaisa” in church. “She was well-loved by the Filipino community there.”
She is also active in Paulinian Global Foundation Inc. She attended St. Paul Pasig for her elementary education and St. Paul Quezon City for high school.
Her work with the alumni organization is fulfilling, she said, because it allows her to combine her love for music and her present pet cause, helping the retired nuns of St. Paul.
Last May, she organized a fundraising concert, “A Night to Remember,” with the help of her musician-friends.
“We performed for free, for fun. We are all middle-aged. We did songs by Earth, Wind & Fire and Sara Bareilles. We raised $20,000 for St. Paul Vigil House in Taytay, Rizal,” she said.
She made sure to visit Bishop Villegas in Dagupan and the nuns in Taytay before her flight back to the United States on Feb. 16.
She also had a reunion with Sotto and Flores at the senator’s home in Quezon City.
They lost contact all these years and she e-mailed Sotto about her homecoming only last November. “He invited me to dinner. He said Tita Helen would cook for us.”
Gamboa prepared a virtual feast—bulalo, grilled prawns and tuna, buko pandan and chocolate cake.
“Their daughters Apples and Ciara were also there and I got to meet their kids,” she said. “We just talked about family … nothing about show biz.”
Which pretty much sums up her life now. TVJ