RM awardee ‘Mr. C’: Rearing next breed of PH musical minds
Ryan Cayabyab is on a roll.
Barely 10 months after being conferred the honor of Philippine national artist for music in 2018, comes the news that the country’s most prominent composer, arranger, conductor, pianist and advocate of Filipino music is one of five recipients of the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Awards—the Asian counterpart of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“It is slowly sinking in, the realization that these recognitions have been given to me,” Cayabyab told the Inquirer. “I guess both awards recognize my life’s work, and [have] added meaning to what I do, not only at the national level, but also in the Asian region. From the day I started working at age 16, I have always enjoyed what I do, to the best that I can.”
Now 65, Cayabyab doesn’t look his age, save for his gray hair. It also seems like he’s not about to take it easy as a working artist.
Lately he has been mentoring the next generation of Filipino musicians. For the past nine years, he has been directly involved in projects aimed at encouraging young music artists to fully tap their creativity and gain confidence in their work.
From 2010 to 2015, he led the Elements Music Camp that gathered hundreds of budding songwriters mentored by the country’s top musicians and composers in a four-day workshop in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental.
Its five-year run yielded a bountiful harvest. “It has produced a good number of singer-songwriters that pepper the present-day recording and performance landscape: Bullet Dumas, Moira de la Torre, Davey Langit, Lara Maigue, Thyro and Yumi, members of Ben and Ben, Autotelic, Ransom Collective, to name a few,” Cayabyab said.
In 2012, Cayabyab accepted an invitation to organize and launch the PhilPop Music Festival, a national songwriting competition that, like Elements, sought to discover young blood.
PhilPop became the logical continuation of Elements, whose alumni joined the contest and emerged as winners.
Cayabyab said a new breed of composers, all fired up with dreams and inspiration, now represents a “movement” that includes the whole country.
“The significance of this movement became more evident when songwriters from the Visayas and Mindanao began winning the coveted prizes,” he said, adding that he saw it as “a result of extensive (PhilPop) music boot camps where many of the top 100 were former fellows or campers from the southern regions.”
At the same time, Cayabyab promoted a cappella singing by cofounding the Akapela Open International, a competition for contemporary a cappella ensemble singing.
Again he saw a movement, that of contemporary a cappella groups, forming their own community.
Akapela Open has produced several champions who have made it to the international scene. “Most notable is the group Acapellago which recently (Aug. 9) won the grand prize in the Asia Cup of Vocal Asia in Japan, and the first prize in the Russian Spring Vocal Festival (May 12),” Cayabyab said. “They also won big in Graz, Austria, in the Vocal Total in 2017, beating other contestants from all over the world.”
Just last year, Cayabyab joined another project, the Pinoy Playlist Music Festival, which featured dozens of musicians performing all-Filipino compositions for six nights in a row.
He called the event a dream project: “The festival’s goal is to present only Filipino-made music across all genres. We’re on our second year, and only time will tell if people will continue to support this vision.”
There’s more—the Candon Music Festival, which debuted on May 23 to May 25 in Candon, Ilocos Sur. He described it as “probably the only one that is mounted in the northern Luzon area. The vision is to present Filipino artists performing classical music side by side with all-genre pop music, gathering ensembles, such as orchestras, symphonic bands, guitar ensembles, chamber music ensembles, various ensembles from opera to rock, producing borderless music that can be appreciated by everyone.”
He continues to perform with The Ryan Cayabyab Singers, a vocal ensemble of seven soloists that sings his songs or arrangements. The group performs in concerts abroad, especially in the United States.
Born to a mother who was an opera singer and University of the Philippines (UP) music teacher, Cayabyab grew up hearing music in the house and learning to play the piano.
Although he was studying accounting in college at UP, he absorbed as much music as he could by moonlighting as a pianist for a corporate chorale.
Cayabyab learned to arrange music hands-on by watching the top arrangers of the day, including Doming Amarillo, Doming Valdez and Emy Munji, and even asking them to see their actual pieces.
Eventually he earned a degree at the UP College of Music as a scholar of then Sen. Salvador “Doy” Laurel, whose son, Cocoy, met Cayabyab when they were part of a musical production at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
In 1977, Cayabyab was thrust into the limelight when his composition, “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,” won the top prize in the debut edition of the Metro Manila Popular Music Festival (Metropop).
Education as key
Reflecting on the achievement, he said: “Song competitions form only a singular sector in the music industry. The real competition is in the know-how and talent department, when you have formal or informal education or training, or you have the mastery of tools on the one hand, that you use in your chosen sector—commercial music writing, arranging, film scoring, songwriting, conducting, music direction, music performance as a singer or instrumentalist, organization. Or, you may have a natural, keen sense of how music affects people on the other hand.”
He credited education as key to his growth as an artist who also saw the need to impart knowledge and experience to others: “It helped that I finished a degree in music and eventually landed a teaching job in the university. I learned a lot more as I taught music. And the more I taught music, the more it became clear to me that I want to help train and educate those serious in learning how music ‘works.’ One needs to be aware that logic, as well as intuition, are necessary in making music choices in the process of creation.”