Virgo’s Filipino superstars
It’s hardly surprising that Filipino musicians are superstars on an international cruise ship named for a zodiac sign that assigns to its subjects such qualities as diligence, strong work ethic, industry, reliability, and commitment to set goals.
The Perfect Jam band and Music Hearts Trio each play three to four 45-minute sets nightly in different outlets of the humongous 13-deck Superstar Virgo (of the Malaysian Star Cruises fleet), including the pool deck called Parthenon, which is curiously busier at night than in the daytime.
Former “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell famously and repeatedly put down their kind on the most widely watched TV reality singing search. “That was boring,” he would say, close to snickering. “You sounded like a performer on a cruise ship.”
“That’s his opinion,” Jonathan Potenciano, 34-year-old Perfect Jam drummer, points out. “Many very good bands play on cruise ships.” Vocalist Rogelio Colanggo shrugs it off altogether. As long as the people they play for are happy, he’s happy.
“No one will fault a good band that plays good music,” Rogelio, 46, stresses. Music Hearts’ Louisefranco Zafra and brothers Tyrone and Jason Papas have their priorities straight: “We’re here for the guests.”
From rock to mellow
On the second of a two-night cruise in February, staff and crew threw a “chocolate party” for the guests at the Parthenon, with Perfect Jam playing in a cove at the foot of the water slide. The dancing was furious, with shrieks of “One more!” punctuating every song’s end—Heart’s “Alone,” Joan Jett & the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” Journey’s “Separate Ways,” Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and all other crowd pleasers of note. Even the guests in the Jacuzzis swished about to the beat of Jonathan’s drums.
In the slot machines section lounge called Galaxy of Stars, where the band more often performs, Perfect Jam’s playlist swings to the mellow end of the spectrum, past Michael Learns to Rock, Bryan Adams and Michael Bublé, all the way to America and Glen Campbell, Dianne Reeves, Whitney Houston and Adele.
A dash of Dion
Female vocalist Carlota “Carla” Robles covers the last three aforementioned artists, plus a dash of Celine Dion (“My Heart Will Go On”) and Chaka Khan (“Through the Fire”). Songs by Adele, toast of the last Grammys, are currently among the most requested, Carla says, on top of all those rock hits and ballroom music to which the guests can dance.
The audience is not always actively engaged; sometimes it seems they’re not listening at all. They’re engrossed in their games, or they wander to the captain’s bridge/viewing gallery on the other side of the glass doors. It’s always a treat out there, day or night, so sometimes the band plays to an empty lounge. Not one of the musicians minds this. It’s their job to play, they all say, “with or without people listening.”
And it’s a job they like. It pays better than any gig they’ve had on shore, for one thing, and they’ve had quite a few, each individual member with other bands. They’re not exactly newbies. Jonathan is the youngest member at 34; the other boys—there’s also keyboardist Earl Bano and lead guitarist Ronald Allan Batingan—are in their 40s.
The singular goal is to play music and entertain. Everyone of them started young on the path. As Ronald unabashedly puts it, “I always wanted to work as a musician.” Carla agrees: “I enjoy singing; more than a job, it’s my passion.”
“Relaxing” and “easy” are their uniform descriptions of life aboard. “We bond every night at the officers’ mess after the last set,” says Ronald. That is, before they retire to their cabins on deck 3, below the sea level.
They get to play for international crowds, too. As a group, they find some nationalities harder to please than others, but always instantly connect with Australians and most Asians, especially Filipinos.
There are 523 Filipino crew members out of 1,349 on this floating five-star resort. The hotel manager, Dodie Rosacay, is Filipino, as are most of the section heads (Anselmo Eme, executive assistant manager; Myla
Zinampan, cruise director; Jarwin Peralta, front office manager; Agnes Dogillo, executive housekeeper; Voltaire Hadloc, services manager; Katrina Deypalubos, tour manager).
Still, homesickness comes with the package, and it’s especially daunting for Carla when it hits, since she has two sons back home. It’s her first 10-month contract, like Earl. For diversion, shore leaves are a blast for even those on their second contract. The Superstar Virgo route—the Straits of Malacca, Andaman Sea and South China Sea—has made them quite familiar with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
They go home at the end of 10 months; that is always a happy time. On top of family reunions, if they’ve done a good job, they’re almost always certain to sign another contract. The Papas brothers of Music Hearts, only 34 years old, have played on another Star Cruise ship, Superstar Libra; the third of the trio, Louisefranco, 38, has worked on
It’s a tight group, this trio, and of one mind. Apart from the music, they love the traveling and “meeting new friends.” They started as Music Hearts on Superstar Aries. An older sibling showed Tyrone and Jason the way. “This is our career,” says Tyrone. “Sometimes I get lonely but not all the time. That’s a fact of life.”
The Music Hearts playlist is more toned down than Perfect Jam’s, as the group plays in the more intimate Bellini Bar and at the Grand Piazza, where the front desk and tour counters are (and conversations are ongoing till the wee hours).
‘Anak’ a top hit
“Anak” tops their list of most requested songs, along with the Chinese pop ditties “Xiao Wei” and “Wa Meng Ti,” old standards “Tennessee Waltz,” “Changing Partners,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Great Pretender,” Spanish oldie “Besame Mucho,” The Beatles’ “Yesterday,” and a Japanese song, “Hello, Subaru.”
Outside of this Top 10 chart, Tyrone, Jason, and Louisefranco confidently cover Tom Jones, Leo Sayer, Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stevie Wonder, Bryan Adams, Eagles, John Denver, Engelbert Humperdinck, Lionel Richie, and Wham! It’s an ever-growing repertoire.
Louisefranco used to be a deck officer on another ship. He says his wife, also a musician, urged him to try singing. Jason hopes someday to resume his first career as music teacher.
The guys of Perfect Jam landed the Superstar Virgo gig through their previous employer, Resorts World Manila.
However they got here, the 12-year-old, recently refurbished cruise ship is these musicians’ present playground and home, and there’s no place like it.