Playful Music of Mr. C

Playful Music of Mr. C

By José S. Buenconsejo

Sometime after finishing my bachelor’s degree in musicology in 1988, I worked as a research assistant with Dr. José M. Maceda who later became National Artist in Music. This gave me an opportunity to know his perspectives on a number of things that I was most curious to know. I asked him who are among the best Filipino musicians in the country. He singled out two names. The first was the pianist Nena del Rosario, whom Maceda noted had the extraordinary ability to play the extremely difficult Chopin etudes in transposed keys.

The second was Raymundo Cipriano Pujante Cayabyab (a.k.a. Ryan Cayabyab or Mr. C), now National Artist in Music, whose uncanny musical virtuosity and inventiveness Maceda described as malarô (i.e., playful). I was surprised to learn that Cayabyab was in the mind of this great academic for, to tell the truth, Maceda was working in an idiom that can be called “elite,“ while Ryan was immersed in popular culture and the mainstream music industry.

Presumably, Maceda did not hear Cayabyab’s musical skills over the radio. I remember that Maceda only listened to classical music or that he subscribed to a definition of ethnomusicology that was from the 1950s and 1960s. It is possible that Maceda saw Ryan’s abilities by occasionally watching Ryan Ryan Musikahan on TV, a musical program popular in the late 1980s. Or maybe Maceda was in the composition recital of Cayabyab in Abelardo Hall Auditorium in 1983.

Considered a milestone in the history of the University of the Philippines College of Music, Cayabyab’s 1983 recital featured his first Misa (finished in December 1982) for unaccompanied choir, a complex, infectious, and mind-blowing piece. The UP Concert Chorus, under the direction of its founder, Prof. Rey Paguio, interpreted it. The piece exhibited all those traits that Maceda had described as malaro.

This music, along with Cayabyab’s endearing Original Pilipino Music (OPM) songs such as “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,“ “Paraisong Parisukat”, and “Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka” (all sung by Basil Valdez), his Pinoy jazz album Routes to Roots (produced and released in 1977), and his 16-voice studio-mixed cassette album One (1981) were all trailblazers. The Philippine popular music scene would be changed forever because of Cayabyab’s malaro style.

But what is this malaro style all about? How is it that an artist working on a different idiom, as Maceda did, would discern it in another’s musical idiom? Is there something Filipino in it? If one were to follow the music aesthetician Robert Amstrong’s argument in his book The Affecting Presence, would we find a similarity between Maceda’s larô in his New Music and the larô in the popular culture that Cayabyab represents? The following analytical description traces this fundamental style in Cayabyab’s works, focusing on his early monumental pieces. These early pieces are sufficient to describe the ludic nature of his music. After outlining what “play in music” is, Cayabyab’s malarô music will be defined according to four dimensions: texture, harmony, color, and voice.


Following Huizinga’s ground-breaking book on aesthetics, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, music theorist and phenomenologist Thomas Clifton in his book Music as Heard: A Study in Applied Phenomenology considers play as one of the four constitutive (ontological) elements that a music experience carries. These four are time, space, play, and emotions. A necessary component in a perceived music object, play is found in musical processes that are akin to ritual performances (and other heuristic behaviors), games (as in the realm of improvisation, chance, or the aleatoric), contests (agonic), and the comic (humor). In rituals, listeners are absorbed in the sequence of symbolic actions, compelling them to submit to it. The same goes for Cayabyab’s music through its sonorous materials. Once a ritual or music performance is over, one gets a sense of accomplishment.

The Conductor

His music is similar to a ritual process. All of his music moves the listeners as each piece has a felt continuity—a directed movement—driven by the music itself. It is this flow that is his most distinguishing mark.

Figure 1. “Bakya Mo, Neneng”

For example, and this is just one of the more compelling ones, in the opening musical gesture of the piece “Bakya Mo Neneng” in the first track of the album One, Cayabyab initiates the introduction with a zigzagging course of harmonized melodies, segmented into smaller rhythm pat terns that grope briskly to pause on measure 9 (see Fig.1).

The phrases of the excerpt emphasize the second beat of triple meter, thus minimizing the first beat to achieve propulsion. Thus, measures 1 to 8 can be construed as one big upbeat. Like the syncopation, whose restless rhythm needs to be compensated with stability (measure 9-11), the whole thing prepares for the entrance of the words. When one reaches the verse section, musical cohesion is felt because the accented second beat of the introduction is still present. Across the introduction and the verse, the structural down beats of the triple meter are maintained (though downplayed), but when conjoined with the emphasized second beats (the antithesis), a pleasing, alternating sound called a “hocket” is created. It is this flow of music that draws one to listen to the music, not just hear it. The music continues to the other sections that are linked by the return of the musical gestures in the introduction. As the music moves further, a break happens, indicated with a change to slow tempo that heralds the grand, louder, homorhythmic section in major key and on the words “Ang aking paga-asa…” (see Fig. 2)

Figure 2. “Bakya Mo, Neneng” chorus

Between the poles of “structure” (articulated by the down beat) and the “rhetorical” dynamic second beat, one can imagine that, as in ritual, there is a play between fixity (structure) and the larô-like varying elements in the music. The piece is clearly ternary in form. Cayabyab respects this form, evidence of which is the emphasis of the melody over the doo-doo-doo accompaniment. What makes the piece interesting is not his slavish treatment of the structure but the play element that embraces it. The larô is in the constantly emphasized second beats, the quick transitions of the contrapuntal figures, and in the changing textures. All these spell out the art of rhetoric. Thus, his music projects more of a musical process than static form. Plainly speaking, it has a dynamic quality.

The teen-ager, the professor, and the arranger


By drawing on the resemblance of Cayabyab’s music to ritual performance (i.e., in the mutual adjustment of ritual structure and process), one bring the notion of metaphor in which two unlike things (music and ritual) are compared. Imaginative acts of poetry capitalize on the conceptual and felt similarities between things in metaphors, in which the likeness or iconicity is what produces new and fresh expressions in the combinations.

Mother Celerina, a teacher at the University of the Philippines and father Alberto, a government employee.

A masterpiece that exhibits these constant combinations and re-combinations is his piece de resistance, Misa (1983). The work has a breadth of complexity yet this is within comprehensibility. It created a furor when it was premiered at UP Diliman for there was not yet a Filipino-made art of unaccompanied vocal music of such magnitude in an idiom that was both academic and popular.



Young Ryan with 10 lady boarders taking up various music courses

As a presentation of the Catholic liturgy, the piece rhetorically plays around the invariant element of the Mass Ordinary (i.e., Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei). As structure, one sees how faithful Cayabyab is in articulating the fixed text. Musical gestures of this large work canonically consider the sacred message, which is to say that his particular manner of setting the words to music follows the rubrics of the unifying supplication or prayer with its medium (music). This secular music is meant for the concert stage (as it was then in a composition recital), but it presents the words in music so well that the distinction between the secular and the sacred seems irrelevant. No wonder that the work was later licensed to be performed in an actual mass at the Manila Cathedral, with a dance interpretation by the UP Dance Company with Prof. Emeritus Basilio “Steve” Villaruz as choreographer.

With the Ryan Ryan Musikahan musicians and friends—Johnny Manahan, Mitch Valdes, Katy de la Cruz, and Celeste Legaspi

Through this music, Cayabyab never fails to engage listeners. This is because Misa is kaleidoscopic in treatment, mixing new and borrowed rhythms and melodic materials. These elements are so plenty that the piece can be considered a metaphor of ecumenism or cosmopolitanism. The idea of Catholicism as a universal religion is materialized in the work for it respects cultural differences. In a way, his music, as medium, is the message itself. In the Sanctus movement, for example, he incorporates the indigenous Philippine gangsa (flat gong) hocket music texture as an act of homage to indigenous tradition (see Fig. 3). The fusion of musical form and substance is made complete, a play within an order, a musical freedom within in the text’s structural constraint.

Figure 3. Sanctus, utilizing gangsa hocketting

A most obvious ludic passage can be found in the Kyrie, i.e., in the diverse textural contrasts, both sudden and gradually built, all of which coalesce to define the musical form of this movement. This textural variety brings one to an irresistible kinetic musical flow, a skill that is uniquely Cayabyab’s. The play is in the variegated textures that set dynamically the shifts from one section to the next, all within a coherent group of musical materials. If one looks at the rhythmic and melodic patterns in the Kyrie, these are mere minimalist motives. But he masterfully repeated and piled them on top of each other, creating moving blocks f sounds. This aspect in his Misa demonstrates the need to look at this music as a process in time, which does not mean relinquishing the constraint of order and form.

The dynamism is in the playfulness of the juxtaposed textures, with musical parts in tensely interacting with one another in various ways, kinetically moving from one section to the next. Instead of a boring, inflexible structure that a bookish artist might set, in his Kyrie, musical process is in the foreground. Its affect lies in the ever-changing moods that the textural contrasts make. All these are, of course, supported by other musical elements such as the continually changing rhythmic patterns, enticing vocal colors, and a wide range of dynamics (loudness). Allow me then to go to the details at some of the movements of this large work.

The Kyrie starts with a solo female voice, in natural projection, intoning an Oriental-sounding phrase. Next comes another solo female voice, now lower, that is layered over the initial intonation but in a heterophonic textural framework (see Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Kyrie, solo to heterophony

After a pause, antiphonal texture between males in uni son and female voices in parallel harmony ensues. This is set to a strongly rhythmic frame (see Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Kyrie, antiphonal texture

This is then followed by a homorhythmic texture in sudden soft volume that increases to another texture, i.e., a call and response between female voices and males responding to the call in heavily accented octaves (see Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Kyrie, homorhythmic texture
Figure 7. Call-response

Note the playfulness. In a span of just a few seconds, all major textural patterns are presented in rapid succession, thus moving the music to an impressive musical goal. There are many other instances of textural play in the Mass. The main body of the Gloria, for example, is the layering of the bass ostinato with a call-response between the solo tenor chant-like material and the male-female unison. But a rhetorical pause after the words “filius patris” leads to an echo-like texture (feeling like a morphing sound behind a veil), a litany of staggered entrances. The image of penitents in communitas, supplicating the Divine, is depicted by this evocative texture. It ends with a hair-raising crescendo that affirms the Name of Divine Providence, “Jesu Christe.”

Figure 8. Emphasis on the name “Jesu Christe”

None can be as persuasive as this passage, in which the prayerful murmurs of the faithful bursts to acknowledge the Name to which the whole act of prayer is centered upon. It is light growing out of darkness, similar to the effect of Franz Joseph Haydn’s famous passage “Let there be light” in the oratorio The Creation. The textures in the Credo also have this atmospheric effect of sound clouds, first by females with their angelic voices that are echoed by males who sound like a group of humble ascetics affirming their belief. The feeling of oneness or communitas among pilgrims on earth is conveyed by the homorhythmic material based on Western plainchant (Gregorian) and the medieval organum-like sonority. This is abruptly interrupted by a quasi-fugal (read: serious) texture on the words “Et incarnatus est.” The choice of this texture conjoins with the serious message—the mystery of incarnation. The effect is convincing. It demonstrates how the rhetorical flourishes, by means of textural contrasts, artistically renders the durable message of the text.


From the discussion above, it has been shown that play happens in ritual, even in a most sacred form as the mass that Cayabyab did. Thus, it should come out as no surprise that the notion of play does not mean being frivolous and ornamental, but something that pertains to an authentic aesthetic activity, which is imaginative and metaphorical as in Cayabyab’s poetic music. This playfulness is even more evident in his pop music that has always stood above its kind. The harmonic treatments he gave to the songs made them, more often than not, trangress the common assumption that pop songs are simple and formulaic since they are meant for mass consumption or mere entertainment.

Aware of the nature of pop song styles as intensional (i.e., concentrated), he conveys through a use of minimal musical materials in his songs condensed expressive contents within limited or time-bound frames. Unlike classical music, which is extensional (i.e., a compositional procedure emphasizing thematic and rhythmic developments that audiences are meant to follow), his pop songs are a catalog of distilled moods that engages the listeners’ attention. The exuberant mood of joy proclaimed in what is perhaps his most famous song “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” is a good example of this. It is playfully introduced by a rhythmically tricky fanfare made up of accented, physically challenging, quick-changing loud chords that can throw someone not used to syncopations off balance. The fanfare is then counterbalanced by a funky, syncopated hook in regular meter that sets the overall bright mood of the song.

The quirky transitions in between the phrases of the verses remind one of the introduction, but they get more complicated when the words state “Tila ilog pala ang paghimig…” A sensitive poet that Cayabyab is, he depicts the meandering flow of the river and its entailed sensation or emotion (damdamin) in this segment.

The second verse then follows, this time accompanied by a more secure chordal pattern and common pop rhythm. Yet it gets busy once more, bringing the end of the section to the chorus that is introduced by brass fanfare. The chorus is stated twice but never in the same mold. The principle of unity in variety is evident in this instance. The repetition of the chorus is a step up from the first iteration. This is because the composer makes the chorus, not as a formulaic gesture, but one that is moving, contrary to the convention that a chorus has to be more stable.

This push is supported by the harmonic sequences that constitute the greater part of the chorus. This shows that the organicity of the harmonic direction is what connects the chorus to the return to D major, the key of the relatively stable verses. Functioning more as a bridge than a chorus, the metaphorical harmonic trajectory, as in theact of groping in a play, can be anything but discovering. Here lies the essence of his music’s dynamism. It is malikot and thus playful.

Figure 9. Introduction of “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika”
Figure 10. Accompaniment as sound icon of river

Equipped with advanced harmony technique, he uses harmonic trajectories as a means to play around with his songs’ messages. Two examples are appropriate here because, like the rhythm in “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika,” they can throw the singer out of pitch, unless they are as good as Basil Valdes and Celeste Legaspi, Cayabyab’s trusted interpreters during OPM’s Golden Age in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The first example is the song “Paraisong Parisukat.” One of his most poetic creations, this love song is about a pledge to offer love and commitment to a beloved so they are free to savor the horizon of beauty and goodness of Paradise. The rhetorical play of harmony occurs in the phrase “Mahahawakan mo ang Bahaghari at ang sinag, Sa tuwina’y mamahalin ka, Giliw.” This is preceded by the characteristic pedal point that the composer is known for. It suggests something important is about to happen. Indeed, the harmonic trajectory supports the deep metaphor, so mysterious in effect, with its strange purple-like modulation consisting of the dissonance of the chord progression that moves to the dominant of the dominant A7 (see Fig. 11).

Figure 11. Rainbow-like modulation in “Paraisong Parisukat”

What is aimed is the bright D major which contrasts with that of the rather limpid key of the verses in D-flat. The leap from D-flat to D is a technique of a genius. Here it is fitted to a passage of words referencing poetic images of the rainbow that is a promise of one’s commitment to a shared life beyond earth which is square-like or parisukat.

Another poignant harmonic passage can be found in the song “Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka” which associates love with rain, i.e., lovers are given time for each other during a rain. There are images of moisture in this song which speak of tenderness and love. The passage happens in the word “ka” (you) in the phrase “Tuwing umuulan.” The point here is the assured feeling of a lover in the presence of his or her beloved, thanks to the rain that prevents them from parting (they are presumably inside the house). The feeling at this point in the song bursts into “Ah, Ah, Ah,” followed by the “La, la, la.” (see Fig. 12). Music as a form of communication exceeds speech. This is a good example of play through harmonic excursion. The melodic soar presents the ecstasy of being in love.

Figure 12. Modulation to musical ecstasy


The same artistic impulse can be found in three of his comical songs in which play is all the more manifest. These songs are “Limang Dipang Tao,” “Tsismis” and “Da Coconut Nat.” There is hilarity in these songs, but it is truly the music as medium which constitutes the playfulness.

Limang Dipang Tao” is about the funny experience of riding a jeep, rushing to get off from it to pursue a male crush only to realize that the stranger-man already has a lover, then jostling back to the crowd to wait for a ride on Avenida. Sounds in the represented events of the street scene are rendered musically as “sound icons” as in the second column of table below.

The humor in the song is in the foolishness of pursuing a crush, getting off from the jeep at a moment when one is caught during the rush hour. The song, pleasing as it can be, makes the listener smile, especially one who knows how it is to experience the dreaded streets of Manila during peak hours. Cayabyab vividly encapsulates the scene’s verisimilitude through music. It infects anyone with a memory of Manila street experience.

This musical wit is also found in “Tsismis,” which draws humor from word play at the level of sound and rhythm, in this instance, of the syllable “ku.” (This is similar to the euphonious word of the Christmas song “Kumukutikutitap.”) Both these examples can only be written by a composer who knows the fine nuances of speech with its paralinguistic contours such as intonation (that the music again viscerally captures) and rhythm. “Tsismis” is comical because it presents a common form of interaction among Filipinos in day-to-day life in which attachments to interpersonal ties are glaringly transparent. The song cannot fail to make listeners smile because it mimics an ubiquitous social habit in everyday life. Not only is gossip engaged in by women but also by men. There’s the hilarity. If one can gossip about others, then oneself is not immune from being talked about.

The mimicry of gossip is also comically seen in another song “Da Coconut Nat,” a parody set to an Afro-Latin beat, conjuring the festive soundscape of a carnival. The song playfully imitates the voice of the naive, innocent child who parrots what is presumably learned in school regarding the coconut tree’s benefits. In terms of music genre, “Da Coconut Nat” follows the convention of the music industry’s novelty song. It exaggerates the barok English (pidgin variety) enunciation that has led to speech distortion.

Sounds in the represented scenes Musical metaphorization
Being in a crowd (lined up five arm’s length) ending with the jeep honking Brisk “dum-dum-dum” vocables
The bumpy ride in a rickety grungy jeep and the rush to see the male crush Hocketing accompaniment that simulates the jeep’s movements
The jeep’s honking Interlocking toots in the chorus
Changes in vehicle’s speed and the pulsating inner emotion of the song’s protagonist meeting eye to eye with the crush Changes in the musical texture and the passenger’s call to stop the ride
Figure 13. Sounds of jeepney in “Limang Dipang Tao”
Figure 14. Gossip in “Tsismis” piece

From the few music illustrations, one can see how rooted the aesthetics of Cayabyab’s music is in the katutubo (native) Filipino culture, despite the musician’s urban trappings. An accomplished composer, arranger, and musical director in the popular music industry, Cayabyab produced compositions that reflect a perspective of music that extols the exuberance of Filipino life in which human happiness is highly valued, thus capturing the very essence of the Filipino soul.

The brilliant, dense, and busy textures of Cayabyab’s exceptional music embody this ethos and social experience. His music is playful, which means that it is profusely imaginative and spontaneous, yet so near in terms of cultural experience. His diverse compositions use a masterful command of compositional technique in creating works that are inspired by Filipino culture and its humanity. “Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika” embodies this spirit. One can easily understand why this work, along with many others, has been loved by outstanding Filipino singers and musicians. His virtuosic choral pieces have reaped laurels for our Filipino choirs in international competitions, indicating a people’s penchant for collective singing that expresses the value of solidarity.

Cayabyab is a cosmopolitan nationalist open to foreign influences, but he is able to transform these into extraordinary expressions that are close to the lives of ordinary Filipinos. One of the pioneers of Pinoy jazz in the 1970s, he melded indigenous rhythms into improvisations, making sure he integrated these local resources to bring about a higher synthesis uniquely his alone.

Compositionally, the manner by which he hybridized the Maranao singkil dance pattern in his first long-playing record Routes to Roots (1977) is exceptional for its creative re-contextualization. There is fluid dynamism in that piece. It is an example of unity in variety that is at the heart of his output. He tinkered or played with multi-track recording technology and produced an exceptional a capella album One that is inimitable. His original magisterial art choral works for UP Concert Chorus and UP Madrigal Singers work or play on indigenous compositional principles such as hocket and timbre. These have never failed to draw respect and adulation from listeners worldwide for their creativity and innovation.

Cayabyab’s sources of creativity come from the worlds of musical theater, dance and entertaining music shows. This is why his music always has that dynamic quality. His mainstream OPM songs never sound foreign because Cayabyab is a native Tagalog and therefore he matches words with music perfectly as his comical song “Tsismis” could attest. Much of the appeal of his pop songs lies in the manner by which the speech rhythm of the lyrics matches the melodic flows and the ludic projection of the songs’ messages. This is his forte. It’s a learned skill from years of “re-composing” (read “playing”) the beautiful music that came his way such as the kundiman of Santiago and Abelardo.

Cayabyab’s gift of music can be likened to that of Nicanor Abelardo whose works bore marks of distinction. Like Abelardo, Cayabyab transformed elements of the received Philippine music traditions, be it a folk song (which kundiman was before Abelardo) or a simple ditty, to something that pleases the auditory sensorium. One could say that Cayabyab struck the right amount of balance, playing the complex and erudite with simple materials that the majority of the Filipinos can both enjoy and contemplate. His music is an embodiment of a love for the Filipino at its finest.

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