The jeepney as a symbol of Filipino musical culture

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The drivers of the Guadalupe-Pateros jeepneys get their sound systems from Quiapo, except for Rosindo. His jeepney was passed onto him already installed with speakers, "probably from Binangonan," he says. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Filipinos are immersed in a musically obsessed culture. We are addicted to singing, playing, and listening to music, in whatever medium it may take, wherever it may be available — karaoke machines in bars, radios in carinderias, sound systems in barangay parties, and bluetooth speakers that are available nearly everywhere now. We know our musical technology and do whatever it takes to obtain it, to fuel our love affair with music. The teenager who likes to blast song hits on his phone, the commuter who can’t go around without earphones, the workaholic who needs some form of background noise for productivity — everybody is an audiophile in her or his own right. The result is an upkeep of a noisy country.

We are perhaps one of the noisiest, and it shows in our public transportation. In buses, taxis, jeeps, and tricycles, we sit and hear pop culture mostly in its audio form, and we have no choice but to listen. It’s only here where you’ll hear such a harmonious cacophony of top 40 songs over tugs tugs tugs, anthemic old love ballads over rap songs by obscure local hip hop artists, and the wailings of Papa Jack over Ramon Tulfo’s mad ramblings. It’s almost like a competition among vehicles on who could go the loudest. Only in the Philippines.

IMG_6198.jpg From an economical standpoint, it's still possible for drivers to spruce up their jeepneys, mostly by getting a sound system — which is not innate to the jeepney, and has to be installed manually. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

Although our PUVs all have the merit of providing our daily ear diet, the most iconic one, the jeepney, still remains to be the most interesting in terms of technological upbringing. Though popularly hailed as a national heritage, it has gained a bad rep for its design and economic inefficiency, as well as its smoke belching, which largely contributes to the city’s pollution. But jeepneys are far from being extinct: they’re still the most affordable form of local transportation, and arguably still the loudest and most eye-catching in the streets. From an economical standpoint, it's still possible for drivers to spruce up their jeepneys, mostly by getting a sound system — which is not innate to the jeepney, and has to be installed manually. But for the driver, the few extra workdays to save up for speakers are worth it.

If you ask a driver why he goes the extra mile to set up a sound system in his jeep, he would either answer that he just really likes to listen to music, or that he was only a second owner and the speakers merely came with the jeep as it was passed onto him. The latter answer proves that we have a long history of blasting music in our favorite mode of transportation. Eight years ago, it was reported that the MMDA even conducted a raid against loud jeepneys, wherein they confiscated several radios and speakers in response to passengers’ complaints. Besides this threat to our collective noise (including a bill on a karaoke ban to top it off), jeepneys still blare on, because the first answer shows that it’s so simple to set up your own sound system these days.

IMG_6205.jpg Danny is a driver of a Guadalupe-Pateros jeepney, and likes listening to R&B from his iPod Nano. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

“Four-five,” answers Danny, a driver of a Guadalupe-Pateros jeepney, when I ask how much he spent (₱4,500) for his sound system. The equalizer is attached to a wooden board on the jeep’s ceiling, the buttons and knobs glowing above his head. From it, a wire hangs and travels over his rear-view mirror, and on the end dangles his iPod Nano. He tells me that he likes listening to R&B.

In the terminal of Guadalupe jeeps heading to Pateros, another driver tells me, “four-two,” (₱4,200) and the other, “two-five” (₱2,500). They both listen to FM radio through their speakers, set up by an electrician they hired to fix the system up. The latter blasts EDM, making the ceiling of his jeepney tremble to the low frequencies. Part of the roof is exposed to show the jeep’s inner metals, while on the floor rests the amplifier beside a small trash can.

MAKESHIFT-1.jpg Locally-assembled sound systems can also be found in tricycles, sometimes in the form of tube-shaped bluetooth speakers. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

The drivers recommend “Targa,” a South African brand, as their favorite speakers. Even the tricycle drivers of Quiapo would say the same. One of them opens the back end of his trike to reveal a brown cylindrical tube. Though not a Targa, he assures me that it sounds great. One of his friends, Mowit, shouts, “Akin talaga ‘yan eh! Nakuha niya ‘yan sa’kin!” Mowit tells me to go to Raon street to find all things Targa.

MAKESHIFT-5.jpg Raon street in Quiapo is filled with electronics shops, and has become the go-to place for any public utility vehicle driver looking to bring music to his workstation. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

Raon is filled with endless rows of electronics shops. It’s the go-to place for any public utility vehicle driver looking to bring music to his workstation. Subwoofers, bluetooth speakers, full PA systems, karaoke machines, raw parts for all of the above — the shops have everything. As I stroll from shop to shop learning more about this grassroots hub of an audio gear industry, I feel the familiar camaraderie of a merchant community. There’s a friendly neighborhood sense of everybody knowing everybody, what to get from whom, and where to have what fixed. Some shops sell parts, some shops assemble these parts, and some repair them.  In a cramped space, I watch the turning of a screwdriver in the adept hands of an assembler, amid the clink and clank of metal, the smell of burnt lead, and the battling sounds of subwoofers from all sides of the street.

MAKESHIFT-12.jpg DEECO is a massive three-floor electronics store in Raon and has several other branches all over Manila. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

MAKESHIFT-14.jpg Many of the people who assemble all sorts of equipment in Raon get their raw parts from DEECO. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

Gerald, a Raon shop owner who also assembles sound system parts, tells me that he gets his raw materials from DEECO (Dee Hwa Liong Electronics Equipment Corporation), a massive three-floor electronics store down the street. It dubs itself as “the first electronic supermarket in the Philippines” and has several branches all over Manila, aside from the one in Quiapo. Many other assemblers also get their raw parts from this place. They are all hesitant to show me their assembling skills except for young Ronel, from the next shop. He is 16 years old and has been assembling speakers for two years now. He lifts an 8-inch Targa from their wall of subwoofers, sticks it inside a speaker body, and connects it to a mixer. The surface of the Targa jumps up and down to the beat, and Ronel smiles, proud of his work.

The Targas travel day in and day out from Raon to the jeeps of music-loving drivers. But as audio technology advances and becomes more accessible, more flea markets of music gear flourish outside Raon, allowing other drivers to diversify their equipment. There are similar shops in Binangonan near the territory of the bass-boosted Antipolo-Cubao jeeps, and in Mandaluyong, where the pedicabs also have their own forms of sound systems.

Makeshift 19 2.jpg Sixteen-year-old Ronel works in Raon, assembling a variety of sound systems such as the Targa speakers, a favorite of the jeepney drivers. Photo by ARABELLA PANER

Another Guadalupe-Pateros jeepney driver, Enggel, owns a Pioneer equalizer, while the jeepney next to him houses a CD stereo lifted from a Toyota Innova. But the rest of the drivers can only be jealous of “Plate No. 247,” as the barkers call him, because he owns the biggest sound system of the lot in the Guadalupe-Pateros terminal. “Sumasali ‘yun sa mga contest,” says one of the barkers. Sadly, 247 is on a day-off, and, at the moment, only sounds like an urban legend.

IMG_6274.jpg Some drivers hire electricians to recycle and reassemble car stereos for their jeepneys. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

IMG_6222.jpg Most jeepney sound systems come in two parts, an equalizer: which is attached to the roof above the driver's head, and an amplifier: which is usually placed on the floor behind the driving booth. Photo by AKIRA MEDINA

The jeepney sound systems are a testament to the democratization of our listening experience. Our collective habit of listening is not just defined by our aggregated private playlists or the sounds behind our earphones — it’s out there in the public, among jeeps and tricycles, where musical tastes don’t matter, where pop culture’s spoon is hanging from everyone’s mouths, and where we witness the evolution of music and technology in a simultaneous moment.

The Filipino jeepney is the antithesis of modernization, some may say. At the height of e-jeeps and the building of more train stations, sprucing up may be the only way the jeeps can catch up to the race. Besides, with all the recent chaos around us that we cannot avert our eyes from, we can only mask it with a choir of ear-splitting, deafening, beautiful sounds.