COVER STORY

Ryan Cayabyab is still making the soundtrack of our lives

Now a National Artist, the maestro looks back.

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Ryan Cayabyab is having a very good year.

In October, the legendary musician and composer — popularly referred to as “maestro” — was named a National Artist for Music by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. And after four decades of providing the soundtrack to contemporary Filipino life, from hits like “Kay Ganda Ng Ating Musika” and “Tuwing Umuulan,” to the long-running T.V. show “Ryan Ryan Musikahan” (now enjoying a revival on Jeepney TV and YouTube), and serving as mentor to generations of artists and musicians, in projects like Elements Music Camp, and even reality shows like “Pinoy Dream Academy,” the honor doesn’t just feel earned, it’s almost overdue.

In the same month as the National Artist honor, he was also shortlisted for the Best Original Score award at the 12th Asia Pacific Screen Awards, for his work on the film adaptation of “Ang Larawan.” At 64, the maestro is enjoying another career peak.

Related: 8 Pinoy pop culture moments defined by Ryan Cayabyab's music

This month, he ends the year strong — the Lea Salonga album “Bahaghari: Rainbow,” a collection of Filipino traditional songs that he produced, is being released. Cayabyab, after all, is never one to rest on his laurels.

CNN Philippines Life sits down with the maestro as he looks back on four decades. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Preparing for this interview, I read a lot of previous interviews you gave and one quote really stood out for me. In 2006, you told Marra PL. Lanot this about your career: “It’s not just luck. It’s choosing things correctly and being aware [of possible effects and consequences]. It’s deciding what path to follow and what action to take based on your strong feelings.” When did you become aware of the different paths in front of you and that you had the power to decide?

The truth is, I think I’m very lucky because things fall into my lap. I never had to seek after what I wanted to do — things always fell into my lap. That means, all I had to do was [decide], will I take this or not?

I’m very lucky because when things come, [they're] things I would’ve never expected. For example, I had a television show in 1988. Who would have thought? Me? Hosting a show? [Laughs] And I just said, “O sige let’s do it.” Because the person who was talking to me was saying, “We’ll try it only for a season. If the bosses like it, we’ll just renew.” There was no contract. It wasn’t like a yearly contract. I didn’t even realize there was a season because it just went on and on. There was no termination until such time in [1995] when the producers said, “Ah, we are closing shop.” After [seven] years!

The Smokey Mountain project, for example, this American producer comes from out of nowhere and asks for a meeting. It was just an exploratory meeting. He was just saying that there are so many talents here in the Philippines and it’s a natural resource. He was saying, “Why hasn’t the government [harnessed] this natural resource to make it an export item?” What he was saying is, it’s natural talent and all you need to do is a few adjustments, the learning curve is short because they know what to do but educate them a little more so they’re not exploited — so that’s his idea.

Another example, out of the blue, Danding Cojuangco calls and says, “Can I have a meeting with you for a project?” The same year I was offered the San Miguel Foundation of the Performing Arts [in 2000], that same month when Mr. Cojuangco talked to me, that was the same month that we were given our “extraordinary ability” visa from America. We were supposed to move. It came at the same time. When I met Mr. Cojuangco, I told him, “We have this pending [trip]. We’re leaving in April.” He just said, “Just decide what you want to do.” So we went to [the States] but we returned immediately, because I wanted to do the project.

I’m lucky because these things are not usual. Everything I told you, I would’ve never thought of doing anything like that but they came. There are so many things that fall into my lap but I think it’s very important that I’m able to choose what I want to do.

Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

But how did you know which path to take? Do you have a guiding principle that helps you decide?

It’s all gut. Gut feel meaning, “Oh, I haven’t done that.” The principle usually is, “I’ve done that. I don’t want to do that anymore. Let’s do something else.” Usually it’s like that. I don’t want to duplicate stuff I’ve done before, except if it’s a regular job like teaching. I was teaching in U.P. for about two decades.

So at 18, when you chose between accounting and music, that was gut feeling as well?

It was something that I wanted to do but I couldn’t. The reason why I took up accounting was because when my mother died, she explicitly told our dad to not allow any of the children to take up a career in music. She was an opera singer. She was a musician and she knew how difficult it was.

You have to understand that being a musician during that time — in 1949, when she gave birth to my eldest sister, she would have been 32 years old. Manila had just come from devastation, from World War II, so a lot of people didn’t have work. Most of our parents, their parents told them to get jobs as employees, because during that time, they were rebuilding Manila, there were companies coming up and that was the way [to get by]. They were asked to take careers as professionals, doctors, nurses, accountants, lawyers, etc. — that’s the usual path.

So all of us, all my cousins, everyone in my mother’s side, there were no artists, everyone took up banking, finance, accounting — anything that has something to do with being an employee of an institution or something.

Except you.

Well, no, I took up accounting. The story is like this: When I graduated from high school, I started to work as a pianist for a bank’s chorale group. I was 15 years old, turning 16. I auditioned and I got the job as a pianist of the choir — that paid my way through college.

Two years later, I met Cocoy Laurel. I was about 18. During that time he was a matinee idol, paired with Nora Aunor, actor-singer. He did theater, he did movies, he sang.

And he got me to be his music director and he introduced me to his family. So I was in their house almost everyday, rehearsing or when there were gatherings at their house, I’d play.

One day, the father, Senator Doy Laurel, calls me to his office and says, “Why are you taking up accounting?” So I told him the story about my mom and then he told me stories. “You know, in a community, all you need to do is do your part, do what you’re supposed to do.” He was saying, “Did you notice that when you get your clothes, and wear them, and go out of your house, the clothes smell good and you feel confident? Whose work was that? That’s the work of your labandera. And if she were a good labandera, she would help in creating that confidence in you and you didn’t know that but that’s part of your life. That’s her work.”

He went on, “Janitors, their work — if you go into the classroom and your chairs weren’t in line and the floors are dirty, you don’t feel good and you can’t concentrate.” What he was saying was each of us has our own work in the community, our specialty work, so all you have to do is to be the best at what you’re doing, and to become an authority. Because if you’re an authority, you will gain the respect of your community and everything else follows. So that became my mantra.

What a great way of putting it.

Yeah, the reason why he called me to his office was precisely that. “What are you doing? Why are you trying to be an accountant? I don’t think you’ll end up a good accountant. You’re a good musician, you’re a good pianist — I can see. You make a lot of people happy by playing the piano.”

So the clincher was: “Okay, Ryan, you go home tonight. You talk to your dad. You tell him the senator and Mrs. Laurel are offering you a scholarship in any music school of your choice.”

I went home, told my dad. My dad said, very simple, “How old are you now?” I had just turned 18. He said, “You’re old enough to decide for yourself.” That was the turning point. That November, I entered the UP College of Music.

Photo by JOSEPH PASCUAL

Something I’ve always found interesting is, throughout your career, you’ve always taken unconventional paths. There was always a high level of difficulty in a lot of things you did — executed with mastery, of course, that made it look easy. I’m talking about the a capella album [“One”], the jazz arrangements of Filipino folk songs [“Roots to Routes: Pinoy Jazz II”]. Earlier we were talking about the importance of being aware of the path you take, what were you trying to do by choosing those paths? Was that a conscious effort? To be a certain kind of musician?

No, when I decide on those things, it’s because I want to do something that I want to do for myself, not for an audience.

I’ll tell you about the circumstances around the a capella album from 1981. So I entered the UP College of Music in 1973, but because of so much work outside, I did a lot of tours so that entailed a lot of leaves of absence … [So] it took me 10 years to get that degree. In 1981, I finally finished most of the requirements, except for one, the recital, which I did in 1983.

In 1981, my composition and theory teacher offered me a job to teach at the university, to start as a lecturer. I thought, “Ooh, I’ve never done that before.” Mataas ang tingin ko sa academe so naisip ko, “Wow, I’d love to do that, I’d love to teach college students. I’ll teach them everything I know.”

I thought, “Oh, I’m teaching and I’m not going to do a lot of work in the industry.” So what I did, was to create this album for me, it was like my birthday gift [to myself], at 27, and it’s like, “Oh this is what I’m leaving the industry. Goodbye, industry! I’m going to become a teacher.” At the time, I spent about ₱43,000 on the entire album. That was what my money could afford.

Why did I record something like that, a capella? I was fascinated because a couple of years back, when I was doing a film, I did an experiment. Instead of some parts having live instruments as background music, I used voices. I liked it and in 1981, I thought, that would be something, if we did a full album of a capella music, of Filipino songs.

We did several Filipino standards and then wrote three new ones, and included “Kay Ganda Ng Ating Musika.” That’s what happened. In 1981, I came up with an album that was very unusual. I was so sure record companies would say, “It’s not commercial. We won’t make money off it.” But I did it anyway and it became a critical success. And of course, later on, because it was “critically-acclaimed,” it sold, after the fact. It sold and I got my return of investment so I was happy.