Ben&Ben want to be your beacon of hope

The nine-piece band charts the course of love in their much-awaited debut album, “Limasawa Street.”

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Much has been said of the Filipino love song — how it is yours and it is everyone’s. Every great love song’s legacy is built on collective memory, on pining and devotion, on kilig and kasawian. As it is everyone’s, a Filipino love song must become everything: the song you hear in your head the moment the rush of infatuation hits, the soundbed beneath key moments in your love story, the karaoke number you cry along to with friends in the aftermath. The songs become different things at different times, projective tests you take over and over with varying results.

I have a theory that you can score every phase of a love story with a different Ben&Ben song. There is the cautious pining of “Kathang Isip,” the tender devotion of “Maybe The Night,” the aching apology of “Leaves.” In the band’s rich discography of love songs, you’ll find no lack of tracks to match a certain romantic feeling.

The story of Ben&Ben begins with a duo called The Benjamins. The twins Paolo Benjamin Guico and Miguel Benjamin Guico needed session musicians to record their debut EP with in 2016. The brothers called on a handful of instrumentalists they’d worked with over the years. Poch Barretto was brought in to play electric guitar, Agnes Reoma to play bass, Keifer Cabugao to play violin, and Patricia Lasaten to play keyboards. Jam Villanueva came on board for drums and Andrew De Pano and Toni Muñoz filled out the percussion section. The recording went so well that they wanted to bring the full band arrangements to a live show. The live show went well enough to lead to another and another until they made the nine-piece band official.

Ben&Ben's Paolo and Miguel Guico. Photo by JL JAVIER

Miguel says, “Kasi ang sign namin is: If we’re willing to perform at a gig na we’re paid almost nothing or ‘pag masaya na kami sa ₱1,000 tapos hati-hati kaming nine doon—”

“500 nga e,” the bassist Agnes interjects.

Miguel corrects himself. “500 pala, sorry — I guess that says something about ‘yung willingness namin to do it ‘saka ‘yung nag-e-enjoy lang talaga kami in each other’s company. So yeah, a few months later and, well, a lot of shows later, we decided to make it official. May 10 of 2017.”

Heaven knows it’s hard enough to keep a four-piece band together in this industry. What more a band of nine? The strength of the band’s bonds is as much a product of their shared love of music as it is of their keen awareness of group dynamics. There’s been a constant, consistent effort from the band’s inception to work as a team.

“During our earlier days kasi, the twins’ mom, Tita Val [Guico], she kind of does team building and a lot of corporate workshops with teams to know how to work with each other. She helped us define our personality types,” explains percussionist Andrew. “When we were able to figure out how each person was individually in terms of their working style, it became a lot easier to delegate certain tasks or to know who to not give work to when you want it done.”

“Nung una, siyempre, anxious kami like, ‘How will this work?’ We’re a lot of heads. If even a few heads bumped with each other, it will eventually turn to a chaos,” adds Miguel. “Amazingly, maybe because of that mental preparation as well, once we were in the studio, it was really a free-flowing kind of thing. What we found out — and that’s also what I love about everyone in this room is — no one really is out to serve oneself but rather everyone is there to serve the song.”

The band released a steady stream of singles from then on but the work that catapulted them to success was “Kathang Isip.” The ode to an imagined romance became the most streamed Filipino song of 2018 on Spotify with over 75 million streams. “I guess that’s probably the most revealing song that we wrote,” Paolo admits. “It’s my story, basically. It’s not a nice story but a lot of people relate to it. It was very, very personal.”

From left: Toni Muñoz (percussions), Keifer Cabugao (violins), Andrew de Pano (percussions). Photos by JL JAVIER

From left: Patricia Lasaten (keyboards), Jam Villanueva (drums), Agnes Reoma (bass). Photos by JL JAVIER

From left: Paolo Guico (acoustic guitars and vocals), Miguel Guico (acoustic guitars and vocals), Poch Baretto (electric guitars). Photos by JL JAVIER

Part of Ben&Ben’s success is that you can theoretically play their music anywhere. Gentle folk pop goes over well with pretty much any crowd. I’m reminded of Norah Jones’ 2002 debut, when her music was characterized as “inescapable.” You couldn’t walk into a coffee shop without hearing “Don’t Know Why.” There are listeners who will chalk that ubiquity up to blandness but there’s a calculus to it. Inasmuch as “Kathang Isip” is reliably radio-friendly, it’s also a painful, relatable story set to an unforgettable vocal hook and lush sonic landscape. In short: It is one thing to be playable anywhere but another to be good enough to be played everywhere.

It’s not until you really listen to the songs that you realize just how essential each member is. Each instrument gets its moment in a rich, inventive arrangement that builds up to a wall of sound where you actually hear all the instruments. It sounds magnificent on a record but the feeling is immense in a live show. With that is the energy they give one another that just spills out into the crowd.

Ben&Ben’s journey has led them to this moment: the release of their debut album “Limasawa Street” on May 10, their second anniversary. “As with any other band or artist, releasing an album has always been a dream of ours,” guitarist Poch says. “Around the first week of January this year, Paolo was like, ‘I have some songs, maybe we can go on a retreat so we can re-evaluate our relationship and our goals as a band, and to work on these songs and arrange them together.’”

"I guess we find solace in the fact that the more it’s personal, the more it’s universal. It becomes a mirror for everyone and it becomes something that people hold on to whatever they’re going through at the moment." — Paolo Guico

The retreat fit right into the band’s awareness of their need to regroup as a team and it was as necessary to their artistic and spiritual growth as it was to the band’s survival. “It really came from acknowledging na music is something that’s very introspective. And in order to create something as one, all of us really have to be on the same page on a spiritual level,” says Paolo. “I think acknowledging that and respecting that was the reason why we started this whole process with a retreat. 2018 was really a tough year for us in terms of what we had to accomplish and the retreat was some sort of a reset for all of us to face this new chapter as a band together.”

“We worked on the songs and kind of finished almost all of the songs in that week. It was really a magical and blissful moment for all of us. Each song just kind of came to life,” Poch says.

“Limasawa Street” is named after the street where Paolo’s girlfriend lives, the birthplace of many of the songs. “Limasawa” comes from the word “masawa,” the Butuanon word for “light.” This light manifests in the music on the sprawling 13-track album but also in the limited edition album packaging, a white box that can be used as a lamp. “We want to be one of those beacons of hope through music especially in these times,” Paolo says. “Normally you would think it’s a cliché thing to stand for but not in these times, it’s very much needed.”

The record feels like a victory lap. None of their earlier singles such as “Maybe the Night” or “Leaves” are featured on the album — a brave but freeing move that makes “Limasawa Street” a unique document of the band in 2019. The title track begins the record grand and uptempo and the rest of the album takes us through the band’s wheelhouse of emotions, but this time with more confident performances and tighter arrangements. “Fall” takes you through the long questioning of first love. “Mitsa (Salamat)” is an earnest thank-you note after a breakup. “Baka Sakali” pleads for a second chance at love (with fantastic guest vocals from Ebe Dancel). The record closes with “Araw-Araw,” a prayer that a love will last every day into forever. It’s the album's most triumphant moment, poised to become a modern classic among Filipino love songs. People will be crying to “Araw-Araw” at weddings for years to come.

The strength of the band’s bonds is as much a product of their shared love of music as it is of their keen awareness of group dynamics. There’s been a constant, consistent effort from the band’s inception to work as a team. Photo by JL JAVIER

There’s a vulnerability Ben&Ben tap into and it’s that courage to be unguarded that makes their songs so potent. Asked for the secret to a great love song, keyboardist Pat says, “Honesty. Love is honest and we are drawn to things and people who are honest.”

Miguel adds that a song need not come from a “100 percent perfect conduct kind of love.” He says, “What’s important is the emotion captured is very transparent of what you’re actually feeling.”

Paolo is well aware of the responsibility that comes with writing love songs. A songwriter holds their emotions and those of their listeners so closely. “It’s always scary as a writer but I guess we find solace in the fact that the more it’s personal, the more it’s universal. It becomes a mirror for everyone and it becomes something that people hold on to whatever they’re going through at the moment,” he says. “And that’s always been what we wanted as a band: To bring people to better places.”

Ben&Ben have succeeded as much, winning over an immense fanbase and creating a lasting body of work that soundtracks love stories onscreen and offscreen. Whether you’re playing one of their love songs on earphones, blasting it in your car or singing along to it amidst the crowds at their live shows, it can carry you to a brighter, more hopeful place. You hear each instrument, then you hear all of them. It’s a song that belongs to nine people, that belongs to us all.