What does it take to be the next great Filipino songwriter?

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In the PhilPop Songwriting Bootcamp, select songwriters go through four intensive days of learning about lyric writing, creative composition, music structure, and more. Coaches of the camp include some of the music industry's legendary musicians such as Ryan Cayabyab, Jim Paredes, and Noel Cabangon. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It was 2005 when songwriter Kian Dionisio’s girlfriend of eight years left him for someone else. He felt lost in his heartbreak, confused by what he was supposed to do with this searing, unfamiliar pain.

“Accidentally nakasulat ako ng kanta, hindi ko alam kung paano ko nagawa,” he says. Titled “Gabi,” the song is about how during the day, his mind is busy with day-to-day practicalities, convinced that he has moved on. But at night, the silence is demanding, he is alone with his thoughts, and tears slowly fall down from his eyes.

He uploaded the song on Soundcloud and in a span of a few days, the song garnered over 100,000 plays. He was motivated by the reception and has since started writing songs, for himself as well as other artists like Bugoy Drilon, Loisa Andalio, and Mcoy Fundales (of Orange and Lemons).

While he’s already been writing for over a decade now, it’s only this year that he started being more aggressive in sharing his songs and performing to a wider audience. To build his confidence and credibility more, he joined the PhilPop Songwriting Bootcamp 2019, where select songwriters who went through an application process spent four days in a resort overlooking the Taal Lake in Batangas. The aim of the camp is for artists to have a deeper and wider understanding of the different approaches to songwriting.

Kian Dionisio, one of the bootcamp fellows, has been writing songs since 2005. However, he says it's only this year that he's started to be more aggressive in reaching out to people and sharing his songs. Photo by JL JAVIER


The first songwriting bootcamp was in 2017, born out of the desire for the PhilPop Foundation to discover more singers and songwriters across the Philippines. The foundation has been running the Philpop Songwriting Competition for five years (past winners include Ben&Ben’s Paulo and Miguel Guico, Johnoy Danao, and Davey Langit, among others) but they found that most of those who join the competition were always from Metro Manila.

The bootcamps mounted in various parts of the country serve as PhilPop’s grassroots program in order to diversify the catalog of songs and solve the problem of Manila-centric submissions. In 2018, the winners of the songwriting competition were indeed from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The next songwriting competition will be in 2020, and in preparation for this, PhilPop is holding several more bootcamps this year, the first one being in Batangas, followed by Davao, Bacolod, and Dagupan. 

“We had three winners [last year] that were products of the bootcamp,” says veteran musician and bootcamp master Noel Cabangon. “I think the preparation for the songwriting competition itself is a very significant importance of the bootcamp because we also want to ensure [that people submit] quality compositions [for the PhilPop competition.]”

During the media forum, veteran musician Noel Cabangon shares the importance of advocacy writing, which is one of the topics in the bootcamp lectures. He adds that through advocacy writing, “young people [would] get to know our history and [how to inspire Filipinos]to love the country more.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Bootcamp coach and National Artist Ryan Cayabyab explains PhilPop's partnership with the National Quincentennial Committee, a collaboration that aims to help create more awareness for the 500th celebration of the Philippines’ victory in the Battle of Mactan on March 2021. Photo by JL JAVIER

For four packed days, the bootcamp fellows went through a series of lectures and workshops helmed by some of the Philippines’ most-respected artists — National Artist Ryan Cayabyab, musician Jim Paredes, record producer Trina Belamide, political songwriter Gary Granada, PETA artistic director Maribel Legarda, and more.

The morning of the first day was spent building camaraderie among the fellows and the mentors. Afterward, there was a discussion on the songwriting structure that was led by Belamide, who is behind hits such as Regine Velasquez’s “You Made Me Stronger” and The Company’s “Now That I’ve Found You.” Paredes was also present during the first day, where he talked about how to catalyze creative thinking and song composition. The rest of the afternoon was spent learning about the PhilPop Foundation and the opportunities that the organization can give to prospective artists.

“‘Yung insights [ng coaches] from chord progression to melody to the words, parang wow, if I didn't [come] here, the song wouldn't even have the potential of being that good. It's just going to be this.” — Daryll Bernal, PhilPop bootcamp 2019 fellow

For the second day, Granada, known for his politically charged compositions such as “Philippines 2000,” “Bahay,” and “Earthkeeper,” led the lecture on lyric writing — what vocabulary is effective enough to galvanize the listener, how to seamlessly edit a song, and what gives meaning to music. The fellows were then briefed with PhilPop’s partnership with the National Quincentennial Committee (NQC), a collaboration that aims to help create more awareness for the 500th celebration of the Philippines’ victory in the Battle of Mactan on March 2021.

“We will choose two best songs on each camp and put out a CD — one grand theme material that will be the omnibus theme for the NQC,” explains Cayabyab to the media forum that happened the next day. “The representative from NQC [discussed] points to work on, themes, thematic ideas, so they can inspire the writers.”

The second day was also when Cabangon shared the differences and similarities between writing songs for commercial releases and for social or historical causes. From there, the fellows either grouped together or worked individually to produce a song they would like to be considered by the NQC. Cabangon was keen on encouraging “young people to get to know our history and [how to inspire Filipinos]to love the country more.” 


Besides the NQC song, the fellows are also expected to create an original composition that they would like to submit for the PhilPop competition next year. On the third day, when the media was invited to observe, the coaches and mentors sit inside one of the air-conditioned halls of the resort, all ready to critique the participants’ works. One by one, fellows come to the front of a panel and lay their songs bare.

Daryll Bernal, one of the fellows, starts to hum a melody, strums his guitar, and sings his song. After he is done, Cabangon suggests that a phrase be changed, Cayabyab, who was in and out of the room, adds that there should be a bridge to the song, even singing his suggested strain. As Bernall reworks the rhyme and the melody instantaneously, the song is suddenly transformed.

Bernal, a law student who performs at gigs during his free time, has had an array of songs written on his phone. When the fellows were asked to present, he chose one from his collection, but admits that even when he was performing, it felt incomplete.

Daryll Bernal, one of the fellows who is a law student, presenting an original composition in front of a panel. Photo by JL JAVIER

The bootcamp coaches during the song critiquing session. They suggest lyrics, melodies, and tunes that could transform the song. From left: PhilPop executive director Dinah Remolacio, Noel Cabangon, and composer Marlon Barnuevo. Photo by JL JAVIER

Paola Mauricio, an electronic musician and bootcamp fellow, performs her song to the panel. She says she's been working on the song months before even joining the bootcamp. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Grabe ‘yung coaches, si Mr. C, si Mr. Noel Cabangon,” he says. “‘Yung insights nila from chord progression to melody to the words, parang wow, if I didn't [come] here, the song wouldn't even have the potential of being that good. It's just going to be this.”

Bernal goes on to present this song to the socials night of the bootcamp, with eight other fellows who are also performing. There is rap, there is electronic music, there is a ballad; there is a sweet, minty voice, there is a deep, raspy performance, there is a crooner, there is a lot of almost everything — all original Filipino music.

The diverse catalog of songs may be because the fellows do come from very different backgrounds — some have already signed with a record label, some have released songs on Spotify, a few have uploaded songs on Youtube and Facebook, others have only shared their songs at school tours or gigs, while there are also those who have only presented their songs to the public for the first time.

Paola Mauricio, an electronic musician and one of the bootcamp fellows who performed, says that more than the learnings and lectures, it is the newfound community that she most appreciates in the bootcamp. “To meet other people who share the same dream and be able to cultivate that healthy community [is my most important takeaway,]” she says. “Even with my roommates, we really click and we want the same things, we say there's something here, we should collaborate.”

Record producer and bootcamp coach Trina Belamide also adds that the bootcamp is very much a community building effort. “They are able to network with fellow songwriters, they have access to PhilPop, to music practitioners. Sila-sila nagkaroon sila ng friendships na na-bu-build and that is how a songwriting community flourishes,” she says. “Much like how each of us started — nagkakaroon ng barkadahan with fellow musicians.”

Indeed, during the socials night, the sense of community is almost tangible. Over a very Pinoy round of lechon and ice cold beer, the fellows perform original compositions while the audience erupts to cheers, applause, and encouragement for every introduction of a performer, for every refrain, for every note reached, for every missed chord, for every forgotten word, for every heart-wrenching turn of phrase.

Bootcamp fellow Ramonne Rodriguez plays a jazzy number that complements her raspy voice. Photo by JL JAVIER

Bootcamp fellow Kevin Yadao raps for his turn during the socials night. Photo by JL JAVIER

Bootcamp fellow Lolito Go (left) shares his original composition with another bootcamp fellow, Allen Articulo. Photo by JL JAVIER


The following day, fellows were again gathered for the last series of talks. It was entirely about the current trends and dynamics that affect the music industry as well as the songwriters’ intellectual property rights, how they can earn from royalties, and what the opportunities are for a song to be signed by a major label.

The camp ended with performances of the top five songs that the coaches selected for the NQC. On what makes a good song, Cayabyab says: “It's not only the marriage of the lyrics and the melody, it's also the structure. [These fellows] know how to work out an arc. They know how to build it up and they know how to build it down.”

The audience was then made to vote the top two songs that will represent this bootcamp’s leg for the omnibus CD that the NQC plans to produce. Dionisio, who pens poignant love songs, is one of the two whose songs will be part of the NQC album. It was surprising, especially for someone who only writes about love and heartbreak.

Kian Dionisio sings a song for the National Quincentennial Committee (NQC) collaboration. His original composition was one of the two songs selected by the audience to be part of the NQC omnibus CD. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Meron akong ugali before na ayoko na wala naman nagkakagusto sa song [ko] eh,” he says. “Pero nandiyan nga [‘yung coaches, ‘yung fellows] para sabihin sa akin, ‘Sumulat ka, sumulat ka lang — darating ‘yung time mo, sumulat ka lang.”

Dionisio’s and the other fellows’ performances showed talent in its most distilled form — no gimmicks, no pandering to an audience, no forced interaction with a partner who can’t carry a tune. Without a camp like this, all this treasure could have remained hidden, kept buried by the demand for celebrities to “sing” on noontime television. To a certain extent, the industry by which the fellows seek to enter evokes what art patron Charles Saatchi said about talent: “By and large, talent is in such short supply that mediocrity can be taken for brilliance rather more than genius can go undiscovered.”

It is this kind of discovery that keeps Cayabyab on the edge of his seat, chancing upon something precious that could have gone unnoticed. “Our ears are really open to everyone presenting because you might really discover some treasure there,” he says, “treasure as in ang galing nun, we will push this guy to reach the zenith of where he can go.”