Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Soul music was the black man’s gift to the world. The offspring of proto-gospel music and rhythm and blues, soul was the civil rights era’s battle cry, giving rise to the most influential artists in the history of music. Today, it has many colors — from the Southern soul boosted by Stax Records in 1957, to the blue-eyed soul that took in white artists who performed R&B in the mid-60s. Now that the black man’s music ceases to be a battle cry and becomes more of a popular voice, the genre, like many others, is naturalized in the fabric of contemporary music — today, anyone can sing soulfully. Kids everywhere who grew up alongside stacks of vinyl records were singing along to Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, and Marvin Gaye.
Singers Ely Buendia and Jay Ortega were among these kids, and when they talked in a drinking session in a cafe where they realized their shared roots, they jumped on the chance to form a band that could be fueled by their idols. It was serendipity, and it all happened over beers on a night in November, under the roof of Spin Cafe in Parañaque — owned by Ortega — where the two met for the first time.
“We got to talking and I asked him (Buendia) a question about what genre he might be interested in doing that is a far cry from what he already did with all the other bands in the past,” says the former frontman of hard rock bands Gnash and DRT. “And he said soul, so my ears just went nuts because it’s exactly what I wanted to do. I already had written one song jammed with another set of musicians that was soul. I sent him the demo, he liked it, we decided to go for it. That’s the short of it.”
Shortly after their demo exchanges, Buendia and Ortfega sourced for musicians who could help them achieve the sound they wanted, and they didn’t have to look far. Ortega pulled in the guitarist Redge Concepcion, an old friend and collaborator of his, and the keyboardist RJ Pineda, whom he met in Memphis — aptly enough, where “soul was born,” says Ortega. Buendia then enlisted the help of frequent collaborator and the percussionist of the band Wilderness, Pat Sarabia, for drum duties. And so the core group was born, all of whom are from southern Manila, and all they would need are sessionist musicians to fill in the details: horns, chimes, extra percussions, the works.
In the meantime, they would need a name. Taking inspiration from the new wave band The Motels, Buendia had come up with “Apartel.” Come June, he would announce in a tweet: “WANTED: Backup singer, female, fluent in soul genre. Send cv and demo to email@example.com.” And so began Apartel’s gigging life, which would set them on their path to molding the Philippines’ own version of southern soul.
The members of Apartel are on their way to CNN Philippines Life’s cover shoot on a day in September, just a couple of months after they’ve released their first single. Pineda, the keyboardist, is the first to arrive. We shake hands, and he begins to converse in a dapperly manner. I ask about his musical background and he tells me that he has had classical piano training when he was a kid. Today, besides Apartel, he plays the keyboard for jazz and blues band The Brat Pack in several grand venues, like hotels. His band even went on to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis (where he and Ortega met), where they placed finals twice, being the first Asian band to have done so. “Because no one joined,” Pineda humbly quips, to which Ortega responds later during the interview, “No joke, ha. I go around and the whites, the blacks, everyone from that community were talking about RJ. He made a big splash ... They were all dubbing him the next Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Pineda says he mostly plays to a “tito crowd,” even with Apartel, and so I could tell that he enjoys the company of younger people, especially those his age. I later confirmed this when I saw Pineda again the weekend after the shoot, at a bar gig with a more youthful crowd, his hair unruly and his get-up less dapper, where we were free to talk about more rebellious things with beers in our hands amid a sea of 20-somethings. But today is for Apartel, and his hair is neat. He’s even worried about his stubble. “Is there a 7-Eleven here?” he asks me. “I forgot to shave. I have a razor but I prefer the shaver.”
Buendia, Ortega, and Concepcion are the next ones to arrive. They hang around and smoke cigarettes while waiting for their drummer, Sarabia. “MVP namin yan si Pat sa gigs,” says Ortega. “She gets us all pumped up.”
Sarabia appears to be a soft-spoken person, but onstage, she gets into an infectious drumming frenzy, they way she does with her other band, Wilderness, where she plays a more explosive and psychedelic kind of sound. After the first time Buendia and Ortega jammed in a studio with Sarabia, they decided instantly to have her in the band. “I’ve never worked with a drummer who had her memory and her arrangements,” says Ortega.
A couple of weeks ago before the shoot, I watched Sarabia play with Apartel for the first time in that same bar where Pineda and I exchanged pleasantries over beer. That night, there were more 20-somethings than titos and titas, although Pineda was absent, substituted by a sessionist on the keyboard. Donning a fedora, Sarabia looked more confident than ever — this was “her crowd.” “She owned that night,” exclaims Ortega. “Overture pa lang, sum-olo na to, eh! Bam!” Sarabia explains, “It’s the Jack Daniels. Powered by Jack Daniels.” “Hey, that’s my crowd also!” Pineda says, sad that he wasn’t there.
In an interview with Radio Republic, Buendia mentioned that besides creating an avenue to express their soul influences, Apartel was a way to form a supergroup of sorts, to get the people who would best be able to reach that passionate sound. “If we’re really gonna head into it, we wanted to do it the right way and not just try to sound soul,” says Ortega. Although both of them insist that they don’t set out to recreate a period kind of sound, Apartel’s music conjures that era of soul music, the heyday of vinyl records when “music was at its peak” — in Buendia’s words — mostly because of the inspirations that they take from.
“We both loved 60s and 70s soul,” says Buendia. “Soul was a big part of my childhood, especially in the 70s. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, even Manila Sound; the original OPM genre was actually very much soul-influenced.” He says that soul is part of his musical DNA. “And you can actually hear it in the Eraserheads. Mixed yun with Sonic Youth eh, so medyo weird yung kinalabasan, but it’s part of its charm.”
Some of the Eraserheads’ songs had actually already been foreshadowing Buendia’s current project: in “Bogchi Hokbu” from their 1997 album Sticker Happy, a flutist or “flutician” is brought in to give life to the song, a “cha-cha number” that Buendia has always wanted to do. In the 2nd issue of the Eraserheads’ Pillbox magazine, the band says that the track was inspired by Santana’s “'Black Magic Woman' — something funny and sexy at the same time.”
“I’ve been through two bands already, and none of those bands have ever gone to the level of what this band has achieved in such a short time,” says Buendia. “And I was really surprised by that."
As for Ortega: “I’ve already had records. I have a collection of vinyl records, and a lot of them are Tower of Power, and Sly and the Family Stone. And just recently we were able to find War, the band, on vinyl. These are the types of [bands we listen to].” In fact, Apartel’s first single “Is It Hip?” sounds like an accolade to Tower of Power’s 1973 funk track “What is Hip,” where Buendia pays tribute to his older band with the “Superproxy”-esque pre-chorus. One can almost hear a bluesy version of the latter song, by way of “Sinister Kid” by The Black Keys, another band that Apartel has listed as one of their influences.
With all these artists in mind, Buendia and Ortega wanted to join forces to create an “undiluted” or “unadulterated” kind of music, which explains why the band seems to push for a sincere revival of the sounds of long-gone soul pioneers, albeit with a new twist. Perhaps, forming Apartel was a way for them to get closer to their musical heroes.
The territory Apartel was stepping on entails forming a big band, says Buendia. Besides the core members, Buendia and Ortega brought in horn players and extra percussions. As soon as all the musicians were in place, Apartel immediately set foot on The Bunker, Buendia’s home studio in Parañaque, to write and record their songs. Like in the analog days of music where a whole band had to play live in only a couple of takes to lay a song down during recording — where mistakes don’t cut it, and if they do happen the whole band has to start over again — Apartel’s creative process is fast paced and spontaneous. “Everything [is done] in the same day, including recording,” Ortega explains. “We’ll [go through] the song four or five times, [and then record immediately].”
They go on to tell how their first single, “Is It Hip?” came about. It was their first song ever, and they all “worked so fast on [it].” Buendia and Ortega were jamming with Wendell Garcia, the drummer of the rock band Pupil, which is also fronted by Buendia. “He came up with really nice bass line that Wendell was playing on,” Ortega says. “And I just kept repeating, 'Is it hip!' along with it. I couldn’t figure out what else to write [at the time] so we left it at that.” They then reworked the song with Sarabia, Pineda, and Concepcion. “That was the first song they joined us on. And then, yun na. Nabuo siya dun, in an instant.”
Ortega recounts how they wrote another one of their songs called “What The Funk.” While the band was arranging the song at The Bunker, he recorded them on his phone. “I left the studio, went down to the garden, had a toke, and then started writing. In 15 minutes, I had the verse and the chorus parts. And then I gave it to Ely, I literally passed the notebook [I wrote on]. And in 10 minutes, he was done with his verse.”
“It’s a different process from what we’re used to,” says Buendia. Coming from heavier bands in the past, Buendia and Ortega felt like they had to revise their usual writing process for the music’s sake. “[It was the] first time we’ve tried coming up with a song in a jam. We’re the type of songwriters that just want our own little space, and sit down and probably spend our whole day thinking about the direction and everything. Pero eto, ang bilis.”
Both singers felt like they had to make a conscious effort to transition to something more delicate in order to orchestrate the sound that they wanted. To get in the zone, they had to isolate themselves for a while. Ortega says, “I had to leave. I left for a whole week and stayed in Tagaytay and isolated myself. I only listened specifically to just soul — Raphael Saadiq, and Leon Bridges ... And then on the second day of being there, I started writing na. I simplified it, and just concentrated on the words and the melodies. I already knew the calibre of the people we’re working with. Once they hear it, they’ll be able to put enough color and textures and work on the arrangement.” Buendia agrees. “We dug our roots and then we [had] to just isolate ourselves first from all the other stuff that are going on around us, music-wise and other-wise, whatever. We wanted to get into that zone, to create something that’s simple but passionate.”
Besides sprucing up their falsettos, the two singers also did something completely new. “For the first time ever in both our careers, we started writing horn parts,” says Ortega. “Syempre, we can’t naman play any horn instrument so we’d hum it to them. We’d hum it, literally sing it, hanggang makuha nila yung kailangan naming marinig.” Buendia adds, “It was very exciting for us to record horns especially, we considered na medyo exotic siya.”
It took the band about two months to record a full album, and almost a month longer for post-production. It was all about perfecting the sound up to its final state, and making sure that all the details, like the horn parts, are added.
It was quite the shell-breaking experience, but Buendia explains that not everything was forced and that it was all a product of the whole band’s chemistry. “Part of it is conscious, part of it is subconscious. We jammed and the ball just started rolling. It sort of took care of itself in that way ... We weren’t really trying very hard to make a soul album.” Ortega agrees, “It just came out.”
Indeed, not everything in music is supposed to make sense. Some of the greatest songs in music history aren’t intended by the songwriter to make sense. A lot of soul music doesn’t even depend on the lyrics, but more on its groove and rhythm. A song by the Stax Records icon Isaac Hayes called “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” is literally his own “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” During the shoot, I am instructed to play songs on the speakers to pump the band up for the nuttier shots, and so I play this one.
“Ah Isaac Hayes! Mas rock n’ roll to ah!” says Ortega. “[This is] a solid song, I’ve never heard this one before.”
"Nobody really buys CDs anymore. A purist or even just a real fan, you’d wanna keep something as a memento. Rather than keep this small ass CD where you can hardly read the fine print on, why not a big vinyl record? It’s collectable, and if you ever get a chance to get a sound system together, it really is different."
Although the band admits to having extra serious goals and lofty inclinations — with their suits, the more affluent crowd that they attract, and the standards that they hope to set — they still retain a sense of humor. It’s necessary, and all part of the mythology they create for themselves, driven by their sexual innuendoes and ambiguous labels. “Apartel eh, it’s all booga booga songs,” says Ortega. I ask him what their album name is, and he says, “Inner Play”: “Philip, [our manager], came up with it. It’s bastos, eh.” I later see their manager enter the studio, dressed inconspicuously in a black shirt and jeans, with motorcycle gloves dangling from his back pocket. The band says they lovingly call him “Germany,” a wordplay on his title.
It was easy to conclude how much of audiophiles Buendia and Ortega were because of how fondly they talk about vinyl records, nieve boards, and analog technology. Both argue that the golden age of vinyl records was the best time for music, because the record system was a model that worked for musicians and music lovers. Buendia talks about this with passion. “If it’s not broke, why fix it? That system, or that paradigm worked perfectly. It took care of everything. People were happy, the artists were happy.” Ortega adds, “CD kind of ruined it actually.”
“Music was fantastic. And then suddenly, the digital age came, and for me, fucked it all up,” Buendia says further.
Technology did make musicians poorer, I reply. “It made musicians tamad in my opinion,” Ortega responds. “Kasi it made everything easy to do. ‘Oh, loop mo na lang yan!’" Besides toiling hard on raw recordings, Apartel aims to stray away from mediocrity by releasing their album as a double LP on 45 RPM vinyl records. "A lot of people are listening to vinyl again now. That’s also partly why we wanted to release the album on vinyl.”
But the catch is that vinyl is so expensive now, I say. But Ortega continues, “So are CDs, and nobody really buys CDs anymore. A purist or even just a real fan, you’d wanna keep something as a memento. Rather than keep this small ass CD where you can hardly read the fine print on, why not a big vinyl record? It’s collectable, and if you ever get a chance to get a sound system together, it really is different. RJ heard the album on vinyl the other day for the first time, and he was like, ‘That’s us?! That’s us?!’ It’s a big difference.”
As we endlessly talk about the advancement of digital musical formats, much was said about putting the value back in music by just making quality music that came from the heart. “It should come from here,” Ortega points to his chest. “Because if it is, it’s felt. It’s heard by people who get to listen to the song. Because even the singer, the artist who is interpreting what was written, it’s there, it’s got meat ... It hits the spot kasi it’s meant. It’s sincere.”
Buendia believes that musicians and music lovers alike have the responsibility to raise the standard in music, in ways that they believed in. Buendia and Ortega hope to do this with Apartel as well as with their independent record label, Offshore Music.
“I’ve been through two bands already, and none of those bands have ever gone to the level of what this band has achieved in such a short time,” says Buendia. “And I was really surprised by that. I mean, I knew that people [who] will like the music [are] probably people our age or some musicians, but I was really surprised that so far we’ve been accepted not just in our scene but also by people we didn’t even know existed.”
It may be a new territory for most of the band, but it’s thrilling to think that they exist today, after all the pioneers have come and gone, after all ideas about soul music have been seemingly exhausted. A huge part of Apartel’s appeal is in the mystery of how well and how fresh their sound turns out, with their potpourri of members being a mixture of old and new faces. I ask, how it’s like working with newer people? and Buendia responds, “It’s better than working with older people,” to which Ortega laughs hysterically.