Loved by generations, Ryan Cayabyab laments the collaboration he will never have

Cayabyab mounted a 70th birthday concert that looked back at how far modern Philippine music has reached.

Ryan Cayabyab’s 70th birthday concert, curiously entitled Gen C, was as much a celebration of his personal story as it was a snapshot of Philippine music’s evolution over five decades.

Held recently at the Samsung Arts Performing Theater in Circuit, Makati, Gen C drew in an audience from across generations—the millennials who learned science from Sineskwela, the Baby Boomers and Gen X who saw the rise of Philippine pop from its Manila Sound heyday to OPM, and people from the music industry who owed their careers to Mr. C, as Cayabyab is fondly called.

The National Artist for Music played the piano in white tennis shoes, a departure from the rather formal atmosphere of a cultural concert and one that seemed to demonstrate he is now ready for the Gen Z crowd and their above-the-knee shorts and white crew socks. But if the producers wanted to show youth, there was no replacing Cayabyab’s natural light-hearted and playful spirit and curious storytelling.

In a highly musical culture like the Philippines, where street videoke is a talent show, Cayabyab’s music knows no class, race, or time.

In truth, Gen C was a concert down memory lane where crowds swayed their heads to the tune of familiar songs such as Tunay Na Ligaya, which Cayabyab sang along with his wife Emmy, and Araw-Gabi, performed by Regine Velasquez accompanied by the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra. Occasionally, there were the “Sya pala gumawa noon?” whispers, such as when Bituin Escalante sang Hello Joe Goodbye, a composition for the Eddie Romero film Desire (1982).

This is the genius of Ryan Cayabyab. His music is accessible and deeply personal, tapping into the Filipino psyche that makes the ordinary man bellow, “This is my song.” The NCCA writes: “His compositions reflect a perspective of music that extols the exuberance of life and human happiness, thus capturing the very essence of our Filipino soul.”

72-year old Basil Valdez sang many of Ryan Cayabyab’s most widely known songs. Banner photo: Cayabyab and Regine Velasquez. Photos by Geo Yu, GK Photography

In a highly musical culture like the Philippines, where street videoke is a talent show, Cayabyab’s music knows no class, race, or time.

His music has also transcended genres and offers a breadth of repertoire, from works such as Katy! The Musical (1988), household songs (Tuwing Umuulan at Kapiling Ka and Kailan), movie scores, liturgical hymns, and Christmas staples (Kumukutikutitap). A standout, Da Coconut Nut (first sung by the Smokey Mountain band) is a favorite international piece by American choirs. He has championed Filipino musical talent, composing for, arranging songs for, and mentoring many of today’s most successful singers and artists.

After decades of working with Filipino musical artists, “I’m often asked of whom I dream of collaborating with,” he said at Gen C. His answer was unequivocal: My mother. Ironically, she almost prevented Cayabyab from making a career in music.

Cayabyab was born in 1954, nine years after the end of World War II. It was a time when musicians found themselves trying to survive in a society that had other priorities in mind. Cayabyab’s mother, Celerina (an opera singer) didn’t wish for her children to suffer such a fate.

Ryan Cayabyab and his wife Emmy perform a duet.

Before she died when Cayabyab was six years old, she made his father promise never to let the children venture into a music career. Cayabyab obeyed and enrolled in an accounting degree at the University of the Philippines.

But music had its way of bringing Cayabyab back into its fold. At the Philippine Madrigal Singers, he became friends with Cocoy Laurel, whose father, former Vice President Salvador Laurel, was saddened that Cayabyab was splitting his time between music and accounting. He eventually supported Cayabyab to enroll in a music degree in UP. Among his teachers were Eliseo Pajaro, Lucio San Pedro, Ramon Santos, and Francisco Feliciano (the last three being National Artists).

The penchant to dissuade children from taking creative degrees still exists four decades later—and for good reasons. More than 50% of Filipino workers in the music industry earn less than P20,000, far below the minimum wage in Metro Manila, according to the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Council of the Philippines’ funded project called Musika Pilipinas, which gathered answersfrom 700 respondents.

I wish (my mother) could see how much joy and comfort music has given us Filipinos…dreaming and hoping for a better world.

“Local artists would always have to go through what we normally identify as sariling sikap, that is, without any government intervention and support in its music training, marketing, and promotion,” said the project leader Maria Alexandra Chua in a statement about the research.

Cayabyab remembered the difficult times of starting in the industry—from being a pianist at 15 to his early days as a composer. He was building his name in a music scene that was witnessing the rise of the groovy and vibrant beats of Manila Sound (e.g. Hotdog’s Manila), with many lyrics in Taglish.

Cayabyab’s song, Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika, performed by Hajji Alejandro, won the 1978 Metro Pop Music Festival. Around this time, pop ballads were also on the ascend; rising star crooner Basil Valdez would sing Cayabyab’s compositions Paraisong Parisukat (1977), Nais Ko (1978), and Tuwing Umuulan (1980), among others.

Having written the music scoring of several movies, Cayabyab is also prolific in musicals, writing Rama-Hari (1980), a musical ballet; Noli Me Tangere (1995); andone about Katy dela Cruz, the Queen of Filipino Jazz and Bodabil —a Filipinization of the French vaudeville and the precursor of the Filipino variety show.

Nyoy Volante and The Ryan Cayabyab Singers

Sa kahit anong propesyon, kailangan magaling ka o ikaw ang pinakamagaling. You must reach that point na ikaw ang authority,” he said.

One of the secrets seemed to be teaching. In an industry where you need constant creativity, you learn as much as you share. He taught music at UP and eventually founded The Music School of Ryan Cayabyab, at the same time mentoring artists and groups such as Smokey Mountain—who first sang the songs Kailan, Can This Be Love?, and Better World, among others – and The Ryan Cayabyab Singers.

From Valdez and Velasquez to rising star Stell of SB19 and folk-pop band Ben & Ben—only a few legends can bring together such diverse generations of talents into one theater as Cayabyab has at Gen C, which was directed by Rowell Santiago and produced by Girlie Rodis, Celeste Legaspi, Melfred Hernandez, and Aaron Veloso.

But even legends have their lamentations. “I wish she could see what music has given me and my family,” said Cayabyab, remembering Celerina during the Mother’s Day weekend. “I wish she could see how much joy and comfort music has given us Filipinos…dreaming and hoping for a better world.”

Despite her dissuasion, the National Artist fondly remembers her as the first who discovered the music in him. It is a fire that would continue to burn for the next six decades and which he will ignite in many.

Sang the Smokey Mountain in Better World (1990), “I dream that one day our songs in some way will bring a bright tomorrow.” His timeless music may already have.

The new lifestyle.