Lifestyle MST: Philippines blues heats up frozen Memphis

For the LIFESTYLE section By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 2 February 2014, Sunday

Philippines blues heats up frozen Memphis

The genre is almost unheard-of, its local aficionados few, but the little Philippine blues community has managed to pull off an amazing feat – bringing the country honor on an international stage.

For the first time ever in its 30-year history, an Asian band reached the finals of the International Blues Competition held annually in Memphis by the Blues Foundation.

Filipino band Brat Pack, fielded by the Philippine Blues Society (PBS) bested some 140 band to emerge in the top nine of finalists in the contest staged last Jan. 21-25.

The 30th edition of the IBC attracted a record total 255 band and solo acts from 40 states and 16 countries in the most prestigious playoff of the genre. Last year’s event drew 205 band and solo acts.

The IBC is an international talent search offering prizes, cash, and industry recognition, and is considered a “break” for world-class blues musicians to be discovered and brought to the global stage.

Brat Pack is a group of four young musicians in their 20s – Christine (“Xtine”) Mercado (vocals), RJ Pineda (keyboard), Allan Abdulla (drums), and David de Koenigswarter (bass).

PBS, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the genre, has been sending contestants to the IBC for three years, holding an annual contest among local bands to determine the country’s candidates.

In 2012, the Bleu Rascals played in the IBC Youth Showcase, while in 2013 Kat Magic Express and Electric Sala represented the PBS in the band contest and youth showcase respectively.


Wowing judges and the audience

            Brat Pack’s first stop on this trip was in San Francisco to play at the famous Biscuits and Blues bar. They played to a packed house along with legendary half-Filipina singer Sugar Pie de Santo, music icon Ramon “RJ” Jacinto, Jay Ortega, young musicians Tristan Ortega and Jam Villanueva, and veteran bluesmen Binky Lampano and Tom Colvin of Lampano Alley.

In Memphis, Bratpack and Lampano performed on, one of only 20 bands chosen from the hundreds who flocked to the city that week.

In the first of two of the band’s warmups, Lampano again took the stage with Brat Pack at the BB King Blues Bar where they were well-received.

The second warmup took place at the New Daisy Theater for the Fedex International Showcase. Xtine dedicated their performance “to the victims of typhoon Haiyan.” The band’s talent and infectious energy earned them the loudest applause and the only standing ovation.

Brat Pack’s unique sound

Brat Pack’s sound differs from that of traditional blues bands in that it is keyboard-driven, eschewing the more usual lead guitar. Their insistence on upholding their artistic vision has tagged them “unconventional,” but it is this that has brought them attention.

Lampano Alley harmonica player Colvin (who founded the Blues Asia Network), describes Bratpack’s sound as “virtuoso blues.”

The band’s style is steered by Pineda’s keyboard work, which, Colvin said, shows off “a range of sound from tender to moody to buoyant and playful, with forays into technical mastery that simply put all other keyboardists to shame.”

Abdulla delivers “impeccable and tasty rhythm backing…[playing] very musically, without the bombastic flailing common to many drum solos,” while bassist De Koenigswarter’s stylings “in guitar-like fashion at the top of the fretboard” enhanced “sometimes with bluesy bends and vibrato” add an “extra dimension no other band offered.”

Xtine’s powerful and throaty vocals are reminiscent of jazz and blues greats Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, but with a quality and passion all her own, marked, said Colvin, “by a maturing richness” that perfectly complements her bandmates’ efforts.


The competition

Going into the quarterfinals and semifinals, the band was playing everyday. According to PBS director Allan Magturo, who was responsible for the entire trip’s logistics, “Brat Pack hardly had any rest,” but persevered for the love of music and of country.

Their sets ranged from 25 to 30 minutes, their repertoire including blues standards “Mojo Working,” “I’m A Woman,” “Five Long Years,” “Have You Ever Been Mistreated,” “What’d I Say,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” as well as a Bratpack original, “Bratitude.”

All throughout, Brat Pack was considered one of the teams to beat. They capped their campaign by reaching the finals, one of only nine bands in that select group.

Lampano had no doubt Bratpack would make it to the finals. “I knew they were that good because they have a distinctive sound,” he said. “They really worked hard, they did their homework. I’m proud of them.”

Said Magturo: “Bratpack’s performance is world-class. Landing in the top nine of the toughest and most prestigious blues competition in the world confirms this. May their achievement encourage other Filipino blues musicians to hone their skills and look at a bigger stage.”


Rave reviews

International blues aficionados found the Brat Pack one of the best teams in this year’s IBC.

Canadian music blogger Richard White said the Canadian delegation would have to kick up their performance a notch given that the “Bratpack from the Philippines set the bar high with a young keyboardist who could be this generation’s Jerry Lee Lewis with his flying fingers and infectious smile and enthusiasm. The entire [band] was on fire, especially the keyboardist and the drummer.”

A report on French online music magazine Zicazine said about the band at the Fedex Showcase, “How to obtain the only standing ovation of the evening? The Filipinos of the Brat Pack found the recipe by arriving without a lead guitar but with one of the most inspired keyboards and by hitting us with two consecutive standards, “Have You Ever Been Mistreated?” and “What’d I Say?” all of this performed with so much talent and energy…”

Later on in the contest, the same report noted, “Brat Pack…move toward fresher and more personal things, and accomplish that rather well. The amazing pianist and the very beautiful cohesion of the group are an example to follow, to imitate the first Asian band to make it to the finals…”

Said Jay Sieleman, Blues Foundation president: “The Philippines is the fastest-growing and most exciting blues scene in Asia. You will have more fun with the blues in the Philippines.”

According to Colvin, “No other international delegation received such glowing praise from the Blues Foundation president. And that was even before he watched Bratpack.”


Team effort

Brat Pack’s achievement was a triumph of bayanihan. The unstinting efforts of PBS directors, members, and sponsors made sure of the Philippines’ participation this year (initially, Kingpin Trio was supposed to have been the entry to the youth showcase but one of the members was sidelined by illness).

In Memphis, the delegation received the whole-hearted support of the Filipino community there. They acted as roadies, provided home-grown encouragement by attending every performance, and supplied their kababayans with comfort food such as sinigang and bistek.

Magturo along with veteran musicians Lampano and Colvin also served as the band’s mentors throughout the trip, giving suggestions on their performance and their setlist of tunes, eyeing the competition, and advising Brat Pack to adjust its own performances accordingly.


Future directions

Sometime during the finals, Magturo spirited Bratpack and Lampano out of the Orpheum Theater, the finals venue, to record in the legendary Sun Studios, where music greats BB King, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, among others, have also recorded.

This, and their stints at Biscuits and Blues,, and their achievement at the IBC, have put Brat Pack on the global blues map, and the future looks bright for them.

For PBS and the Philippine blues community, they have fulfilled their dream of once again showing the world the talent of Filipino musicians. They look forward to having another shot at the win next year.

Magturo said, “I hope our blues musicians and fans will continue to support PBS’s endeavors to send the Philippines’ best to the competition.”


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