Saturday, April 19, 2008

Is This The Blues I'm Singing? Listening To Binky Lampano's Blues

The blues have not exactly played a role of significance in my life. More than twenty years ago, my only reference to the blues was a line from a song done by, ironically, Echo and the Bunnymen. That is how I remember my blues then. Hearing Ian McCulloch sing "Is this the blues I'm singing?" over and over, in his feeble attempt to be heard and rescued. (Anytime, Ian ;))

But a couple of decades have passed, and I have played a generous host to life's numerous playlists. Has my understanding of the blues changed? I admit to the fact that I will never fully understand the blues, no matter how honorable its evolution is. The birth of what was to become blues music has been attributed to hollers in the slave fields, later transforming into emotional song solos; its elements (i.e. blue notes, 4/4 rhythm, flatted thirds and sevenths, a 12-bar structure, and lyrics in a three-line stanza in which the second line repeats the first) derived mostly from African music.

The blues may have personally become more listenable with time. As a genre the blues seems difficult for me to fully fathom, but then it should be remembered that it is a music borne out of struggle, " expression of anger against shame and humiliation", to quote B.B. King. If this is so, then there must be hope for me to understand the language of anger, sorrow, and struggle of the human soul.

Which brings me to the topic of Binky Lampano. The man to whom, together with harmonica player Tomcat Colvin, the formation of the Philippine blues band Newly Industrialized Combo, and later on, Lampano Alley, is credited.

There is no denying that Binky possesses one of the most distinctive voices in Philippine music. Raspy, almost guttural, bespeaking of brewing extremes of emotions. He could actually turn a bland song into an emotionally wretched musical excerpt. Binky will always be remembered as the hyperactive frontman of Deans December, a new wave band that enjoyed considerable popularity in the late 80s. To the best of my knowledge, Deans December was the only chong band that got to play in the punk joint Katrina's (included in their set was The Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now") --- and came out surprisingly unscathed. Binky was a livewire, swinging off the ceiling of Red Rocks while covering The Lords Of The New Church's "Method To Our Madness", providing one of them humorous adlibs, or simply, just simply, belting out a gut-wrenching original. A precursor to the blues he is singing right this very day.

Binky Lampano was in town a few weeks ago, and I saw Lampano Alley perform on two occasions. They were at 70s Bistro last April 3, 2008. Around a week later, they were at Mogwai Bar at Cubao X. Their repertoire consisted of original materials from the Songs From The Alley album, as well as some tunes by Muddy Waters and Van Morrison. In both performances, Binky appeared physically more settled (I say more settled, for I still cannot get over his past ceiling-swinging and boot-throwing antics), though some habits tend to persist, like the obligatory towel, or the obligatory bottle of beer that he held on for the most part of the gig. The spiels have remained just as humorous.

And then there were the blues. Am I finally able to recognize what the blues is, without being coaxed? I am not quite sure, honestly. I can say however, that Binky sang "Ganyan Lang" with shimmering poignancy, in spite of its positive message to let life's hurts pass; or that he empathically stressed "You messed it up!" as if one really did. Many times Binky made his rounds from table to table, singing, or getting the audience to chant with him ("I don't care how you sing it, so sing with me: Got my mojo working!") The voice is and will always be unforgettable; the emotions it carries however, are unmistakeably richer, imparting a much more mature texture to that unforgettable voice.

I definitely enjoyed both gigs. BUT.

Alack, there is little use in pretending that I understand the blues, even after more than twenty years, and in spite of Binky Lampano. But as have been said, while there's life, there's struggle, and as such, there's reason to sing about the blues.

For more about Lampano Alley, visit

Photo credits: Deans December pic courtesy of Ourpeboritpinoypop. Second photo shows Binky Lampano and Tomcat Colvin. Third photo, Lampano Alley in action. Fourth photo, Binky and Simon Tan.

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