31 December 2015

Only vow

This year I vow to rebuild my poetry collection.

Off the top of my head, I lost:

Seamus Heaney
Marianne Moore
Louise Glück
Gwendolyn Brooks
Edna St Vincent Millay
E.E. Cummings
Don Paterson
Elizabeth Bishop
Alice Fulton
Lucie Brock-Broido
David St John
Anne Carson
Cherrie Moraga

So maybe I'll start with them.

I can't believe I'd be this hurt to remember a line, a word, a turn of phrase, and not be able to find the pages where it came from. That I'd only find nine poetry books on my shelf. Material things, yes, but mortality is material and I'll cling to what I can so long as I can.

Been struggling with the thought of letting go of what's gone, allowing space. But they weren't gone. They're in my head, in a printing press and in a bookshop, somewhere.

23 December 2015

No girl power, only power

It must be my limited purview. When I gained consciousness, the nation was ruled by a housewife. Now, in my lifetime, I’ve seen two women presidents — and it might be three if we all survived this coming elections.

I grew up watching Ally McBeal and Charmed, both of which had female leads, the former in position of power (she’s a lawyer) and the latter, gifted with supernatural powers (they’re witches). In school, the deans, department heads, and the brightest, most opinionated students I had shared classrooms with were female. When I got out of school, I entered companies and publications where I worked with girl bosses and editors. In my own circle of friends, the ladies stick to their passions, make a living out of them, seek romance, nurture a family and look good doing it.

The concept of “girl power” was lost on me: there was only power, available in varying degrees to all members of the human race. I never thought that those people I mentioned had something others of the same sex were devoid/deprived of. As it turns out, their “normal” was the world’s “extraordinary.”

Sure I witness discrimination. One time I rode a cab that almost bumped into the car in front. The male cabbie sighed, “Tsk. Babae kasi ang driver.” He obviously didn’t notice that his passenger was a girl. But I don’t file instances like this under “misogyny” and cry foul on behalf of womenkind. I chalk it up to sheer impropriety. We’re all walking stereotypes and we see people as types, whether deliberately or subconsciously. You are measured in more ways than one: by your clothes, school, job, Twitter followers, literary preference, accent. Girlhood is a minor inconvenience.

To be honest, what’s distressing is this relentless invitation to fit the image of the modern woman: daring, outspoken, uncompromising, can-do-it-all and -do-it-better. It’s another suffocating box.

—Full story on GIST.PH

17 December 2015

That moment Beethoven invaded my video game

An indication that someone is famous and influential? When their name is known to those uninterested, even ignorant of their area of expertise. Ask a non-classical music listener which classical artist they know, chances are they’ll say Beethoven.

Anyone who took piano lessons practised every day to perfect Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Für Elise, and the more ambitious ones take on the entire Moonlight Sonata. To the rest of us who can only try, thank goodness for the CDs and concerts that allow us to appreciate the glorious sounds, whether digitally in our living room or live in music halls.

Imagine though the delight of coming across his compositions in an unusual setting, say, a video game. There was a time in the ‘90s when “Earthworm Jim” became popular, and to its credit it was a weird, fun, not to mention addictive game. What made purchasing the next instalment, “Earthworm Jim 2” worth it was hearing the Moonlight Sonata, particularly its third movement on the last level. Jim was running and the fast, somewhat dark vibe of the piece fits the scene. What a finale.

Granted, classical music have been used several times in video games. But to hear one of your favorites, that will certainly make you giddy. Two centuries after his death, the German composer’s works are still being used in — and discovered by new generations through — video games, TV shows and countless movies, from horror to romance and comedy. That’s immortality for you. Happy birthday, Beethoven!

—Originally published on GIST

01 December 2015

Anton Juan leaves the secret garden to the imagination

An elaborate piece of work can either test or arrest one’s attention. Such is the case with Repertory Philippines’ adaptation of Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon’s The Secret Garden, a musical based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel of the same title. In it are symbolic set pieces, ghosts walking — and singing — among the living, flashbacks, and quite a large cast of characters with a chorus.

The year is 1906, the place is England. Young Mary Lennox, after being orphaned, lives with her widowed uncle Archibald Craven. In her new home she discovers locked up in one of the rooms her sick cousin, Colin, who is about the same age as her and is convinced that he’ll die at any moment. She also learns of and is lured by a secret garden, which, as is later on revealed, is emblematic of the characters’ lives. It is dead because their spirits are down, and it blooms when they begin to open up.

The audience doesn’t get a peek at this wondrous garden. Even the house that contains the complicated family and its ghosts is only hinted at. On the stage is what seems like a huge stone roughly chiseled to form ladders and platforms, barely resembling a dwelling. “When we look at rocks or crumpled surfaces, figures and faces surge out of them. I wanted the house to be that of a rock from which memories would come out of,” explains director Anton Juan.

“The garden and the house must be completed in the imagination of the audience. Hence I wanted (the color) white and steps leading as if to nowhere. Once, I was in Hagonoy directing a traditional play for Babaylan, and I saw a madwoman, once rich, climb the only remnant of her once-mansion — a flight of steps. She would climb it and descend, then disappear into a shack behind it,” he continues.

With all the build-up to the garden, the detailed costumes, playful lighting, and unique imagining of the Cravens’ house, it’s natural to expect an equally creative set design for the titular garden. But the audience will soon realize that the production is leaving it entirely to their minds, where most of the magic happens anyway.

“The audience is the garden — the wick inside of us that Dickon sings about to Mary,” shares Juan. “This is also the colonized self inside us, the culture and history in us oppressed by dominant cultures, empires, order, technology and ‘science’ mis-used. The millennials (the silent generation) must see this. The wick awaits to grow and blossom, awaits freedom of expression.”

The question is, can the show be enjoyed without knowing the intent behind it? It certainly requires undivided attention. The actors’ affected accents can get in the way of following the dialogues, and the music — save for the Final Storm, which incorporates a haunting version of nursery rhyme Mary, Mary Quite Contrary — is missing the melodic hooks that are crucial in sustaining one’s interest in a musical. It helps that there’s a committed cast onstage. Standouts are Lorenz Martinez (as Archibald), who makes the songs soar; Daniel Drilon, who steals scenes as the stubborn, distrustful, yet charming Colin — he makes you root for him; and Red Concepcion (as Dickon), who’s always been a reliable thespian.

Aside from the cast, especially the child actors, whom Juan selected for their “talent and truth,” Juan takes pride in collaborating on a show with his former students. “I am working with a dream team of artistic collaborators who were my students: Dexter Santos, Ohm David, John Ilao Batalla, Bonzai… And this time it is they who are there, helping me shape what I want for us to articulate, and expect: excellence,” he says. “Surmounting the difficulties of the stage used by two plays all at once [the musical runs alongside another Repertory production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs], and the humble fees they receive, the dream team has collaborated on The Secret Garden and makes it mean (something) truthful and profound in these days of great violence.”

—Originally published on GIST.PH

30 November 2015

The test of travel

(A chunk of my interview with host Janet Hsieh regarding her Fun Taiwan wedding special. It's quite an eye-opening chat for someone like me who obsesses about privacy. Full article on GIST.PH.)


Has it always been the plan — get married in Antarctica and shoot the wedding for Fun Taiwan?

JANET HSIEH: (George and I were) talking about the dream destination and Antarctica was it. I started inviting my friends, family, and my producer — he loves adventure and we thought, “We should film it, it’ll be fun.” Then I told George, “Hey your parents are gonna be there and my parents are gonna be there.” And he made a joke: “Why don’t we just get married,” and I was like, “That’s a good idea.”

Traveling with your partner and getting married are very intimate affairs. How does it feel to have a camera and a crew following you around every step of the way?

For me it’s quite natural because for the past ten years, working with TLC, every time I travel somewhere, I have the camera with me. Yes you’re mixing your private life with work, but I love it. When we decided to do the wedding thing, obviously I needed to talk to George, who was a little bit more reserved.

We weren’t going to have a wedding at first. But after we started filming — in Texas for ten days, then Argentina for another 10 days, and finally to Antarctica — by that time that it just became routine, so normal, to have a camera there. Plus, the advantage of having a production is that you’re focusing on planning the trip. You’re not thinking about the wedding so much. For us the idea of planning a wedding is very stressful. But planning a trip is okay! So that took off a lot of the normal wedding anxiety that you would have.

What was it like to revisit your hometown with your significant other?

That was fun. I grew up in Texas but left when I was 17. So to go back as an adult and relive all the things that we used to do — kayaking, horseback riding, eating streak — and be able to share it with George is completely different. I felt like I kind of went back to being a kid again. We were in the rodeo and I was so excited, but then George was there so sometimes it became a competition, I wanted to be the better horseback rider. Sometimes I kind of wanted to guide him, and sometimes it was just us two experiencing things for the first time together. So it was very nice, and to see George’s reaction to everything was always hilarious.

What are the major differences — maybe advantages or disadvantages — of traveling alone, with a group, and with your partner?

Travelling alone, you’ll meet so many people. Because humans are naturally social creatures, when you travel by yourself, you’re always looking to meet people. Even if it’s just one-day friends, you’ll always meet that person, and sometimes you end up traveling together for a bit of time.

When travelling with a group, obviously you have the dynamics of the group. So if it’s your friends, you really start to see things about them that you don’t normally see in day-to-day life. So that could make or break relationships. It really could. But it’s also fun. When you’re away from the stress of work and all that, a lot of times you become closer. Even if you have hard times, say, something terrible happens like bad weather and you can’t do the things you wanted to do, you’re cuddled together in one space that you end up becoming really close. That’s the advantage.

Travelling with a partner — I always say, if you really want to know your partner, travel with them. (Plan everything together) down to where you book your hotel and what kind of food you’ll eat. If you come across any problems — or just even with the shopping, how (they) interact with the shopkeepers — you’ll really see what this person is like. For me, traveling can be a deal breaker. If I don’t travel well with this person then I know I won’t have a good life with them.

27 November 2015

Stuck in a room with wasted kids

There’s nothing funny about drugs, robbery, and running away. At least not if you had engaged in all these and are now looking at your transgressions from a comfortable distance. Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth seems to be that retrospective narrative of a time long gone and one could no longer imagine returning to, except to laugh at it.

Twenty-something Dennis Ziegler is lounging about in his Manhattan apartment (which is paid for by his parents) when his almost-twenty friend Warren Straub drops by with his backpack and suitcase. Warren ran away after a fight with his dad, and before leaving had stolen $15,000 from him. Together the two friends face a huge problem: how to spend the money.

A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

If the premise sounds exaggerated, like a springboard for a wild adventure, it isn’t. Dennis and Warren are no ordinary kids looking for excitement, they are privileged kids who have so much that they don’t know what to do with it.

Red Turnip Theater’s staging of Lonergan’s critically acclaimed play is a breather from the nostalgia- and pop culture-obsessed productions we’ve been seeing for a while. The play, though set in the ’80s and in parts driven by music, banks on neither nostalgia nor pop culture references to draw easy laughs and build connection with the audience.

Instead, it presents painfully familiar pot-smoking characters. Dennis (Jef Flores) is the short-fused, self-assured guy, who has an opinion on everything and is convinced of their accuracy. On the other hand, Warren (Nicco Manalo), though smart enough, always second-guesses himself and looks to Dennis for guidance. A third character is Warren’s object of desire, Jessica (Cindy Lopez), who is also sharp but fragile.

Red Turnip shuts the audience up in a room with these three. And by room we mean an 80-seater A Space Gallery in Makati, where people watch the play sitting on bean bags, close enough to see the nerves on Dennis’ neck whenever he screams (which is often), the twitching of Warren’s fingers, and the eyes of Jessica welling with tears.

It’s like being a fourth character, only invisible and mute. You feel helpless when Dennis and Warren get in a row and throw things in the apartment. And when Dennis bangs the rotary phone down, you want to shout, “Spare the poor phone!” In this set up, director Topper Fabregas succeeds in bringing the audience not back in time but in the moment with the characters.

And the source of their conflicts? Nothing earth-shaking: fighting with their parents, getting laid, figuring whether or not they’re in a relationship, running out of pot, finding better pot. It’s so trivial it’s funny — but not to them, not at that age where every movement is felt with intensity and every thought is taken seriously.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

22 November 2015

Laughter and danger

Remember playing in the kitchen when you were young? No, not experimenting with food but making a mess. And making musical instruments out of pots, pans, and ladles, only what came out wasn’t music but noise. Or maybe you still do it now that you’re all grown up. You sauté mushrooms while wiggling to techno beats. You tap the spoon on a glass while waiting for the oven ding!

What you do spontaneously at home, a group of Korean artists has turned into an hour and a half of performance art. Cookin’ Nanta, as presented at the start of the show, is a top tourist attraction in Korea and has toured around the world since its 1997 premiere. In Manila, the show continues its first and limited run until Nov. 15 (Sun.) at The Theatre, Solaire.

There’s barely any cooking in Cookin’ Nanta. It’s essentially a percussion show mixed with comedy and circus acts. That there’s a story — no matter how flimsy — holding the performances together, makes the five people onstage more endearing than they already are. With their restaurant chosen to cater a wedding party, a team of chefs is tasked to finish a demanding menu in an hour, at exactly 6 o’ clock. Their condition is aggravated by the arrival of their hot-headed boss’ nephew, who, by way of nepotism, instantly becomes a new chef, taking the hat of one of the older chefs. There’s also some romance injected in the musical.

The connection between the performers and the audience is Cookin’ Nanta’s not-so-secret ingredient. To say that there’s audience participation involved is inaccurate as the characters onstage communicate with the people in front of them the entire night, whether by directly asking them to come up on stage, making eye contact, or reacting to their reactions. The best parts of the program are when members of the audience don’t respond the way they’re expected to. And the performers’ way of dealing with the situation is a pleasure to watch.

But where you’ll go Whoa! is when the four chefs are at their stations, chopping vegetables. Onions, cucumbers, carrots and cabbages fly — gracefully — onstage and onto the audience. And then it hits you: they are drumming, playing with knives. You are amazed and at the same time thankful that you’re not in the front row, because you remember those concerts in which you’ve seen the drumsticks slip from the drummer’s hands.

The combination of food, music, and dancing is not a rarity in entertainment. Cookin’ Nanta succeeds not because it’s new but because the artists are simply too good at what they do. They’ll make you want to grab your own pair of drumsticks. They even make slapsticks genuinely hilarious. “Nanta” means “to strike relentlessly,” and the cast proves they’re more of musicians than cooks in the finale. They remove their chef uniforms and don skintight tank tops and pants. They are no longer the clumsy, carefree and funny characters they portray. They are five rockstars who make banging plastic containers cool.

—Originally published on GIST

20 November 2015

On that ugly word, ‘staycation’

I first heard the word “staycation” in 2011 when I wrote for a travel magazine. What came to mind was, during long weekends, holidays and summer breaks, instead of going out, one would simply stay at home and indulge in things like baking, movie marathons, hot baths, or engaging in the high art of doing nothing. Not until I read ads and articles about staycation deals and “Things to Do on a Staycation.” They obviously talked about leaving the house.

So what is a staycation?

In a 2008 article, Salon described the term as an “economy-based euphemism.” Times were (still are?) tough in the US economy-wise and people were “too broke to go anywhere.” The online magazine cited earlier use of the word, but underscored that it only became a buzzword that year. Another site, Skift, noted how staycation was picked up as an effective marketing idiom.

So what does one do on a staycation?

If you browse through “Staycation Ideas” listicles, a staycation may involve activities such as visiting a museum, going to an amusement park, watching a play, dining at a themed restaurant, reading a book, having a massage, and attending a festival. Pretty much anything you can do on any regular weekend — or weekday if you play hookey.

So what makes a staycation special?

There has to be an element of novelty, something you can’t do at home, or, if you choose to stay at home, something you don’t normally do there. Also, you have to do things at your leisure (I’m making up rules here, just so we’re clear). Of course, you shouldn’t spend a lot and where you’re having your staycation must be nearby (no need to board a plane would be a good standard).

A few weeks ago I was told I had a staycation. I stayed (hah, stayed) at InterContinental Manila and checked out the developments in Circuit Makati. The hotel, which is closing by the end of 2015, offers a holiday staycation package, so why not pamper myself within its walls one last time?

I’ve always been sold on the idea of checking in a hotel over the weekend as a form of vacation. The next person who can afford an overnight stay at the InterCon may find it pointless — all you’ll enjoy is a nice bed, a pool, bathtub and buffet breakfast. The money can be better spent elsewhere. But I like the thought of not cleaning up after yourself. Not having to wash the dishes, do the laundry, fold bedsheets. It’s a nice way to be spoiled.

The silence, cleanliness, and safety inside the executive room already relaxed me. The afternoon was spent appreciating the crisp linen, carpeted floor, warm lighting, and the carefully arranged water bottles, tea bags, glasses and coffee cups. It’s a nice way to live, however briefly, in your fantasy home.

At sundown, I saw some action and tried new stuff. Because I don’t have a car, I satisfied my driving appetite at City Kart Racing in Circuit Makati. There I realized I’m such a defensive driver that I let everyone else go ahead of me. But, surprise, I still managed to rank second to the last.

Other cravings satiated afterwards were gustatory and intellectual. I had dinner at Backyard Kitchen + Brew (my culinary vocabulary is limited, so you have to trust me when I say the food was delicious) before watching the entertaining No Filter 2.0 at Power Mac Center Spotlight, a black box theater.

I don’t know about you but coming home from an adventure is as exciting as the adventure itself. I was shuttled back to the hotel, where the rest of the night was spent downing a bottle of wine and a box of chocolates. The best part? There was more to do — and not do — the next day.

See, staycation is a beautiful thing with an ugly name. From an economic and introverted standpoint, staycations should allow you to recharge, soul-search, and have fun without going to Italy, India or Indonesia and going broke. With that definition, it deserves a better name. Like its relatives. Just hear the elegance of “travel,” the cool ruggedness of “trek,” the gallantry of “voyage,” the wisdom of “retreat.”

So yeah, what should we call it?

—Originally published on GIST.PH

18 November 2015

Not for nostalgia but knowledge

One thing that undersecretary Manolo Quezon III reiterated during his lecture on the opening day of “Defining Quirino,” a commemorative exhibit at the Ayala Museum, was: “Today began yesterday.” These words he borrowed from writer Leon Maria Guerrero.

Part of the Philippines’ yesterday included Quirino, whose legacy the nation enjoys today — minimum wage, eight-hour work laws, the social security system, and standardization of teachers’ salaries. The unfortunate fact is not many are aware of who Quirino is beyond being a former president of the republic, a reason that the President Elpidio Quirino Foundation, Inc. came up with the exhibit.

Quezon presented to the audience a Quirino who is at his core a broken human being just like you and me. We heard his voice and saw him in his trunks, about to dive into a pool. We saw photos of him soon after he was informed of then president Manuel Roxas’ death. Quirino was a vision of a leader in control of the situation. Not until the next photo, which shows Quirino crying by the casket. Those photographs portrayed a man who is both prepared and not, a man who is both tough and fragile. Personally, the images evoked some of my deepest fears: losing someone important and taking on responsibilities I didn’t ask for, at least not for the time being. Quirino weathered all these and more. His family was taken from him during the war. How does one recover from that?

We were also reminded of the difference between a politician and a statesman, and that Quirinio exemplified the latter. Trivia: he became notorious for sleeping in a P5,000 bed (then an extravagant amount). “But he bought it,” Quezon noted, “and he left it at the palace.” Quezon also pointed out that, thinking of the next generation, Quirino was among the first, if not the first to assert the importance of claiming the Spratly archipelago. And when he lost to Ramon Magsaysay in the next elections, he welcomed him to the office — an act of goodwill we barely witness in the political arena.

Quezon said something amusing before the start of his talk: “Usually there would only be around 15 people in a lecture like this,” and he referred to men and women who already knew the subject. That time, the ground was filled with students (granted, they were required to attend by their teachers). He confessed it would be a challenge to introduce someone who lived half a century ago to those born in the ’90s. But should it not be the point of exhibits — (re)discovery? Hopefully the afternoon at the museum served as an opportunity for both young and old, strangers to and friends and relatives of Quirino to look at a historical figure and what he means to them with a clearer head, without a nostalgic filter. It was, after all, an invitation to define Quirino.

—Originally published on GIST

15 November 2015

Rooting for Rafa

It is a sports storyline that turns casual spectators into invested fans. New tennis talent comes in to shock everyone by winning a grand slam on his first attempt at age 19, then proves the feat is no fluke by bagging the title for four consecutive years. This is of course Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who practically owns the French Open and is hailed “King of Clay” for being almost unbeatable in the court.

But a sports superstar shines brightest against a rival. And every sporting event yearns for a rivalry. On grass court, the most prestigious one among them no less, Switzerland’s Roger Federer rules. His skills and discipline are somehow overshadowed by his poetic grace: Federer is not the Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.) — he is a god.

When the two clashed at the Wimbledon Gentlemen’s Singles Finals in 2008, they wrote a tale that bears repeating. Nadal pushed the reigning champion into five sets, into tie-breaks, into over four hours of playing before finally taking match point and the trophy.

Prior to that, Nadal failed to win the Wimbledon twice, with Federer in his way. Though each time they met, the former made the latter work harder to earn the next point, staying so close that supporters of both players believed things would go Nadal’s way. “He’s the perfect foil to Roger Federer, the brash yet flawless machine that Roger is not,” notes a friend. “He’s infuriating to a Roger fan.”

In the same year that he won his first Wimbledon title, Nadal also snagged the Olympic Gold in Men’s Singles, and was ranked World No. 1. Since then, he’s had 14 grand slams under his belt and is now chasing French Open championship number ten.

We can talk all day about records, histories and techniques to find out who the real G.O.A.T. is, but once fans become devotees of an athlete, they can no longer be convinced otherwise. They could only cheer their idol on. It’s not the win or the numbers, after all, that make someone fall for an athlete, it’s that winning attitude — knowing they can still take game, no matter what the odds are.

In 2012, back on the clay court, Nadal played the finals against Serbia’s Novak Djokovic — a not-so-new kid in tennis town. He, along with UK’s Andy Murray, have joined Nadal and Federer as this generation’s tennis elite. Relentless, clinical, with the endurance (and humor) of a teenager, Djokovic is an infuriating character to fans of any player on the other side of the court.

Down to two sets against Nadal, it should be easy to write off the King of Clay’s challenger. But this was Djokovic. If anyone could mount a comeback, he’s the guy. And he did win the third set, 6 – 2 and went on to tie the fourth set. Not wanting to risk a heart attack, or worse, a long- lasting heartbreak, I switched channels. In other words I did something Nadal didn’t know how to do: give up.

The following day I learned Nadal had won his 7th and 3rd consecutive French Open title. Watching the replay, there it was, the fighting spirit people often speak of. Eric Hoffer says desire creates talent, and you could see this with Nadal’s every awkward (some pundits blatantly call it “ugly”) shot. If Federer’s elegance is awe-inspiring, Nadal’s sheer willpower is encouraging.

This year, Nadal and Djokovic (with their own fresh rivalry) met again at the French Open quarter finals and however scary it got, I stayed with Nadal for the entire game, which turned out to be a short one. Djokovic put him away in three sets. Heartbreak.

A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

Talks of an era ending reverberated, especially with this season, which many have touted as his worst, with Nadal not winning any major. It’s getting tougher and tougher to watch post-game interviews. As in all losses, though, he would simply say, “He played better than me” and congratulate his opponent.

This humility, and to some extent vulnerability, outside the court is as endearing as what goes on inside, where, despite his dominance he acts like the underdog going after every ball. It also helps that he has a boyish charm about him, as well as quirks (last time we checked he has 19 distinct tics) that inspire fondness — if you were rooting for him. All these things set him apart from the other machines on court.

But for now, difficult as it is to ponder, he may be the underdog — after all the injuries, other players getting stronger by the day, and new blood like Stan Wawrinka (another Swiss) joining the fray. In an interview with Sky News, Nadal confessed to feeling tired at the start of the season. “I suffered this year, but the last couple of months I am enjoying the game,” he said.

During the US Open third round interview (last September), Nadal already accepted that 2015 wasn’t his year, but, quite predictably, he continued on a positive note: “(I have to) keep fighting till the end of the season to finish in a positive way for me. Finish the season with the feeling that I improved something from the beginning of the season.”

Not a sign of giving up. Does he think he can win another slam? Of course he does, and this fan vows to stay with him up until the last ball.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

03 November 2015

To those who won’t pay for Gary Mullen tickets because he’s no Freddie Mercury

Maybe it was the cushioned chairs, maybe it was the low temperature. Or maybe it was not knowing what to make of this guy who looked, acted and sounded like Freddie Mercury — were we amazed, amused, or disappointed?

The band played Another One Bites the Dust and still the audience appeared as if they were watching a Shakespeare tragedy. Except for a boy on the third row, who stood up and allowed his tiny frame be taken over by the music.

The guy holding the microphone, sweating like a pig as he did his best Freddie Mercury impression, took notice: “Are your bottoms glued to the seat?” he asked the crowd, then gave a shout out to the boy who knew how to rock and roll. When the band performed I Want To Break Free, the same boy jumped up and down to the beat, his arms raised to form a V throughout song.

Queen frontman and songwriter Freddie Mercury passed away in 1991, way before that kid was born. And to that young concert-goer, as well as to those who sat comfortably at Solaire Theater last Oct. 24, watching Gary Mullen & The Works — regarded as “the world’s premier Queen tribute band” — might be the closest they could ever get to experiencing a Queen live concert.

A video posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

You come into this kind of show with reservation, worrying that someone will bastardize your rock god. Garry Mullen, despite the voice, costume and antics, is no Freddie Mercury. You shiver with excitement upon hearing the intro to Bicycle Race, but feel something’s not right when the singer’s not extending the word “bicycle” into four syllables the way Freddie does in the chorus.

Yet you’re at fault for expecting to see the late great Freddie in another person. Not even Mullen is convinced that he sounded like the Queen vocalist. “I just hear my own my voice,” he said. For him, the impersonation is all about being an eight-year-old again, singing in his bedroom. It’s all about being a fan and continuing the fun that Queen set in motion. “Music is ageless,” mused Mullen. “I love introducing music to a whole generation of fans.”

It was the cushioned chairs and the low temperature. And people not quite knowing what to expect. Mullen’s sense of humor — and persistence — warmed up the crowd. He eventually got them on their feet and clogging the aisles to get closer to the stage. Finally, some rule-breaking. He made the Queen fans let go of their inhibitions. The next thing you know, everyone was high-fiving and taking selfies with him. More importantly, the show turned out to be the sing-along party it was meant to be.

Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, We Are The Champions, Radio Ga Ga, I Want It All. Queen classics deserve no less than passionate, never mind if out-of-tune, communal singing with fist pumping. And you want to belt out these anthems with fellow die-hard fans. With people who know and love the band’s obscure songs. People who understand — like the gang in the balcony (who are always the loudest and happiest), like the boy on the third row, like Gary Mullen & The Works.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

02 November 2015

500 days of solitude on Mars

In Ridley Scott’s The Martian, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) woke up on Mars alone. After a storm hit them, his team of space travellers mistook him for dead and continued with their mission without him.

Watney figured how to survive on the red planet one day at a time, by sciencing the shit out of it. He rationed available food, managed to grow potatoes, and found means to communicate with NASA. Rummaging through the abandoned spacecraft for whatever tools he may use, he dug up his commander’s music collection, entirely composed of disco classics. Sucks to be him. “No, I will not turn the beat around,” Watney vented.

Music inspires, no question about it, but you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Consider this playlist a 21st century version of “What CD will you bring when you get stuck on an island?” You are on your own. On Mars. Help — if it ever comes — may arrive 900 days later, more or less. What songs will keep you alive?

A little bit of everything, don’t you think? So I made a playlist which includes pop, classical, OPM (to make you feel closer to home), and, as much as Watney would disapprove, some disco.

Watney safely landed back on Earth and became a professor. On his first day in class, he shared with his students how he thought of death: “At some point, everything’s going to go south on you. You’re going to say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now, you can either accept that or you can get to work,” he said and encouraged them to solve a problem, solve the next problem, and then the next problem, until they reach home.

It may be unlikely that you will be trapped on Mars, but you don’t need to be left for dead on another planet to feel alone, homesick, musing on mortality, looking for answers. Either way, this playlist should suffice.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

24 October 2015

Curing a mild case of city envy

If you switch back to the rear-facing camera, step backwards, a bit more, you might catch in the frame something as pretty, sprightly, and maybe wiser than you are — the city. Those skyscrapers you pass by every day, they have stood there long before you were born. They have learned to dance with earthquakes and confuse the winds.

“I feel it is important to document the best designs and architecture in each city because they can change its entire landscape,” said Herschel Supply co-founder Lyndon Cormack, who acted more like the avid traveler and photographer at heart that he is during the Herschel #CityLimitless campaign launch on Oct. 22 at A_Space, Makati. “Design is everywhere. City Limitless and photography allow us to capture special moments and the details that show the heartbeat of a city.”

The Instagram hashtag, which began making noise earlier this year, now has close to a hundred thousand posts. It’s a quick way to travel around the world, see the city through the eyes of someone like you — not a professional photographer or travel writer, but someone who’s simply curious. A fair warning, though. If you’re not careful, going through the stream can also stir a mild case of city envy.

We pressed Cormack to cite his favorite photos but he only shared a fascination with the amount of modern architecture as well as the extent people have gone through to get amazing shots, like climbing the top of the tallest buildings.

A photo posted by Lyndon Cormack (@lyndon) on

The entry above is by Cormack. It’s cool to find something you see — and ride — every day in the mix of all these photos around the world. And it’s charming how it stands out.

Cormack stayed for a short time in Manila, to him not enough to get to know the city. What stuck to his memory? The Manila American Cemetery and hand-painted typography. “It’s so easy today to take a font from the computer and print a sign. Everybody is lazy nowadays. I saw a little sign in the jeepney that just said ‘family use,’ but it’s hand-drawn. This is not normal, it’s very special,” he shared as if he had discovered a relic.

With his sense of wonder, we thought he would make a great travel companion. Not to those faraway cities featured in #CityLimitless, but here, in Manila. Much has been said about seeing the same things with fresh eyes, but maybe you do need another set of eyes to appreciate what you have. So an assignment: walk the city with someone, discover, document, and do it all over again. While at it, keep Cormack’s words in mind: “Cities are not just tourist destinations. They have secrets. Hidden gems.”

—Originally published on GIST

19 October 2015

What’s hiding in your playlist?

A friend once ranted that his Spotify account was set to public by default. Meaning for the longest time, the songs he listened and were listening to were for up for everyone’s perusal without him knowing. “So?” I said in all honest confusion. “It’s just music.”

Only later on have I realized that it isn’t just music. It’s life and it’s personal. What you listen to, after all, betrays a piece of you — what you find sublime and beautiful or at the very least agreeable and tolerable. Some have also pointed out the subtle workings of mixtapes and playlists. In a specific moment in your life, you curate songs that convey something you don’t have words for; that if some alien life form discovered it years after, it might be able to decode who you were and your conditions in that instant.

Last month, I, along with a group of writers, had the opportunity to have dinner with Spotify director of label relations Chee Meng Tan, who also happens to be a big music geek. He shared with us that the users’ playlists provide valuable data to the company.

According to him, listening sessions in the Philippines is the highest and most sustained. We make an average of 6 million playlists in a year (I know I’m contributing 29 and counting this 2015), while other countries make 2 million on the average. “Filipinos are so invested in streaming that they tripled the amount,” he said and further suggested that these numbers are a testament to our rich musical culture — that or our unrivaled traffic situation.

Because guess what, “traffic jams” (cheeky, eh?) top the list of popular playlist categories, followed by “hugot.” What does it say about our nation? That, obviously, traffic is hell here and we’re an emotional bunch?

While on the subject, Tan shared that the playlist he listens to the most is what he calls “Random S” — a sort of flavor-of-the-month dump. “There’s jazz, hip hop, Chinese bands, etc.,” he said. Someone in the group also shared that he has a “A good cry” playlist, which, as you may have guessed, contains sad, sappy songs. Everyone else jumped in on the discussion and noted that they, too, have those types of playlists: one wherein they could deposit an interesting song regardless of genre, artist or mood, and another which they play if they’re in the melancholy zone.

And that’s the thing, despite our musical differences, we share common experiences that we tuck in a playlist. They may have different titles and non-identical tracks, but there’s no doubt that a couple of our playlists will more or less come from the same place.

When I was younger, I used to dream of having instant access to all the music that I like and instantly create mixtapes (and I’m sure you did, too). Now it’s so easy with streaming services such as Spotify that I haven’t paused yet to fully appreciate the phenomenon. Because that which appears to be a casual act of compiling songs — as with any activity that involves composition — is therapeutic. For someone who obsesses about order and compartmentalizing life into manageable sections, the humble playlist is a blessing.

Each time I hit “New Playlist,” I remember my angered friend. I remember that if the music you patronize says something about you, then your playlists reveal more than you’re willing to let on. I still don’t mind if anyone gets to peek at my music library (who would be interested, in the first place); and I enjoy looking at others’ collections. But I also understand those who are protective of their music, I understand that sometimes they’re in the middle of a good cry and wish to be left alone.

—Originally published on GIST.PH



Presenting Penthouse, my favorite playlist. My ultimate dream is to host a party at my own penthouse and these will play in the background.

Wait, there's more. Here's the OST of my life.

18 October 2015

Pregnant with fear

This would’ve been a piece I’d written for Mother’s Day, if only because it’s inspired by love between mother and child. But, cloaked in darkness, worm-infested, and teeming with sharp objects, this story is better reserved for Hallows’ Eve.

On the day Samuel was born, his father died. Growing up, his interest turns to magic, watching illusionists on TV and practicing tricks wearing his own shiny little cape. He also has a knack for building contraptions to kill The Babadook, a monster that haunts him and his widowed mother, Amelia.

The Babadook is black. Visible even in daylight, in plain sight, it is everywhere. Its long, tapered fingers are the bare branches of trees, and its garment, the shadow of the dead. The more you deny it, the stronger it gets.

Running a household on her own, without anyone to confide in, Amelia grows restless by the day, tired of Samuel and of life. Until unknowingly she lets The Babadook in, becomes it and goes after her own son. By this time — or perhaps all along — the child serves as the protector of his mother. Samuel employs his weapons and magic tricks to finally catch his monster.

A creation of writer and director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook was released in 2014 in Australia to critical acclaim. In the film, Kent has given form to fear and placed it in the midst of one of the most enduring relationships in humanity.

The result is not a destruction but an acceptance of the trespasser.

Throughout the story, Amelia and Samuel take turns in fighting The Babadook. “I promise to protect you if you protect me,” utters Samuel, and it’s a straightforward, if naive expression of love in words. In the end they tame The Babadook, give it a home in their basement, and feed it worms from the garden.

If not for its terrifying components, the film can easily go in the direction of domestic drama. But framing it as such, as Kent herself says in The Dissolve, “would be so melodramatic and stupid.” She explains, “I like films where I’m forced to feel something… I want to be put through something. If cinema can be visceral, then it’s great. And horror allows that to happen unashamedly.”

Where The Babadook works for me, though, is with how it focuses its lens on the idea that our life-changing actions, especially when it comes to personal relationships, are rooted in fear as much as they are rooted in love. And whenever I find myself refusing to bear a child, declaring an incapacity to love, it is in fact an admission of a fear of failure to protect.

Because it is such a bother. Mundane things must be satisfied daily, like making sure your loved one has eaten when hungry and has rested when weary. And then there are tasks that require a superhero out of you — keeping them away from bullies, muggers, drunk drivers and manipulative girlfriends.

They say life is a gift, but no one says all presents are wonderful. I’m not ready to put into this world another soul, who, in a blink, can wander off into a hell hole. In what can be the scariest but also the most poignant scene in The Babadook, young Samuel, after stabbing her with a kitchen knife and knocking her off the stairs, has his possessed mother pinned down on the ground, telling her with so much fright, “Mom, I’m not leaving you.” I’m not ready to hurt someone for their own good and stay.

The Babadook is horror with a happy ending. After all the panic, you get a warm fuzzy feeling, knowing that all is well as you share a house with your family and your demons. While much of it is grounded in reality, it still treads the path of a fairy tale, if only because the main characters’ triumph is so sweet.

A mother and child bond to conquer their fears, both real and imagined — it’s a storyline we can only dream of in our own lives, or at least I know in mine. But even though I’m nowhere near the story’s bright resolution, I’m thankful that it has taught me to find use for all the worms I catch in my quiet garden.

—Originally published in a slightly different version on GIST.PH

11 October 2015


You're not brave until you're brave for someone or something else.

05 October 2015

Keeping up with David Mack

(My favorite bits of the David Mack AsiaPOP Comicon and Batman Day interviews I did for GIST.PH. I'm combining them here as one story.)


The best way I could describe my first impression of David Mack’s Kabuki was: Dreamy in a way that poetry is mixed with art mixed with cinema, it wasn’t my idea of how comic books should look and read like. Yet unlike dreams, there was an actual story to bite into. I was blown away, to say the least. That was over a decade ago, when, in an attempt to explore the world of graphic novels, I asked the most trusted bookworm in our class to lend me a copy of Neil Gaiman’s works. The next day he handed me a paper bag which contains all volumes of Kabuki: “Read this. It’s better than Sandman,” he said.

“This was pre-Internet, maybe 1992. I was very young, a college student, and so I just found addresses of publishers in comic stores and sent things in the mail to them. And then I called up the publisher in Caliber and said, ‘Hey I sent a package in a mail’ — a very naive approach to things — ‘did you get it?’” narrates Mack. Caliber hadn’t received it, but they gave him a chance and eventually published David’s first book.

Later on in 1993, Caliber Press invited him to join a convention in New York to sign and sell his books. “There were all these other creators, who were people I heard about or read, and it was amazing being able to be right next to them at the table and meeting them,” he continues. “I was selling books, doing drawings for people and then making enough money in New York to buy enough food. It was a really exciting time.” In the same year he was at a convention in Chicago, signing beside Brian Bendis. To cut the long story short, they hit it off — Bendis drew for Kabuki and, more recently, the two co-wrote Marvel’s Daredevil.

Over the weekend, Manila had the same fresh experience as David’s as the city saw its first AsiaPOP Comic Convention. Going around the World Trade Center when visitors just started to trickle in, I came across names of people I heard of and read, and, needless to say, seeing David Mack’s name at a signing table made me jump in surprise. He gamely signed copies of his books, artworks, and talked to fans and the press alike. Quite a storyteller, he was generous in answering all of our questions.

Mack has been at it for 20 years, yet he speaks of the craft as if he’s a child in the wake of discovery. It doesn’t matter if it took us this long to finally meet him (it’s amusing when he talks about getting snail mail from readers back in the ‘90s). Him in the flesh telling his own stories was worth the wait.

Now that I'm done with all my Comicon assignments, I can finally act like a proper fangirl. So a highlight of my weekend (and probably my entire life) was meeting David Mack. He dropped by our booth! Okay it was more of we invited him and he obliged because he's cool like that. The convention brought me back to my more idealistic days, being surrounded by people who live in rich worlds other than this one we're all in. I remember I didn't like being called a nerd or a geek in school (I was presumed to be one just because I was wearing glasses, kept to myself, and did well in class), not because I thought they were uncool but because I wasn't worthy of the tag. I mean, I wish I truly were an expert at something but am not. Anyway. So yeah. Good great ok fine times. I think the occasion merits it: I love job. Thanks to my editor for allowing me to do this with so much freedom. I would also like to thank my bangs for behaving for this photo. NEXT. YEAR. ULIT.
A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

You suggested before that you wrote Kabuki to cope with the death of your mother. Is it still how you approach writing—as a form of therapy?

David Mack: When I first started doing Kabuki, I was about 20. I was a big fan of autobiographical comics at the time but I didn’t feel like I was evolved enough or self-conscious enough to do a straight autobiographical comic. So I felt like if I could put a veil between me and the character — set it in a different part of the world and make the character a different gender — then I could tell personal truths through these metaphors. I wasn’t even thinking through it in that detail, that I was really working out something.

But in retrospect I could see that it was kind of my laboratory for figuring out a lot of things that were going on in my life during those times. And I would imagine to some degree it’s still that way. That my work in general, my writing or my art, is kind of a laboratory for processing everything that you experience consciously, but also unconsciously. So there’s probably stuff that I’m doing in work now that maybe five or ten years after I’ll look back and see what I was really doing.

What is it about Kabuki that keeps people interested after all these years? People still crave for it, are still discovering it, even you still find it fun to write.

David: I feel like the characters’ been very multi-faceted, so it offers a lot of points of entry for other readers to connect with and then find the other facets of it as they go, even if they start at the most recent book. I try to keep it reader-friendly. Just the fact that the characters have been able to evolve with me makes it interesting for readers who’ve been there from the beginning to stick with it many years later, and also for brand new readers to jump on it any time.

What makes a good hero and a good villain?

David: Most villains don’t think they are villains. They’re doing things for certain reasons that motivate them — or most characters think they’re motivated by one thing but are unconsciously motivated by something else. What often happens is they have a traumatic experience in their formative years as a child and the rest of their adult life they’ll try to reenact it but this time in a way that they’re in control. And it’s the same way in real life, too.

I don’t begin by thinking of one person as good or bad. I usually think, ‘This happened to them and so how would they react to (a certain situation)?’ It’s interesting but often it’s because of the characters’ parents, what standards they set. (It affects) how they react as a villain or a hero. But all of them are just trying to make sense of the world the best they can.

If there’s only one lesson you could teach to aspiring writers, what would it be?

David: Number one, start it. Number two, finish it. And number three, show it to people over and over.

Some people talk about this book they’re going to do all the time. Talking about it can really be helpful if you’re actually writing it at the same time. But if you’re only talking about it and never start it, it’s just still this thing you think you could’ve done. Then some people start a project and they don’t want to finish it, they just keep doing it. And there are people who actually finish a project but then they don’t show it to anybody and nothing happens; so you have to show it to as many different levels and places and opportunities as you can. Then move on to the next thing. You have to keep that momentum going.

What’s the best thing about writing?

David: The best thing about it is I feel like with everything I experience in life, this is kind of my laboratory or playground to make sense of it… And when you confront a blank page every day, it makes you comfortable with this idea that no one tells you how to do something, or you have to figure stuff out every day, and every day is a new challenge. Every time I do a book or a story, you would think that because you’ve done it before, you would know how to do the next one, but it’s never like that. It’s like starting over every time and you kind of realize that’s what it is. I think that’s a good exercise for how you have to deal with the rest of life and humanity.

21 September 2015


Scenario 1: You couldn’t care less about Matchbox 20, except you find Rob Thomas kind of cute and his Ever the Same — a hit from his solo album — equally worthy of attention. So one downtime at the office, you share the song to a colleague in the next cubicle: “Listen, isn’t this nice?” To which she responds, “I’m not a fan of that beat. It’s repetitive and predictable and has no depth.” Her facial expression adding the subtext: You’ve just taken precious minutes off my life. Get away from me, I have better things to do.

Scenario 2: A big fan of Aegis, April Boy Regino, Sarah Geronimo and Charice Pempengco, you’ve created the ultimate OPM playlist featuring the four artists and, proud of your hard work, shared it on Facebook. Five slices of pizza, two diet Cokes and a Big Bang Theory rerun later, you return to the computer to find your FB notifications exploding with likes and shares — and the occasional but hostile “what a hipster” and its variation “what a know-it-all, tastemaker wannabe” comments.

Scenario 3: The entire squad is at an Ariana Grande concert. You spot a hunk in the crowd. Yes, thank god it’s turning out to be an awesome night. Then the band plays an unfamiliar tune. Not sure of what’s coming up, you train your eyes back to the boy with a matinee idol face and chiseled body, who, by now, is singing every word to Honeymoon Avenue — with feelings. Your girlfriends begin to have a quizzical look on their face, some of them already raising an eyebrow.

The judgment is real.

The scenarios above are based on true stories. In an ideal world, we should feel no guilt in liking the music we like. But we live in a real world with real people really disgusted by our musical taste or lack thereof (we have to acknowledge the times, though, when we’re on the other end of judging, whether we do it deliberately or not).

Sometimes it’s not even guilt that’s inside us but a form of resignation. Knowing that disclosing our musical preference can elicit reactions ranging from surprise to revulsion (complete with theoretical explanations of why so-and-so songs and so-and-so artists suck), we keep it to ourselves and skirt the process of, in a way, defending our choices.

With that, I bring you a collection of those songs that are popular for the “wrong” reasons — but we play on repeat anyway. Sing along, out loud and with all your heart without having to be ironic about it.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

18 September 2015

Short + sweet + oh so worth it

Nothing sparks creativity so much than constraint. Take the Japanese haiku, where in 17 syllables and only three lines, an evocative picture is painted. Or the epitaph (pardon the gloomy example), in which a human being’s lifetime is commemorated in a slab of rock. For something more modern, there’s this online thing called Twitter, whose 140-character limit brings out the aphorist in us.

In the domain of performing arts, we have Short + Sweet, a global festival featuring 10-minute plays. Its vision, to put it shortly and sweetly, is: “A more creative world ten minutes at a time.” Founded in Sydney, Australia over a decade ago, Short + Sweet serves as a platform for emerging and established artists — from actors to writers and directors — to test, showcase and develop their skills and materials.

Performances of selected entries during the festival run are judged by a panel of experts along with the theater audience. Winners are rewarded with cash and industry prizes on the Gala and Final Awards Night.

Short+Sweet premiered in the Philippines last year at the University of the Philippines – Diliman and it returns this September with a new home in Samsung Hall at SM Aura, Taguig. I was lucky enough to have my fill of the festival by catching the opening week main show.

The plays were short, yes, but sweet? I would say so, in their own radical ways. Subject matters were diverse — from finding one’s life purpose to pulling off a heist; story treatments went from the funny to the philosophical; and the genres ranged from drama to black comedy.

A clear standout was A Good Deed for Mr. Stinky, directed by Karl Jinco and written by Judith Duncan. A call center professional finds herself dead in a car crash and couldn’t quite get to the other side until she meets a hobo, whom it turns out she has a lot in common with. A Good Deed was tightly-written, adhering closely to the conventions of story-telling. Because set within their milieu, viewers instantly identified with the characters and their situations, chuckling at pop culture -related one-liners, which were delivered to move the dialogue forward and not merely to elicit laughter. Where it soared, though, was the on-point delivery of the two actors, who genuinely gave their material justice.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of the other plays, wherein the tentative, oftentimes awkward stage acting took away from the gravity of the script. That said, not one entry (out of the eight featured that night) was anything less than engaging.

Another memorable piece was Rachel Welch’s and Bunny Cadag’s Keeping Annabelle, where we saw two young siblings get caught up in an abduction role playing game, doing and saying things that a captive and captor do and say, including the harsh swear words. Us the audience were also held captive in our seats wondering if the kids were still in the realm of imagination or not. “Will they cause pain to each other?” we thought, all along hoping that neither of them would be hurt or was capable of harm.

And that’s a major achievement of Short + Sweet — making its viewers feel and think. The writers, directors and actors may have grown in the process but the theater-goers are also given the means to deepen their appreciation for the art form. Asked to judge and rank the entries they’ve seen, they are forced to consider the merits of each play and form a cohesive opinion on why one play works and another fails.

Never mistake Short + Sweet as theater for the attention-challenged. Watch it if you want to be moved, if you want something different, or if you want an introduction to performing arts. Not if you want to pass time. As it has done in Australia, I hope the festival creates in this country more and better story-tellers.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

13 September 2015

Meeting the under-celebrated Marivi Soliven

Literary figures have an air of mystique about them, perhaps brought by the many worlds and lives they’ve lived — besides their own — through the stories they’ve read and written. Marivi Soliven arrived at the Writers Bar at Raffles Makati with that very air, looking every bit of a dignified author out to pen the next visceral novel. One couldn’t help but peg her as someone minding an important business. Because she was. That day Soliven stopped by two TV networks to talk about her new book before going to Raffles Hotel for one-on-one interviews with the press.

Soliven’s The Mango Bride follows Amparo Guerrero and Beverly Obejas, Filipinas who left Manila for Oakland in search of greener grass. Strangers to each other in the beginning, the two crossed paths and in the course of their encounter shared a life-changing secret. The novel in English earned the Palanca Award before it was published in 2013 by Penguin Books. It was then translated in Spanish in 2014 and this year in Filipino by professor Danton Remoto.

The mystery quickly died when I opened our conversation with a question about falling in love with fiction. “The Mango Bride is a fiction story but I would say about 95 percent of it is true,” she said, explaining that her work was a product of calls she had to take in her job as a phone interpreter in California, where she currently lives. She heard accounts of domestic violence among other immigration woes that eventually found their way in her first novel.

Her answers were straightforward, her views practical, and her tone matter-of-fact. She caught me off-guard till I figured that that’s where her charm lies: in refusing to dwell on the romanticism of literature. Because guess what, there’s real, gruelling, sometimes mundane work that goes behind it.

A photo posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

Marivi Soliven on the young writers' bad habits

I think that because of this culture of instant gratification, I notice that with a lot of writers, their first goal is to have an audience then get published rather than to write a good story first. So I guess I’m kind of old-fashioned that way. I’d rather write a good story then have its audience find it.

Her advice to aspiring writers

I definitely am a supporter of the routine. If you make writing a part of your daily schedule, along with exercising or brushing your teeth, then it becomes something that you regularly do; instead of going, “Oh I’m gonna wait until I get inspired, then I’ll write.” Because that never happens. It sometimes happen but if you get inspired once every two weeks then you don’t really have much of a writing practice. To write good stories, like with anything else, you have to do it every day. Then you get better. And to be a writer, I think the best thing you can do is just read. Read, read, read. Read whatever catches your fancy, everything from the best stuff to the worst stuff. Eventually you’ll figure out what good stories are.

On the importance of awards

I think that they are good in terms of getting you noticed. They can get you published here in the Philippines. Even in the United States, many of the award giving bodies have prizes that include publication. So it does help. But I don’t think people should focus on winning contests as the main reason for writing.

—Full interview on GIST.PH

03 September 2015

For the rest of his life

That Syrian child on the beach. I don't mind the image. He looks in peace.


Regret is funny. How can you feel bad about something that didn't happen. Things could've gone in so many ways other than what you imagine.

02 September 2015

Medium of interrogation

“I grew up not being able to ask a lot of questions. The camera was the first tool in which I was allowed to explore, to ask the questions that I wanted to ask,” shares National Geographic Young Explorer and documentary and travel photographer Hannah Reyes. “It’s a good tool to immerse yourself in something and make you get out of your shell.”

The fun and prestige of photography is not lost on anyone who has ever tried pressing the DSLR shutter button or even a digicam’s and begin to feel a new sense of wonder evoked by seeing what they have just captured. It’s no surprise that bulky cameras aren’t only carried by men and women in tourists spots and popular events — they seem to be everywhere, every time. In fact the device has become as commonplace as a hat or a pen that it has found its way to arguably one of our top daily necessities: the mobile phone.

Shutterbugs have a new toy in their smartphones. While conservative photographers can’t be bothered to take snapshots with their phones and photo enthusiasts are already more than happy to have clear photos as keepsakes, Hannah takes an altogether different view on smartphone photography.

In four words, she approves of it. “What I like about mobile photography is when people use the camera to get closer to people. Because it’s so tiny, they can get intimate with their subject. It’s also easy to show them your photos right after,” she explains and further highlights the practicality of it: “When I was at Intramuros — they’re super strict now with cameras — they didn’t care when I was just taking photos with a smartphone. It doesn’t scare people unlike when you’re holding a DSLR; they’d stop and look more.” Most of all, Hannah states that with a smartphone, which is almost like an extra limb to most of us, you don’t have any excuse not to practice photography.

Calm, good-natured, and with what appears to be a fragile frame, you wouldn’t be able to tell that Hannah has gone through Cambodia’s Cardamon Mountains to cover the illicit production of an ecstasy precursor, or that she’s been in the midst of a crossfire during shanty demolitions in Manila. Her work — and hard work — caught the attention of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and Lonely Planet, all of which published her photos. Given this record, does she feel powerful enough to influence positive change through her chosen medium of expression? Hannah muses, “Photographers are vain when they say photos can change the world. I don’t know… But it can make people see.”

—Originally published in a different version on GIST.PH

24 August 2015

Light and verve


“I don’t think I’m gonna be making electronic music forever, so enjoy it now,” Zedd (Anton Zaslavski) told the press prior to his August 8 Manila gig. It wasn’t a threat but a recognition of the natural course of things. Zedd is a classically trained pianist, whom at age 11 became a drummer in a metal band then later on went to test the EDM waters. He eventually released “Clarity,” a dance album that produced club staples, chart toppers and a Grammy award-winning record.

In his second outing, “True Colors,” Zedd makes a statement on his artistry, showcasing his musical depth. The tracks are even more melodious and diverse that you can take them as pop songs with a touch of electronica rather than melodic EDM, which is characteristic of his previous works.

We still get hints of “Clarity” with the opening tracks Addicted to Memory, I Want You to Know and Beautiful Now, though it goes in completely different directions from there on. Standouts are the rock-infused Transmission, folksy Daisy, indie-pop Illusion and clear-cut rave piece Bumble Bee.

For the third album, Zedd only had this to say: “I honestly don’t know.” But he was generous enough to share that he’d like to compose for films, do more orchestral stuff, and promised us that whatever he creates, it shall pass strict quality assurance. “I would not make music that I did not enjoy. I love making every single song I’ve ever put out,” he remarked. “I would never put my name on something I don’t like. And if it happens that there’s more rock in the next album, then that could be it. But for now I’m having fun to be honest with you.”

So we had to take him seriously when he said enjoy his music now. Sure they’re digitally preserved, but experiencing them in a room among kindred spirits, with Zedd himself behind the decks, orchestrating the party? That’s unrepeatable.


Neverland Manila Presents: Zedd True Colors Tour began with that familiar keyboard riff in Hourglass smoothly leading to Spectrum’s chorus. When our ears were ready to take the full song, the chords drifted to the hook of Beautiful Now, Zedd’s current single. “Pa-pa-pa papa pa-pa-pa papa pa-pa-pa-pa papapa papapapa…,” chanted the glow stick-wielding audience of 12,000 at the Mall of Asia Arena. In front of them were huge LED panels in which hues from the “True Colors” album cover splashed about.

Crowd pleaser that he is, Zedd, on top of playing his hits, gave his remix of music fan favorites like Clean Bandit’s Rather Be, Maroon 5’s Sugar, Magic’s Rude, David Guetta’s Titanium, Coldplay’s Sky Full of Stars, Bastille’s Pompeii and Jessie J’s Bang Bang.

To an outsider, EDM is equal to loud bass plus mindless rhythms. In a careless DJ’s hands, it may be so. But there’s something about it that’s exhilarating. Perhaps it’s the amplified, repetitive beats connecting with our own pulse, waking our senses up. Hearing it for hours, though, is tiring, boring. And this is what separates Zedd from your standard disc jockey: the man knows how we’d like to jump around, latch on to a melody, cry out lyrics we take as divine oaths, and sometimes do all three at once. In Zedd’s hands, EDM is poetry and rave.

A video posted by Razel Estrella (@fishpeep) on

There’s no doubt that he owes this musical instinct to his classical training. “When I started making electronic music, I had no clue about it,” shared Zedd. So he wrote Spectrum entirely on the piano then made it electronic, and it has been a process which he adopted for his two albums. “It’s the easiest way to do it. Writing music on the piano already makes it more organic,” he continued. “Playing all those classical pieces, I kind of learned what is right.”

Sticking to the same writing practice, Zedd simply had to take cues from his surroundings when it came to producing a cohesive album. “After hearing four to five songs, I realized that all I’ve written were kind of different,” he replied when asked about the intention behind “True Colors.” “They have totally different colors and I thought that’d be a great concept — for every song to be some color. When you close your eyes, I want you to feel something in every single song.”

How anyone could keep their eyes closed during a Zedd live performance, I have no idea. One can only be drawn like a fire-hungry moth to the lights blazing throughout the arena. “The visual aspect is just as important for me as the actual music,” said Zedd in the documentary, Moment of Clarity. Unlike the random slivers of light that go on-and-off at nightclubs, the electric lights and graphics in his concert had a language of their own.

At one point, I found myself moving like the dangly neon straws projected on the screens. It was hypnotizing, to say the least. And when he played The Legend of Zelda theme remix accompanied by scrolling pixelated images of a video game character, nostalgic smiles flashed on people’s faces. Zedd might have been working his voodoo on us, but we would gladly submit to it again and again.

Towards the show’s final minutes, Zedd, going full circle, reprised the anthemic Spectrum and climbed the deck stand carrying the Philippine flag. Before saying good-bye for the night (he has always expressed a fondness for playing in the country), he had us dance to True Colors.


“I would love to be remembered as somebody that made a difference in the electronic music scene… someone that had a big influence in its change towards something slightly more musical, more classical” was Zedd’s quick reply to questions of legacy. “There are certain bands that I look up to — Queen, Genesis, Beatles. Even when their sound changes, they’re still legends. They changed rock, they changed their genres.”

Touring the world at 24, making non-EDM listeners pay attention to the genre along the way, may not be a bad start. “I have a whole new respect for dance music, for how it comes together and the artists behind that beat that you’re dancing to,” Hayley Williams of rock band Paramore said as much after working with Zedd on the track, Stay the Night. And if my opinion counts, Anton’s true colors have just made me an even bigger, unapologetic fan of electronic music.

—Originally published in a different version on GIST.PH

12 August 2015

What's cool?

When a young, talented, not to mention good-looking band that flies around the world to perform in front of adoring fans have their vocalist sing, “I wish that I could be like the cool kids,” it’s quite difficult to be convinced.

American band Echosmith — a play on words echo (sound) and smith (maker) — is composed of the Sierota siblings, namely Sydney, Noah, Graham and Jamie. Hard as it may be to conceive, they have been around for almost a decade, but only recently broke into commercial success with the smash hit Cool Kids from their 2013 debut album “Talking Dreams.”

Sydney shared that the group wrote Cool Kids to express that universal desire to fit in. “There are times when I’m hanging out with a crowd and think, ‘Man, I don’t look like these people; I don’t act like them or talk like them,’” she said and further noted that the song is all about self-acceptance, which to her is essentially what makes any person cool.

She continued by confessing that they still feel pangs of insecurity “for some random reason,” whether together as a band or individually. “It just proves that no matter how much success you’ve had, you still go through that. We’re still learning,” remarked the 18-year-old.

Cool Kids no doubt has introduced Echosmith to the world, but the foursome follows it up with what may well be their signature song: Let’s Love. “We always thought from the start that it’s going to be a single eventually. That was the first song we wrote where we went, ‘Wow, this is the kind of song that we wanna go for, a song that really feels like Echosmith,’” shared Sydney.

Upbeat, positive, with barely a trace of angst or cynicism that pervade the works of artists in their teens, “Talking Dreams” is an album your mother would approve of and your friends would have blasting on the car radio during a summer road trip.

“Everybody naturally gets negative sometimes, but we definitely like to go for the positive things because it feels better that way,” said Sydney in explaining their musical philosophy. “We want people to feel better after they listen to our stuff or after watching us live, and even upon meeting us. That’s our goal. We might as well use the platform that we have the best way we can.”

And they seek to spread good vibes. When asked what’s the best thing about being in a band, they said it’s touring. “We mainly love going out to eat and roam. That’s one thing,” said Sydney, who also confessed to being a heavy sushi and rice eater.

Beyond the perks of traveling, though, it’s the magic of seeing what they do grow before their eyes that pumps up the siblings. “To see — after we go to the same city a million times — that the crowd gets bigger and the passion becomes stronger each time… from under a hundred people coming to 2,000 then to 15,000… it’s kind of crazy to watch that, it’s definitely the best part.”

With a Philippine concert slated in August, Sydney, Noah, Graham and Jamie will be able to witness how their following in the country has multiplied since their first visit last year. Manila’s intensity didn’t escape the group. Sydney recalled, “It was amazing. It was our first experience having people waiting at the airport and at the hotel for us.”

The show itself has a room in her memory: “It was such a good crowd. Everybody was so passionate, so excited. You don’t want anything more than that when you’re in a band. I’m just excited to go back,” she added. “We might throw some balloons, some confetti, some surprises,” shared Sydney upon prodding her into divulging their plans for the upcoming concert. “But our goal is just to have fun, jump around and play music. We might do a few covers.”

It may appear that the Sierotas are living the life all kids out of high school dream of. But young as they may be, touring has taught them that time isn’t on their side. “There are only 24 hours, which sounds like a lot at first, but we’re flying and driving, and that takes a lot of our day,” explained Sydney.

“I’m now realizing that quality time and time are different,” she continued. “We have to be careful how we spend our few free hours. So instead of looking at IG for hours and hours or watching TV, I make time to call a friend or a loved one.” The four even believe that they still need to hang out as siblings and talk about matters unrelated to music. “We’re still learning how to have balance, but we’re getting there,” she added.

Another lesson that the band has learned and wishes to impart to start-up bands is commitment. “If you really love something and you know you want to do it, just stick with it. We’ve been a band for nine years. Now it’s working and it’s awesome but it took a long time for us to get here. It could happen overnight or it could happen in a span of ten years — you’ll never know,” said Sydney, adding matter-of-factly, “You have to be prepared to wait.”

In a generation where many are spoiled by instant gratification and have somewhat lost their capacity to wait, Echosmith — whose oldest member is only in his early 20s — preaches patience by example and that’s pretty cool in our book.

—Originally published on GIST

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