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

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