“Music saved my life.” It is a powerful statement coming from the living legend pointing to a bullet-hole sticker that noticeably adorns his Taylor guitar. He is about to introduce his next guest with a direct reference—yes, Bullet Dumas in case it wasn’t obvious… well it could have been Gloc 9 too— and continues, “I could have been something else. An educator, a politician… a comedian…”

And while music is what he is most identified with, Joey Ayala is, actually in various degrees, all of the above, and always in the most conciliatory manner.

L-r: Bullet Dumas, Chong Tengasantos, and Joey Ayala during the hilarious “Machine Answering”

Mandiriwa produced by Vandals On The Wall and Gabi Na Naman Productions at the Music Museum featured songs familiar and beloved by habitués of Conspiracy Bar in Visayas Ave or Joey Ayala gigs at 70s Bistro (and countless educational institutions). The public at large knows him mostly for being an “environmental ethnic folk” artist embodied in the reggae-flavoured “Karaniwang Tao,” the dramatic “Agila,” the dark propulsive-hegalong-driven “Ania Na,” and the heart-wrenching “Walang Hanggang Paalam” and “Dumaan Ako,” but as his fans know well, his stylistic range also authoritatively includes jazz (“Maglakad”), and rock’n’roll (“Barangay Kombo” and “Padayon”).

Joey Ayala prepares his custom hegalong as Gloc-9 (off-frame) sings his praises

Yes, he shreds on his custom hegalong– and the visual image is locally as iconic as Jimi Hendrix with a Stratocaster–but his prowess on tastefully and discretely processed acoustic guitar, coaxing everything from open tunings to blues-jazz runs to folk-meets-flamenco finger-picking, does make you wonder why he is not regularly name-checked as a local guitar hero.

Two poets meet: Joey Ayala and Gloc 9

Not that he really cares for it, or the accolade “legendary” which he accepts and appreciates casually with nary a hint of arrogance or self-importance. He tells the crowd he overheard a kid whisper, “Buhay pa pala siya!” Laughing boisterously, the 61-year old Ayala says, “Narinig o nabasa niya somewhere ‘the legendary Joey Ayala’ and (he) concluded, ‘if he is a legend, he must be dead!'”

25 Years after their debut, Joey Ayala at Ang Bagong Lumad return to the Music Museum

Slick lighting and LED screen aside, Joey and the latest incarnation of Ang Bagong Lumad— percussionist/vocalists Malou Matute and Tapati, drummer Rene “Chong” Tengasantos, and bassist/vocalist Onie Badiang— played with a relaxed air typical of their Conspi stints, with the occasional sonic gap filled with knowing looks and smiles. And this time, 25 years after doing their Music Museum debut barefoot, Joey jokes, “We’re now wearing shoes!” (Bayang Barrios added she wanted to wear shoes even back then to begin with).

Visual artist Boy Dominguez jammed on a few tunes with blues harp, and special guests Bullet Dumas, Dong Abay, Gloc-9, Severo, and original Bagong Lumad member Barrios were treated as equals during their respective spots. His “favourite collaborator of all time,” bassist Onie Badiang, was given his own spot on Badiang’s jazz-blues “Simpleng Yaman” while Tapati was featured vocalist in the Mike Villegas/Bayang Barrios-penned “Tuba Or Not Tuba.” (In true educator mode–one of many– Joey also explained the tuba fermenting process.)

Joey Ayala lays down a melodic solo as Malou Matute and Tapati provide percussive support
Dong Abay provided equal parts vitriol and graceful (no kidding) moves as he and Joey perform Yano’s “Banal Na Aso”

Openness is probably the best word to describe any Joey Ayala performance. In these difficult and socially-and-politically polarising times, it is exactly what we need. Few can balance insightful socio-political commentary with humour (although he stopped himself from cracking a fresh “politically incorrect” joke at one point)… and Ayala is a master.

He may not proclaim it, but thanks to his natural taste for the diverse and whatever is artistically possible (including his unfortunately-absent-from-Mandiriwa reworking of the National Anthem; part two perhaps?), he is, in a sense, also saving music.

Photos by Francis Reyes