At a benefit for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in Glendale last month, 3 Headed Dog took part in a multiband musical lineup. It seemed like the kind of event that would draw a huge crowd; after all, thousands had died in a natural calamity in the Philippines, and the Filipino-American community–at 1.4 million strong, the largest Asian American population in California–was finding all kinds of ways to raise money to help victims in the motherland.
But inside, Beyond the Stars Palace was barely half-full. By 9:15 p.m., when singer/guitarist Dave Aguirre, drummer Wolf Gemora and bassist Danny Gonzalez got onstage, the host introduced them as “huge rock stars in the Philippines,” mentioning the members were part of the legendary Razorback and Wolfgang. Then he mispronounced their name, saying, “Let's welcome 3 Headed Dogs!”
It didn't matter. The band threw themselves into their set, playing eight kickass songs–loud, fast and badass–to a half-empty dance floor. The few people who were around shuffled their feet and clapped as 3 Headed Dog bashed on the drums, riffed their solos and strutted around the stage as though they were playing an arena show. All of their songs were in Tagalog, which slowly won the crowd over. As Aguirre strummed the first few notes of their final song, he closed his eyes and threw back his head. It was a heartfelt cover of the 1970s Filipino rock anthem “Ang Himig Natin” (“Our Anthem”), and by the end, the audience was cheering and asking for more. (The stage manager said no.)
People say that aside from the language it's in (Tagalog, mostly), Filipino music–coming from a culture that was under 300 years of Spanish rule, then 50 years of American rule–has no defining characteristic setting it apart from Western music. Indian music is defined by microtones; most East Asian tunes are created from the pentatonic scale. When you hear a song in two-step, there's a good chance it's either a mariachi tune or polka.
But Filipinos? We love to sing and dance, but we're better at copying songs note-for-note than creating new ones. Our biggest cultural exports are cover bands. We use Western instruments–pianos, guitars, turntables–to create our songs, which are based on Western melodies and structures. Even when popular culture was just beginning to take root in the Philippines, big names were always corollary to their Western counterparts. There was Eddie Mesa, the Elvis Presley of the Philippines. Claire de la Fuente became famous in the 1970s as “the Karen Carpenter of the Philippines.” Even Arnel Pineda, the new Journey lead singer, was discovered because he sounded exactly like Steve Perry (and even became the Steve Perry of the Philippines).
Defining a Filipino-American scene in a cultural melting pot of Southern California is pretty self-serving; there's a niche for whatever you're into, after all. If, say, you were born in West Covina and grew up singing Michael Jackson and broadcast your songs on YouTube to millions of followers, you'd have a scene for that (see: AJ Rafael). If you were born in the Philippines and became famous as teen star in the home country, you could move here, sing Lorde covers in Cerritos and have a pretty decent following. (Hi, Antonette Taus!)
This is all fun in a karaoke setting, but when you're a Filipino-American trying to make it big in Southern California, a distinct sound could set you apart from thousands of other bands trying to make it big, and sounding like, say, Metallica or Soundgarden (bands that Razorback and Wolfgang have been compared to) is not exactly a good thing.
Twenty years ago, I was an alt-rock kid in the Philippines. As a 15-year-old, I went to gigs almost every weekend and mooned over Razorback and Wolfgang. At the time, guitarist Dave Aguirre–younger than I was–was famous for being Razorback's angel-faced guitar shredder. Razorback was huge–they didn't just gig at clubs, they were on TV variety shows and got regular radio airplay. Heck, they even opened for Rage Against the Machine and Metallica. Wolfgang (yes, named after drummer Wolf Gemora) was an even bigger band; their albums under Sony Records reached double-platinum status in the Philippines and were also released in Japan and the U.S.
So the first time I saw Aguirre and Gemora play with Gonzalez (who is not Filipino, if that matters) at Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen, it was . . . disconcerting. (It could be the same thing Gin Blossoms fans feel when the band play the state fair circuit.) Seeing them in an intimate venue, just 2 feet away, was a throwback to my teenage years, except we were all older and in a different country. And all their songs were in English.
“Leaving all that behind and starting from zero was really a challenge,” Gemora says. He decided to move to the United States in 2002, after Wolfgang broke up. “It still is now especially here! So you really have to stand out and get noticed.
“In the Philippines, you can just be yourself,” he says. “That's what happened to us; we were just being ourselves, and we were just lucky that it hit.”
That's true; in the mid- to late '90s, Philippine rock was experiencing a boom. Radio stations were playing local alternative rock that was spilling over to the mainstream. “We were touring and playing big arena shows,” he adds.
Gemora, now 43, works retail. Aguirre, now 35, is a caregiver in a health-care facility. When Wolfgang was no more, Gemora's parents, who lived in Laguna Niguel, wanted him to move to California permanently. “When I decided to move, that flipped a switch in his head,” Gemora says, referring to Aguirre. The two knew each other, as their families were friends, and they gigged together in their bands; before Gemora moved to the United States, they even recorded a set of Aguirre's songs as a duo.
“By the end of 2003, I had bought myself a ticket and was sleeping on Wolf's couch,” Aguirre says.
There were previous iterations of 3 Headed Dog; they weren't always just a trio, and this is the first time Aguirre has been the front man.
“With me singing, the singer's always on time, always at practice and never says no to me. It was really about economics, efficiency and practicality,” Aguirre says, laughing.
Elson Trinidad, a Filipino-American musician, KCET columnist and community organizer, says the lack of a Filipino-American scene boils down to a bunch of things. “Going mainstream is problematic because people don't know how to market being Filipino,” he says.
“Compare Filipino artists to Latino artists,” he continues. “Latino artists are defined by using at least one of two cultural traits in their music: a) the Spanish language; b) music genres created within the Latino community–mariachi, cumbia, etc.”
While some Filipino acts sing in Tagalog, there aren't any music genres unique to Filipinos that Filipino artists are performing, Trinidad says. “Until we have those genres, we can't really have a 'scene' other than a bunch of cliques putting on shows for their friends, featuring their friends.”
In January, 3 Headed Dog are going on a Philippine tour. They're also releasing their first full-length, Maynilad, on Coda Entertainment (www.codalabel.com), run by Gemora and his siblings, early next year, giving away a song a week until the album is finished. And while they want to make it big in the United States (“We sent our album to Carson Daly's label years ago. . . . I still have the rejection letter!” Gemora says with a laugh), it's not their biggest priority.
As for being part of a fully supportive Fil-Am music scene? “A Filipino band has yet to unite a community behind them here in the States,” Gemora says. “That's the thing about Filipinos. We're so diverse, like so many different things, speak different languages . . . You can't just market to Filipinos; you have to go outside. And we've had gigs with all kinds of people in front of us, and they just dug it. They didn't know we were Filipino. I mean, we just played.”