My 50’s Pinoy Rock Recollection

by Noel Copiaco (Lansing, Michigan USA)

It was around 1956-57 when I first saw a bunch of guys banging away at their instruments which comprised of acoustic guitars (some with 5 strings instead of 6), ukeleles, and a one string bass which used an army surplus gasoline canister as a sounding board. This was in north Tondo where I grew up and I was just in 2nd grade. I would stop and watch every time I walked by this house after school whenever this group practiced. The house was fenced-in by steel matting (another WWII surplus material) with round holes so you can view them from outside the yard. I don’t recall the name of the band but I can tell they were having fun and I knew that someday I would like to do that too.

As I recall, this combo had one older guy who played the electric guitar once in a while. I couldn’t remember what make or model but to me it was the most beautiful thing I ever beheld in my young life. It looked like an instrument from outer space and I was mesmerized by the sound it emitted. It was simply out of this world. Unknowingly, I was hooked for life.

This was probably the earliest growth from the seeds of American rock and roll which were sown by the Platters, Bill Haley, Elvis and their contemporaries. Songs like “Only You” and “Teddy Bear” jammed the radios and juke boxes around Manila in those days. Even then, Pinoy combos where most prolific and it would be a difficult task to name them all.

Was this the first time ever that Pinoys mimicked American pop music? The answer is definitely not! Filipinos have been emulating American pop culture (and therefore music) since 1898. We had our own version of vaudeville, silent movies and big bands as soon as the concepts were introduced by the Americans. Big bands like Kiko Gatchalian and his Coconut Grove Orchestra and singers like Katie de la Cruz will attest to this fact.

But since we are in the subject of 1950’s Pinoy classic rockers, let me attempt to list a few of the pioneers. Of course this list will never be complete as it is impossible to remember them all.

Here are some: The Skylarks, Rey Sanchez, The G-Rockers, Five Brown Boys, Cora Adajar, Eddie Salamera, Blue Jean Boys, The Blue Belt Guys, Bobby Gonzales, The Carolers, The Parola Boys, The Trailers, Audie Daquis, Calypso Boys, Starlights, Jolly Blue Boys, Gay Toppers, Tiongco Brothers, Rene Ibanez, Diomedes Maturan, Fred Panopio, Hi-Chords, Don Soriano, Penguins, Ike Lozada, Norrie Jacinto and even the Jitterbugs I think started out as a “gas bass” band and probably the first to add a drummer.

These were just some that made a name in those days and there were many more that we probably have never heard of. Many local radio shows and the TV pioneer Darigold Jamboree also featured talents regularly. Fiestas around Manila always had an array of these combos entertaining the crowds. These musicians and combos were definitely pioneers in the arena of Pinoy rock and roll. For us who started to rock out in the early sixties, we owe them a great deal.

More on the gasoline gas tank bass:
This was the supreme staple instrument of the early Pinoy rockers in the 50’s. Most of them were custom made and had fancy headstocks sometimes in the shape of an animal or object, the most popular of which was the horse head and the carabao head. A skillful bassist would fill in the need for a percussionist by adeptly slapping the gut string on the pole making a rhythmic cadence.

And even this ingenious Pinoy contraption had its roots in American music. “Jug Bands” from the American south used the wash tub bass with a single string that you stretched with a pole to come up with the right pitch. The early British rockers also had their own version with their “skiffle” bands which John Lennon started out in.

But leave it to the Pinoys to take it up one step further and improve on the design. We don’t have huge wash tubs in the Philippines and the “batya” won’t do. So what is the logical alternative?

In a place like the Philippines where US army surplus material was abundant, the gasoline canister was the answer. It provided a great sounding board with a deep booming hollow sound way better than any wash tub.

And there you have it. Voila! We have bass and we have ignition. We took off like rockets into space! The rest is Pinoy rock history.

Click Here To Reminisce The 50s Music 1
Click Here To Reminisce The 50s Music 2


by Dr. Peter Q. Teodoro, Jr. (San Francisco, CA. USA)

One night to go and the most famous fiesta in the Philippines where more than 100 marching bands would parade the streets of downtown Manila was to be celebrated.

Plaza Miranda, the primary witness to numerous local and national political vaudeville, was teeming with eager and agitated spectators who came from many parts of the city’s suburbs.

It was Fiesta Ng Quiapo.

That time, the tallest building in the country may be found in Plaza Miranda: the 14-story Philippine Savings Bank building whose rooftop carried the day’s headlines in its running lights billboard. The entire periphery of Quiapo church where the revered Black Nazarene dwells was lined with peddlers of agimat, leaves that cure almost every known disease on earth, and candle vendors whose stuff were truly works of art. The north boundary of the plaza was like an adorned and overly-decorated, multi-colored altar where flower vendors from the northern Luzon would usually haul off their harvest. To its right was Carriedo street where locally manufactured shoes of different brands and makes were sold in countless stalls, and Evangelista street where every household and office item that you can think of may be found. To its left was Hidalgo street, the haven of photographers, watch repairers, locksmiths, and home to the famous Pansit Malabon Ni Aling Bida; and Villalobos, the street that leads to Quinta and Qiapo markets, a generous host to stalls of textile and fabric.

The much-anticipated face-off of the most famous bands and singing groups in the Philippines was the centerpiece of the evening’s celebration. Siopao, nilagang mani and inihaw na mais dominated the fare among the curious and the anxious. The ever famous sa malamig!, sa malamig! was, as always, the night’s designated thirst quencher.

At a given cue, and with the beeping and honking of horns of jeepneys and buses plying the Quiapo route as background, the master of ceremonies took the center stage, then the sagupaan ng mga banda begun.

Bands in the 50s were not called band – they were called combo. A combo was usually a group of singers and musicians, without minimum or maximum number of members, who all contribute their vocal cords and lungs in belting out their numbers and renditions. Having a soloist within the group was the norm. If there was a soloist in a combo, the other members were called pap-pa-ra-rap! Meaning, they were the background vocals. At other times, they were also called chu-wa-ri-wa-ri-wap! --depending on the rhyme and meter of the song.

Selection of songs that would make their repertoire was crucial: songs must involve everyone in the combo, either instrumentally or vocally. Songs where pap-pa-ra-rap may be employed were always preferred and became easy choices for most combos. Hit tunes during that time like, Diana, Mary Marylou, O Yes Sir, Treat Me Nice, Teddy Bear, Don’t Be Cruel, Blueberry Hill, and many others, were the songs that normally landed in the line up of songs -- song titles where the soloist and background vocals neatly display their singing versatility.

And the instruments? Well, think of anything that would accompany any song without using electricity, those were the instruments. Congas, bongos, maracas, timbales, snare drums, cowbells, cymbals, ukelele, and oh, yes, guitar, guitar and more guitar. If you find a combo who uses an electric guitar those times, then that particular group easily become the most celebrated among the contestants. At times, they even became the favorite.

Talking about the instruments combos used then, the focus could easily be the bass. Bass what? Just bass. That’s what it was – the bass. It couldn’t be called bass guitar because it was not a guitar. Not a bass horn, not a bass cello. No. It was just bass! Period! And the bass among Philippine combos spells the greatest difference because it was the most noticeable of all instruments used then.

The most famous configuration was the use of reserve gas tank (used in military vehicles referred to as GP [government property], thus, the word “jeep”) with improvised neck, tuning key and string. The neck is usually of hard wood, about six feet in length with slanted fretboard, one end of which is firmly stuffed onto the handle of the gas tank, while the other end that points upward where the tuning key is, is usually carved with baroque designs. Tuning key? Easily this is made out of a doorknob, and the string is made of sturdy cotton cord that may be bought by the yard.

The other variation of the bass is the use of a cylindrical ten-gallon tin container instead of the gas tank.

That evening at the Plaza Miranda on the eve of the Feast of the Black Nazarene, ten combos were to slug it out for the championship. The stage was set for the competition and the crowd was getting thicker every minute.

I was with my mom together with several jeep loads of neighbors from our community in Sta. Mesa to root for the J-Berr Boys where my eldest brother was the lead singer. The group rehearsed and dressed up in our house for this contest in Quiapo.

Before the first group was called in for their performance, a commotion near the stage erupted. It was a fistfight between fans and supporters of combos vying for the championship. The whole crowd was plowed by the sudden running of onlookers in the vast plaza and the group where I belong that was vantagely positioned near the Mercury Drug in the far end ran in different directions. We lost each other in the melee.

I was six years old that time. And when the trouble was eased out, I found myself in the arms of a Chinese man selling hopia and other Chinese pastries beside the huge drug store. I lost my neighbors, and scanning the crowd, I could not locate my mom. I saw a man waving a mate of slippers. I recognized it was my mom’s. Not for long, I saw my mom approached the man holding her slippers high, then I told the man cuddling me that there’s my mom. I got re-united with my mom, and later with our neighbors.

The show went on and got done at past one in the morning. The group from Pandacan called Belfast won the trophy and they got the nod of the judges for their rendition of Diana.#

Acknowledgement: Thanks to Jess Jocson for sharing the classic 50s photos posted above.

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