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5 Things To Love about Joseph Gara's Songs

Full disclaimer here – I am a huge Joseph Gara fan.

I saw him for the first time in a wedding party of a dear friend, unmindfully singing as guests were entering the ballroom of a hotel. Apart from his guitar, he was his own prop, tucked neatly at one side of the stage, almost unseen as a massive bouquet of giant white lilies and carnations stood beside his guitar stand.  Right there and then I thought that this guy would go places, because it was quite clear that he liked his music, and while he sang covers of popular acoustic ballads, he seemed to claim them as his own, making the music sound fresh, and the words as if they were freshly minted. 

I am an avid spectator of his shows – at South Palms Resort,  one of our favourite staycation spots in Bohol, where he seemed to be a regular; at the many weddings that he was contracted to serenade; at the many cultural events in the province where he was a part of or was the sole reason for its convening.  I also follow his Spotify releases, his Youtube sessions, and his international performances, mainly because the artist is serious about his craft – his music-making is sincere and infectious, and his relationship with his instrument, a guitar in one, and a ukulele in another, is quite a sight to behold. I even hired him once in a book launch some months ago, because what he does with his music matched the level of dedication that the author of the book that my publishing house launched that week gave to his written pieces.   

While I am fascinated by his singing, I am more inspired by his writing and composing songs.  And in this blog post, my first for this year at Boholanalysis, I will talk about 5 reasons why I love (and you should as well) his songs.

1. The lyrics are delicious; they are poignantly beautiful.  (Sorry Joseph, I need to translate this to English here for my friends. 😊)

I was not surprised when he won the most recent Cebu Pop Music Festival.  Apart from the haunting melody, the lyrics of his masterpiece, "Sugid ni Maria" are just heavenly – travelling between the terrains of emotion and insight as the story progresses from intro to fade.  He says:

Sa akong mga damgo                                                     In my dreams
Puy-an matag Segundo                                                  I will relish every second
Alimyon sa panit mo                                                      the fragrance of your skin
Sinina’ng paborito                                                        your favourite dress
Balay’ng imong gisa                                                    the house where you lived
Kanta’ng imogan                                                          the song that you played

Ikaw ang una’                                                               You are my lips’
Ni’ng ngabil ko                                                              first kiss.

“Alimyon sa panit mo, sinina’ng paborito”. I have never imagined that one day these will become words for a Boholano love song. We love the “invisible person” by adoring their “visibility”.  It reminds us of the many hands that remained unwashed for days because they were held by a god/goddess we loved.  It reminds us of the letters that we kept or the screenshots of messages that we received. It reminds us of our uncanny habit to visit places that we shared memories with the people we love, because it brings that inexplicable feeling of belonging.

2. The songs speak of our ordinary experiences in the most unordinary way. 

One of the most endearing characteristics of artists is their ability to capture the ordinary fares of the everyday in a very delicately extraordinary way.  One of my favourite painters, for example, Johannes Vermeer, makes lacemaking an extraordinary profession with his 16th-century canvas that features a woman so engrossed with, what else, but lace-making.  Joseph does this kind of metamorphosis of the ordinary to greatness in, for example, the “Foodie Song”, where he sings…  

Bahala na’g manambok ta’ng duha                 I don’t care if we two will get fat
Basta mangaon ta kong asa ta gananahan      As long as we eat where we fancy
Wala’y pulos ang diet taman ra estorya          Diet is of no use, all but words
Mapugngan pa ang gugma                              Love can be suppressed
dili gyud ang gan                                             but not our appetite

Litson na pod, inun-onan na pod                    Lechon again, pickled fish again
Maayo lang gani kay allergic ta sa seafood   Good that we are allergic to seafood
Atleast aduna ta’y likay-likayan                     At least there’s something to avoid
Lisod sad kaayo’g kan-on nalang tana          It’s difficult if we can eat everything

I know, I know. The translation does not do justice, but let’s settle with it for now until a better translator comes along.  But if you listen to the song, set to a tune that’s playful and seemingly reckless, you can imagine how ordinary people go on food dates (eating dates, who among us do not do that?) hopping between restaurants from one day to another and getting fat along the way. 

3.  The music is not forced into the song, and vice versa.  

When you listen intently to a Joseph Gara song, you can really say that a lot of “thinking” goes into its production.  The syncopated beat, the choice of the dominant instrument, the voice quality of the singer, everything from start to finish is very thoughtfully laid out. Joseph Gara does not rush. He lets the song mature that the product becomes a fully-grown masterpiece. The first runner up winner of a Boholano pop music festival some years ago sang by another favourite performer of mine, Nabela Gudito, exemplifies this restrained perfection.  Nabela, in Joseph’s words and music, sings:

Gugma kining gibati ko                                        This love I am feeling                
Ug unya unta tuohan mo                                      That I hope you will believe in
Sa makausa imong duyugan                                 One more time, you will join me
Imng habulan sa mga bukton                               And cover me with your arms

“Duyan”, the title of the song, which literally means hammock, sounds like a Boholano lullaby, sang on the beach, under the palm trees. You can feel the waves kissing the white sandy beach; you can hear the soft rustles of the coconut palm leaves, caressed gently by the wind. “Duyan”, in its acoustic version, probably the first cut of the song before it got reconfigured for the 2014 Sandugo Pop Music, is still my preferred version.  

4. His songs feature our culture as a Boholano. It makes us proud of who we are. 

Joseph Gara is a Boholano from Alicia, Bohol.  In his songs, he features Bohol and the Boholano’s way of life. One of my favourite upbeat songs, an entry to the first Himog Huni songfest in Bohol, was “Didtong Dapita”, sang with her wife, Lizeth Gara. Talking about his favourite things, he advised the woman in the song, not to bring him to shopping malls but asks that….

Magisturya ta’g lami                                                     Let’s talk about good things
Sama sa gugma ug pagkaon                                          Like love or food
Ug sikwate                                                                     or hot chocolate
Asa may mas lami sa Cogon ug Baluart                       Which one is more delicious
                                                                                       the one in Cogon or Baluarte?

The song suggests that there are so many things to do in this Boholano province than spending a day lazily at a mall.  There’s the beach, there’s the mountain, there are rivers to explore – there are far better ways to spend a day, like immersing in the local culture. The word “didtong dapita”, which means “out there”, is an invitation to explore, to discover, what this place has to offer.    

5.  Finally, his songs sing of hope, of a beautiful world, of the light after the darkness. 

There is always sublime optimism in a Joseph Gara song, despite the presence of heartaches (for example, the pain of unrequited love in “Friendly” sang by Brandon Ungab), despite the agony of longing and anticipation (in, for instance, in “Paghunas”, sung by Jayneil Enriquez). But this optimism is very loud in one of his few English songs that debuted at Spotify in 2017. 

Here goes the rain
In the early afternoon
So lay down the bed
Here’s the gentle mist you’re missing

Life, oh life, life, life
So beautiful

This world may be replete with negativity, but Joseph Gara invites us to see it with a new set of eyes.  He invites us to lie down and rest and take comfort in the thought that even without our doing it, the gentle mist comes every cold Sunday morning.  He invites us to see the many good things that this island blesses us with that, for the most part, we take for granted.

If you have not caught the Joseph Gara bug yet, search for his name at YouTube or follow him at Spotify.  And do tell me what you think. 


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