The Teen Group of Good Intentions
The Philippines suffers from a shortage of pop music svengalis. Leading entertainment industry visionaries–such as Lily Monteverde of Regal Films–primarily handle actors. But the Philippines does have Ryan Cayabyab–still one of the Philippines’ best-known conductors, composers, musical directors, and songwriters. In 1989, Cayabyab would try manufacturing a teen singing group, although his “boy band” included a female lead vocalist.
Ryan Cayabyab was a different kind of music impresario. Simon Cowell is a populist who clearly believes that good music is what people actually listen to and buy. Other leading industry executives–such as Lou Pearlman (Backstreet Boys, ‘NSYNC) and Korea’s Soo-Man Lee (EXO, Super Junior, Girl’s Generation)–are equally commercial in their tastes. Each and every single group created by the likes of Cowell, Pearlman, and Lee seems designed for global music dominance.
Ryan Cayabyab was motivated by factors other than commercial success. He sent his teen pop group to music festivals to represent the country, and they performed in 1990 for the United Nations Summit for Children. Cayabyab was more invested in a teen group that could accrue cultural and political capital as he was in profit (if not more so). He crafted a teen act that was intended as a spokes-group for “youth”-driven political issues.
In 1989, Ryan Cayabyab debuted the first iteration of the teen singing group Smokey Mountain, named after an open garbage dump that had been informally settled by migrants to Manila. After an audition process, he settled on original members Geneva Cruz, Tony Lambino, Jeffrey Hidalgo, and James Coronel (all still in their early teens). In keeping with the theme of Smokey Mountain, Cayabyab dressed the group in poverty-chic. Group members were dressed in stylized “rags” so that their every performance could bring attention to the suffering of the dispossessed. In hindsight, this fashion choice seems deeply misguided, even offensive. The members of Smokey Mountain–unlike many Filipino singers and performers–were actually from stable (even elite) backgrounds. Although intentions were probably noble, the Smokey Mountain dressed in the economic version of blackface.
The Smokey Mountain were formed in the aftermath of the EDSA Revolution of 1986. In that politically hopeful moment, Cayabyab may have felt that Filipino pop music needed to continue making meaningful political interventions. Because the Smokey Mountain were so young (Geneva Cruz was only 13 when they debuted), they were innocent of Marcos oppression. Instead, they were tasked with opening listeners eyes (as it were) to the socio-economic injustices that persisted despite the restoration of democratic institutions. They were the voice of a “youth” challenge to enduring problems of imperialism, hunger, poverty, and pollution. Because Smokey Mountain often sang in English and represented the nation internationally, they were intended to speak to Filipino listeners and to speak for them beyond the nation’s borders.
“Not all the World is America,” the first song on Smokey Mountain (1990), the group’s debut album, is arranged to sound “jazzy.” The singers are accompanied by a saxophone as they sing-speak against the centrality of the United States in the Filipino cultural imagination. They describe long queues at the American embassy where Filipinos line-up for visas:
Why they want to go, I don’t understand
They really oughta know there are other lands
Better that they stay in their motherland
Than live a second class man in America
The Smokey Mountain then sing a chorus reminding everyone that “not all the world is America” and “the world is where you are” (which is true).
The earnest opening song is followed by the better “Mama,” also written in English. Geneva Cruz takes the lead in a ballad sung in the persona of a child whose mother has left the Philippines to be a maid in London (“Mama’s a maid in London/I want to believe that she’s fine”). The song describes the moving stories of family lives disrupted by the need to pursue better pay elsewhere. The song represents the very intimate feeling of children’s longing for their mothers:
I need her,
I want to be near her
I’ve got to be with her.
But it also, rather heavy-handedly, makes an explicit political point:
London, Vancouver, or Hong Kong
Governess, housekeeper, or nurse
What is to happen to all of us children?
Cayabyab, writing for the Smokey Mountain, was an “explainer.” Instead of simply allowing intimate longing to speak for itself, he insists on linking intimate feeling with global socio-economic trends.
Tellingly, the most popular and enduring song from the record is actually a Tagalog pop-ballad about a schoolgirl crush, “Kailan.” Punctuated again with saxophone-driven interludes, Geneva Cruz complains about not being able to meet the boy she likes. There are details that set the song at school: “Aklat kong dala’y pinulot mo pa” (“You even picked up the book I dropped.”). “Kailan” explores schoolgirl anxiety: “Binti ko ba’y merong gasgas?” (“Are my legs scarred?”). She complains that he doesn’t notice her: “Kahit anong aking gawin/ ‘Di mo pinapansin” (“No matter what I do/ You don’t notice me”). “Kailan” is catchy trifle, and it happens to be Smokey Mountain’s most successful song despite Ryan Cayabyab’s high-minded ambitions for his young singers.
Smokey Mountain after Smokey Mountain
When three of the original members departed the group shortly, Ryan Cayabyab simply replaced them (as is common in boy bands and girl groups). The Smokey Mountain persisted in making socially-conscious pop music until 1995.
There are signs that Cayabyab has since become a more conventional music producer. He was a judge on Philippine Idol and he was also a judge for GMA-7’s boy band reality show To the Top. To the Top led to the formation of much more conventional boy band T. O. P., which stands for Top One Project. But Cayabyab retains an uncommon idealism. In 2014, press releases announced auditions for an all-Muslim iteration of Smokey Mountain. Original band member Tony Lambino, by then no longer part of the entertainment industry, promised that all the original members would be involved in the selection and mentoring of this new Smokey Mountain. The goal, he said, was to bring Muslim-Filipinos, who reside in the margins of Filipino culture, into the mainstream. As of this writing (2016), no traces of this promised new Muslim Smokey Mountain exist.