One might say it took years in the making. I’d say over a decade. But the actual writing of the song took about three minutes.
I lived through an era in which I saw the total destruction of our democratic institutions. Eighteen years of my life were dominated by a tyrannical family from hell, who killed their own people, pillaged the treasury, and destroyed the nation I loved. Images collected since the start of Martial Law, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or a stack of pictures seemingly unrelated, were scattered in my mind waiting for something to piece them together. Memories of classmates killed, rallies dispersed, the mosquito press, curfew, stolen elections, human rights abuses, torture, and suppression of our most basic freedoms, were just too many to count. I knew them well, having witnessed a lot of the repression firsthand. I had many friends and close relatives who joined the armed struggle. My own mother and stepfather were arrested in connection with the Light-a-Fire Movement and were tried by a military court that sentenced them to death by firing squad. Mercifully, the sentence was never carried out.
The APO Hiking Society, a group I shared with Boboy Garrovillo and Danny Javier, played its part in the effort that contributed to the fall of martial rule. We did many concerts all over the Philippines where we clearly expressed our opposition to the dictatorship. It was scary. Sometimes we wondered if we were exposing ourselves to big trouble. But it was almost a sin not to do it. Many artists expressed themselves freely regardless of the danger. As the audience egged us on, we reciprocated by becoming bolder and bolder.
And then the glorious four days of the EDSA Revolution happened. It was a heady time. In the weeks that followed, I was high, ecstatic about the return of our freedoms, even if the new democratic government had many problems.
It was sometime in March 1986, a few days after the EDSA revolt, when I sat down at the piano and wrote the song “Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo.” I wrote it quickly and almost without effort. In fact, the song poured out of me, like it was writing itself. I remember playing the notes on the piano, singing the melody, and writing the lyrics feverishly on paper. I could barely read my own handwriting. The words and music flowed seamlessly in tandem, like they were sewn together. I made no revisions.
When I was done, the song was complete. My concentration was total, like a laser beam. I was totally present. Nothing distracted me. I wrote without stopping, or waiting for the words to come. I had no doubt something bigger than my own mind was using me, guiding me into creating the song.
I now realize that my best compositions have almost always been written in this manner, with lyrics and melody emerging together with the smallest of efforts. My theory is that I am probably unconsciously already writing the songs in my head. So unfinished songs are probably incubating and marinating in my mind, waiting for their time to be born.
After I wrote “Handog,” I just sat there for a while in a state of creative bliss. It felt like a moment in eternity. For a while I lost track of the hours and felt I had operated outside the field of time and space, that the zeitgeist or the spirit of history had actually taken over and used me to give birth to something that needed to be born. I could not believe how I could actually create something so special. I had expressed through song the collective experiences that millions of people went through in the 20 dark years of Marcos rule, and the four heroic days that led to the flight of the dictator and his family.
When I first thought of writing a song about what happened in EDSA, I had no clear idea in my mind. But I knew that real revolutions or great historical movements deserve great theme songs to immortalize them.
The song was arranged by the late Eddie Munji III who arranged a lot of APO’s big hits. We decided to get many singers to join in, since EDSA was a collective effort. Our peg was the song “We Are The World” written by Michael Jackson and recorded by many artists in 1985 for USA for Africa. We chose artists who had gone out of their comfort zones and spoken out against the regime at some point. The cast consisted of the APO, Celeste Legaspi, Noel Trinidad, Subas Herrero, Coritha & Eric, Edru Abraham, Ivy Violan, Inang Laya (Karina David and Becky Demetillo), Joseph Olfindo, Kuh Ledesma, Lester Demetillo, and Leah Navarro. On the day of the recording, we let the singers hear the song for the very first time. I assigned who would sing what lines. But even before I started assigning them, Celeste Legaspi claimed the phrase, “Kay sarap pala maging Pilipino,” which she felt summarized the feeling of the nation then. The recording itself went smoothly. The singers relished their lines and gave their best, and we got goose bumps as the song came to life.
I will never forget the mood in the studio. It was electric. And magical. We knew we were all part of something big and historic.
There was also a film crew to document the recording. Much to our surprise, a label executive suddenly sent Gretchen Barretto and Kris Aquino to “participate” in the video, to give it “commercial value.” The recording had ended, thank God, and they practically just smiled for the cameras. After the recording, we all signed our names on the lyric sheet. Years later, when Kuh Ledesma built the Music Museum, she borrowed that piece of paper which she had framed and hung on the wall of the theater. Unfortunately, that historic document perished in a fire that gutted the concert venue.
The music video was made by filmmaker Mike de Leon who put the struggle that culminated in EDSA within the framework of our larger history, from the Philippine-American War to the present. If the Internet had existed then, that video would have gone hugely viral many times over.
On the first celebration of EDSA, we sang the song as the finale of the program. The chorus was joined in by hundreds of thousands of people in the crowd who sang it over and over with the original singers—for more than 20 minutes.
Today, three decades after EDSA, I still feel the stirrings of history when “Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo” is played or sung. When we recorded it in 1986, I purposely did not give myself any solo lines. Throughout the anti-dictatorship struggle, I turned down any leadership roles that were offered to me. I felt that when it came to national and political change, I was just a foot soldier. I still see myself as such. Since EDSA, I have received many offers to run for national office and I have always refused. The only office I reluctantly ran for was barangay captain, in which, to my relief, I lost.
One has to be to be true to one’s truths. I have always seen myself as an artist who takes freedom seriously. I am either free or I am not. I have seen how serious an endeavor it was for artists like Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso, and Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso, who were ostracized and exiled for their political stands; how they stood their ground, and won.
Weeks after the release of “Handog” we made an English version that was released in Australia and Great Britain. When the Church at the EDSA shrine was built, on one of its walls were inscribed the lines of a stanza of my song:
‘Masdan ang nagaganap sa aming bayan
Magkasama na’ng mahirap at mayaman
Kapit bisig madre, pari at sundalo
Naging langit itong bahagi ng mundo’
I believed in the EDSA revolution. I still do. It was our historic moment when, as a people, we took over the reins of history. “Handog ng Pilipino Sa Mundo” was my take on that unique moment that inspired many democratic movements in the world including, among others, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the student uprising in China’s Tiananmen Square. May it inspire the present generation of Filipinos who are too young to have experienced EDSA, and too uninformed about its significance to the freedoms they enjoy. People think that the power to move a nation lies in the hands of politicians. Having written “Handog” I know that musical artists have the greater capacity to encapsulate an idea into a four-minute experience—an experience that can unite and inspire a nation.
Read the full story and see more pictures in Rogue’s 2016 Music Issue (February 2016), now available in bookstores, newsstands, and digitally on Zinio.com/Rogue. Get immediate access to Rogue content every month for only $1.99 per issue by subscribing to Rogue Magazine for iPad, now available on Apple’s App Store.