Music
December 8, 2015

The Last Dance Lives On

Photos by Joseph Pascual

In 1996, an inexperienced but ambitious theater director made the leap from stage to screen for a fledgling rock band’s music video. The director? Auraeus Solito. The band? The Eraserheads. This is the story of an artist finding his medium, a band making a bid for immortality, and a generation learning its hymn. This is “Ang Huling El Bimbo.” Fifteen years later, Petra Magno finds the song remains the same

WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABBY CASTELO AND CEEJ TANTENGCO

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Written and released in 1995 along with the rest of Cutterpillow, “Ang Huling El Bimbo” prefaced the peak of the Eraserheads’ career.

Gone were the college days when the foursome was paid in beer, turned down by Mayric’s, and rejected by NU 107 for offering rough cuts from a demo tape recorded in a Candelaria garage. By the time everybody knew the lyrics to “Alapaap,” the Eraserheads were safely ensconced within BMG Records and under the loyal ministrations of manager Ann Angala, Ely Buendia’s fellow film major from the band’s inception in UP Diliman.

Their third album Cutterpillow became the third best-selling album in Philippine history, achieving platinum status several times over and—somehow more significantly—making it into karaoke machines all over the country.

Getting into the television set was another matter. With only one previous music video under their belts—a simple montage of the band performing “With a Smile” in Nayong Pilipino—the Eraserheads felt ready for a major production. For this, they approached Auraeus Solito, a batchmate and the mastermind behind the TROPA Experimental Theater Company.

TROPA was then the Eraserheads’ high-art twin sister, formed in the same year with the same goal: to defend and to cultivate the humanities through their chosen mediums—with the singleminded doggedness that only college-level firebrands can muster. TROPA’s company manager says that at the height of their constant production of Solito’s “impossible ideas, [by nightfall] we’d have played to a full house, planned for next day’s fundraising, and [would still have] to attend classes.” With Solito’s childhood home as headquarters, TROPA was composed mainly of alumni from the Philippine Science High School, an institution that insisted its graduates major in math or science college courses even as it screened Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon for its freshmen.

The support between the two ensembles ran mutual and deep: Solito was by the stage at early Eraserheads gigs in Club Dredd, and the Eraserheads composed half the music for Manhid, TROPA’s 1991 musical where “Kailan” was first perfomed, three years before the ballad was released along with the rest of the second Eraserheads’ album, Circus.

“They played ‘Pare Ko’ during the intermission of my play,” Solito recalls, seemingly unaware that he had provided a fledgling band with a much-needed audience. He recounts running into Buendia on a jeepney after graduation and trading glum musings on how hard life was without a stable job. But, and this fame story has been told and retold until it reached the level of myth, the Eheads caught on. By 1996, both TROPA and the Eraserheads were established enough to assemble a crew and a vision for the first major music video.

Though Solito professes he originally wanted to create a video for “Overdrive,” the song he loved the most, he would have also settled for “Magasin” if it hadn’t already been released by then. “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” however, turned out to be the right choice— the simple narrative appealing to Solito’s knack for visual storytelling. It was a story that told itself.

The video was shot on 16mm film, the shoot spanning two days and set only in Solito’s house and backyard. Setting BMG back P230,000, Ang Huling El Bimbo was the most expensive music video of its time, blurring the line between music videos and cinema by being heavy on symbolic production design and light on performance shots, which were must-haves in music videos back then. In a behind-the-scenes interview taken in February 1996, Buddy Zabala jokingly refers to Ang Huling El Bimbo as their “first full-length feature short film video.” Like the Eraserheads themselves, the music video would look like nothing else on the scene.

 

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HARD TO BELIEVE. Filmmaker Aureus Solito, photographed at his childhood home in Sampaloc, Manila where the El Bimbo music video was shot in February 1996. Solito went on to direct the critically acclaimed Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (2005) and Busong (2011), which premiered in Cannes [in May 2011].

Ang Huling El Bimbo would mark Solito’s transition from theater to cinema, the vital first step for the man who would go on to direct Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros in 2005 and Busong in 2011, both of which would garner international awards, the latter premiering on the Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes International Film Festival held last May.

“Buddy flew with me to Cannes, with his wife [who was] my former theater member,” Solito says, noting that it was Buddy who snapped the photo of him onstage in Cannes with Alessandra de Rossi—the lithe star of Busong—who Solito fondly refers to as his muse.

Solito’s first muse, however, was Rowena Basco: TROPA’s company manager, his prima actress, and the obvious choice for the love interest in Ang Huling El Bimbo. Basco and Solito wielded, he claims, “a psychic link.” If Basco had not flown out to Toronto to work with the PETA Theater Arts Workshop, it seems that he would have built the rest of his cinematography around her.

Basco, from halfway across the world, recalls her glamorous roles in Solito’s early work and how he occasionally wrote parts just for her: “He put a slug on my face for four hours in [his film] Suring, made me climb trees in Ang Maikling Buhay ng Apoy, and buried me in Huling El Bimbo.” She adds, “I think he loved me dearly.”

Casting young versions of the Eraserheads came easy for Solito. He auditioned children right off his street in the middle of Sampaloc, from the same slums where Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros would be filmed almost a decade later. “I called [the children] my mama’s little helpers,” he says mirthfully, because his mother would invite them to help around the house every Saturday. It was simply a matter of scrutinizing a slew of fledgling faces for resemblances to each Eraserhead. The young Basco in the music video, however, was discovered by Basco herself during her PETA workshops in Smokey Mountain, where she helped train children for theater. “I thought little Paraluman was fantastic!” she said, and the resemblance that the two shared prompted the Smokey Mountain community to refer to them both as “Paraluman” from then on.

Solito calls the experience of shooting Ang Huling El Bimbo as a short film, “a crash course in the real thing.” Stunned by the power of HMI lights, clueless as to the notion of having one setup per shot, and unaware of the value of calling “Action!” on set, the theater director found himself being guided by the cinematographer, his teacher Luis Quirino, in terms of technicalities. Solito’s own mother took charge of costume and choreography, lending her son’s childhood clothes from the 70s to the child talents, and teaching the older ones the El Bimbo. Even the resident pet turtle had a cameo, walking across Buendia’s guitar in close-up performance shots. “I used to call [that turtle] the Oracle,” Solito notes, “because it had no eyes.”

Ang Huling El Bimbo was homegrown but the effect was universal. Basco waxes lyrical when describing those two days: “The house of Auraeus was transformed into this little eerie hole, which is Memory Eternal, which Karisse [Villa, on production design] and Louie [Quirino] made magical. As an actor, I stepped into that hole, as Memory.” She did, literally and for the sake of art, have to step into a hole. The video’s final scene is Basco rising creakily from a pile of dead leaves and flowers in the bleak garden, her hair shrouding her face in an image that preceded—and Solito is proud of this—The Ring’s Sadako by a year. The morbidity of the scene is heightened by the fact that the flowers and the leaves were all legitimate mourning bouquets, enterprisingly swiped from the North Cemetery by the caretaker, a friend of the Solitos.

Though that vision of gruesome resurrection seared itself into the minds of the Eraserheads’ fans, it was a laughing matter behind the camera. Basco had initially refused to be covered with the flowers, which on closer inspection turned out to be teeming with ants. She acquiesced only after the pile was doused with insect repellant, a fact that was conveniently forgotten when Basco had deserted the pile and the time came for the Eraserheads to ceremoniously light it on fire.

When Solito gave the cue for the matches to be dropped, the entire pile of foliage combusted and the Eheads—nationally acclaimed rock stars but human after all—ran for their life, a sight never caught on film as the crew themselves took cover.

The said crew was made up of TROPA and friends of TROPA, mostly UP Mountaineers. One of them can be glimpsed as Basco’s topless non-husband in the brief yet most theatrical shot in the video: where Basco slowly revolves in a dramaturgical interpretation of the song’s bridge. This was, she remarks, a last-minute decision, but the one that pushed Ang Huling El Bimbo from standard music video fare into cinematic territory.

Pressed for time and incapable of shooting an actual death scene in an alleyway, the production team found themselves moving away from the literal and falling back on theater’s innate capability to compress time and space. They perched Basco on the family Lazy Susan, fed her Karo syrup with red food coloring, and borrowed the Romana artist-couple’s baby, thus injecting what was so far a linear narrative with a rich dose of metaphor and symbolism. “In theater,” Solito affirms, “there’s always a solution. [One can’t] be restricted by equipment. It’s good training for cinema.”

In this decisive transition into film, Solito thought he would miss the instant audience reactions that are inherent in theater. With Ang Huling El Bimbo, he learned that applause is not endemic to the stage. Everybody on set during those two days cheered and clapped every time a shot was taken, and Basco affirms that there were hardly any reshoots.

Ang Huling El Bimbo was a triumph to everyone who made it, and it continued to triumph after it was released. The video was declared Best Music Video and “Ang Huling El Bimbo” Song of the Year in the 1996 NU Rock Awards, and when it won the 1997 MTV Asia Viewer’s Choice Award, it marked the Eraserheads as the first Filipino artists to receive the Moon Man. Sadly, Solito’s copy of the iconic trophy was swiped from his home while he was filming in Palawan.

 

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It’s been 15 years since Solito called it a wrap on the set of Ang Huling El Bimbo. The children cast in it must now be around the same age the Eraserheads were when they composed the song. The Eraserheads themselves, as a band, are a band no more, having broken up in 2002 in a style akin to lovers falling out, but on a level felt by the entire country. Despite the clamor, the break was clean and irrevocable. The members remained civil toward each other in public, but at the end of their 13-year career, Buendia affirmed that “the band no longer belonged to [them.] It belonged to the fans, to the people.”

The fans, however, wanted a reunion, and in March 2009, they got the next best thing: a reunion concert, despite the barbed insistence of a name like “The Final Set,” where the most striking image was the Sticker Happy piano being set on fire. Everybody involved moved on at different speeds, reluctant to discuss the private machinations of a legend’s dissolution. As the post-Eheads’ projects began to bloom, the Eraserheads proved to be a supergroup in reverse, and as individuals they have beautifully maneuvered through the tangled roots of the Filipino music scene in order to put up new shoots. But the mere fact that a post-Eheads period can be clearly identified within Filipino music proves that something great has indeed been lost, and when Cutterpillow comes up on shuffle, everyone within earshot still heaves a sigh.

To be timeless is to maintain influence on a lateral scale, to rouse nostalgia while remaining forever relevant. “Ang Huling El Bimbo” holds that kind of power, returning to the public eye time and again, even as it never really disappears. This is why, even when the song is reinterpreted across mediums, its tone possibly unfamiliar and its context redesigned, there’s somehow no way to not love it, if only because it evokes the original.

 

 

It was the Eraserheads’ former music label that took the first and biggest step toward preserving the music: by putting out the tribute album Ultraelectromagneticjam! in 2005. It’s a solid cover album through and through, failing only when the covered song is bigger than the powers of the cover artist. Brownman Revival wrung “Maling Akala” through lazy reggae and in the process made it theirs. Radioactive Sago Project’s riotous version of “Alkohol” garnered its own music video. The late great Francis Magalona took on “SuperProxy2K6” like it was written for him and Ely Buendia. Yet nobody knows how to feel about Rico J. Puno’s highly decorated and vocally flamboyant cover of “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” other than a little wistful.

Another “Ang Huling El Bimbo” cover made it onto another album in 2008, this time an orchestral version by FilHarmonika, directed by Gerard Salonga. Buendia supplied vocals, his legendary deadpan enunciation slightly incongruous amongst chirping violins and horn section interjections.

Also in 2008, poet and bookmaker Adam David published The El Bimbo Variations: a slim volume of 99 poems, each one a reworking of the first line of “Ang Huling El Bimbo.” Ninety-nine constraints are imposed on the line, varying from altering one letter (Kamukha mo si Paraluman / nung tayo ay data pa.) to removing one word (Kamukha mo si Paraluman. / Tayo ay bata pa.) to illustrating Paraluman’s death in the manner of Edward Gorey’s preciously morbid Gashlycrumb Tinies, which proved fitting for the subject matter. The book is blessed with a blurb from Buendia himself, which is really Buendia writing about David writing about Buendia’s writing. On his choice of “Ang Huling El Bimbo” as the root text of his book, David says this: “If the Eraserheads only had one song that would endure time and space, it would be that song, this magazine feature being further evidence of that fact.”

In 2009, the advertising agency DDB Philippines produced a commercial for McDonald’s named “First Love.” A 60-seconder, the spot is remarkable for recreating an 80s-faithful Mickey Dee’s— right down to the food’s packaging—as well as garnering the rights to set the spot to “Ang Huling El Bimbo.” It’s not the first time an Eraserheads song was bought in order to sell. “Ligaya” hyped up Chippy in 1996, and “Overdrive” was used in 1997 for a Pepsi raffle promo—but the strength of “First Love” lay in editing “Ang Huling El Bimbo” down to its most potent distillation: a segue from the first line right into the chorus, and ending there.

The most recent resurfacing of “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is also its most tragic. It’s been a year since NU 107 went off air. The radio station that proved itself a stalwart bastion of local rock lasted 23 years before succumbing to new management eager to promote more mainstream programming. A video taken from inside the station the night of November 7, 2010 shows a crowd of people, DJs and fans alike, hugging each other over the sound of NU’s last song on the 107.5 MHz frequency. Whether they were laughing or crying, everybody was singing along.

Other final songs were considered by the rock jocks, including Color It Red’s “Paglisan” and The Dawn’s “Salamat,” but in the end, as a group decision, “the whole world was listening to ‘Huling El Bimbo’ and the whole world was crying with NU 107 closing down,” says Cris Hermosisima, the station’s former network operations head and the last man on the microphone. If NU 107 had to end, it was only right that it ended this way.

 

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Paraluman, née Sigrid Sophia Agatha von Giese, earned her one-word screen name from no less than Fernando Poe Sr., who cast her in a 1941 film of the same title before she became the darling of Sampaguita Pictures. Equally capable as coquette or kontrabida, she was flawless as long as she was on film, even as a spoiled and staggering lush in the 1957 Hong Kong Holiday, triggering Greta Garbo comparisons with her arched eyebrows and steel-cut cheekbones.

The last of her four FAMAS nominations was for her role in Ishmael Bernal’s 1975 Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko. Suddenly she was on the other side of the fence of fidelity, playing a sorry wife to a philanderer. Few photographs of her exist after her last film, the 1985 Kailan Sasabihing Mahal Kita, the posters of which were already dominated by the names Sharon Cuneta and Christopher de Leon. Though her real age was only revealed at her death in 2009, Paraluman was well into her sixties when the Eraserheads formed in 1989, and in her seventies when Ely Buendia looked upon an unnamed girl and scribbled down the first lines to “Ang Huling El Bimbo.”

Yet Paraluman remains luminescent in the Filipinos’ collective memory, not just for her career in the movies, but also because she set the standard for a songwriter’s concept of grace. To think of “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is to think of Paraluman, of beauty outliving death.

“Ang Huling El Bimbo” is immortal in that way, having outlasted the girl it was written about, the film goddess it referenced, and the band that composed it. Studded with things that have passed into the past—childhood, vinyl records, the El Bimbo itself—this song is, as Adam David writes, “the Ultimate Eraserheads Song™, the ultimate nostalgia trip of the Eraserheads’ whole discography of nostalgia trips.”

The effect of “Ang Huling El Bimbo” is three-fold: we empathize with Buendia’s perfectly-articulated loss, we recall our own dead loves, and somewhat selfishly, we miss the good old days of the Eraserheads.

 

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Archive Photo by Eddie Boy Escudero, courtesy of Eric Caruncho and Anvil Publishing and Gilbert Opal.

 

This story first appeared in Rogue’s 2011 Art Issue.

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