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Toti Dalmacion: Terno on, tune in, groove out

Don’t disturb his groove: How many vinyl records does Toti Dalmacion own? The last time he counted, he had already amassed 20,000 records. But that was in 1996! Photos by JOEY VIDUYA             

Wala pa tayo at mawawala na sa eskena, si Toti Dalmacion pa rin ang pinaka-cool sa ating lahat. — LOURD DE VEYRA

Poet, rocker and weather prophet

It was straight out of Dawn of the Dead. Only less bloody and much chirpier.

That’s how Toti Dalmacion — collector, DJ, music-lover and Terno Recordings label head — would describe hunting for collectibles (from records to vintage bicycles to science-fiction-like TV sets from the ’50s or ’60s) in garage sales, thrift stores and warehouses in the States.

“For some reason, I’m fascinated with mid-century objects (with my preference moving) forward naman to the ’70s and ’80s — I’m a fan of design,” Dalmacion explains in his condominium in Makati, a veritable museum of curiosities, a fluffy frisky dog, and thousands upon thousands of vinyls. When he lived with his family in the States from ’87 to ’93  he was able to memorize all the key places — from L.A., Santa Barbara, San Francisco to as far as Chicago — to get records (jazz, indie, British imports, etc.) and such.

“Before all these Pickers, Pawn Stars, Storage Wars and other TV shows (on the History Channel), in my case, there was this massive warehouse (on San Fernando Road in Los Angeles) that opens as early as 6 a.m. with all the items on the yard. Free-for-all! Kung ano ’yung mapulot.”

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This is how Toti would describe it: “As soon as the metal door was raised, we marched in like zombies.” “We” meaning serious collectors, lovers of kitsch, vendors who would resell the items at the Rose Bowl flea market, strange characters straight out of Chuck Palahniuk, or just plain “mambubulok.” Grab anything in sight — TV, camera, clocks, furniture, or bicycle parts — before the other zombie you’re trying to box out get a hold of it first. Like the Birdman keeping out the Big Fundamental from the shaded area.

“Waking up early in the morning to rough it out with other nationalities — maispatan mo, kunin mo agad. Five bucks lang, or if more expensive, tawaran mo lang. That was my routine before school or when there were no classes.” He even blew his daily allowance on a record-a-day or saved up to get pricier finds.

Having been bitten by the collecting bug, this never-ending trip would take Toti Dalmacion from the old Cubao with its Fiesta Carnival and record shops, to the sidewalks of Mongkok in Hong Kong, to the garage lands of California, back home to Evangelista St. in Makati, and beyond.

All in search of an elusive collector’s item or that piece of awe-inspiring music.  

Spin the black circle

Toti Dalmacion grew up in house grooving since day one.

His uncles are Rene and Dennis Garcia of Hotdog, one of the bands that built the Manila Sound; Toti’s mom used to manage that band formerly known as Red Fox, and his London-based aunt (the inspiration behind Annie Batungbakal) sent him records. 

“I was exposed to records in the house — colored vinyls released in China, Western releases. It led me to asking for particular records. I remember Walter Murphy’s disco version of A Fifth of Beethoven, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart by Elton John and Kiki Dee, songs pretty much in the pop vein. Stuff around the house. But as you get older, that’s when you develop your own preference,” says Toti, who currently listens to John Grant, Houses, Yast, as well as Up Dharma Down’s current release on vinyl titled “Capacities.”

In ’78 or ’79, he became aware via Creem and Rolling Stones about bands with intriguing names such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash, but his aunt was also sending him records that were part of the New Wave movement (“New Wave” in the Brit sense, mind you).  Lena Lovich, Original Mirrors, the list goes on and on.

“The more obscure the acts were, the more interesting for me,” he explains. “The crucial record to me — one that was really influential — was a compilation album called ‘The Best of Punk and New Wave Rock’ released by then upstart label, Virgin, featuring tracks by XTC, Cowboys International, The Skids.”

With XTC becoming a punk/new wave benchmark of sorts for Dalmacion, he also got into other genres as well — electronic, synth pop, ska (The Specials, Madness), reggae (Black Uhuru) and indie in the jangly, guitar-oriented pop (Orange Juice, The Wedding Present) “From the obscure to underground to the more commercial to the not-really-new-wave-but-Italian-disco-disguised-as-new-wave (laughs).” He even joined a mobile crew called Positive Noise, playing new wave , post-punk and hardcore in parties, and then by 1987, eventually getting into house and techno. 

How many vinyl records does Toti own? The last time he counted, that was in 1996, he had already amassed 20,000 records. In 1996! His music room in the Makati condo resembles an aural library where, instead of Shakespeare or Chaucer canonized in glass cases, Toti has autographed My Bloody Valentine and Lotus Eaters mounted on walls. Paul Weller, The Blue Nile, David Sylvian and Japan are there, too, looking down upon God’s creation. Oh yeah, lots of stuff released by Creation (dig?) and Sarah Records. Also some under Stiff Records with the infamous slogan “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a f*ck.”

Toti takes a couple of records from the shelves, an armful of Eighties post-punk rarities. How do you arrange your albums, autobiographically? The man takes pride in his compilation records — like stuff released by Zoo Records (“From The Shores of Lake Placid”), a Crépuscule collection (“State of Excitement”), Él’s “London Pavilion,” Sarah Records’ “Engine Common”, and the prized “Fact 24 – A Factory Quartet.”

“What makes my record collection different from others is that I bought a particular album when it was actually released, or a year or two later... physically, in an actual store or I searched high and low for it much later on, (going) crate-digging. ’Yung iba kasi nowadays they go Internet-digging and search for discographies, and then order online with just a click of the mouse, which is fine for getting new releases but a lazy, easy, short-cut for older and rarer titles just to keep up with other collectors. Yung iba naman they buy records na kung anu-ano lang just to amass a record collection. Walang istorya.”

And the man has stacks upon stacks of stories. It could be about an old Felt album. It would include a visit to the house where a mom is selling her recently deceased son’s prized vinyls. It could be about Toti leaving with a record, propping it on the turntable when he gets home, listening to songs much loved by a dearly departed.

It could be about music living on and on.

To everything terno, terno, terno

This is how I run the Terno Recordings, how the bands are picked. Kung ano ’yung type ko, kung ano ’yung inspiration ko from the indie, mom-and-pop labels that I love, I apply that — from the artwork and everything. You would know if it’s Terno.”

He started the label more than 10 years ago. On a non-existent budget. No feasibility studies to speak of. Purely on a whim. Toti gets help from wife Rica nowadays, but Terno was and is purely a one-man operation.

“I was never really a businessman. I was never good at school, although I did study recording engineering in the States. Wala kasi akong direction, ang hilig ko lang music and collecting records. Terno came about because I wanted to make compilation records of my own. If it can be done by small indie labels in England, sa bahay lang nila — then obviously I can do it, too!”

Originally, Toti just wanted to put out a series of Terno compilation records, but one thing led to another. Orange and Lemons came into the picture, then Radioactive Sago Project followed. Juan Pablo Dream. Up Dharma Down.

He points out, “That was Mark I of Terno — diverse sounds within the label, but still tied up somehow because of our pursuit of quality.”

The goal was — in all honesty and without sounding too messianic — to raise the standards of original Pilipino music in terms of songwriting and record presentation. And the label did it with flair.

“The fun part for me was deciding the album covers, the titles. ’Yung banda magsa-sound trip din kami para ma-inspire sila.”

How doth Terno stand now?

“Up Dharma has a new record. They say the band is the brightest hope for OPM, I just go with that. Sago has a much-anticipated album that is supposed to come out this year. Maude is my most simple four-piece pop band, reminiscent of Prefab Sprout. Pop pero mataas pa rin ’yung level. Yolanda Moon is like Massive Attack meets James Blake. Sleepwalk Circus, shoegaze. The Ringmaster (Fran Lorenzo of Sleepwalk Circus), on the grand scale of shoegaze/electronic combo. Musical O, a bit shoegaze and indie rock. Sleepyheads sa Terno rin — post-punk, No Wave, garage, medyo New York circa ’80. ’Yung Popular Days, New Wave crossed with Indiepop stylings. Child/ren of the Pilgrimage, parang combination of ’60s and ’90s psychedelia. Hidden Nikki on the pop jazz tinged side. The Charmes, more garage rock. Encounters with a Yeti — an instrumental band, ambient, post-rock (way earlier and ahead of the current local post-rock trend, mind you). Not Another Boy Band, I wouldn’t say they’re novelty ah, but a bit more on humor. There’s Skymarines from Davao, more on synth-based pop… ’yung term lately is ‘Chill Wave’ (laughs). Pasta Groove is our hip-hop act. Then there’s another instrumental trio, Pulso, with Robby Mananquil on guitar. A lot of people say they’re math/post-rock. But to me they have many influences to their sound to be (simply) boxed in.”

Toti doesn’t really go out of his way to sign bands. He’d like to think that the acts on Terno reflect quality and high standards in terms of Pinoy music. Whoever said OPM is dead should’ve watched more Terno gigs, or at least bought the records. The label boss sees a marked improvement in the OPM landscape in the last five years or so.

“Sobrang daming banda ngayon who are brave enough to do what they want to do — be it electronic or experimental, off-kilter commercial suicide stuff… ’Yung bands hindi lang iniisip,  ‘Kailangan sumikat tayo. Kailangan maging E-Heads tayo.’ Marami mang sablay, marami ding magaling.”

“What would I tell people who’d want to be the next Toti Dalmacion?” he ponders. “Explore! They don’t really have to go with what society deems as… well…. ‘whatever.’ Gawin mo ‘yung gusto mong gawin. And always raise the standards of the particular field you’re getting into — whether it’s forming a band or putting up a label.”

Do people know him these days as a label boss, DJ, antique-hunter, concert promoter or record collector?

“I don’t know… I’m really not aware of those things,” he concludes. “Hindi naman ako high-profile eh. I’d rather be behind the scenes.”

Or probably in his condominium with 20,000-plus vinyls, a rainy afternoon and a pair of ears that have heard and are about to hear the most evocative sounds in recording history.

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