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Rico Blanco’s altered state

Photos by GABBY CANTERO, Produced by PEPE DIOKNO

MANILA, Philippines - If you’re a performer, you should know how to do your own makeup,” Rico Blanco recalls Joey Ayala telling him a decade ago. Fast forward to today, and we have Rico painting his own face to morph into “Fiesto Bandido,” the alter ego he created to sing the songs from his sophomore album, “Galactik Fiestamatik.” Fiesto Bandido is a space-age, ati-atihan hybrid who sports a feathered headdress and an uninhibited personality.

“When I told my management that I wanted my album cover to be me wearing a feather hat, ati-atihan style with face paint, no one took me seriously,” Rico tells me as he draws lines on his face.

He had difficulty explaining the whole Fiesto Bandido concept to his team because it was, in not so many words, odd and new. “They didn’t know how serious I was until I finally told them, ‘No, I really mean the orange feathers, the tribal headdress. I also want a bahag.’ Still, they replied, ‘Seriously?’”

I watched him play in Teatrino recently, and left convinced that this dog wasn’t too old to learn new tricks. In the barely-lit auditorium, right before Your Universe flew to its bridge, the spotlights all fell on him; the mirrors glued to his costume illuminated the smoky room with a hundred small squares of light. The crowd “ooh”-ed like he was some apparition coming down from the clouds.

That Fun

“I knew Fiesto Bandido was going to be fun. But I didn’t know it was going to be that fun,” he shares. “It’s still me. And I think it’s everyone. But the hat, the armor, the bahag, the wristbands, and the tassels — they bring it out. It releases a part of you that you keep suppressed.”

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“Galactik Fiestamatik” is, perhaps, one of those things that Rico had suppressed for a long time. Unlike “Your Universe” and all his previous works with Rivermaya, this one’s purely a product of his own effort and wit — no collaborations, not even second opinions. While the first album recruited the likes of genius bassists like Buddy Zabala, Nathan Azarcon, and Louie Talan, along with drummers like Wendell Garcia and Junjun Regalado, “Fiestamatik” was pure Rico Blanco.

“In whatever album, there’s a project. I set my limits. So for this one, I wanted to set a certain range which I won’t go over. And I tried to make it work by using a small range, unlike, say, Liwanag sa Dilim  where I start low and go the whole range as the song progresses,” Rico says. “I challenge myself to make a song work without resorting to old habits. Early on, I challenged myself to do things differently. It excited me.”

The album starts out with its carrier single, Amats, which he says was in his head when he was still with Rivermaya. He finished a working draft of the song during his short hiatus from the music scene. “I think I was most prolific when I knew in my head — when I thought — I wasn’t gonna come back. So I was just writing for myself, for no one. I guess it’s because there wasn’t any expectation, especially for myself.”

Power pop

He says Amats was initially a “bright, sunny, and sweet Pinoy power pop song” (probably along the lines of Rivermaya’s Makaaasa Ka). With lyrics like “Obvious naman, ‘di ba?/Ang amats ko sa ‘yo, kakaiba,” it’s not hard to imagine a funny Rivermaya pop song with a different melody. But he was struck with the idea to start with a minor chord, and that gave the song its dark, demented tone. Everything else shifted to suit its key.

“That was when another idea came to me — ‘yung ati-atihan. It was a ‘eureka’ moment. I decided I was going to use it as if I had an ati-atihan band. I wasn’t going to use it just to add flavor to the song, like in Awit ng Kabataan or Posible.” He explains that because he was in a rock band before, he couldn’t have ati-atihan all the time. But now, it dawned on him that he can actually have an ati-atihan band in all his shows. “Amats just set the tone for the rest of the album.”

Time and time again, alone or with a band, Rico Blanco has come up with powerful and memorable songs that receive significant airplay. But in this age of monotonous tunes made locally and internationally, he believes that songwriting in the Philippines is still strong, with artists like Gloc 9, Kamikazee, Urbandub, Up Dharma Down, and a few other bands holding the fort.

Cycles

“You can’t say they don’t know how to write songs,” he says. “Music goes through cycles. It’s just the general psyche of mankind that you resonate. Those who do their thing mid-wave or at the wave’s low point make it possible for the next batch to ride the crest. So nothing is really wasted.”

These days, Rico continues to tour with a different set-up: a parade of synthesizers, tom-toms, snare drums, bass drums, whistles, and a whole arsenal of face paint. “Malaking factor ‘yung ati-atihan percussions. Siya ‘yung organic. Siya ‘yung warmth sa buong album,” he says.

His live performances have changed since “Galactik Fiestamatik”’s inception. No more guitars, no more drum kits; just the village fool and his marching band.  He remembers the crowd in Pagadian a month ago, who all came rushing in like a huge wave amid the pouring rain.

“It was like a scene from a movie. It was the opposite of a trauma.”

And Fiesto Bandido, not Rico Blanco, was at the center of it all.

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Tweet the author @sarhentosilly.

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