Freestyle sings a different tune
- Leah C. Salterio () - December 1, 2007 - 12:00am

Since it stormed the local music scene in 1996, there’s no turning back for the erstwhile Davao-based band, Freestyle, formed by Tat Suzara and Jinky Vidal. Tracing its humble beginnings at the Apo View Hotel in Davao, where the group had its first gigs, Freestyle dauntlessly invaded the cut-throat music  scene in Manila and made its own name in the local entertainment circuit.

Today, more than a decade after it soared with such first hits as Before I Let You Go and So Slow, Freestyle remains one of the first-rate local bands at the forefront of live performances and recording. For a group whose only wish was to be able to perform onstage, Freestyle has indeed come a long way.

“After 11 years, we are really very fortunate and blessed to still be around,” asserts Tat Suzara, Freestyle vocalist and lead guitarist. “When we recorded our first album in Davao, we didn’t even have plans of releasing it. But  things paved the way for us to get to Manila, record an album, make hit songs and do concerts.”

Tat formed Freestyle in 1996 with fellow ex-First Circle members Jinky Vidal and Gerard Banzon. In 1997, Tat’s cousin, Top Suzara, joined Freestyle and became the band’s frontliner with Jinky, the lone female member.

When Manila-based group Parliament Syndicate performed in Davao in 1998, Freestyle was tapped to do the front act. Then marketing head of Globe Telecom Odi Cabansay asked for the band’s demo recording, which landed in the Viva Records office. When the group did a show in Cebu, Viva’s Boss Vic del Rosario was in the audience with a recording contract for Freestyle. That same year, it launched its  self-titled debut album.

The group’s version of Ogie Alcasid’s single, Bakit Ngayon Ka Lang, stands as the group’s biggest commercial hit to date, with the album reaching the quintuple platinum mark, registering sales of nearly a hundred thousand copies. Even Ogie, who’s also the composer of the song, acknowledges it was Freestyle which popularized the single that has become a staple in singing contests and videoke joints.

Aside from scoring big in recording, Freestyle members also got the chance to perform alongside their music idols (Gary Valenciano, Martin Nievera, Pops Fernandez, Zsa Zsa Padilla, Lani Misalucha, Ogie Alcasid), conquer big concert venues like the Big Dome and tour key cities in the globe for their concerts. Their first major concert at Araneta Coliseum in October 2000 was released as a live album, their third musical outing.

In April 2005, vocalist Top Suzara left Freestyle unceremoniously. He was subsequently replaced by Mike Luis and Joshua Desiderio. Fortunately, there wasn’t any downturn for the band with Top’s exit. Freestyle without Top hardly made a dent in the popularity of the group, although it had to explain in its gigs why Top could no longer perform with the band.

“We also had to inform producers that Top was no longer with the band,” explains Freestyle manager, Celeste Pacana of Artistation. “But not one gig was cancelled because Top left the group.”

In June 2006, the group released Freestyle Live @ 19 East, which was certified gold. Last February, the DVD containing 20 songs of the video recording of Freestyle Live @ 19 East was also launched. Last May, Freestyle embarked on a successful concert tour of the West Coast with Side A.

Last month, Freestyle came out with its latest album, Back at the Yard, the band’s 10th release and fifth studio album of original songs. Produced at the backyard studio of drummer Banzon, hence the title, the album contains 16 tracks, with 13 original tunes written by Luis, Rommel de la Cruz, Desiderio and Vidal.

Viva Records requested the group to include three covers — Maybe, Is It Over and I Will Still Love You. Carrier track is Dati, a creative collaboration of Jinky and Joshua. Other tracks are Tameme, Naglalambing, Muling Ibalik, Mapipigil Mo Ba?, Paper Rain, Wonder, Rainbow Coloured Sky, Bawat Tao, Wrapped Around Your Finger, Bakit Kaya?,  Sugar and Nananabik.

“This is our first album with our new members, Mike, Joshua and Rommel, although they’ve been with the band for more than two years now,” Jinky grants. “They previously recorded covers with us and also our live performances.”

Since the new members came in after Top left the group, the newcomers have blended well with the old-timers. In fact, even before Mike joined the group, he already wrote songs for Freestyle, like Mananatili sa ‘Yo, for the album, Once in a Lifetime.

“Of course, it took time for us to adjust but it wasn’t a major effort,” Gerd shares. “Artistically, we work well together now. When it comes to music, we really help out each other. The new members brought in different influences that’s why I can say our music has changed. Technically, the sound has also improved.”

Recording an album in the studio of one of the members proved to be an advantage for the group. “We have more freedom to do what we want,” Gerd maintains. “We were not pressured because of time or rent per hour, like in most recording studios. There was also no tension. Our recording sessions were relaxed.”

Recording is something the members enjoy and relish. Although they naturally hope for a hit record, that was not foremost in their minds when they make an album. “We don’t want to be pressured by the fact that the album has to be a hit,” offers Mike, a former member of German Moreno’s That’s Entertainment who penned eight of the 16 cuts in the new album. “We write songs from the heart and based on whatever experiences we have been through. If the public likes the song, then we’re happy and grateful.”

Keyboardist Nikki Cabardo adds, “What we do is fun, but it is not easy. It is hard work, too. But the most fulfilling is that we get to do what we love to do and we get to share our music with a lot of people.”

It helps a great deal that some of the members of the band are also gifted musicians and songwriters. “The new album carries a new theme and new style in songwriting,” Jinky notes. “Our music has a different substance and chord structures, which are mostly evident in Mike’s funky grooves. The secret of the music is behind the lyrics.”

However, the band laments the piracy scourge that continues to plague the recording and video industries. One week after Back at the Yard was released by Viva Records, pirated copies of the album selling for only P30 started to proliferate.

“The P13 we could have earned for every CD sold is easily lost because of piracy,” Tat sighs. “We’re just lucky that we have loyal supporters who continue to patronize our music. Coming out with an all-original album is always a challenge. It takes double the effort than doing revivals which people are familiar with. But when you create your original hits, that’s more fulfilling.”

Although Back at the Yard boasts a different sound, the album still carries Freestyle’s distinct musical flavor, according to Joshua. “The original cuts make the album different from the previous ones,” Joshua explains. “It’s more fulfilling for us if people patronize our originals than covers.”

On top of their regular gigs at Bagaberde Roxas Blvd on Dec. 7 and 19 East in Sucat, Parañaque, Dec. 5, 13 and 19, Freestyle will be busy with mall shows, provincial gigs, TV guestings and radio tours for the  album promo. The band will be at Robinsons Manila Activity Center tomorrow, Dec. 2.

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