With additional reporting by Fhejay Mae Solemne,
Eloisa Jane Palermo and Raymond Enriquez
For an artist who first made a name for himself in the indie music scene, Noel Cabangon has found a lot of mainstream success.
With this trusty acoustic guitar, the 56-year old singer-songwriter from Rosario, La Union has indeed come a long way from the time he fell in love with music at a very young age to the time he taught himself how to play the guitar to the long and distinguished career that made him one of the most iconic figures and moving forces in Original Pilipino Music.
In a recent interview with SoundStrip for the Breather Moments segment of the BM Broader Look podcast, Cabangon recalled his early exposure to folk music in his hometown.
“Even before” I learned to play the guitar, I already liked to sing. My uncles, the brothers of my father, all knew how to play guitar and they would often ask me to sing while they would accompany me with their strumming. By the time I was 10, I learned how to play the guitar on my own and there are many singers not only in our town but also in Baguio City which is in close proximity to La Union,” he shared, speaking in mostly Filipino.
Cabangon’s musical awakening was further strengthened when he decided to learn a little more about classical music through an extension program at the University of the Philippines. Then he would vividly look forward to the brass bands that played and even competed during the annual town fiestas.
“I also had relatives who lived next door and every day they would play music in their quadrosonic stereo. There I heard all kinds of music, from Chicago to Stevie Wonder to the Doobie Brothers to the Spiral Starecase. I had an uncle who studied in Manila who brought the city culture to our province. And then I had another uncle who played a lot of OPM from Yoyoy Villame to Freddie Aguilar. All of these artists that I was exposed to reinforced my music knowledge.”
Cabangon was already in college and staying in Metro Manila when he started to perform professionally. “I was a reliever for the main performer in a folk house in Cubao near the old Fiesta Carnival and Rustan’s Superstore. Before that I was also a folk singer in Baguio while I was a student at St. Louis University. Then one day, the singer I was relieving was absent so I got the call and got my first paying gig where I earned P25 pesos.”
After that, he started making the rounds of folk houses in the metropolis. This was also around the same time when folk-rock artists that came first before him such as Florante, Freddie Aguilar, Heber Bartolome and even Joey Ayala were beginning to be known for their original compositions—something that is not lost on the then young Cabangon.
In 1987, Cabangon together with Rene Boncocan and Rom Dongeto formed the folk trio, Buklod. Known for the political theme of their music, Buklod was a hit with the then fledgling indie music crowd. That’s where Cabangon further honed his craft as a songwriter.
Interestingly, many of Buklod’s songs covered relevant subjects including agriculture, the environment and armed conflict. It’s no surprise that perhaps because of their timeless appeal, at least two of their songs namely “Tatsulok” and “Kanlungan” became big hits at a later time.
“When the group Bamboo later revived ‘Tatsulok’ in 2007, it became a big hit. Before that, McDonald’s decided to use ‘Kanlungan’ for their now popular TV commercial. The song was a fit for the story they were trying to tell in that commercial, about a family whose members are leaving one by one as they started to raise their own families. And then they were reunited at a McDonald’s restaurant after so many years,” Cabangon further shared.
Although it became a big hit rather belatedly “Kanlungan,” written by Dongeto is now considered a classic and widely regarded as Cabangon’s signature and most requested song during his live performances.
“That song opened many opportunities. For an artist who wants to push for certain advocacies, it’s always better to go mainstream because that’s how your message will be heard—when you have a bigger audience. And to be able to do that, you have to go to the mainstream,” Cabangon pointed out.
The success of both “Tatsulok” and “Kanlungan” took Cabangon to places he never thought he would ever go and not just in a literal sense. When he was signed by Universal Records, he found even bigger success in the Byahe album series that featured his own cover versions of classic and contemporary OPM hits like the Apo Hiking Society’s Pag-Ibig,” Bong Gabriel’s “Ang Aking Awitin,” Florante’s “Handog,” Up Dharma Down’s “Tadhana” and of course, Rey Valera’s “Kahit Maputi na ang Buhok Ko,” among many others.
Many of Cabangon’s Byahe covers also became staples of his live sets. But despite the popularity of the album series, the desire to release fresh, original material remained embedded in his consciousness. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Cabangon greeted 2020 with a brand new song, “Pipiliin Pang Maghintay.”
Describing the new song as a modern day kundiman that gives “all the feels,” Cabangon said the hugot-filled tune is partly inspired by legendary songwriters George Canseco and Willy Cruz.
“I actually wrote this in 2018 but I was able to release it only now. I guess we were just looking for the right time to release. I know it’s a bit of a departure from my identity as a folk singer and storyteller and maybe not as socially relevant. But as an artist, I understand that people have different emotions and perspectives so I try to write about everything that reflect that,” he concluded.
Noel Cabangon’s “Pipiliin Pang Maghintay” is now available for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, and Amazon Music under Universal Records.