When I was six, I moved to America from a tiny town in Mindanao called Sapangdalaga. My memories before the move are spotty, but most of them involve free-wheeling days with my big sister, Faye. We would wander through the streets and spend hours in the jungle gym by ourselves. We had little parental supervision for a number of reasons: my Dad was still in school, my grandparents were busy running a church in Dipolog City, our yaya was too old to keep up, and my Mom had taken a job as a nurse in New York when I was only 1 ½ years old.
One day, Mom’s application to bring us to the States was approved, and I found myself giddy on an airplane flying halfway around the world with my sister and grandparents. To this day, I can still conjure up this specific sensation – overwhelming joy, tempered by a tinge of regret – probably because we had to leave our toys behind while we went on this “vacation.” Little did I know, “vacation” was code for “the rest of your life.” Pretty soon, those abandoned toys were the least of my problems.
Being in America was a mixed bag. While nobody told us what to expect in the States, I got the sense that we had won some sort of lottery; that getting to go to New York was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege that I couldn’t take for granted. But once I was there, I realized how limited my grasp of English was. I found myself constantly getting in trouble in school. Once, a kid accused me of cheating because I was (not so subtly) looking over at his paper, trying to figure out what was going on. I didn’t have the guts to hand my mom the note explaining what happened, so I threw it out and never told her. Another time, I’ll never forget cringing at my first meal at the St. Francis de Sales School cafeteria – it was thin white bread slathered with gooey purple jelly and peanut butter. I hesitated before eating it because it didn’t come with rice.
But, the daily confusion was evened out by small wonders. I got to see my Mom, at least when she wasn’t working the night shift at Mt. Sinai Hospital or catching up on sleep. One time, I was so happy to see Mom that I made her breakfast – a bowl of cereal with milk mixed with Tang (how she managed to escape this meal, I will never know). Then, there was the magic of snow. Ate Faye and I would stare in awe at the untouched particles falling from the sky, pressing palms to the frozen windowpane while eating popsicles in our overheated studio apartment. Down the block, we’d tumble around in a playground in Central Park, squeezing in every minute of playtime until our lips turned blue. Then, there was music.
It was shortly after moving to New York that I started learning the piano. These lessons would go on for the next seven years, even after we moved to a house in New Jersey. While I had a knack for it, I was disinterested in the formality required to play classical music. My grandfather, who couldn’t read music, had a way of playing any tune completely by ear, switching fingers nimbly to accompany songs like “Bahay Kubo,” “Usahay,” or Frank Sinatra’s “Without a Song.” I was riveted. I found myself sitting at the keys, practicing which notes sounded good together, and assembling chord progressions that sounded pleasant.
I was unknowingly writing my earliest songs. Grandpa gave me a chord book and my first acoustic guitar – a $75 Samick with horrible action that was painful to play. I spent hours in my bedroom working out as many chords as I could and putting words to progressions, writing about school crushes and heartbreaks.
It was music that taught me how to live in this place where I wasn’t born. Doing something that not everybody could do made me feel like it was OK to be different. When I started performing, I learned how to battle my shyness. I forced myself to reach out to others to get over insecurity and self-consciousness in order to book gigs. I eventually went to college in downtown New York and got my start playing night clubs in the West Village. Many Filipino-Americans who I met in my youth were musically inclined, and this went a long way in helping my assimilation process. In college, the Filipino club did yearly cultural nights, and this helped me get in touch with my roots while writing songs for the show. In my home church, most members were immigrants from the Visayas or Mindanao, including two of my best friends who I would often sing with, splitting pop and religious songs into four-part acapella harmony.
These days, I’m thinking a lot about what kinds of songs I’ll write next. I find myself drawn to my history, particularly the early years in the Philippines and New York. They say time brings clarity, and I find that I can look back with more understanding and interest in the road I’ve traveled so far. I’ve found myself writing songs in my dialect (Bisaya), and taking an interest in the folk songs of my youth; songs like “Matud Nila,” and “Si Pilemon.” While I spent so many years as a kid trying to fit in, I now find myself treasuring the unique experiences I’ve had, and I don’t doubt that this newfound appreciation will be the road map for the new music I create.
You can find Alfa on YouTube (www.youtube.com/alfamusic), Spotify (https://spoti.fi/2QX9VVFO), Facebook (www.facebook.com/alfamusic) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/alfa_music).
Away/from Home gives Filipinos overseas a space for them to share their stories about building a new life in a new country. Read about their experiences, good or bad, and remember that even if we’re in different parts of the world, the Philippines will always be our home.