March 1, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Diwa De Leon - Memories On Two Strings (2012)

Given his stature as one of the most respected musicians in the country, it’s amazing how acclaimed and classically trained multi-instrumentalist Diwa de Leon would rather make an effort promoting the indigenous, two-string guitar from South Cotabato known as the Hegalong and develop its rhythmic and tonal sound into something that could be mistaken as ideal fit for Western and contemporary music. It’s actually a risk on his part, a determined shot to reconnect with one’s ancestral roots while being naturally smug on what’s already been established this era of popular music. After all, Hegalong is what Sitar is to India, Saenghwang to Korea, Flamenco guitar to Spain and Shamisen to Japan, except for a fact that only a select few have considered embracing its consumerist appeal, limiting its importance as an archaeological artifact representative of the T’boli tribe culture.

In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer early this year, Diwa de Leon cited the main reason why he remained adamant in introducing the ethnic instrument to mainstream consciousness. “Ang gusto ko, pag sinabi mong Pilipinas, Hegalong ang unang papasok sa isip mo,” says the 31-year-old musician, expediting in what may still look like a long road to traverse, metaphorically speaking. Looking past the rough road, music greats Joey Ayala and Sammy Asuncion of Spy/Pinikpikan have also expressed their support in pushing the local instrument to every man’s platter, even to some extent, using it on live performances and album recordings. But Diwa de Leon is plain dogged in lobbying the cause, using the social networking platform to reach out to a broader audience. To attract the younger generation, he even made some covers of popular Anime soundtracks and had it uploaded on Youtube.

It must be the determination and love for the Minadanaoan guitar that drove him to such persistence, which eventually led to the release of a two-CD project called Memories On Two Strings, his love letter to the traditional instrument. Not surprising in an album filled with jams and mood-trotting ambient pieces, the Hegalong takes the center stage, revamped from its primitive, acoustic origins to a modern, electric-sounding musical tool that could be mistaken as an actual guitar. Diwa made it unusually captivating by cutting away from traditional song structure and experimenting with sampling technology, laptop music and raw, live instruments. Unsurprisingly, he also ups the ante here by crossing genres and leaping musical boundaries, shaping a meditative, sometimes celebratory collage of prog-rock instrumentals, chill-out and lounge music interludes, non-vocal jazz structures, and post-rock anthems, all of which conveying moods, themes, and spaces that explore the possibilities and impossibilities of music itself, with Hegalong playing an integral part.

In “Panorama” and “Rising Sun”, the Hegalong conveys a sense of solitude, subtly strummed as if it were an act of grieving. “Northern Lights” and “Orchids In Spring” give the ethnic instrument the sheer physics of emotional entanglement, like a kundiman finding its voice along the remaining trace. It’s unashamedly beautiful stuff short of 5 minutes, and it feels like an immersive journey that never stops and ends. Few musicians have this gift of transcendence, turning something restraint and singular, which could be alienating to some, to a scope that is phenomenally cathartic even without words. Diwa just embodies the description above, and matches the real emotional vibe with virtuosity in guitar-playing like no other.

That said, there are few actual songs in the album drenched in traditional, three-minute pop songcraft so as to provide a breather to the extendedly jammy, but thoroughly enjoyable wordless songs in the album. “Moonrise” is the closest we could get for what passes off as listenable to conventional music listeners, with Cookie Chua singing a love song that goes for deep emotional resonance other than just technique and lung power. “Fine Day” finds upcoming singer Zab Reyes expounding on the universal feeling like few can. Diwa provides some sort of Ryan Cayabyab-like classic pop arrangement to the track, mixing Hegalong’s warm sound with subtle piano melodies, strings, and electronic flourishes, one that actually builds into a sprawling inspirational number that even TVCs wouldn’t mind acquiring as music backdrop.

Despite tons of good things to say about Diwa de Leon’s latest opus, Memories On Two Strings, I still think that the album could’ve run a little work in terms of album packaging, and perhaps better track sequencing to make the listening experience smoother than before. But it’s a minor detail anyway. And as with any great double album, it’s easy to see how Memories On Two Strings placed itself atop everything else released in recent years with its artistic tactility fully bent on introducing the Hegalong instrument to a modern audience. That, more than the immortal sense of ambition in itself, is a laudable effort, and may start something bigger than the actual cause Diwa has been fighting for since day one.  B+ 

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