In the heart of the colonial Intramuros district of Manila, there is a six-and-a-half-story building with a broken elevator that houses a firm you've never heard of called JS Contractor Inc. For more than 25 years the company has recruited and supplied Filipino shipbuilders, nurses and hotel employees, as well as construction, manufacturing and tech workers, to more than 200 companies around the globe. It is less well known for its role in supplying the world with Filipino musical talent.
Jackson Gan is director of marketing for JS Contractor. He is also head of the firm's music division.
Throughout the 60 or so percent of the globe that spans from, say, Riyadh to Thai Town in Los Angeles, Filipino house bands are an inescapable fact of life. From backwater regional subhubs to metropolises like Shanghai, Delhi and Tokyo, odds are that a visit to any self-respecting hotel, convention center, bar or restaurant aspiring to be ''classy'' will include live music. Even more likely is that the musicians will not come from any other country except the Philippines. Gan, offhandedly, puts the number of Filipino musicians working overseas at 120,000. A few admittedly unscientific calculations -- assuming an average of 4 members per band, 3 sets per night, 6 nights per week, 52 weeks per year -- justify the following estimate: this Filipino diaspora is responsible for satisfying an appetite for some 388 million songs a year. It is to assuage this hunger that Jackson Gan founded First Class Professionals.
''Five years ago, when I first go into business,'' Gan said, leaning across his desk, exhaling a hit of his Parliament Light and tapping my hand for emphasis -- ''I never want to be second string. I only want to be No. 1.''
Many of the bands in the roster of First Class Professionals reflect a similar striving for excellence. As Gan proudly pointed to a large wall covered with glossies of First Class's entertainers, I took in the band names: Celestial, Shades N Shadows, Center Stage and Fourplay, followed by Perfect Match, Perfect Jam, Perfect Blend, Perfect Fire and Perfect Storm. When I asked about the frequent recurrence of the word ''perfect,'' Gan, who is usually the one to name his bands, mused: ''Why is 'perfect' such a good word? I thought it was a lucky name. I don't want to break the charm.'' Again, the hand tap, this time with a sly smile. ''I invent the image that any band that is perfect has to belong to me.''
Gan has a kind of casual preppy look -- polo shirt, khakis and loafers -- and the utterly exhausted, ashen mien of an ethnic Chinese workaholic, which is, in fact, what he is. He is 51, married, stands 5-foot-6, has a degree in philosophy and three kids. He is extremely earnest, and yet as he simultaneously takes calls, sends and receives text messages concerning his 40 or so bands and deals with his 30 employees, he wears a look of almost constant bemusement, as if aware that his notion of perfection might seem a little funny to an American reader.
While there are certainly Filipino musicians who play their own music for Filipino audiences (Freddie Aguilar comes to mind, and you mustn't forget last year's runaway hit, ''Spageti Song,'' by the SexBomb Girls), the vast majority of Filipino bands, both within the Philippines and worldwide, tend not to play original music but songs written by other artists. Critics discussing cover bands accordingly use different criteria from those they do with bands playing ''original music.'' One Filipino combo is lauded for ''playing Zeppelin and Stones tunes with precision''; another, for its ''tight versions of John Cougar and the Police.''
''Filipinos are very talented musicians,'' Gan insisted, this time tapping not just my hand but his chest and the table between us. ''Jasmine Trias, who was a finalist in 'American Idol' last year? She was a Filipina from Hawaii. Anthony Castelo, who sang at George W. Bush's inaugural just last January? Filipino.'' But the main talent of Filipino musicians is not originality. Filipino musicians, Gan explained, ''have something called the wido. It means 'the ear.' By listening to a song once on the radio, they can play it. They can copy anything. This is their real talent. It's inborn.''
For most Asian and Middle Eastern audiences, Gan went on to say, music per se is not the focus of the evening. It is an amenity. ''They don't care about the music. They care about the faces of the beautiful girls that get them excited all night. They don't want to listen to Aretha Franklin. They want to watch girls dance like Britney.''
So, for Gan, the definition of perfection is more a matter of logistics than aesthetics. Do the musicians show up on time? Do they get their costumes dirty? Will they get too homesick to endure a 3- to 12-month overseas contract? Will they avoid becoming pregnant or getting drunk? Do they have a wide ''résumé,'' or repertory -- are they capable of handling any request? As for talent, Gan admitted with a shrug: ''If I told you, 'Oh, I make the best bands,' that would be untrue. If I make one or two good bands, that's terrific.''
Gan works as both a talent agent and a manager. It is Gan's role as manager that sets him apart from his competitors. Agents! Gan scoffs. Agents merely book bands, take the commission and walk away. What he does, Gan said, is a form of industrial creativity: ''It's more like in the manufacturing. It's a totally different ballgame. We groom the talent. We polish it. We package it. We are responsible from Day 1, from raw material to finished product.'' All, of course, for a 15 percent cut.
The phenomenon of traveling Filipino musicians was born during the American occupation, which began at the end of the 19th century and lasted until 1946. Filipino musicians easily picked up American songs, traveling to cities throughout Asia and even to New York. During the Vietnam War, tens of thousands of American servicemen passed through the country wanting live entertainment. Filipinos, already fluent in English, were happy to oblige. By war's end, the country was rich with musicians versed in the latest Western pop.
Gan finds musicians from the impoverished provinces in the Philippines, the islands and areas outside Manila, brings them to the capital, gives them decent instruments and trains them to sing, dance, perform and behave like professionals. He then has costumes designed for them, finds them the right job in the right country and oversees the contract details. These details include, but are not limited to, such matters as whether or not band members will bunk together or separately, in a house, an apartment or a hotel. Gan has to know if this dwelling will be air-conditioned, how many square feet it will be, whether or not it will include a laundry machine, whether or not laundry soap will be provided and whether the client wants ''Arabian Nights'' costumes or something maybe a little more cowboy-themed.
One of Gan's duties -- part of the ''manufacturing'' process -- is breaking bands apart and combining the players into new configurations. When musicians come to him, they are without form. ''They don't know what kind of character they are,'' he said. ''I give them a character.''
Post-Gan, they sally forth into the world in new shapes and sizes just as others have before them -- like the duo I once saw at the breakfast buffet at the Royal Princess in Narathiwat, Thailand. The musicians will play at a Doha convention center in a 14-piece Vegas-style ''show band.'' A good number will do covers -- oldies or Beatles or Elvis or Beyoncé -- in four- and five-piece combos at nightclubs in Delhi, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo and Taiwan. Finally, some -- studio musicians, who read music -- will be sent to join 20- and even 30-piece orchestras on cruise liners, backing the singers who are occasionally choppered in for special performances.
Gan's success depends on knowing his clients' taste. In Thailand, the most requested song is ''Hotel California.'' Taiwan is lately cuckoo for the macarena. The Chinese, he said, ''have not gone to the state of loud music. They are still at the state of like the early rock 'n' roll music, 60's music, Petula Clark, Burt Bacharach, evergreens, you know? 'Born Free,' 'Yesterday,' 'Unchained Melody,' 'I Can't Stop Loving You.''' The most commonly requested song in both China and Japan is Sinatra's ''My Way.'' And yet in the Philippines, Gan said, unless you're at an oldies club, audiences only want the current Top 40. ''If you request 'My Way,' you get shot. I'm not kidding. That actually happened.''
Gan spends a lot of time shuttling between the first floor of JS Contractor, where there is a recording studio (here musicians can practice and make demo videos), and the fifth and sixth floors, where there are cubicles for the people who work for him. He began my tour of First Class Professionals by running ahead of me up the stairs, which he must do 10 times a day. We poked our heads into the dormitory on the sixth floor, which Gan calls ''the barracks''; this is where students from the provinces stay while learning to dance, sing and behave themselves according to First Class standards. A few pretty girls were lounging around. They brightened at the sight of Gan. ''Hi, sir, how are you?'' one asked. Gan nodded, distractedly, never ceasing to talk, smoke and gesticulate. Pointing to two groups of girls, he said: ''They are leaving for China. They are leaving for India. They are just practicing, choreographing.'' The girl who had said hi nodded. Gan explained: ''All those people are leaving before one week, two week. We put them together, gel together.''
The next stop was the dance facility. We opened the door and were besieged by the thump, thump, thump of Cher's ''Believe.'' Gan disappeared. The choreographer, Prince, looked a little like, well, Prince. He was very slim and studied, with a Siegfried & Roy/like Vandyke and a heavily gelled coif. He was coaching Harriet, Sheila and Girlie, the three singers in a group named Wildfire.
''Jump!'' he commanded. The girls jumped back in a line.
They practiced the ''trip walk,'' a kind of J. Lo-esque turning or pointing of the foot. The commands came in a rush, ''Fame''-style.
''One, two, three, one, two, MOVE! Line! One, two!''
The three women placed their palms on their hips and threw their faces dramatically to the side. Pelvises thrust in unison.
They shook. They karate-kicked. They clapped their hands. And pivoted.
The recorded music segued into Rod Stewart's ''Hot Legs,'' but Prince switched it off and sighed, dissatisfied. Wildfire was off to Japan in three weeks. They weren't ready. Ideally, he said, a band should be well versed in R&B, retro, techno, modern jazz, ballet, folk dance, fandango, cariñosa, ballroom, paso doble, cha-cha, samba, rumba, tango, fox trot and the quickstep. As it was, Prince complained, Harriet, Sheila and Girlie were having a hard time understanding the very heart of dance -- the art of interpreting songs with their bodies, of making each step mean something.
Take the song ''Get Down.'' When the chorus comes up, he explained, ''you have to get down.'' He jumped up, sang the song and on the words ''get down,'' dropped onto his chest. He looked at me. Was that so hard? He glared at the girls, very nearly rolling his eyes. ''I have my maximum patience.''
Gan returned to bring me to the training room, where I was introduced to Geronimo (Jing) Asturias and Willy Francisco. These two were responsible for buying equipment from secondhand stores in Taiwan and Japan, maintaining and teaching the musicians how to use it, working with singers to help them find their voices -- and increase their ''resumes''- video-taping bands to show to prospective clients and, last but not least, writing the song arrangements so every musician knows exactly what to play and when.
I asked them what the hardest part of their job was, and they both said working with musicians who didn't have the discipline. There just wasn't much you could do with someone like that. Fellow musicians were always too polite to tell one of their number that they stank. The decision always fell to Jing and Willy. Luckily, however, when it came time to take a musician aside and hand them a one-way ticket back to Mindanao, they could call Gan in to play the heavy.
Gan nodded wearily and lighted another Parliament Light. ''You know, it's like saying something very bad to your own daughter -- or your own son,'' he said. ''You are always the mother, always loving even the ugliest son in the world. But you can't have it all the time saying the pretty words, all the nice words to them. You have to be blunt, so they will improve. I am always the bad guy, always kicking them out.''
Fights have broken out upon reception of the news. Gan said: ''They will hit -- not me, because I am the one financing -- but they even with their own sister, they hit the guitar with their own sister. Yeah, they even tried to jump off the building. Because it's just the end of the world. I will tell them, No, this is not the end of the world. But people become suicidal sometimes.''
Gan excused himself and left me with Jing and Willy, who were working with a band called Pick & Jam, a group that recently came back from an 18-week gig in a Yokohama nightclub.
The goal was to break in two new singers and work up a Supremes medley. Achieving competency and group cohesion was imperative because the next day a representative was due to arrive from Magsaysay Maritime Corporation, the largest shipping and manpower company in the Philippines. The representative would be booking three bands for a nearly yearlong stint on a Princess cruise liner.
As popular as they might be in Manila, musicians working in the city are lucky to make $10 a day. On Calle Cinco, the main drag in the entertainment-oriented Malate district, clubs pay musicians only $5 a night each. Most foreign music jobs bring in anywhere from $600 to $1,500 a month. According to the World Bank, 43 percent of the population of the Philippines lives on $2 a day. Getting an overseas job is an enormous stroke of good fortune for almost any Filipino band.
But the most highly prized gig of all is to get booked on a cruise ship. The Princess cruise ship job would pay $1,800 a month, plus room and board. Not only that, but the contract was for 10 whole months.
Jon Jon Cu and Michelle Baldoza, Pick & Jam's founders, told me how eager they were to get the Princess job. They had both played overseas and were currently staving off job offers in three different places: in Japan, at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi and at a casino in Macao. After several trips to Japan, Pick & Jam viewed returning as an unadventurous prospect. As Michelle said: ''In Japan, it's the same audience every night. Oh, I know you! Oh, I know you, too!'' A cruise ship, she said, seemed ''more interesting and glamorous.''
The medley opened with Diana Ross's ''Ain't No Mountain High Enough,'' morphed into ''Where Did Our Love Go'' and razzmatazzed into ''Stop! In the Name of Love.'' Suddenly, out of nowhere, came the Beatles' ''Can't Buy Me Love.'' And after a false homestretch return to ''Ain't No Mountain High Enough,'' it concluded with another round of ''Where Did Our Love Go.'' By the time Willy had videotaped them five times, it was a tour de force of competence.
Afterward, I asked Michelle and Jon Jon what they thought about their chances of getting the job. Jon Jon answered, ''With Mr. Gan behind us, our guardian angel?'' It was a done deal. What happened if they didn't get it? I asked. A small dark cloud entered the room.
Jon Jon: ''Disappointed. Better luck next time.''
Michelle: ''Cry for the whole day and night.''
Jon Jon: ''Drink one case of beer.''
Michelle: ''Not eating.''
They sat for a moment, looking pensive.
Jon Jon looked at the ground and said, as if it were a vow, ''Practice.''
The next day, Gan brought me to the recording-studio-cum-jam-room. Surrounding it was a throng of at least two dozen musicians, jostling for position at a plate-glass window to watch the bands try out for the cruise-ship job. The room was about 20 feet by 25 feet with a 6-inch riser with drums, keyboards, guitars, basses, amps, mike and the words FIRST CLASS emblazoned in an arc of sparkly colored letters above the stage. The musicians were, almost to a one, genial and comely, some wearing matching costumes and others sporting pop signifiers du jour -- baseball caps worn backward, cornrowed hair, bikers' chains, flared pants, high heels, high tops and, of course, tattoos.
The Magsaysay Maritime Corporation representative arrived. His name was Elzevir Esquivel, but he introduced himself as Elver. Elver was very tall by local standards, standing about 5-foot-10, with very long, pretty hair and a regal but flirty demeanor. He wore an aquamarine shirt tucked into pinstripe banker's pants. Regarding the latter, he said, ''I think they make me look slimmer.''
Elver is a classically trained musician. He's a tenor, with a B.A. in music, and, he told me that, after beating out 700 competitors, he at one time starred for two years in the Stuttgart production of ''Miss Saigon.''
When I asked Elver to describe what made the ideal cruise ship band, he said: ''I don't really want to look only at beautiful people. I want heart and talent. I want to be entertained. I want a variety show.'' By this he meant he wanted a large and varied repertory. Most important, however, was reliability. ''If you're doing the job seven times a week,'' he continued, ''you have to have that aura, that zest to perform. When I did 'Miss Saigon,' I did it for two years.'' He mentioned something about playing night after night for the geriatric set and lowered his voice, remembering his two long years in Stuttgart: ''It's really different when you have a headache or a cold.''
The first band was surprisingly old -- five guys in their 40's, maybe even 50's. They played 50's and 60's tunes with a chintzy-funky sort of Santana vibe, wearing Panama hats, black bell-bottomed slacks and shiny metallic shirts. The band leader bore a stunning resemblance to Muammar el-Qaddafi. After they finished, Elver wrinkled his nose. ''The thing is,'' he said, ''It's going to be hard because they have to pass a physical and medical exam. So it's hard to book them.''
After them came Biraka, a very young, spunky and adorable group with a hip-hop style. The lead singer wore his visor off to the side, gangsta-style, and lots of bikers' chains. The bass player sported hair down to midback. Another guy had his hair woven into cornrows. Elver didn't seem too impressed. When Visor broke into James Brown's ''I Got You (I Feel Good),'' it was hard to . . . feel good, to suppress the inner voice that wanted to cry out, ''Dude, you're so not James Brown!''
As the morning progressed, Elver parsed good-natured renditions of ''I Will Survive,'' ''Funkytown,'' ''Johnny B. Goode,'' ''Blue Suede Shoes'' and an eternity of ballads by Celine Dion and the dozen others in her constellation. Finally, it was Pick & Jam's turn to play. Michelle and the two new girls were decked out in fuchsia halter tops and black nylon slacks, fashionably belled below the knee. They had been pushed by Gan as favorites. (As Gan said: ''You have to play favorites. Everyone does.'') Still, Michelle and Jon Jon were nervous. With two new girls, anything could happen. They played their medley. Elver nodded his head. He liked.
Afterward, he chatted with the girls, alternating between Tagalog and English -- what Filipinos call Taglish. When Michelle defensively tried to inform him that they had only had two days to prepare their new backup singers, Elver laughed, flipped his hand and said: ''You know this song a little. Just do it!'' He invited them back to the next formal tryout, a week later, but only after admonishing them to wear more makeup and relax: ''If you look petrified, you are informing the audience that you're new. Wear what you're wearing because you look decent. Your shoes are decent. But relax! You have to enjoy it, you know, you have to enjoy yourselves more. You have to smile! Look, from a scale of 1 to 10, at least you should be 7 or 8.''
Two days later, Gan took me to the rooftop, half a floor above his office. It looked festive, decorated with potted banana and bamboo trees, bougainvillea and a makeshift stage. ''It's the simulation of a bar,'' Gan said. ''This is a place where we hold a party every Friday night. For all the staff. For all the visitors around.'' He said Elver would be swinging by for another look-see. Nothing formal.
The party fired up around 8 o'clock. The crowd consisted of about 50 musicians and music professionals sitting at six or so tables, hopping from one table to the next, schmoozing and taking their turns on the stage -- a jam session with beer, barbecue and sundry fried treats.
I asked Gan about the band then onstage, singing Sade's ''Smooth Operator,'' and he paused before replying: ''They don't have a name. One just came back from Dubai. The other is from Japan. The keyboardist just came off a cruise liner.''
As I watched them, Cruise Liner took the mike in her hand and flounced up to a male friend in the audience for some vampy flirting. Unknown to her, the mike had lost power. She continued shimmying in front of the guy, shouting out lyrics no one could hear with a sexy, knowing look for a full minute before discovering the technical mishap. If this had happened in the States, the singer would have been mortified. Here, it really seemed like no big deal. I couldn't help wondering, What was wrong with these people? They were just working, putting in their time. Where was the intensity?
I thought of something Michelle, from Pick & Jam, said when I asked her if she had ever written original music. ''In high school,'' she said, ''I used to write my own melody and my own lyrics, but I didn't pursue. I'd get a good line or two and then nothing.'' She paused. ''There was a time, a broken-hearted time, when I wrote a whole song and a melody.'' What happened, I asked? ''I ripped it up.'' She said that revisiting that ''down time, it's too hard. I don't want to memorize my heartaches. Much better to forget.''
A woman next to me introduced herself as Charme, the former singer for Perfect Storm. Charme was unusual-looking for a Filipino. She was far more, well, zaftig, than most, and the most Caucasian-looking Filipino I've ever met; to me, she looked infinitely more like a native of Perth Amboy than Cebu. Charme had worked in Dubai, Singapore, Malaysia, Bahrain and Qatar. Her favorite was Qatar. Why? I asked. She rubbed her fingers together: ''The tips!''
Charme was scheduled to leave soon for a yearlong gig in Goa, India, with a show band named Celestial. She was thrilled with the work and the money, of course, but, she confided to me, ''it's very hard for me to have a love life.'' Flirting, she demanded that I request a song from her. ''What do you want to hear? I can sing anything. Anything!'' I asked her if she knew anything by Billie Holiday. She blanched. ''I don't know who that is.''
Elver breezed in, again looking somehow like royalty, wearing a sort of floral country-and-western shirt, tightly tucked into black pants with a black belt. He sat down to enjoy some barbecue treats, but after a moment, a movement was under way to get him on stage. It didn't take much. Flipping his silky hair behind his head, diva-style, Elver belted out an amazing version of Diana Ross and Lionel Richie's ''Endless Love.'' His singing was miles beyond anyone else's.
The crowd broke into several spontaneous rounds of applause. The audience sang along. When the song was over, they shouted: ''Isa pa! Isa pa!'' Encore! Encore! He obliged. People rose to dance.
Charme tried to drag Gan onto the dance floor. Everyone whooped as he tried to resist. It was both cute and excruciating. She may have weighed as much as he did, and as he struggled, I could see his wry, self-effacing, workaholic persona descend into panic. He laughed nervously, trying to fight her off. But no one resisted Charme. She dragged him onto the floor and forced him to bob around. After about 15 stricken seconds, Gan bolted for a chair, and the room again erupted with another spontaneous round of applause.
And then Charme took the stage.
As Gan had told me, Charme is a ''comic singer.'' She is a throaty, bombastic, dramatic, funny, unpredictable performer. This information hadn't sunk in as much as it could have until Charme commenced to serenade me. To me and no one else did Charme devote Journey's ''Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)'' and Robert Palmer's ''Addicted to Love'' while gyrating and blowing me kisses. Everyone was laughing; I wanted to die.
She begged me to come up onstage and dance with her. I felt like Gan. I hate dancing in front of people. I hate dancing onstage even more. Like Gan, I lasted about 15 seconds.
It shouldn't have been able to get worse, but it did when Charme launched into ''Sweet Child O' Mine,'' by Guns N' Roses. It turned out to be the 20-minute version. She sang:
Her hair reminds me
of a warm safe place
Where as a child I'd hide
And pray for the thunder
And the rain
To quietly pass me by.
Somehow, dancing like a stripper at this point, Charme managed to make it sound like a pornographic come-on. I looked at Gan. Couldn't he make it stop? He laughed and exhaled smoke. I think he was just glad she wasn't singing it to him. I decided I couldn't tell whether he dyes his hair or not.
Charme finished and sat next to Gan and me. Her fervor had seemingly passed. In fact, she had only been kidding, having fun, seeing what I was made of. Without another thought, she began talking about how great Mr. Jackson Gan was. She pointed to another singer, a friend. ''See that girl?'' Charme said. ''She has her own house, her own property.'' Charme pointed to another girl and another; they had also bought houses, started businesses and were raising families. ''Me,'' Charme said. ''I help my family; I help my sister go to school; I pay for my daughter.'' She indicated the whole crowd. ''Everybody has something now. He helps everybody have something. A lot of them, before, they are nothing. Everybody has a good life because of him.''