Check out the beautiful art and colorful performances at Malasimbo 2017!

MALASIMBO 2017. The annual music and arts festival is worth the journey, writes concert photographer Stephen Lavoie. All photos by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

They say in life, it’s the journey, not the destination. Well, if you attended the 7th annual Malasimbo Music and Arts festival this year, it was a little bit of both.

Set in an isolated location, nestled on the side of the mountain that it’s named after, this venue requires travel and logistical planning to attend. Located in Puerto Galera, I began with a taxi to a bus, which transported me to the Manila to Batangas port. From there, I took an oversized outrigger style boat, then transferred to a jeepney ride along a winding mountain road. Finally, it took a short walk down a hill to arrive at the venue – far from a jot from point A to point B within the familiar avenues of Metro Manila.

Part of the appeal of this festival was the stunning scenery along the way and bumping into other festivalgoers who were also trekking to this one-of-a-kind music event.

Upon arrival, you’ll see what is arguably be the most picturesque outdoor amphitheatre you’ll ever encounter. As I stood near the entrance, gaining my bearings as guests arrived, people passed by me and I found their reactions insightful. You could tell the difference between the folks who have been here before and first timers like myself. The newbies’ faces lit up as their eyes opened wide with a look of astonishment and awe. On the other hand, fans who had previously taken the trek had a bit of pep in their step, an ear-to-ear smile, and a look of having arrived home again.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Malasimbo is, perhaps, how a music and arts festival was intended to be, more of a grassroots vibe. It’s void of all the in-your-face blaring advertising and without banners plastering every nook and cranny, which is refreshing to experience in today’s commercialized world. Instead, there were lighted palm trees glowing purple, blue, or green, a naturally terraced seating arrangement, and tree branches spelling out the event name itself, (they must have looked high and low for the S-shape branch).

There were plenty of art exhibits to absorb and interpret, and many designed to dance in harmony with the mountain winds. Numerous sculptures could be found on the expansive venue grounds. Typically at these festival events, your line of vision is bombarded with some type of logo, rather than lighted dandelions constructed of plastic bottles (an Olivia d’Aboville signature piece) or inflatables of interesting shapes and sizes, dangling from trees or placed strategically throughout the grounds.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

To start the day off, you could catch a brief presentation about programs that reintroduced folks to the Mangyan culture, preservation assistance, or a program that provides solar-powered lighting to isolated parts of the country. Once the sun had set, fire-dancers could be seen periodically at various points around the stage along with performers with lighted hoops.

There was a small second stage that featured a silent disco, where you could choose one of three DJs, all performing simultaneously. It was neat to see a mixture of people dancing to various beats, donning headsets which light up in various colors to signify which DJ they were listening to. It was a popular attraction, and there was often a line to enter the bamboo fenced area with a classic mirror ball hanging from the trees.

It was a pleasure to just roam around and take in the ambience.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

The stage itself is situated in a natural depression in the perfect spot and looks to be custom designed by mother nature herself, surrounded by a rise on all 3 sides, with angles to form an ideal outdoor amphitheater.

What also impressed me was the quality of the sound system itself, which was a combination of high quality speakers and the natural environment. It was, perhaps, one of the best I’ve ever heard at any outdoor event.

The lighting was adequate, nothing over-the-top, a setup you’d expect in such a remote location. The 3-day event followed a similar schedule each day, starting in the late afternoon with various local acts warming up the crowd with electronic jams, followed by popular bands from Manila. There were many recognizable faces like Ely Bundia, Foxy Roxy, or Kat Agarrado.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Then towards the latter part of the night, a foreign act would top it all off. Then, to keep the ball rolling after the headliner, EDM artists would keep the crowd entertained to the wee hours of the morning.

If there were any areas in need of improvement here, it would be the logistics of getting a jeepney from the hotels to the venue itself.

There were no mainstream pop acts found here, with a range of bands performing a variety of genres from jazz to hip hop, to soul, to reggae. The second night had the largest crowd, which was expected, I suppose, as many folks were not able to make it in time after work on Friday or had to head back on Sunday. Here’s a quick review of the bands I caught at this one.

Day 1

Curtismith, a local hip hop artist was pretty slick, as he sat on a chair center stage with more of a laid back demeanor in his bare feet with a style of vocals and punctuating lyrics you’d expect from this genre. His thoughtful words, perhaps closer to poetry, kept the spectators at an attentive level.

Cosmic Skeptic performed in an acid jazz fashion, with smooth vocals and impressive instrumentation had the fans ears perking up.

Apartel was up next, with local legend Ely Bundia leading this relatively new band. There was a slight delay on getting them up and running, but the crowd waited patiently. They had an impressively tight sound from a band with basically two lead vocalists, along with a bass, drums, percussionist, three-piece horn section, two backup singers and two guitars and a keyboardist. It was obvious they’ve been practicing, they made it look easy. They had more of an R&B soul vibe and had the entire venue enthralled, with many up on their feet, grooving to the music.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Alfredo Rodriguez Trio are an instrumental group led by an artist mentored by none other than Quincy Jones. Alfredo is a jazz pianist who will knock your socks off with his breathtaking techniques. This trio hail from Cuba, with Munir Hossn on bass and Michael Olivera on drums. This jazz ensemble were performing pieces at a skill level that most artists wouldn’t achieve with multiple lifetimes of practice. They played with an intensity that forced the crowd to take notice, it something to behold, really. I had the chance to briefly meet them after the show, and they were humble and open-minded.

I also noticed that Munir would tune his bass by ear every so often. Now, that’s not unusual in itself, many experienced musicians tune their guitars by ear, but this guy would be tuning during the song. When I asked him about it after the performance, he mentioned it was a borrowed bass guitar and that he just has to fix it when it’s a bit off. He joked that by the last song, it was tuned perfectly.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Day 2

Singindia provided an interesting variation of what you normally wouldn’t catch at a festival. They played World Music from India. And it’s not often you get to see a sitar on stage, but they did a fine job entertaining the participants.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Brass Pas Pas Pas Pas is a 10-piece band composed mainly of a horn section that creates a huge wall of sound. They lit the place up, making a surprise entrance from house left, you could hear the sound from afar with no need for any electronic boost. As they made their way through the crowd, they played something akin what you expect from a Mardi Gras parade, in the style of jazz, swing, or blues, more of a funky modern groove type music. With Roxy Modesto on baritone sax and special guest vocalist Kat Agarrado, excitement was in the air and the spectators ate it up.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Jeck Pilpil and Peacepipe are a Filipino reggae band composed of 8 members with Jeck on vocals and guitar, accompaned by Ryan Santos on trombone, Raegan Jackson on trumpet, Mark Real on guitar, Pex Holigores on bass, Jaydee Abugan on drums, Bong Abantao on percussion, and Tok Paler on keys. Like skilled craftsmen, these guys carved out an explanatory performance.

It was, perhaps, the pinnacle of the energy level of the whole 3-day event. The crowd really responded to this set, maybe it had something to do with the primal reggae beat, which simply resonated throughout the entire outdoor space, or Jeck’s masterful interaction with the fans and a stage presence like no other.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Jordon Rakei has played this festival before – it wasn’t his first rodeo and it showed. This London-based artist has quickly became one of the most respected in his field since his last performance here, and is now one of the highly sought-after musicians in the R&B soul/jazz genre. I mention such broad styles because that’s what you get from the forerunners of today’s new soul music movement. The specific genre is difficult to pinpoint, but it sounds fantastic and no one was left disappointed.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Day 3

Skarm is a hip-hop artist with a similar performance style and sound to Curtismith from day one. Curtismith also joined him onstage along with the MC of the event for a track, and it was exciting to see the interaction between the three of them.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

RH Xanders hit the stage next with his own style of music that matched perfectly with the overall style of the festival. A young singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Makati, Philippines, he confidently performed as someone beyond his years. He’s one of those artists who you can tell, almost immediately, that he has that special something. He lured the crowd in with his mesmerizing experimental/hip-hop/jazzy/soul/electronic music. His set also had a welcome twist with a guest vocalist, alluring soul singer August Wahh of Chocolate Grass.

June Marieezy is a singer-songwriter from Dallas, Texas with a Filipino heritage, and is now residing in Manila. Again, as with many of the other artists here, she’s experimenting with different genres, from R&B, to soul, to alternative rock, jazz, and hip-hop. She had an immediate impact on the crowd and had an unusual lighting scheme: dark and moody, with various visual effects projected on her body as she moved gracefully about the stage. There was an easy flow to her movements and her voice followed suit with a distinct soulful sound – delightful to watch and listen to. Keep an eye out for this one, we should be hearing more impressive material from her soon.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Tennyson are a brother sister duo composed of Luke and Tess Pretty, who hail from Edmonton, Canada. I’m always intrigued by siblings performing and was not disappointed here, as there was an almost unspoken bond between them as they progressed throughout the show.

They may be described as electronic jazz with the youthful exuberance you’d expect to see in a pop punk band. Tess on drums and percussion played with abandon, often with sticks held high and hair flying. Luke was on keyboards and handled much of the vocal duties.

Normally, I dread photographing a keyboard player, because usually don’t do much. But Luke moved almost constantly as he performed with abundant energy. It was infectious, and the movement had feeling to it, as if it was part of him, exuding from him as played with passion.

It was amazing to experience their set and the full sound coming from just two people was impressive indeed. They even played a couple of encore tracks, although it took them a few minutes to get the unplanned extension up and running, joking that they didn’t have any other songs to perform, so they would take a few minutes to write one.

Photo by Stephen Lavoie/Rappler

Now, it’s readily apparent why you hear so much praise about this event, one of the first of it’s kind here in the Philippines, with a signature appeal all of it’s own. With the combination of highly skilled artists, many of whom cannot be pigeon-holed to a specific genre, the overall lineup kept things interesting.

This one is attracting more of a niche market of concertgoers in comparison to the household names usually seen performing at Manila events. With the sensational and stunning beauty of the location, larger than life artworks, and the superior sound delivered, you can see why so many have taken the journey repeatedly. If you haven’t been yet, it’s an adventure worth the effort. I’m 99% certain you’ll be elated when you arrive at your destination. I can’t wait to see what they have in store for next year. –

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