The poster of Laglag Ballads showcases Celin Cristobal, Gou de Jesus, and Skarlet, but for me, only the one in the middle rang a bell. (I’ve been away too long, I guess.) Gou’s name now, I noticed, is a shortened version of what I knew back then. From another lifetime, I remember her big, streaked hair and her chutzpah when she made an entrance. We never really talked; she was one of the friends of my mother I said hello to. I never forgot her, though.
So when Gou enters the Oblation Lounge at the University of the Philippines Diliman’s University Hotel, I know instinctively that it’s her despite the flat hair, svelte figure, and years of radio silence. The self-assurance I’d admired in my younger days (still do) and the perky theatricals once again fill the room.
“Who shall I see?” Gou teases, sauntering in like Zendaya on the red carpet. She scouts for familiar faces from her old and present life, and the scene plays out like a family reunion when she spots them: laughter, pleasantries, and heartfelt hugs. She goes around the room and, later, stops by table 3, our table.
“Have you had supper? You can order, but you can’t make noise with the cutlery,” she says, chuckling. She sits and reconnects instantly with the writer Anita Feleo, Ambassador Virgilio Reyes Jr., and my mother.
The conversation is animated: “Early ’80s? That’s another lifetime! Everything everywhere all at once is my life! Have you seen that movie? You should!” she says all at once before crying out, “Is that Sol?!” and excuses herself to greet Sol Juvida.
I’d almost forgotten that Gou sings. Now, here I am watching the chanteuse in a show that arose from a bandmate’s nonchalant suggestion after a gig.
A pun on the controversy that rocked the nation, involving bullets mysteriously found in travelers’ suitcases, started it all. Biting hard on the idea, Gou, Celin, Skarlet, and the band—guitarist Riki Gonzales, bass player Paolo Alcantara, and drummer Jinggoy Balane—put on a show last March 9 honoring women by singing ballads with strong lyrics.
A pun on the controversy that rocked the nation, involving bullets mysteriously found in travelers’ suitcases, started it all
Gou explains, a roguish gleam in her eyes, “It’s for women who know how to love, let go, and show you the door.” She laughs, then throws the spotlight on the trio who play There’ll Never Be Another You and an original composition, Agora et Ahora (Now is the time), setting the jazzy vibe in the lounge (amid—horrors—orders and deliveries of crispy pata and beer).
Love songs may leave one cringing, sad, or spurning love altogether, but these powerhouse singers reclaim love from the depths of misery, suffering, and pain.
Skarlet mesmerizes the crowd from the get-go with Babae Ka and then with Yun Lang, Pete Lacaba’s translation of Frank Sinatra’s That’s All where, segueing from Tagalog to English, she shows us what jazz is all about. With her pipes and panache, she owns the stage, bopping, swinging, and exploding with dynamic energy that surely must have left the crowd with secret wishes for a simple romance. In her element, nothing and no one distract her (not even the waiter walking past with a tray of crispy pata).
(Later, in a fan-girling moment, my sister takes a picture with Skarlet. She posts it on IG, describing the performer as “amazebells.” Dumbfounded at my obliviousness of the rock-jazz icon, she quickly schools me on Skarlet’s empathy for other artists in the industry, and how she was hard at work helping musicians and artists stay afloat during the lockdown. My Google search told me she’s the founder and president of Heart of Music, a nonprofit organization assisting aging, ailing, and low-income musicians with healthcare and alternative sources of income, i.e., music education at the barangay level and small-scale entrepreneurship.)
Celin Cristobal brings humor to the stage in her fun homage to a childhood memory of a song she liked and hummed that drew a scolding from her mother: A nine-year-old shouldn’t be crooning Eddie Cantor’s risqué Making Whoopee, should she? The humor changes to assertiveness with Don’t Lie to Me, as if she were addressing a dishonest lover, and dedicates the Barbra Streisand-penned song to “sisters fighting on the streets, homes, and hearts.”
(The song is mistakenly said to be dedicated to Donald Trump, a misconception Streisand corrected in an interview with Associated Press. She clarified that she was singing about him, not to him, and that her aversion to lies and liars compelled her to write it, egged on by her mortification over the aftermath of the 2016 US election.)
Skarlet mesmerizes with Yun Lang, Pete Lacaba’s translation of Frank Sinatra’s That’s All where, segueing from Tagalog to English, she shows us what jazz is all about
With Gou’s entrance, the mood chillaxes, heightened by her unexpected jest. “I’m going to do this sitting down because of age and sciatica! It’s painful! Does anybody know an acupuncturist?” she quips, settling on the high stool.
She sings Blossom Drearie’s Everything I’ve Got, amplifying the lyrics’ wicked and humorous jab at love—”the perfect wrist to give your neck a twist,” “I’m not yours for better but for worse”—with her playful singing and mischievous air. It leaves me marveling at the ease with which she makes singing seem like everyday conversation.
“I’ve been dreaming of singing it for the last five years,” she says through the loud applause. She closes the first set with Etta Jones’ Don’t Go to Strangers. I take it as her strong hint that she and her sisters are the right choices—always.
As the night deepens, the crowd settles into the relaxed ambience of the second set. Gou thanks the “captive audience,” and teasingly adds that no one can leave because they’ve locked the doors.
This time around the singers give everyone pause about love and life while dedicating the show to a good friend, Mercy Fabros, gone too soon. Love hurts when dear family and friends are snatched by death but, as Skarlet says, death shouldn’t always be viewed as “a sad, ugly thing.”
Shaking off the momentary somber mood, Celin belts out Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, her robust rendition affirming that things will somehow be good in time. Keeping to the celebratory mode, she next serenades with Shirley Horn’s Here’s to Life, gently nudging her audience to still “believe in chasing dreams and placing bets.”
Skarlet’s firecracker energy is infectious when she gets down with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy after Celin. Indeed, mercy to anyone singing immediately after Skarlet, is what keeps zipping through my mind. But it’s Gou, and so everything is fine. She sings and grooves to Patricia Barber’s remake of Sinatra’s This Town. Is it a subtle encouragement to those broken and broken-hearted to hit the reset button?
Gou is wrapping up Laglag Ballads when a mobile phone rings in the middle of her spiel. She does not let it pass without a cheeky warning.
The three women sing Frankie Lymon’s Goody, Goody as the show’s finale. An apt choice, I find. It’s a sassy love song for women who don’t suffer fools and who thumb their noses at cheaters, liars, and wayward lovers.
It’s a loud and clear message: “Hurray and hallelujah, you had it coming to ya, goody goody for her, goody goody for me… and I hope you’re satisfied, you rascal, you!