The first thing Heber Bartolome said to me when I met him for the first time was: “What’s your sign?”
It was at the 1978 University of the Philippines (UP) Summer Writers’ Workshop, where I was one of the fellows.
(I learned later it was his standard greeting when meeting new people, being a keen astrology nut. He had, in fact, started the UP Astrological Society during his student days in the early 1970s, and would draw your birth chart if you let him.)
Heber was there to kibitz and hang out with fellow writers such as Jess Santiago, Rene Villanueva, and Teo Antonio, and also to sit at the feet of masters such as Franz Arcellana, N.V.M. Gonzalez and Nick Joaquin.
That year, the ideological divide between those of us who chose to write in English and those who wrote in Filipino was particularly pronounced.
As a card-carrying member of the Galian sa Arte at Tula (GAT), Heber was, of course, biased toward the latter. After all, he was one of its more popular exponents.
His landmark album with Banyuhay, Tayo’y Mga Pinoy, had been released a year or two before, and songs he had written such as the title track Nena and Almusal, were still enjoying significant airplay on the radio.
Back on home turf, however, in the Molave Men’s Dormitory, he reverted to being one of the boys. Perhaps a little louder and more opinionated, but those who knew him said he had always been that way.
I would see him on and off in musical and literary events, but strangely enough, it took more than 30 years before I got to do a proper interview with him.
This was in 2012, after the death of his ex-wife Maita Gomez, with whom he had two children. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge in the interim, but Heber was just as iconoclastic as ever. Age hadn’t mellowed him at all.
My following article was published as Music, Martial Law and Maita Gomez in the Sept. 1, 2012 issue of the Sunday Inquirer Magazine.
(Heber Bartolome passed away November 15 at the age of 73.-Ed)
With the Communist Party of the Philippines now largely owning up to the Plaza Miranda bombing and the purges of the late 1980s that decimated its ranks, the last remaining mystery of the Left is how Pinoy folk rock pioneer Heber Bartolome got beauty queen-turned-guerrilla cadre Maita Gomez.
Even by the ultra-liberal standards of the wild and woolly ’70s, the couple seemed to make odd bedfellows: Bartolome the plebeian son of a Methodist pastor from Novaliches, Gomez the tall, patrician daughter of a wealthy landowning family.
To be sure, both had become darlings of the Left in their own ways: Bartolome by singing protest songs that had immediate pop appeal, and Gomez more spectacularly by forsaking the vapid glamour of Manila high society for the radical chic of the New People’s Army.
As Lou Reed once sang: “Those were different times.”
The couple’s tumultuous relationship, which began as an exciting underground affair conducted on the run in various safehouses in Central Luzon in 1979, lasted five years, during which they had two children.
Under the strain of ordinary domesticity, however, it fell apart, ending in a rancorous break-up in 1984, with Gomez alleging domestic abuse which Bartolome denies to this day. (It hasn’t prevented him, however, from attaining pariah status among certain sections of the feminist movement.)
The estranged couple barely spoke to each other for the next 28 years, until Gomez’s untimely death last July.
Now it’s Bartolome’s turn to speak.
“I’m writing a book about us, what I remember,” he says. (Bartolome speaks in Tagalog throughout the interview; his quotes are freely translated.)
“It’s going to be historical material, personal writings. History has to be about what really happened.”
‘I’m writing a book about us, what I remember…historical material, personal writings. History has to be about what really happened’
We are in Bartolome’s Quezon City home, which also serves as his artist’s studio. Numerous paintings hang on the walls, and several works in progress featuring bold splashes of color stand on easels. Paints and brushes litter the tables. There are also a number of guitars in their cases, a shelf of CDs, and a computer.
“I make my living nowadays by selling my paintings,” he says. “You don’t really make money with music.”
For the last three years, Bartolome has been in a running legal battle with Filscap (Filipino Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Inc.), the composers’ union he helped establish. He says he has also been banned by the KBP (Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas) and PARI (Philippine Association of the Record Industry), attesting to his well-known knack for rubbing people the wrong way.
Three spaniels and one askal roam freely. Workers are constructing a three-story annex which is to serve as a rehearsal and recording studio for independent musicians. It is built to withstand floods, he says, because he saw a coming deluge in a dream.
“My dreams often come true,” he says.
Appropriately enough, the biblical Heber, after whom he was named, was Noah’s great-grandson. The studio will presumably be Heber’s ark.
Presently, he begins to remember where it all began.
“Nineteen sixty nine. The Butterfly.”
Around the time of the First Quarter Storm, UP was a center of the emerging counterculture. The Butterfly was the restaurant and pro shop of the UP driving range, which doubled as a folk house at night. Against the backdrop of blacklight posters of Lennon, Dylan, Che, and Mao, Bartolome sang songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, accompanying himself on a borrowed guitar. Among the other performers were LJ Laurico; the Demetillo brothers Lester and Weston, better known as Big and Small; and Siegfried Ranada, who would later dub himself Ysagani Ybarra and score a hit with Bilog ang Buwan.
In the audience one could find student radicals like Gary Olivar, who often enjoyed a steak dinner after a hard day at the rally, recalls Bartolome.
After his set, for which he was paid the then-princely amount of P20, Bartolome would walk back to his dorm on campus to save the 90-centavo cab fare.
He was a fine arts major, but music was second nature to Bartolome. His father Deogracias had been a violinist and bandleader for a rondalla before finding Jesus and becoming an itinerant Methodist pastor. His mother used to perform in sarsuwelas in Bulacan, Bulacan. Not only could the Bartolome children pick up tunes by ear, they could also make their own instruments.
Bartolome had been in the UP production of the musical Hair, along with Joey Smith and Danny Javier. The musical infamously featured onstage nudity by a then-underage Gigi Dueñas and Lina Castrence. “It was the height of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll,” recalls Bartolome.
In quick succession, however, came the First Quarter Storm, the Diliman Commune, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and finally the declaration of martial law in September of 1972. The heavy atmosphere of repression that blanketed the campus tipped the scales from the peace sign to the clenched fist.
Bartolome describes himself at the time as a hippie who wore kurtas and showed up barefoot for class. He founded the UP Astrological Society and inevitably greeted people with the query, “What’s your sign?”
But he was also interested in writing, and had been editor of the Pilipino section of the Philippine Collegian. He joined the UP Writers’ Club in 1973, and the Galian sa Arte at Tula the following year. He enrolled in a master’s program in Philippine literature.
He also began writing songs in his dorm room, setting the poetry of protest to music. Songs like Nena, Pasahero, Almusal, and the anthem for a new nationalist generation, Tayo’y Mga Pinoy, germinated during this period. Together with his brothers Jesse and Levi, Bartolome formed Banyuhay, short for “bagong anyo ng buhay,” just in time for the advent of Pinoy folk rock that saw the emergence of Asin, Coritha and Freddie Aguilar.
Tayo’y Mga Pinoy debuted in the first Metropop festival in 1978, together with Freddie Aguilar’s Anak. Although both lost out to Ryan Cayabyab’s Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika, Bartolome got a standing ovation from, surreally, Imelda Marcos and her entourage. A cover of Tayo’y Mga Pinoy by the folk rock band Judas came out in the Metropop album. The same year, Tayo’y Mga Pinoy, the first Banyuhay album, was released by Dyna records. Combining simple but poetic language with vivid imagery and themes that struck a chord among the oppressed masses, Bartolome’s songs were soon radio staples, and he an underground hero.
Not long after, he was approached by a fellow folk singer who gave him a recording of revolutionary songs. Asked if he wanted to meet the composers, he agreed and soon found himself in a safehouse in Bulacan surrounded by fans. One fan, in particular, got his attention.
“There was a tall, beautiful woman,” he recalls. “I didn’t know it was Maita. I thought to myself, ‘That’s one good-looking NPA.’”
‘There was a tall, beautiful woman,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t know it was Maita. I thought to myself, “That’s one good-looking NPA”
It wasn’t until much later, says Bartolome, that he discovered that the good-looking NPA who introduced herself as Joy was indeed Maita Gomez, former Pitoy Moreno model and 1967 Miss Philippines-World, who had shocked Manila’s alta sociedad by joining the communist insurgency just before martial law was declared. By then they were a couple.
“It happened very quickly,” he says. “I would pick her up, and bring her back. After I found out who she was, I learned that she was on the military’s wanted list, and had a price on her head. It was scary, and also exciting.”
Bartolome found himself in various guerrilla zones, “liberated” areas, and collectives, sharing a hard bed with various NPA regulars, hearing their stories.
“Some of them would mention my songs as part of the reason they were there,” recalls Bartolome, who went by the alias Mike in these sorties.
Eventually, he says, their relationship became an issue with Gomez’s collective.
“I wasn’t a party member,” he says. “I was what they called an ‘ally,’ a progressive who could be called on to lend a car or drive someone. Maita was a party member, and the rules said she couldn’t have a relationship with an outsider. A committee was formed to settle our problem, and their decision was to end our relationship, unless I agreed to join the NPA. I told them it was impossible, that I was afraid of firecrackers, let alone a gun. I was arrogant in my younger days, I was talking with guerrilla commanders, and I was telling them, ‘You take up the gun, I’ll stick to my guitar.’”
To everyone’s surprise, it was Gomez who ended up leaving the movement to join Bartolome above ground.
He believes several factors led to her decision to surface. Her health had suffered after years of hiding from the military, sleeping in the open, and periodically going hungry. Her daughter Melissa and son Luis were growing up and needed a less precarious environment. Her friends sent out feelers to Gen. Fidel Ramos, who paved the way for her surrender, hospital arrest, and eventual house arrest.
“She left the mountains to be with me; I became an instrument for her return to a normal life,” says Bartolome.
While under house arrest in one of the family homes in posh San Lorenzo village, the couple decided to get married. The wedding was, to say the least, unique.
“Maita’s sister Ditas had contacted a Catholic priest in Antipolo,” he recalls. “Rudy Aguinaldo was the military overseer. I sang Awit sa Kasal. Someone handed me a hash brownie. At the last minute, for some reason, the priest backed out. Luckily my father was there, and he had his book of services with him. Now it was the sponsors who backed out when they found out it was to be a Protestant ceremony. Odette Alcantara and Nestor Mata, who were there as guests, were pressed into service as sponsors. My eldest brother was the photographer, but none of his pictures came out. It was even written about in a French newspaper.”
After Gomez’s house arrest was lifted, the couple took up residence in the Ramona apartments. Their son Antares was born in 1980. Ten months later, Kris followed. It was after the couple settled into relatively stable domesticity that the cracks—the class contradictions, as it were—began to show in the relationship. Love on the run was exciting, but living together like regular folk with jobs and kids proved difficult. They soon got on each other’s nerves, and were bickering constantly.
‘Hindi si Lenin, hindi si Marx, hindi si Mao Tse Tung, hindi silang lahat…’
“I have a song that goes, ‘Hindi si Lenin, hindi si Marx, hindi si Mao Tse Tung, hindi silang lahat, sila’y hindi mahalaga kung walang pag-ibig, kung walang wagas na pag ibig sa isa’t-isa.’ We had the same politics, we were both anti-dictator and pro-poor. But you couldn’t equate our relationship to love. I had a relationship with Maita, but our marriage was just part of it.”
In short, they just couldn’t get along. It was the class struggle and the battle of the sexes, played out in real life.
“It wasn’t Maita’s fault, because she was a Gemini, with a moon in Cancer, Leo rising,” he says. “I’m a Scorpio. I did her astrological chart. Geminis have two characters: one sweet and one annoying. At home she was the señora. Her maids had to be in uniform, and they called my sons señorito. I wasn’t used to that. They spoke in English at the dinner table. We argued about it all the time.”
By this time, Bartolome was trying to push his music career, playing concerts at night while teaching Philippine literature at the De La Salle University by day. He had released another album, Kalamansi sa Sugat, and was performing live at the Bodega.
“Maita could be jealous,” he recalls. “I wrote a song for an old girlfriend, Isang Awit ng Pag-ibig, Mula sa Akin Para sa Iyo. When Maita found out, she stomped on my only copy of the record.”
The conflict escalated. Smashed furniture was frequently the outcome, says Bartolome. It might have been nothing to an upper-class scion, but for a child of the petit bourgeoisie, furniture was important.
‘At home she was the señora…I wasn’t used to that. They spoke in English at dinner….’
“Geminis have a problem with authority figures,” says Heber. This might account for Gomez’s rebellious nature and independent streak, he adds, but it also led to her inability to sustain relationships with men.
The couple finally called it quits in 1984, leaving their two children in Gomez’s care, amid allegations of domestic violence that Bartolome continues to deny.
“I’m not about to go before these women’s groups and tell them it’s not true,” he says. “I really don’t see why she was angry at me. I was never unfaithful to her. My one big failure in my life is that I wasn’t able to raise my sons. Pog was only two years old when Maita and I split up.”
Gomez went on to become a leading figure in the women’s movement. She had another son, Michael. She ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat and continued to espouse various causes, the last of which was mining. Her two sons with Bartolome became artists, writers, and teachers.
Bartolome was largely frozen out of their lives, and received a frosty reception at Gomez’s wake, he says, from Gabriela, the feminist organization that Gomez helped found.
“Maita was like Gautama Buddha, in a way,” he continues. “She never knew suffering, and was shocked when she discovered that there was poverty outside the walls of her kingdom. When she realized this, she wanted to know why, that’s why she came down from the wealthy to be with the poor. Maita was enlightened, that’s why she was excited to be with ordinary folk.
“We came from different social classes,” he says. “We found a common cause in defending the poor, but when it came to a relationship, we weren’t meant for each other.”