‘La Bulaqueña’ is No Cosplay, History Homework, or Time-Machine Piece; It’s Orange & Lemons’ Stab at Scholarship

Bulacan’s choice Anglophiles investigate the kundiman, alternating between reverential and iconoclastic, simultaneously familiar and deconstructive, and we’re all the better for it.

I’m always a bit skeptical of thematic material, and even more so when it involves archaic forms. So when I started hearing odds and ends from O&L’s fourth proper record, ‘La Bulaqueña,’ I was, truth be told, scared for them.

Surely a band who’s made miming The Smiths their trade (I’m talking synecdoche, of course) would be better off staying the course? Certainly, reimagining Nicanor Abelardo should be off the table?

But hearing the collection in its entirety, on top of reconsidering the biographical data at hand (more on this later), dispelled these fears.

‘La Bulaqueña,’ my friends, is no toe-dip into kundiman waters, but a full-on dive.

Cover Art Illustration and Design by Ige Trinidad. An impression of Juan Luna’s painting of the same title.

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For a band that’s previously undergone dissolution, disillusioned is the first thing they ought to be. Instead, we see an inspired reformation: one that brought real creative momentum, and not just the type brought on by massive miscalculations of self-importance.

After re-recording their debut and putting out itinerant singles, following up their pre-disbandment “last” record (2007’s ‘Moonlane Gardens’), business-as-usual wasn’t the order of the day. You’d imagine they’d do well with a banger as a follow-up—after all, ‘Moonlane’ was widely regarded as their ‘Pepper’—but they chose to do a complete about-face.

After fifteen long years, the world can now enjoy ‘La Bulaqueña.’ And it’s no Brit-pop romp.

It is all-Filipino, both linguistically and culturally, which means it’s not indie-pop masquerading as “OPM” simply by virtue of the language being spoken or sung. It’s in Filipino, full stop: primeval, musical, with jagged corners but also slithering waves. I, in fact, would actively pick fights (LOL) at the first suggestion that the Filipino language (outside jeje, beki, or trendy soc-med shorthand) isn’t “now” enough.

All Photos by Every Where We Shoot. Tailored Barongs by Frederick Berches. Shot on location at Casa Francisco, a heritage house in Pulilan, Bulacan.

When Clem Castro intones “Sa baro’t sayang walang kaparis / Taglay mo ay gandang walang kawangis” (“La Bulaqueña”), or “Suungin ang sigwa at unos / Makapiling ka lang nang lubos” (“Ikaw na Walang Hanggan”), he’s no different from a present-day pining lover resorting to desperate hyperbole.

And their idiom of choice for the record (the kundiman) retains the resonance of pop. But it’s pop that isn’t dressed like a mall-walker; it’s pop decked in starched Sunday best.

It may be tempting to frame ‘La Bulaqueña’ as theater or artifice, but what Castro, the Del Mundo brothers on rhythm (bassist JM and drummer Ace), and keyboardist Jared Nerona pull off here is no mere artistic cosplay. It’s a confluence of both scholarship and tribute.

O&L diehards would, of course, know that there’s a smattering of similar works in their earlier output—“Ang Katulad Mong Walang Katulad” and “Buhay at Pag-Ibig” from ‘Moonlane Gardens,’ for instance, as well as the polarizing “Pinoy Ako,” which all have rondalla elements—but none as involved as the tunes on ‘La Bulaqueña.’

And such elements go beyond “flavor”; I mean Clem picking up a bandurria or octavina isn’t like Peter Buck mangling mandolins for ‘Green’ or ‘Out of Time.’ When he does it, he’s continuing in a tradition that’s borne of locale and family: His older brother runs Cuerdas Music Center; his folks put up Second Home Academy, which offers, among other things, special music classes; and his late father, God bless his soul, was a champion of the rondalla as both practitioner and instructor to various groups across Bulacan.

“My grandfather was a painter. My father, instead of pursuing the same, fell in love with the traditional rondalla,” Clem shares.

And you can call it osmosis if you want, but the rest of the O&L guys have always existed in a world—surprising as this may sound, given their indefatigable and very public Anglophilia—where the idyllic holds hands with the everyday. Mostly hailing from Bulacan—Castro is from Baliuag and the Del Mundos are from Plaridel; Nerona is the lone non-Bulacan local, being from Baguio—the boys know the historical weight of their environs and, as such, took matters with an urgency that’s worthy of Barasoain, Malolos, and Biak-na-Bato.

“Being pure Tagalog, we are proud of the language. It’s in Bulacan where the Balagtasan started, after all, and we wanted to pay tribute to the language and the culture,” Castro adds.

And if reimagining Abelardo’s “Bituing Marikit” or lending a melody to Rizal’s “Awit ni Maria Clara” (from ‘Noli Me Tangere’)—or even going carte blanche on Juan Luna’s ‘La Bulaqueña,’ the painting whose sobriquet the band borrows for this record—would be deemed “alienating,” then there lies the real tragedy. In any case, Castro isn’t afraid of ruffling feathers and alienating listeners. “What’s scarier,” he says, “is alienating ourselves from who we really are.”

So come for the rondalla fills and stay for the period feels; rest assured, ‘La Bulaqueña’ is brimming with both.

There are strictly-kundiman pieces (“La Bulaqueña,” “Ikaw na Walang Hanggan”); Manila Sound-style romps (“Yakapin Natin ang Gabi,” “Pag-Ibig sa Tabing-Dagat”); spaghetti western-inspired sprawl (“Hindi Ko Sukat Akalain”); heartrending dirge (“Hanggang sa Paglagot ng Hininga”); oyayi (Ace’s songwriting debut “Hele Para Kay Stella”); and even a thinly-veiled turn at indie pop (the infectious “Ikaw ang Aking Tahanan”).

But above all, there’s O&L’s musicianship: alternating between reverential and iconoclastic, simultaneously familiar and deconstructive, and we’re all the better for it.

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