I’ve never heard or seen anybody play the guitar like Cynthia Alexander. Except, of course, her brother, Joey Ayala. First time I saw her play – it was UP Fair, ’98 or ’99, I think – my jaw literally dropped. It was magnificent playing, but the best of it is that she seemed to be playing with such ease you thought it was an easy thing to do. I’ve seen guitar virtuosos play before, but nothing like her.
I read somewhere that Cynthia was once awarded the bassist of the year by an Asian musical institution. She was then, as far as I know, an electric bass player for the supergroup Hayp. The only thing I remember about Hayp was the song “I’ll wait for you / for how long it takes / Baby, I’ll wait for you / Believe in me baby…” during the 80s. It was a pretty standard pop song, but even from that you can discern Cynthia’s superior bass playing.
Centuries later, her album “Insomnia and other Lullabies” came out. My friend – let’s hide her under the name “Niña Turtle “ – had bought a tape of that album and would play it over and over in our house. It was the mid-90s and everybody was into Yano and Eraserheads (or Agot and Ariel, take your pick). Niña Turtle hated the E’Heads to death, and she loved Cynthia. Basking in the glory of fellow “iskolars ng bayan” at the top of the charts, I didn’t make much of “Insomnia”. That is, until, Niña Turtle tried playing some of the songs (she was an average guitar player, but better than most) and couldn’t. She asked me if I could “kapa” (term for getting the chords of a song by ear) the song “Comfort in your strangeness”. It was relatively easy. That is, until I heard “Malaya”.
“Malaya” is Cynthia Alexander at her guitar-playing best. The intro reminds me of another woman guitar virtuoso, Joni Mitchell. But whereas Joni was more into the softer side, Cythnia’s music had an edge to them. It’s not deafening arena rock, but its edgy.
Best of all, it was about that – it was about freedom. “We are a falling star,” she sings, “A crooked stair / a fragile pair…” We are not perfect, but we are capable of achieving greatness and freedom, of dreaming of “summers yet”. “Flying over nameless skies / and unknown dune together / strong are we seeing truth / beyond illusion fearing nothing / we are free…” Although vague, the lyrics clearly evoke for me a feeling of freedom, a longing for truth, and a sense of limitless possibilities.
Three times I heard her play that song in activist events. First was during the Southern Tagalog Exposure’s Gawad Eden Marcellana two years ago. Second was during the huge demonstration in Makati on Women’s Day last year. Third was a few weeks ago, at the Gabriela office, during an opening of a mask show exhibit. Many of her songs are intensely personal, from “Comfort in your strangeness” to “Knowing there is only now” to “U & I”, but I always am glad when artists, especially great ones like Cynthia, make that transcendence from personal to (slightly) political. I heard somewhere, for instance, that Rickie Lee Jones, a great singer-songwriter with intensely personal music, recently made an album with references to current political issues like Bush’s war in Iraq. I suppose artists like Cynthia and Rickie Lee Jones are sensitive enough not to be insulated by the inequities and tragedies around them.