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The day the music died

Where was I when I first heard the news?

I was listening to Sonic Youth’s This Diamond Sea, during its long, lulling swathes of atonal guitars and feedback. I could not believe it. Aww, Noli Aurillo. That guy was a musician, magician and magus; well, depending on the task at hand and the corresponding concoction. He would not pull off — what one of his friends described as — “his final trick: a disappearing act” on us. Not at this point in our pandemic-stricken lives. (“Lives”? Uh, more like pointless existences.) How we direly need music, music to disperse the silences of deaths, absences and collective paralysis. We need Noli, still. Bryan my bandmate in The Black Vomits shared a Facebook post from one of Noli’s closest friends; we read the news and, oh boy, it was true. For strange reasons only the universe understands, the next song from my digital radio was Bohemian Rhapsody. Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go. And off he went. Inside the intensive care unit of a hospital somewhere, the man drew his last note.

Noli, one of the country’s best guitarists ever, performed with everyone who matters: Lolita Carbon and Asin, Joey “Pepe” Smith, Cocojam, Jun Lopito (at ye old Republic of Malate), the late Dondi Ledesma and Edmund Fortuno in Bosyo, Cynthia Alexander, Cooky Chua, Mishka Adams, Skarlet, as well as with Jay Ortega in TRES, among others.

But, take note, I did not set out to do a rock obituary. I will leave that to the more capable hands of Poch Concepcion and Eric Caruncho. This piece was not written by a person with extensive knowledge of Noli’s biography and discography. I am more of the guy whom Noli and his loving partner and chronicler Bessy ate tapsilog with on the corner of Timog Avenue and Scout Tuazon, QC (or in Remedios, Malate near the old Penguin or [email protected]) at 3:30 a.m. — just us vampires, jeepney drivers, and the GROs from nearby karaoke clubs. All the self-important stiffs were sound asleep in their condos while Noli held court with our kind of people, the salt of the earth, regaling everyone with the sad, extraordinary tales of being a musician in a republic which does not hold musicians, poets and thinkers in high regard. (Socialites, politicians, influencers and tycoons own this archipelago-go.) Sisig, Pale Pilsen, aliens, King Crimson, his beloved Tacloban, magic, the Mahavishnu Orchestra were the elements and topics of those stillborn mornings.

I met Noli Aurillo when he was already doing gigs as a solo acoustic instrumental act (although he occasionally covered Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson songs in his gravelly yet endearing voice). One Takamine guitar, yes, but from it emanated a whole bleeping orchestra: everything from Steely Dan, Michael Jackson and Pinoy Rock medleys to, yes, Bohemian Rhapsody. Imagine sitting in the front row and watching a lone Noli play the parts of Freddie, Brian, John the bassist-extraordinaire who did not want anything to do with Adam Lambert, and Roger at the same time with such impossible chords (diminished, sustained and augmented… all-in-one) mapped out by those long elastic, plastic man fingers. He could delicately conjure harmonics and lyrical phrases as well as tempestuously hammer out discordant passages, and all the incarnations in between. He was truly world-class; belonged in the same league as Michael Hedges or Tuck Andress. Imagine Noli Aurillo putting out an album on Nonesuch or German label ECM.

Noli played with the same sense of joy and abandon in an almost empty bar or in a fully packed auditorium. If there were four to five people watching, then those four to five people would go home with their minds blown. Not one of them had seen the guitar played that way, with power and expression of possibilities between frets. The first time I saw Noli play, I went home, gazed at my guitar, and looked for the Gator case to pack it in (to pack it all in) — like an organ grinder with a monkey encountering goddamn Mozart. Too late to learn the tuba, though.

Reminds me of the story when Noli and Bessy were having either lunch or dinner in a restaurant and were approached by a blind man serenading customers with his guitar. Noli told the guy to sit down with him and Bessy and partake of some food, borrowed the guitar, and proceeded to play. The blind man could not believe what he was hearing. Must have been some interstellar kundiman or such.

Noli and I became friends. We formed Noli & the Tangeres together with superb drummer Jayman Alviar in 2012 (I, obviously, was the weakest link in that short-lived trio — again, obviously). The man on electric guitar is in another league altogether. Noli even shorted an amp during our cover of Black Hole Sun in Saguijo. Paul Magat of Kabaong Ni Kamatayan joined the group later on. My bandmates in The Black Vomits and our manager at the time, Bianka Bernabe, got Noli to produce our self-titled record. To say that Noli was a nocturnal creature would be an understatement. He would show up at Wombworks studio just as the rest of us were either too drunk or sleepy, and he came bearing the gift of a thousand ideas: midi orchestral parts, fills, counterpoints and what-not. Let’s do this! It was tiring for us mere mortals but it was educational: akin to being Dracula’s Renfield. We lunatics were running the asylum and Noli was our Mad Hatter.

During a Christmas party at My Bro’s Mustache a couple of years back, Noli performed a magic trick involving playing cards, smoke and fire. I cannot share with you details because my recollection is hazy and the people who attended the party are unreliable narrators just like me. But everyone ended whooping like cranes once the magician completed the trick.

There was also a time when Noli, Vomits drummer Julius, and I were at Alan’s Grill in Cubao X and even stranger magic ensued. Noli had just done a corporate gig and was eager to treat us to lechon kawali, unli rice and all the beer we could drink. “Pick a card, any card,” Noli told Julius, who promptly picked one from the deck. Julius and I thought it was just another card trick where the magician correctly guesses what the hidden card is; the usual, saw it dozens of times already. But what Noli did next shocked us. “Look at your phone,” he motioned to Julius. Right there: on the screen of Julius’ phone was a picture of the card. How did… what… when… again, how? Noli, as the waiters at Alan’s Grill would attest, was from outer space.

The man messaged me earlier this year, “I have new magic tricks to show you.” The long lockdowns probably expanded the magician’s already impressive repertoire. But performing artists such as him bore and are still bearing the brunt of gig-less pandemia. Gigs are their bread and butter. They go from bar to bar, play two to three sets a night, just to get enough to scrape by. How do you pay rent and Meralco bills with such meager income as a musician? Meanwhile, mandarambongs in government are buying Porsches and Lamborghinis left and right. (Try revving them up on gridlocked, potholed highways you built, built and built, corrupt sickos).

Some musicians manage to survive by doing Facebook Live gigs. This is so lucrative for showbands with artistahin Star Magic-level vocalists with a million viewers (even if the guitar player flubs the solo of Wonderful Tonight), but what about for musicians heroically playing originals or reinterpreting old songs and pushing the envelope while doing so? Maybe people would rather watch BTS’s collaboration with relevance-chasing Coldplay — the Demi Lovato and Chrissy Teigen of rock — on their smart phones.

Noli the pied piper did his own self-described “online busking” and people gladly were tuning in. This could tide the man over until the end of the pandemic and the reign of nincompoops. Then, we could all get together over beer, crispy tenga, and laugh about Imelda Marcos’ request to be Noli’s friend on Facebook. But one Sunday, Noli had to postpone his “Pandemic Prayers” gig on FB due to illness (that other “C” word). A couple of days later, he took off for the Great Gig in the Sky.

I’ve seen a great outpouring of love for the man on social media after his passing. Noli was so well-loved and well-respected. He was friends with everyone and was always happy to see you, you and you: whether you are an OPM legend such as Chickoy Pura or Resty Fabunan, or a struggling musician just like us in The Black Vomits who have sold around 59 or so copies of our debut record. Noli would sit with us at My Bros’ Mustache — usually also with owner Boy Vinzon, Crucible Gallery’s Sari Ortiga, Chickoy and wife Monet — and regale us with stories about those old and wild Olongapo days playing rock ‘n’ roll. We thought those nights would be endless, and that there would be more.

When bars start reopening, there will be a void. Noli owned a spot on wherever stage he played, entering the joint like the guitar Galileo, the acoustic assassin that he was. Lesser musicians would just Scaramouche to darkened corners. The man’s gone now; left us with dirges in the dark. Somewhere, there is a roomful of books and DVDs, steampunk hats and an orphaned guitar. Yet, each note still resonates with every memory of those open strings quivering with beautifully broken chords.

And we are still in au… au… awe.

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