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Johanna Son

MANILA, Dec 3 1996 (IPS) - The band doesn’t quite send the audience into fainting or screaming fits — but then again, that would be a drag for Filipino fans who are busy skanking as live ‘ska’ music throbs on around them.

The fans are among the dozens of loyal followers of the local ska band ‘Put3ska’ (read as ‘put-tres-ska’). Wearing sixties attire, they show up wherever the band has a gig and get crowds dancing to the music’s infectious beat.

Halfway around the world from ska’s birthplace in Jamaica, the music is making its mark in the Philippines’ music scene. The trend is encouraging not only for ska, but also for other types of music in a country that until recently listened mostly to Western pop music and little else.

An explosion in local bands has helped Put3ska gain a more sympathetic ear in a country known for the musical prowess not just of big-name artists but professional singers in hotels and nightspots around Asia.

“The sound is basically new here. But many people are actually familiar with the beat, but don’t necessarily know it as ska,” says Myra Ruaro, the 26-year-old lead vocalist of the band that was formed in 1994.

“It’s riotous, happy, a lot of jumping around. It has a heavy, solid beat that’s colourful – and fun,” she said.

And like the band’s name, “it’s actually very Filipino – it’s naughty, nutty, but not vulgar,” she pointed out. The band’s name, Put3ska, is a play on words – both the Filipino phrase ‘putres ka’ (‘naughty you’) and ‘ska’.

That Put3ska has generated a following of its own shows that the Filipino taste for music may be widening. Ruaro concedes that common taste for music here remains very much tied to Western pop charts, but said “we’re reaching a wider audience slowly”.

Ruaro knows what she is talking about. When a group of musicians asked her to be the their lead vocalist two years ago, she remarked incredulously: “Ska? In the Philippines?”

Today, it is the voice of Ruaro, who has had no formal training but has been singing for about a decade now, that dominates the two albums Put3ska has put out during its two years of existence.

The first, entitled ‘Put3ska’, carried the hit single ‘Manila Girl’, which has earned the group a gold record award. The band was voted Best New Artist, Best Live Act and Best Vocalist by a local radio station’s Rock Awards last year.

Its music video was nominated for an MTV Video International Music Award for Viewers’ Choice For Asia last year. That international exposure may yet be the band’s first step beyond a purely Filipino audience, though the crop of Filipino singers known in Asian and foreign circles tend to be mostly individual artists.

In late November, the band launched its second album, called ‘Manila’s Finest’ under the Octoarts/EMI label. It contains mostly its own compositions and includes some in the local Tagalog language, as well as its rendition of the classic ska hit ‘My Boy Lollipop’ originally sung by Millie Small.

The band’s horn section is a crowd favourite – and indeed, as Ruaro stresses, “you need a strong horn section in ska”.

The band calls itself a “60s oriented, 90s ska band, influenced by both Jamaican and British and their own ska”.

Ska, now enjoying its so-called ‘third wave’ around the world, started in Jamaica in the fifties and sixties as a home-grown version of rhythm and blues. Later brought to England by Jamaican blue-collar labourers, it has since acquired a steady following from New York to Latin America to Japan.

Put3ska’s image, as well as album themes, is very much sixties, and in the tradition of the restless, smartly-dressed ‘rude boys’ from Jamaican shantytowns at the time. The band’s male members – that’s everyone else apart for Ruaro – sport close-shaven haircuts, wraparound dark glasses, skinny ties, narrow-brimmed hats, even sharkskin suits with tapered legs.

Black-and-white checkerboard patterns, be it in ties, vests and skirts, are a key fixture in the garb of band members and supporters who take the sixties’ look to the hilt.

Ska has actually been heard in the Philippines’ musical underground since the eighties – with bands such as ‘Skatatonics’ and ‘Toilet Skandal’ – but has not cracked the mainstream until now.

For years, it was considered ‘alternative music’ listened to only by a few. It didn’t help that some of the earlier ska heard here stemmed from the punk movement, turning off other listeners.

But Celine Ulgado, the band’s manager, says she has no problems promoting the group’s music. “It’s easier in the sense that they’re the only band doing this in the mainstream,” she observed.

Ruaro says the band sees itself as playing on to widen Filipino’s musical horizons. She has even higher hopes, of seeing that “Put3ska’s own brand of music will evolve”. At its club gigs, Put3ska sings not only its recorded songs but injects a ska flavour even into classical Filipino ditties like the local ballad ‘Dahil Sa Iyo’ (‘Because Of You).

Of course, not everyone becomes a ska convert. Ruaro recalls the case of a sceptical Filipino singer who, while listening to the band, said: “Wait, that sounds like a bit of pop. But now why does it sound like reggae… ” (Ska has been described as a “horn- infused grandfather of reggae”.)

But as the band plays on, Ruaro says she hopes that “people won’t only be talking about ska, but about Put3ska’s own music”.

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