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Maestro Ryan Cayabyab: Family man, teacher, and National Artist championing OPM

Published Apr 20, 2024 5:00 pm

For close to 50 years, maestro Ryan Cayabyab has been showing Filipinos and the world the beauty of Filipino music through his award-winning works and compositions. In 2018, he was named National Artist for Music, the highest recognition for Filipino individuals who have made significant contributions to Philippine musical arts. A year later, he became a recipient of the 2019 Ramon Magsaysay Awards, which honors outstanding individuals and organizations across Asia.

Mr. C, as he’s fondly called, has been a champion of Original Pinoy Music (OPM) all through his musical career. He teaches music and writes for theater musicals, ballet, choral pieces, orchestral pieces, pop songs, and commercials. He also continues to discover many talents and mentor artists.

One of the groups he formed in the 1980s was Smokey Mountain, named after the garbage dump in Manila. The group became known for the songs “Da Coconut Nut” and “Paraiso,” both of which, Mr. C composed. Smokey Mountain helped put the spotlight on the dire living conditions of people living in the real Smokey Mountain. The original members—Geneva Cruz, Tony Lambino, James Coronel, and Jeffrey Hidalgo—later had flourishing careers in music and the arts.

Not even the pandemic stopped Mr. C from continuing to mentor his students. Neither did it dampen his usual cheerful self. (After all, he wrote the music to “Kumukutikutitap,” a joyful song about the twinkling lights on a Christmas tree during the festive season. The song’s lyrics were penned by Joey Reyes.) With everything shuttered during the series of lockdowns, the Music School of Ryan Cayabyab, located at Robinsons Galleria, pivoted to online classes.

Thanks to his PLDT Home Fiber connection, Mr. C continued his classes in Music Theory, Advanced Harmony, and Music Counterpoint.

“These are important theory classes for those who want to be musically literate,” says Mr. C. “I had four very successful classes online from 2020 to 2021. They were from 8 to 10 pm, pero umaabot kami hanggang 1 a.m. (But we would end at 1 a.m.) Looking back, I don’t think we would have survived five-to-six-hour classes face-to-face. Even my wife was teaching her choir class online.”

While he initially planned for his online classes to have a maximum of 10 students, at one point he had 25 students in each class. Mr. C would plug his sound equipment into Zoom and use apps as his teaching aids so the sound quality was excellent during class.

A musical family

One of the silver linings during the pandemic was that Mr. C and his wife Emmy’s children Krina and Toma were at home with them. “Nasa bahay kami lahat! (All of us were at home.) There were a lot of activities that revolved around music making,” he says.

Ryan Cayabyab with wife Emmy and children Toma, Krina, and Krina’s husband Stephen

His daughter Krina is also a music director and is currently taking her PhD at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She has done musicals such as Lapu Lapu at the Metropolitan Theater and other productions at Dulaang UP. She sings soprano with the jazz group Baihana, where she also serves as the group’s arranger and music director.

Toma, meanwhile, is taking his master's at the UP College of Music majoring in orchestral conducting. He is the lead singer of the jazz band Debonair District. Like his dad, he is also a composer and loves to discover and mentor young talents as he teaches music to college and senior high school students at the Ateneo de Manila University.

You can imagine the tight family bond the Cayabyabs share, with everyone involved in music, teaching, and composing. What a fun, musical family.

Creating a smart home and school

This year, Mr. C became one of the first in the country to have a PLDT Home Gigabit Fiber Plan. He has yet to fully embrace the idea of a smart home to take full advantage of the ultra-fast one-gigabit speed. But with his children now living outside their home, Mr. C says fast internet has become even more important in his personal life. He and his family rely on high-speed internet so they can send each other audio and music files of their compositions. They also do regular video calls to stay in touch.

Mr. C’s Gigabit Fiber Plan also allows him to continue teaching and mentoring with such convenience and speed at home for students who are outside his time zone. For example, students based in the United States make it impossible for Mr. C to teach them during daylight hours in the Philippines. Sometimes he teaches in the middle of the night. Even with all his video, audio, and musical equipment simultaneously plugged in, everything is clear thanks to the bandwidth and fast connection that gigabit affords him.

“In the States, when it’s morning there, it’s evening here, which means the [physical] school is closed by then,” says Mr. C. “So I do the classes at home. At my school, we teach online for people outside Metro Manila, like Cebu, and in countries like the Middle East and the UK.”

Mr. C reflects on how far his relationship with PLDT has come and the convenience being online brings to everyday errands. “Ever since we transferred to our home in Filinvest, QC, naka PLDT landline na kami. (we’ve been using a PLDT landline.) That was so many years ago,” says Mr. C. “I remember, even when I got internet service I would still go to the PLDT office to pay my bills until a friend told me I could pay online.”

With his PLDT Home Gigabit Fiber Plan, being able to hold meetings online for pre-production work has also become extremely easy to do. “All the preparations are done online because we know how terrible the traffic is in Manila—we all just [go on] Zoom before the final face-to-face meetings. It’s just so convenient,” says Mr. C.

“Much of my use of the internet is really for communication. Ang dami kong group chats with fellow seniors. (I have a lot of group chats with fellow seniors.) It’s not about work; most of it is reminiscing [about] the past. A written rule in the group chats: no politics, no religion, no basketball. It’s rowdy, it’s fun, and we spend a lot of time entertaining ourselves,” he says, laughing. “If you miss a day checking the GCs, the threads get so long.”

A different kind of art

Mr. Cayabyab’s Tunay na Ligaya exhibit showcased a series of works in acrylic including the Eyefie series (top), a collection inspired by his playful take on selfies and voices from his 1981 album titled ‘ONE’; and Hardin series (bottom), a collection of flower gardens.

“What I like about painting is the quiet, the solitude,” Mr. C said in a previous interview. “When you compose a song, it’s always a team effort: you have to work with a lot of people—the arranger, the musicians, the singer—to make it happen. With painting, you’re alone with your thoughts and ideas. And that is what I like about it.”

In 2022, Mr. C embarked on a different kind of artistic journey, one that he started even before music. Fifty-six years ago, in 1968, he won the YMCA National Painting Contest. His prize was P50; a good amount of prize money back then.

During the pandemic, Mr. C picked up a paintbrush again and started painting. “I just wanted to do something during the pandemic. Remember, walang shows, (there were no shows); everyone was at home.”

Because this was a medium he hardly knew despite his early years, Mr. C got on YouTube to research the quality of brushes and acrylics.

Maestro Ryan Cayabyab is currently working on the original music for the upcoming production of Ballet Manila’s Florante at Laura

Not many people knew about his hobby at the start, he says. But when he began posting his paintings on social media, everyone took notice.

“It was through the internet that I built a reputation as a visual artist,” says Mr. C. “In late February that year, I started posting on Facebook and many friends encouraged me. I was surprised that some of them wanted to buy my paintings. Actor Franco Laurel bought the first two of three works I did when I put them on Facebook. Finally, I said, don’t buy muna kasi nag-iipon ako ng pieces for my exhibit. (Don’t buy yet because I’m gathering pieces for my exhibit.)”

In October 2023, Mr. C mounted his first solo exhibit called Tunay na Ligaya in Rockwell. It was followed by a November exhibit in Estancia Mall.

These days, maestro Ryan Cayabyab flits between music and visual arts. He’s currently working on the original music for Ballet Manila’s Florante at Laura. In April and May, he will be holed up in his music room to compose two more orchestral pieces.

Before you know it, we will soon hear another lovely, lively take on Filipino music from the maestro once more. It will be worth the wait.

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Editor’s Note: This article was provided by PLDT Home.