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‘Sa Wakas’ and the neverending legacy of Sugarfree

By Kara Angan Published Aug 11, 2023 5:00 am

When Sugarfree released Sa Wakas in 2003, it instantly tugged at the heartstrings of Filipinos, solidifying its place as one of the greatest Pinoy pop-rock albums in history.

In the years since, it has dominated the airwaves, spawned a jukebox musical, and most recently, inspired the staging of two reunion concerts to celebrate the record’s 20th anniversary.

It’s difficult to fully describe the legacy of Sa Wakas without throwing in hyperboles. They still ring true, however, mostly because of how deeply personal the record has become to the lived experiences of their listeners.

When I think of Sa Wakas, I remember my life in high school, living away from my family for the first time and trying to carve out a space for myself in the bustle and noise of Quezon City.

I found home in the local music and art scene, with the gig places that have come and gone – Conspiracy Garden Café, Route 196, Catch 272 and more. Sa Wakas was there for me when I was crying in my dorm room to Kwarto at 3 a.m., walking around campus during sunrise with Mundong Malungkot, and one-too-many Spotify playlists featuring Unang Araw and Burnout for failed romances. Most, if not all,

Sugarfree fans have their own stories of not only how they discovered the band, but also of how the record made them feel.

Ebe Dancel performs at Sa Wakas: The 20th Anniversary Concert at 123 Block

“I discovered them mga 2002, nung college ako,” says Manuel “Dep” De Pasion, a fan of Sugarfree and Ebe Dancel’s music. He discovered Sugarfree through the now-defunct NU 107, a radio station that used to play alternative and indie music. “Mariposa yata yung sikat at that time.”

It was during college that Dep found his passion and appreciation for music. He was a member of the Ateneo Musicians’ Pool, which served as the breeding ground for some of OPM’s biggest names such as The Itchyworms, Spongecola, and SOS.

In fact, it was through the Ateneo Musicians’ Pool where he personally met Ebe Dancel. “Since active ako sa eksena, kainuman ko si Ebe.” Ebe Dancel would soon perform during Dep’s wedding.

Ang lalim eh,” Dep continues, describing Sugarfree’s music. “Iba yung kombinasyon ng lyricism ni Ebe dun sa delivery niya at alam mo, ‘pag narinig mo, (na) Sugarfree (ito). Iba talaga ang ‘Sa Wakas.’”

Sugarfree’s impact over the years doesn’t just include millennials.

“Yung mga friends ko sa (Los Baños), they would tell me that the best thing about ‘Sa Wakas’ is that it sounds like Los Baños. I did not understand that at first, but when I went there, it all made sense,” shares Zed Bisenio, the frontman of experimental jazz and rock band not?.

At 23, he was only three years old when the album was released – that hasn’t stopped him from discovering and eventually sharing a deep love for the record. In fact, he remembers the first time he found out about Sugarfree: on MYX’s Daily Top 10 in 2009, with the music video for Burnout.

“Sobrang galing gumawa ng kanta yung Sugarfree in such a way that it perfectly describes the space you are in,” he says. “Once in a lifetime yung mga ganyang klaseng tugtugan na ‘pag narinig mo to, ay tunog Ateneo ‘to or tunog Elbi ‘to or UP Diliman ‘to. That's their power; only a few bands can pull that (off). That's why nagreresonate siya sa akin as a Gen Z.”

“Kahit hindi ako taga Elbi, (kapag) naririnig ko siya, parang akong nasa rural area na may carabao farm sa Laguna. It's basically the genius of making songs that incorporate the spaces around you.”

For many Sugarfree fans, that “space” was their high school and college lives, when the album was released. That’s why for the recently concluded runs of the “Sa Wakas: The 20th Anniversary Concert,” Gabi Na Naman Productions and Ebe Dancel decided to dress up 123 Block in college campus fair-themed decorations, from multi-colored banderitas to ihawan and street food stalls.

“Nakakatuwa na ito yung mga kasabay kong nakikinig ng Sugarfree, at malayo na yung pinanggalingan at pinagdaanan ng buhay nila. Nakakatuwa makita na nakikinig pa rin (sila) kay Ebe,” says director JP Habac.

“We broke the album (into the mainstream) by doing school fairs in UP, Miriam and Ateneo. that’s how people found out about us. That’s what we’re revisiting,” Ebe Dancel explained during a press conference for the concert.

The same sentiment goes for JP Habac, director of the Maja Salvador and Paulo Avelino-led film, I’m Drunk, I Love You. When he attended the second run of the anniversary show held last March 31, he was blown away by the sea of people singing along to the songs they all knew by heart.

“Yung iba, may kasamang anak, may kasamang asawa. Nakakatuwa na ito yung mga kasabay kong nakikinig ng Burnout, ng Sugarfree, ng ‘Sa Wakas,’ at malayo na yung pinanggalingan at pinagdaanan ng buhay nila. Nakakatuwa makita na nakikinig pa rin (sila) kay Ebe.

While Sugarfree had been around for much longer, many Gen Z listeners often attribute their discovery of the band’s music to the 3D (Ebe Dancel, Johnoy Danao, and Bullet Dumas) rendition of Burnout used in I’m Drunk, I Love You.

Usually, when films are made, producers tend to ask the directors and writers if they can switch around different songs in the soundtrack, or make changes to parts of the scripts. For Habac, Burnout was a non-negotiable.

“Yung mga friends ko noong college, Sugarfree yung OPM band na talagang kasama naming nasaktan, sumaya, habang nag-aaral at bumabagsak sa mga grades sa UP. Yung Burnout talaga yung nag-encapsulate ng journey ko when it comes to pag-ibig noong college. And not just really pag-ibig, kasi yung Burnout naman, parang pwede siya sa kahit anong aspeto sa buhay. Alam na alam ng Sugarfree yung sakit at hirap na pinagdadaanan namin.”

Beyond just Burnout, it is a must to delve into the inner workings of love and loss in the 12 tracks that comprise the record. Who could ever overlook Unang Araw and the loneliness it encapsulates? The yearning and want in Telepono? The bitter realization of Mariposa? Or the feeling of finally reclaiming your freedom in Los Baños?

Sugarfree sings of universal truths, regardless of when you were born. Whether it’s the era of cassettes or Spotify and Apple Music, what makes “Sa Wakas” persevere is how it continues to be the soundtrack to our everyday lives.

“I don't know if it gets the credit that it does, yung ‘Sa Wakas.’ Hindi ako professional musician para i-describe (siya) from a technical standpoint,” says Dep. “Pero kung may isang totoong OPM na album, outside of APO, outside of Juan Dela Cruz, ‘Sa Wakas’ yung ilalagay ko. Ibang iba talaga yung ‘Sa Wakas.’”