Under the blinking sacred heart of Jesus, shoulder to shoulder and knee to knee, everybody sits placidly in the jeepney, former vehicle of war converted by Pinoy genius into a medium for mass transport, articulating function and frivolity the way only the Filipino can. Today’s dispatcher in the paradahan ng bayan is the artist Kawayan de Guia, who swears that riding the jeepney through the maze-like state of the nation eventually leads to an inexplicable sensation of being stuck in a bygone era. And the music! Oh the music! The April Boys back to back with Curtis Mayfield, by turns wrenching and soothing the passengers’ collective broken hearts. Alaskado! There’s no getting off because up ahead is a sign that says no loading and unloading and around the corner is a fat cop with Ray-Bans just waiting for ‘small change’ to fall into his itching palms. The elusive Filipino psyche is out for a joy ride in these musical pieces, these gilded jeepney/paintings and jukebox/jeepneys resurrected from the garage of a Baguio motel on Asin Road.
A large number of jukeboxes made it to Baguio in the 1970’s, entering the country tax-free through the Clark and Subic American military bases. Kawayan first learned about the existence of a platoon of decaying jukeboxes from the community of woodcarvers on Asin Road. The woodcarvers told him that collecting the coins from the jukeboxes around the city was one of the first jobs they had when they moved to Baguio from Ifugao. They would carry kilos of coins in their pasiking – their handwoven backpacks – to the former jukebox kingpin of the City of Pines, the late father of one Mr. Alison Takay. Mr. Takay the Son retired the jukeboxes when karaoke broke into the scene in the late 1990’s. He’s now one of the town’s many videoke bigwigs and he was only too happy to sell six of his ailing jukeboxes to the artist.
When Kawayan acquired the jukeboxes he wasn’t sure whether he was starting down the road to nowhere, whether he could get them to work again. The artist was struck by how the jukeboxes resemble jeepneys. Both are kitschy – a mix of smooth and classy chrome and crude pastiche. Both machines had American beginnings and took on a life of their own in the Philippines after World War II. Both are shrines to the psyche, receptacles for the soulful unburdening of a people. Both are vessels of memories, dreams, and emotions. The anitos of Asin Road must’ve sung in the artist’s ear, Don’t think twice it’s alright, and he took them on, and the jukeboxes weighed and preyed on his mind at eighty to a hundred kilos apiece since that fateful day in January 2009.
Traveling via word of mouth Kawayan found his way to the jukebox shaman, Mr. Roger Berdun, who had been making a living repairing jukeboxes in Angeles, Pampanga since 1966. Mr. Berdun travelled to Baguio and as soon as he laid his hands on the machines, he knew what would get them working again. He spent many days lovingly dismantling the relics, cleaning every part, rebuilding the machines, and coaxing music from their purring bellies. Five out of six of the jukeboxes were succesfully revived, their former weight cut in half so that the artist could fit them into new, trippy jeepney-like bodies.
Alongside the rejuvenation the relic machines, Kawayan blew up familiar yet marginally known record covers, painting in elements that blended pop culture with strange images drawn from the Filipino psyche. Framed like the back of a jeepney, each painting was given a mudguard etched with words of wisdom taken off the streets. These mudguard sayings could be read as fortunes or koans, possibly signifying the true nature of things, epiphanies unexpectedly revealing themselves in the wake of roaring diesel engines and thick clouds of exhaust smoke.
The processes of reviving the jukeboxes and creating hybrid machines and paintings are part of the artist’s questing exploration of Filipino consciousness – filled as it is with pop songs, tearful drama, the sweat of the common man, the blood of religious icons, the writing on the mudguards, the sacred rubbing elbows with the profane. Lilindol muna bago puputok. Amen.