PIPOL: How Smokey Mountain changed Tony Lambino years after leaving the group
MANILA — Welling up and his voice shaking as he talks about his crusade to help end poverty, Tony Lambino insists he remains unwavering in the mission that started forming in, of all places, showbiz during his teenage years.
Music fans who grew up in the ‘90s would remember Lambino as one of the members of the group Smokey Mountain, along with Geneva Cruz, Jeffrey Hidalgo and James Coronel.
Lambino remembers being drawn to music as a child, so much so that he joined the Ateneo Boys Choir. That school stint led to the opportunity that would change his life. His choirmaster then was a former student of Ryan Cayabyab, now-National Artist for Music, who at the time was set to hold a summer scholarship.
“Why don’t you audition, see if you can get in?” he recalls being encouraged by his choirmaster. “Ginawa ko naman ‘yun. I was number 180 in line.”
Coming into the audition, the young Lambino mostly sang harmony, citing his choral background. The only solo number he managed to prepare was “Rainbow Connection” sang by Kermit the Frog in “The Muppet Movie.”
Surprised that his performance was good enough for a callback that same day, Lambino recounts with amusement that, unlike fellow aspirants who prepared a second song, he returned to face Cayabyab’s team with a repeat of his first piece.
He got in anyway — again, to his surprise — and soon found himself in a group dubbed 14K (the number of Cayabyab’s singing scholars), which performed in corporate shows and other events. That lasted a year.
Then came “Brown Music,” which by Lambino’s recollection, was Cayabyab’s concept project of Filipino teenagers with a music repertoire tackling social and environmental issues, including poverty. It was an experiment, Lambino says, to see whether a teenybopper group could also communicate a social message, which at the time was more identified with rock and folk music.
After rounds of audition, Brown Music came to be a quartet henceforth known as Smokey Mountain, after the notorious Tondo landfill that attracted tens of thousands of scavengers and became an international poster for urban poverty.
The band wasn’t an instant success. After the lackluster performance of their first few singles, including “Not All the World is America,” Smokey Mountain went momentarily off-route with a love song, “Kailan.” It became a huge hit, ranking number one in the music charts for eight weeks.
But the quartet didn’t lose sight of its mission.
“Through the accident of this love song becoming a big hit,” Lambino says, “the other songs were heard. The other songs about the environment, about poverty, about overseas Filipino workers, about street children, about a place called ‘Paraiso.’”
Smokey Mountain brought its message to the world stage, participating in the UN World Summit for Children in Netherlands and the Asean Song Festival in Indonesia, among other international events. The exposure yielded fruit. Soon, Cayabyab’s group of young singers was offered a recording contract for the US and European markets.
One of the contract’s stipulations, Lambino says, was for the group to be homeschooled. That did not sit well with him nor his family and his future with Smokey Mountain became uncertain.
“The decision was, maybe I was too young to be uprooted. I resigned from the group and decided to stay in school. I went through high school with my friends. That was the next step in my life,” he says.
“I wanted to do both, but I couldn’t do both, so a decision had to be made. I think it was a wise one, I hope, given what’s happened since then.”
TEACHER TO GOVERNMENT
What has happened since then has seen Lambino wearing many, many hats across nearly three decades.
He served four years as a Sangguniang Kabataan chairman, graduated cum laude from Ateneo de Manila University on scholarship, and was named one of the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines.
Lambino’s hunger for learning brought him to Harvard University and then the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned separate graduate degrees in Political Science and Communication, also on scholarships.
For a time, he was an English professor in Ateneo — “one of the most fulfilling jobs I ever did for P180 per lecture hour” — and subsequently a newscaster for ABS-CBN’s “Alas Singko Y Medya.”
Then came his first foray in government. Lambino worked under Executive Secretary Renato de Villa on decentralization policy, and then under Presidential Adviser Paul Dominguez on regional development, both during the Arroyo administration.
For six years, he was based in the US with his family as he led communication and governance initiatives at the World Bank, before heeding the call for a homecoming. Lambino became the communication head of the International Rice Resarch Institute in Laguna, and then the head of public policy of Ayala Corp.
When then-Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte won the presidential race in 2016, a former boss — Paul Dominguez — called to enlist Lambino’s help to concretize the incoming administration’s agenda. That came in the form of town hall consultations before Duterte was inaugurated.
Originally, that was the only extent of his work with the administration, but “early this year, I got a call from Sonny Dominguez himself,” the incumbent Finance secretary and brother of Paul Dominguez.
“This is your dread call. It’s time for you to join,” was Secretary Dominguez’s opening line, Lambino says. “I said, ‘I would love to work for you. I just need to ask my wife.’”
“After a long series of conversations, the decision was made that I should throw my hat in the ring. A few months later, I was in DOF taking my oath. That was May 15, and it has been a whirlwind since then,” he says, laughing.
Lambino is mid-whirlwind when he sat down with ABS-CBN News at the Land Transportation Office in Quezon City. Here, he squeezes in the interview in between a day-long seminar for transport groups about the government’s new tax program.
This is on top of other requests for media interviews about the tax reform packages, which, in recent months, have been the subject of scrutiny and criticism. Lambino assures this isn’t lost on him, nor the finance department. This is precisely why they, along with other government agencies, are holding seminars for different sectors — to assist in adjusting with the “change” that’s always been the tagline of this administration.
It’s when the bombardment of attacks against TRAIN is brought up that Lambino’s certain and cheery voice starts shaking. It’s a challenging job, he admits, but his defense of the measure comes with no less conviction in spite of the forming tears.
“We want the Philippines to be a high-income country by 2040. That means no Filipino is hungry by 2040. That’s 22 years from now. My daughter will be 32. If that can happen for their generation, every minute working on this thing is worth it. When else are we doing to do this?”
Harkening back to his days of singing “Paraiso” wearing rags stitched fashionably, Lambino continues, “I grew up with this romantic notion that poverty will be with us forever. My eyes were opened to a different possibility. Hey, you know what, maybe the future that we want is one where there are no more poor families, and that’s why we’re doing all of this.”
Even before becoming assistant secretary, it’s what he has always been trying to contribute to, wearing the dozen different hats he’s had since Smokey Mountain — both the band and the literal mountain of rubbish that opened his eyes to the harsh realities outside Ateneo.
“It’s going back to that center, it’s going back to that reason, that purpose of what we’re doing. That’s why we keep trying. Who it’s for became very clear when I was with Smokey Mountain, and now that reminds me of why I wake up in the morning and why I stay up late at night.”
(Editor's note: Business journalist Liza Reyes of ABS-CBN News assisted news.abs-cbn.com in coming up with this special feature.)